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What Happened at Gordita Beach?

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Cruiser Art
‘Eternal Summer: A “Retired” Caddy Hearse Greets Daybreak at a Beach Surf Shop’; illustration by Darshan Zenith, from the cover of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice doesn’t look like a historical novel. It looks like a shaggy detective story parodied by Thomas Pynchon, or perhaps like a moderately baggy Thomas Pynchon novel parodied by a devotee of the detective story. But it recreates a particular piece of the American past in considerable if often hallucinatory detail, and it wonders what happened to those days, what they meant, and what went with them when they vanished. The novel’s chief character, thinking of recurring sexual desire but encompassing much more, wonders whether it ever ends. The narrator answers, “Of course it does. It did.”

The narrator notes that people always leave behind them “some residue of history” even when they are successfully moving on, and our hero, in the midst of an acid-inspired delirium, is still trying “to find his way out of a vortex of corroded history.” “Vortex” is going a bit far. “Mess” would be closer, but the mess is certainly historical, haunted by old gestures toward meaning, flickers of kindness, and an edgy appetite for damage and destruction, markers of a time that Pynchon sees as only yesterday, even if it was forty years ago, the moment before we fell into the still-frightening but more orderly world we have now. It’s a “page right out of history,” as the same narrator says the Flintstones might say, the reference setting the tone, a long way from Toynbee or Henry Adams. More elusively but also more evocatively, the novel’s hero sees himself as caught up “in a fool’s attempt to find his way back into a past that…had gone on into the future it did.” It’s a fool’s attempt because he knows there is no way back; but at least he understands that there is a past, and that not every future has to cancel it.

The time of Inherent Vice is early 1970, when the Manson case is “about to go to trial,” which it did in June of that year. Richard Nixon is president, Ronald Reagan is governor of the state where the novel is set, its action circling around what I take to be the fictional community of Gordita Beach, situated, as many local indications suggest, somewhere between Marina del Rey and San Pedro—Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo are described as instances of “some other beach town.”

The story opens, as a West Coast detective story should, with a dangerous and poorly specified commission. A former girlfriend visits Doc Sportello, a pot-smoking private investigator of considerable intelligence and wit who is nevertheless apt to forget where and who he is in the real world. One of the book’s finer exchanges goes:

Wow…what happened to our food man, it’s taking them an awful long time to bring it.”

We ate it already?”

What. Did the check come? Who sprang for it?”

Can’t remember.”

The girlfriend’s commission is to find out about and if possible prevent the planned abduction of Mickey Wolfmann, a high-rolling local businessman described by one of Doc’s informants as having “untaxed billions stashed under an Alp someplace” and as someone who is “technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi.” But before Doc can say Philip Marlowe, as he does when he is mourning the good old days of detection, he finds himself at a half-built shopping plaza where a bodyguard is killed and Wolfmann is whisked away.

Various other would-be clients seek Doc out—an ex-con looking for an old cellmate, a woman whose husband has gone missing, the dead bodyguard’s sister—and the novel develops a number of intricate threads involving two more corpses, a police spy who pretends to be dead, a great deal of rock and roll, psychedelic trips of an improbably prophetic and precise content, countless sex-hungry women, a contract killer whose day job is creative financing, a pricey and dodgy mental hospital, an interesting link between dentistry and organized crime, various groups proposing armed revolt or armed repression, an elegant old schooner called The Golden Fang that is smuggling people or dope or money into the country, and a shadowy cartel whose main aim seems to be to preserve, by all kinds of subtle and violent means, the privileges of a ruling class not under any real threat at all.

It says a great deal for Pynchon’s casual-seeming control of this material that we never lose sight of the tricky plot amid the parade of late-Sixties social types—or the parade of comic avatars of those types. And as we read, the sense of parody begins to modulate into something more difficult to name: the real generic detective novel, perhaps, but with accents and preoccupations all Pynchon’s own. The feeling is not unlike that of Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music, except that the fauna here come from Pynchon’s other novels rather than science fiction.

