RARA-AVIS: INHERENT VICE: A Report from the Trenches

From: Kevin Burton Smith (kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 21 Aug 2009

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    I know I'm a little late to the dance, but I'm finally reading Pynchon's INHERENT VICE.

    And this isn't a review. It's a sort of progress report.

    Having said that, here goes.

    It's competent enough, and the spirit of the times and place are captured well, but so far there's been no trace of the genius, either inherent or apparent, that I was expecting (or led to expect). A lot of surprisingly dumb dope humour, plenty of slow-mo witticisms and digressions, and a meandering plot that makes Crumley's mid-period books seem driving and tight. And the characters are surprisingly flat; self-consciously quirky without being particularly original -- although that doesn't stop the author from saddling most of them with a back story, even if they're there simply as straight men (or women) for a half-baked one-liner or two.

    But the biggest problem may be not my unfamiliarity with Pynchon's style, if that's what is is, but my familiarity with detective fiction. If, as Fred has said, "Fiction should take you to places you don't normally go" one of my main problems with INHERENT VICE is that I'm being taken to places I've already been several times, and Pynchon's not that great a tour guide.

    The early seventies? Hippies versus the Man? Stoners, surfers, crooked cops? SoCal? A detective not always quite as focussed as perhaps he should be?

    This is familiar territory most of us who are fans of the genre have visited regularly over the years, in film, television and books.

    I'm not saying Pynchon has no right going near the detective novel or that he's condescending toward the genre (I don't think he is), as some have suggested, but I wonder how much of his reputation helped get this thing published? Would a newbie have been able to sell such a fuzzy, vague book to a publisher, or would it have eventually been published by iUniverse?

    Were this by an unknown author, even some of the most rabid embers of the Pynchon cult might have found this wanting. Pynchon may be a great writer (no need to insult me if you disagree), but as a detective fiction author, he's just okay.

    At least so far. Maybe he'll get better. Maybe the ending will justify the trip. It wouldn't be the first time a book has redeemed itself in the last few pages for me.

    I'll keep reading it. The reviews have been generally favourable, if not flat out raves, and some people whose opinions I truly respect seem to have liked it well enough. And, like THE DISASSEMBLED MAN, there's an original voice in there that pokes through often enough to make me want to continue, but at this point I'm not seeing what the fuss is about. It's a big, wordy chunk of a P.I. novel, perhaps a little more ambitious than most, but not as fully realized as others.

    Anyone else have this sorta hmmmmm initial reaction to the book?

    P.S. A possible anachronism: were there really protests on the LA streets when STAR TREK was cancelled? Somehow it seems unlikely -- a little revisionist wishful thinking. Group protests for cancelled TV shows seem seems like a much more recent phenomenon; particularly for a show that was cancelled for relatively dismal ratings. STAR TREK , as I understand it, never even achieved much of a cult until a few years later, when scads of its original fans grew up and met in college.

    Kevin Burton Smith Editor/Founder The Thrilling Detective Web Site
    "Wasting your time on the web since 1998."

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