Pynchon sets his new novel in and around Gordita Beach, a mythical surfside paradise named for all the things his PI hero, Larry “Doc” Sportello, loves best: nonnutritious foods, healthy babies, curvaceous femme fatales. We’re in early-’70s Southern California, so Gordita Beach inevitably suggests a kind of Fat City, too, ripe for the plundering of rapacious real estate combines and ideal for Pynchon’s recurring tragicomedy of America as the perfect wave that got away.
It all starts with Pynchon’s least conspicuous intro ever: “She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to”—she being Doc’s old flame Shasta, fearful for her lately conscience-afflicted tycoon boyfriend, Mickey. There follow plots, subplots and counterplots till you could plotz. Behind each damsel cowers another, even more distressed. Pulling Mr. Big’s strings is always a villain even bigger. More fertile still is Pynchon’s unmatched gift for finding new metaphors to embody old obsessions. Get ready for glancing excursions into maritime law, the nascent Internet, obscure surf music and Locard’s exchange principle (on loan from criminology), plus a side trip to the lost continent of Lemuria. But there’s a blissful, sportive magnanimity, too, a forgiveness vouchsafed to pimps, vets, cops, narcs and even developers that feels new, or newly heartfelt. Blessed with a sympathetic hero, suspenseful momentum and an endlessly suggestive setting, the novel’s bones need only a touch of the screenwriter’s dark chiropractic arts to render perhaps American literature’s most movie-mad genius, of all things, filmable.
Inherent Vice deepens Pynchon’s developing California cycle, following The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland with a shaggy-dog epic of Eden mansionized and Mansonized beyond recognition—yet never quite beyond hope. Across five decades now, he’s more or less alternated these West Coast chamber pieces with his more formidable symphonies (V ; Gravity’s Rainbow ; Mason & Dixon ; Against the Day ). Partisans of the latter may find this one a tad slight. Fans of the former will know it for the throwaway masterwork it is: playful as a dolphin, plaintive as whale song, unsoundably profound as the blue Pacific. (Aug.)