It’s not that all the mysteries are solved—this is the West Coast, not an English village, the ancestors are Hammett, Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, not Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers—but the pieces do fall into place, so that we can start asking scary questions about what happened. As Doc thinks right after the evocation of his fool’s attempt at going backward in time, the problem is not who he is working for but what—where “what,” ostensibly implying purpose, may also mean some unknown organization or agency, or something even worse.

The mood is partly that of certain of Pynchon’s earlier novels, especially The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland— some of the characters from the latter book (set in 1984) reappear in Inherent Vice, as do Gordita Beach and the endearing habit of always providing a date whenever a film is mentioned. It’s as if narrator and characters alike are not only film buffs, addicted to late-night reruns, but have mild and courtly aspirations to film scholarship, providing even in their minds informative parentheses along with the titles: Now, Voyager (1942), Vertigo (1958), Champion (1949), A Summer Place (1959), The Sea Wolf (1941), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

The last is especially important to Doc, since he likes to think of himself as John Garfield, and at one moment shows up in a suit, bought at a big MGM sale, that Garfield is supposed to have worn in that very film. But where Pynchon’s earlier novels, the ones I’ve mentioned, as well as V and Gravity’s Rainbow, focus on what we might think of as the post-Kennedy truth of paranoia—it’s not impossible that everything is a conspiracy—and the more recent novels, like Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, diffuse paranoia by multiplying plots and suggesting that the very notion of conspiracy is too simple, Inherent Vice, in the spirit of the particular historical inquiry I’ve evoked, returns to paranoia with a new question.

In this world that detective fiction models so well, where disguised and displaced crime appears to be the fundamental fabric of social life, or as this novel puts it, a world “of numberless needs to do business unobserved,” we certainly, with Doc, have to ask what rather than who is in charge; and then ask what sort of thing that what might be—if it isn’t an unknown agency, for example, or the Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood, or your best friend betraying you, or an “evil subgod,” a crowd of zombies impersonating a rock band, the fall-out from an ancient Indian curse, or the ripples of an even more ancient conflict dating from somewhere around the sinking of Atlantis. Characters in this book attribute a good deal of importance to trippy tales of the island of Lemuria, the rival of Atlantis in another sea and at the moment the source of waves in the Pacific where there should be none. The war in Vietnam is just “repeating a karmic loop as old as the geography of those oceans, with Nixon a descendant of Atlantis just as Ho Chi Minh was of Lemuria.”

Doc is fond of the Lemuria story, and thinks the idea of the evil subgod is not incompatible with the murderous behavior of autonomous individuals, just an explanation on another level. But this is pop mythology, not social theory, and Doc is too much a creature of his times to understand it analytically, or to speak any language other than the sliding, name-soaked idiom he knows so well, grounded not only on The Flintstones (and Scooby-Doo and the ever-present Star Trek) but on the lyrics sung by the Chiffons, Frank Sinatra, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Ethel Merman, and many others. The narrator speaks just the same way, and doesn’t claim to understand the times any better than Doc does.

But both Doc and the narrator are great readers of signs, and in any event we should not underestimate the more conventional learning and wit Pynchon also finds in or lends to the 1970s culture. A new gourmet health-food restaurant opens “off Melrose.” It is called The Price of Wisdom, and located above a seedy bar called Ruby’s Lounge. This allows the owners to put up “a hand-lettered sign reading, THE PRICE OF WISDOM IS ABOVE RUBY’S, JOB 28:18.” Inherent Vice also has a collision and repair shop called Resurrection of the Body. There is something touching about jokes one has to work so hard for, and Pynchon has a special tenderness for the mode, memorably signified, in Gravity’s Rainbow, by the Hobbesian law firm of Salitieri, Poore, Nash, De Brutus and Short.

