Thomas Pynchon, the mystery man of modern American letters (though not exactly all that mysterious – his voice is, after all, a familiar one to regular viewers of reruns of The Simpsons), has a new novel out in about a week. Its title is Inherent Vice, and it’s his venture into detective fiction, in which, according to the early reviews, he brings his customary blend of hazy paranoia, eccentric characters, and goofiness alternating with high seriousness to the hard-boiled tradition of Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald (who, of course, had some of their qualities in their own work).
Pynchon often writes in an historical setting. Much of V., his first book, takes place in pre-WWI Europe. Gravity’s Rainbow, his most acclaimed novel, sets its action in a hallucinatory Europe of WWII. Mason & Dixon features the adventures of the two famed Englishmen in the 1760s as they the line bearing their name, and Against The Day, his thousand-page 2006 opus, describes a plot occuring between the 1880s and 1919. Inherent Vice is set in a past now much more distant than the Second World War was in 1973 when Gravity’s Rainbow appeared – the Los Angeles of 1970. Yes, Pynchon, who reportedly lived in the LA suburb of Manhattan Beach in that time, is now giving his diverse readership a tale of the days of bell-bottoms and waterbeds. As Christopher Taylor reports in his review in tomorrow’s Guardian:
Although Doc [Sportello, the private-eye protagonist of Inherent Vice] himself is vague about what year it is, the novel is also located quite firmly during the run-up to Charles Manson’s trial, which started in June 1970. The murders committed by Manson’s followers are a well-worn symbol for the end of the 60s, and we’re encouraged to see Doc as a kind of anti-Manson, Manson’s non-evil double. Nixon and Reagan are much discussed too, making the book serve as a loose prequel to Vineland [Pynchon’s 1990 novel set in Northern California] in which burned-out hippies and fascist cops get to grips with Reagan’s America. Yet the book’s most effective crushing-of-the-60s-dream scenes are more equivocal about who or what did the crushing than the plot’s top-down conspiracy suggests. Watching people in a record shop listening to rock’n’roll on headphones "in solitude, confinement and mutual silence", or passing through a town where old TV shows are endlessly reviewable, Doc gets glimpses of "how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all", with technology dispersing communality as much as aiding it.
This is not the first time the 37th President has shown up in Pynchon’s fiction. In 1972, the writer selected a quote from Joni Mitchell’s song "The Circle Game" to use as the epigraph to the final section of Gravity’s Rainbow (at that stage still titled Mindless Pleasures). Reportedly, his publisher could not secure permission to use the quote (which appeared in the advance galleys of the book), so at the last minute Pynchon inserted instead the single word "What?" and attributed it to RN (who also appears in the last pages of that book under the name Richard M. Zhlubb).
No word yet on whether Spiro Agnew shows up in the new novel.
Correction: The Joni Mitchell song Pynchon quoted in the original text of Gravity’s Rainbow was "Cactus Tree" from her first album rather than "The Circle Game," and the lines he used for an epigraph were:
She has brought them to her senses,
They have laughed inside her laughter;
Now, she rallies her defenses
For she fears that no one will ask her
And she’s so busy being free