August 11th, 2009

Inherent Virtue

From my perspective, the greatness of Thomas Pynchon inheres more in his treatment of superficially minor details than in the grandiosity of his ambition, which is, I suspect, more the reflection of what his devoted readers project onto them than something that rises from the depths of his will. In that respect he bears a strong resemblance to the best writers of "hard-boiled" genre fiction. Although some of Pynchon's longtime fans have expressed disappointment in the modesty of scope -- and difficulty -- of his new novel Inherent Vice, I see the book as an attempt to acknowledge the debt he owes that mass-cultural tradition. That's why the specificity of the geographic details he invokes resonate so powerfully. Attentiveness to regional microclimates, both literal and figurative, was a hallmark of Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald and others who followed in their wake. Their protagonists survived by minding the finest nuances of weather, knowing when to pack a sweater or a piece.

Pynchon's Doc Sportello displays the same skill, putting on the right disguises to pass for someone not worth killing. He also notices things which, even if they prove extraneous to the story arc, show that he is tuned in even when he appears distracted or mired in a drug-induced stupor. Here are two of the many sentences in the novel, particular favorites of mine, that amply demonstrate, through a third-person narration bound to Doc's experiences, the attention to detail that distinguishes both him and the author who created him from lesser lights: "East of Sepulveda the moon was out, and Doc made pretty good time. He peeled off the freeway at La Cienega, took the Stocker shortcut over to La Brea (155)." If you know the L.A. area, these sentences do a great deal, with remarkable economy, to ground you in a believable reality. And that achievement, to my mind, is worth just as much as arcane humor about bending the laws of physics. Not that I have anything against the latter, I hasten to add. It's just that the magic works best for me if it's like a sprinkle of salt in the lentil and spinach dal of realism. As my friend Joel Schalit can attest, the products of Morton Thiokol must be used sparingly if the final product is to be palatable.