Textual Detritus: Inherent Vice

Textual Detritus is a running series of notes focused on my reading list for exams related to my PhD studies.  These are not reviews so I will refrain from explaining plot lines.  These posts also contain any number of spoilers for the books in question though I’ll try to keep them hidden behind a cut.  Simply, the idea here is to get some of my immediate thoughts down in a coherent manner for later use or discussion.  As such, I make no claim about the level of thought, coherence, or grammar to any of these posts.

Due to running a conference and attending another in the span of two weeks, I’m about a month behind where I should be in this project.  I’ve gotten most of the most pressing matters out of the way now so I should be picking things up a bit more.  First up is perhaps my most glaring oversight given my proclivities: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.

Inherent Vice feels as though it thematically picks up where Against the Day, namely with a detective story in LA.  Doc Sportello feels like a spiritual successor to where Lew Basenight ends up at the end of AtD, though without the serious undertones that haunt Lew as he tries to figure out his place in the novel and his past transgression.  Doc just generally glides, in a way mirrors the Traverse boys in AtD or maybe better yet Oedipa in The Crying of Lot 49.  There’s some paranoia, but this is easily the most easygoing of Pynchon’s novels since Lot 49.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t underlying concerns.  The nostalgia for the 60s from works like Vineland is still present and there is a distinct note of regret present in the thought that Manson and his followers essentially fucked everything up for just about everyone.  The hippies are trapped in a stereotype where the middle class fears them and the wind has been taken out of the sails of the counter culture.  The novel’s closing scene, wrapped in fog as it is, harkens to this longing for a different path than the one that seems so clear.  Yet there’s the usual embrace of chance in the fog and the unknown possibilities that it shrouds.

I’ll admit straight away that my first read of IV doesn’t leave me confident to go into detail about the plot, both the novel’s and the one that Doc finds himself unravelling.  The month and a half since I finished the novel doesn’t help either.  What I will say is that Pynchon does seem to track the underlying paths that the counter culture stays strong through Doc’s use of the burgeoning computer industry in his detecting.  Information is at once damning, it’s what traps people in their roles, yet freeing for a detective like Doc.  There’s a hint that computers represent that bit of chaos despite their role in organizing information.  There’s always the chance that information will find its way into the hands of someone like Doc who’ll use it in a way unexpected or unwarranted by the computer programmers.  And thus the hacker takes a slot in Pynchon’s pantheon of resistors.

As with AtD, there are a number of passages about sex and sexuality that are ultimately troubling in this novel.  Frankly, the joke of fetishes isn’t really funny anymore.  That said, they still serve the purpose that Pynchon utilizes them for in his other works.  Even in distaste or merely discomfort, they provoke a reaction not unlike the unexpected erections that “haunt” the male characters.  While they could easily be read as misogynistic, I think that’s too easy.  The fact is that fetishes and sexual appetites run rampant through pretty much all of Pynchon’s characters be they male or female.  They all tend to get off whenever and however they can.  I think that the female characters fall slightly short in Pynchon’s novels, but it’s hard to say whether that’s because of Pynchon’s proclivities or a conscious decision that he’s not the one to write from a female perspective for obvious reasons.  I can’t help but think of the passage in Slow Learner where he admits his mistakes in his early stories.  They abound with stereotypes and he admits to being “a smart-assed jerk who didn’t know any better” (14).  Some of this is likely self-effacement, but some has to be an awareness of his own limitations later in his career.  He has strong female characters, particularly in AtD, (Stray, Yashmeen, and Dally) but we don’t quite get into their characters as much as we do the male characters.  That said, should we?  If he’s a writer to admit his shortcomings in approaching these critical points of view.  This isn’t to say that he doesn’t approach these points of view, more that he isn’t so presumptuous as to actually attempt to speak for them.

And as I’ve read over this I’ve realized that little of this has to do with IV.  Most of my thoughts here are being influenced by a question I was asked during a recent conference where I presented on AtD and none of this should be considered my final word on these subjects.  Like Doc, I’m just muddling my way through hoping for the best and trying to find a connection.

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