These gags and allusions are fleeting instances of cultural thought at work, failures of seriousness that are prodigies of connection, and in this sense the surfing and doping world of late-Sixties California offers Pynchon something similar to the forms of popular poetry and song that support the later work of García Márquez, the ballads and boleros full of broken hearts and eternal love. No thought is banal if it is up to something, and the novelist’s task, and ours, is to watch the thinking as it happens and before it fades, not detach or prejudge the style or the content.

In most of Pynchon’s novels there is a good deal of pastiche, and registers of language can shift very suddenly. But here the voice stays pretty consistently within its realm, within its history. It sounds very similar to that of Pynchon writing as himself, whoever that is—in the introduction to the stories in Slow Learner, for example, where he says:

Maybe this small attachment to my past is only another case of what Frank Zappa calls a bunch of old guys sitting around playing rock’n’roll. But as we all know, rock’n’roll will never die, and education too, as Henry Adams always sez, keeps going on forever.

Frank Zappa and Henry Adams: a cultural pairing that occurs mainly to “old guys” of a certain age. “Sez” means “Don’t think I’m being pompous, although of course it is a little pompous of me to take this faux-demotic way out.” This is not to say Pynchon is writing naturally or confessionally in Inherent Vice, or not that I know he is, only that he chooses his terms and his tone.

Next day was as they say another day” is a typical narrative transition; and “as they say” or its near equivalent is, as we have seen, something of a refrain. Someone has always said it or sung it; the reference disclaims originality and claims community. “‘Shit,’ replied Doc, encouragingly” is not an ironic intervention, just an echo of the right word of conversational support back in the day. Doc’s former girlfriend Shasta looks at the decor of his room “with an expression of, you would have to say, distaste”—the delayed noun arrives like a fluffed surprise that doesn’t surprise anyone.

Doc has tossed a coin with his neighbor to decide who was going to get which office suite, and “Doc had lost or, as he liked to think of it, won.” A flexible man. Certain conservative bedroom activities are described as “hanky maybe, not much panky.” An English rock band is “so laid back that people had been known to call the ambulance, mistaking the band’s idea of a General Pause for some kind of collective seizure.” The band, you might not have guessed, is called Spotted Dick, after the well-known English non-gourmet pub delicacy. Pynchon coins a new collective noun for druggies: “a driveling of dopers,” and when zombies seem to appear, this is because “somebody had definitely been out harrowing the next world.” We are moving toward Henry Adams here in the choice of verb, but we are still in Doc’s domain: allusive, wise-cracking, crowded with the already thought and already said but also personal in its worries and disorder, and its ability to turn clichés into private music.

What does this have to do with the return to paranoia and whatever is running or not running the big show? A tiny incident tells us a great deal of what we need to know, and reveals the difference between the take on the world in this novel and in Pynchon’s early work. Soon after Doc has accepted the Mickey Wolfmann case, or the case that puts him on the trail of Mickey Wolfmann, his parents come to visit him. They are staying in a motel near the Los Angeles airport, and in the night they get a telephone call. A screaming voice says, “We know where you are. Watch your ass.” Doc begins to panic. How could this threat not be related to his investigations? Then his father tells him they had checked in under assumed names. “We pretend we’re married to other people and having an illicit rendezvous. And I won’t try to kid you, it’s a lot of fun.” A wrong number therefore, and no possible connection to Doc. Later, though, his relief subsides and the memory of his fear returns:

Why had he automatically assumed there was something out there that could find his parents so easily and put them in danger? Mostly in these cases, the answer was, “You’re being paranoid.” But in the business, paranoia was a tool of the trade, it pointed you in directions you might not have seen to go. There were messages from beyond, if not madness, at least a shitload of unkind motivation. And where did that mean this… voice in the middle of the night… was telling him to look?

In V or The Crying of Lot 49, this threat would have been either a coincidence or part of a plot not yet discovered. And it is true that Doc has conveniently forgotten that one of the false names his father uses comes from The Postman Always Rings Twice—that “something out there” could easily have a file on Garfield fans. But it’s also true that Doc has introduced a new stage into the inductive process Pynchon had been using. The paranoid reflex is both right and wrong: certainly wrong about the immediate fact, possibly right about the chance of a sign from somewhere. There are messages from beyond, even if there is no beyond except as a metaphor. So that when Doc is high enough to imagine Thomas Jefferson emerging from a fake coin to talk to him, we don’t have to assume this hallucinated Jefferson has nothing to communicate. Even if the scene only describes Doc talking to himself, he’s not saying what he usually says.

The novel’s finest moment in this respect comes when Doc thinks:

Yes, and who says there can’t be time travel, or that places with real-world addresses can’t be haunted, not only by the dead but by the living as well? It helps to smoke a lot of weed and do acid off and on, but sometimes even a literal-minded natchmeister…could manage it.

We may still be skeptical, but it’s hard to resist the sentence that appears on the next page: “What came creeping out of the shrubbery after a while actually were not ghosts but logical conclusions.” This is where lateral or loony thinking goes straight, or straight thinking may need a little help from real or imaginary plants or chemicals.

Paranoia as a “tool of the trade” doesn’t get Doc very far. He does much better by means of ordinary sleuthing, good luck, and hearsay. Wolfmann, it seems, was suffering from mobster’s guilt and planning to give much of his money away. He was building a community near Las Vegas to be called Arrepentimiento, translated by one of the characters as “Spanish for ‘sorry about that.’” Someone or something, probably the ruling-class cartel, arranged for him to be taken to the pricey clinic I have mentioned and restored, no doubt chemically, to fiscal responsibility. At one point Doc catches sight of Wolfmann in the company of two FBI agents—presumably the Washington view is that if he is giving money away he should give it to the government, and if he isn’t, a little supervision won’t do any harm. Later Wolfmann returns to the arms and the bed of the wife who was supposed to be part of the initial abduction plan, and they seem set to live tranquilized ever after—although a policeman hints that Wolfmann may be “back to them old greedy-ass ways.”

What paranoia shows us when we think of it as a chance of meaning rather than the glimpse of a conspiracy is not the misdeeds of the world’s many malefactors but something like the unkindness of the world itself, that “shitload of unkind motivation” that seems to lie in wait for us even when there can be no question of actual motivation. This is the hint found in the title of the novel, loosely defined on one of its last pages in relation to The Golden Fang. It’s a legal term for “what you can’t avoid,…stuff marine policies don’t like to cover. Usually applies to cargo…but sometimes it’s also the vessel carrying it.” Earlier we learn of “that strange world-bound karma which is of the essence in maritime law,” not perhaps the ordinary language of insurance legislation, but not unconnected, as Doc thinks, to original sin, and as we may think, to acts of God.

It is what escapes traceable causality, but it is not an accident. Its landbound expression in the novel is a road called Gummo Marx Way, after the brother no one remembers, and which runs “uphill, no matter what anybody’s geometry teacher had told them, in both directions.” This is “the hard-luck boulevard everybody living along Doc’s piece of shoreline sooner or later ended up on, though nobody Doc knew had ever lived there, or knew anybody else who did.” It is a realm beyond chance, since everyone arrives there; but there is a little leeway in “sooner or later,” and skillful denial of the existence of this realm may actually help to defer our journey. Paranoia in this novel’s sense helps us to negotiate this double thought, to acknowledge and keep at bay the notion of necessary disaster, which makes the unclouded, securely motivated activities of mere human criminals seem models of intelligibility.

What we lost when we lost the addled Sixties, this novel is saying to us, is the illumination that may strike the truly confused, like Doc’s cousin who says he gets the strange feeling he used to live in the San Joaquin Valley. Doc points out to him that he did live there, but that’s not what his cousin means. “No, like in another life, man?” To feel you had another life in the place where you have lived your actual life is to cherish the survival of even an imaginary past, and it proves that the living too, and perhaps especially the living, can haunt places with real-world addresses.

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