When Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice came out in 2009 a consensus rapidly established limits to understand and appreciate it. Word had it that Pynchon's demiurgic powers, after guiding readers’ brains through many big bangs, had this time failed to recreate the universe. By now we know the gist: Doc Sportello, a hippie P.I., is looking for his old flame, Shasta, who’s gone missing; this investigation, which also dovetails into the disappearance of her current boyfriend, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, gets even more complicated when Hope Harlingen hires Doc to find out what happened to her husband Coy, whose alleged death seems connected to Shasta. Paranoia, conspiracies, puns, song lyrics, and antics ensue. The New York Times called it a “simple shaggy-dog detective story” pitting “likable dopers” against the Establishment. The Wall Street Journal bemoaned a Pynchon “reduced to writing genre fiction—in this case, a mystery-thriller with an overlay of irony,” and asked, “who is left to write novels? Real novels, that is?” blocking via insinuation the novel from said category. Worst than the superficiality, was the heavy-handed nostalgia. For The Independent the novel “is Pynchon's hymn to the Sixties, both homage and lament. In the novel we are at the end of the long Sixties, when the Manson gang have already sliced up Sharon Tate, the US military is still napalming Vietnam, and the West Coast counter-culture is suffering from an immense post-coital depression and hangover.” The Guardian concurred that Pynchon “continues to embrace a version of 60s-ness as it's commonly understood, which has interesting effects on the authority he wields as America's senior postmodernist writer.” As it befits a non-real novel, such nostalgia presented itself with manicheist simplicity: heroic hippies versus capitalism and government. Indeed The Quarterly Conversation complained of the lack of depth with which Pynchon portrayed the era, finding fault in the “fondness for the perhaps regrettable over-indulgence of the period it depicts,” and in the tone Pynchon uses, a tone that “never ironizes or critiques. He’s playing stoned straight, in other words, not bending the realities of the times to suit some 21st-century ideological purpose but just reliving the high times.” Due to this acritical attitude The Boston Globe filed it in the “personal-liberation mythology of the ’60s and ’70s” subgenre. But worry not, this wave of nostalgia sweeps over the text not without some predicaments, like a high tide besmirching a beach with yacht oil, flotsam, and dead jellyfish. So The Telegraph observed that “the peaceful dope fiends of Sixties SoCal are soon to have their paradise swept away by the forces of capital and change.” Certainly “horrors” exist in the “backdrop of Inherent Vice,” as The Washington Post reminds us, but all unrelated to hippies: “Vietnam, Nixon, urban riots, Charles Manson, assassinations” – in other words, nothing that contradicts the current view of the period. Paradoxically, reviewers turned these garden-variety elements into a virtue since it allows Pynchon to redeem himself a bit as a sort of cultural historian, showing us the birth of modern America; he achieved this by giving nods to Ronald Reagan, the creation of ARPAnet, the internet’s ancestor, and the inception of the surveillance state. Nevertheless, not even this well-known history lesson can save Inherent Vice from remaining an entertaining but uncomplicated novel that neither provokes reflections nor challenges traditional perceptions of the Endless Summer. It remains a stereotyped, mythical era. Who can blame the The New York Times for judging it “Pynchon Lite?”
Well, no doubt remains that these reviewers all read the same novel, since they have fewer differences between them than the petals in the same flower. When I finished reading the book circa November 2014 and rushed to compare my thoughts to theirs, I got the impression that they had not so much written reviews as they had drawn them over tracing paper. I must come clean: Inherent Vice was my first Pynchon novel. That means I did not have the burden of reading against the author’s oeuvre; it also means that I looked at it with no other expectations other than reading a good novel. I had to wait until February 20015, when I wrestled with Mason & Dixon, to sympathize with the widespread disappointment. However I believe the novel’s illusory levity may have contributed to careless, cursory readings; I believe the novel does make an interesting reassessment of hippiestory, albeit hidden carefully behind the author’s Rabelaisian heart, drug-patterned digressions and courage to resist tedious conventional seriousness. In fact Doc seems patterned after Pantagruel, who is described in this fashion: “He took everything in good part: every deed he interpreted favorably. He never tormented himself: he never took offence.” This does sound like Doc; but much in the same way Gargantua and Pantagruel is more than the sum of snorts and snickers it induces, I think there’s something more going on in Pynchon’s novel. Reviewers didn’t seek the text’s substratum, but simply strolled through its streets of sun and surf. Of the ten reviews I read, for instance, only two wondered at the meaning of the title. The New Yorker unfortunately dismissed it as “low-key metaphysical play” although it admitted it might be missing something. The Scotsman provided a more helpful reflection. “The ‘inherent vice’ of the title is a legal term for ‘the very nature of a good or property that leads to its deterioration’; and it applies brilliantly to Pynchon's 60s – in all its freedoms were its horrors. Liberation is a two-edged sword, creating as many psychopaths as idealists, and Pynchon captures the nervy dog-end of those days in psychedelic detail.”
In my opinion, many misunderstandings about this novel clear themselves up once we ask this simple question, “The inherent vice of what?”
But first a digression. In risk management, inherent vice refers to materials whose very composition have a propensity to decay, which makes certain products uninsurable. This term probably appeared for the first in American literature in The Recognitions, William Gaddis’ 1955 novel about an art forger. Let us consider for a moment the relationship between painting and inherent vice. Nowadays when painters have Marcel Duchamp’s benison to urinate onto a canvas and exhibit stains as art we tend to forget the lessons, methods, rules, and hard work that went into making a painting before circa 1900. When we contemplate a classic painting, admiring its craftsmanship or puzzling over its mysteries, we forget we also have in front of our eyes a brocade of organic, mineral and metallic substances prone to putrefaction and evanescence. Forget Flemish realism and Renaissance religiosity – up until Modernism painters mostly concerned themselves with curbing inherence vice, or in other words staving off time’s slaying of painterly materials. Masters passed on their knowledge to pupils, in a rigorous series of steps, like a recipe, the skipping of one inviting catastrophe for the painting sooner or later: the looseness of a badly-stretched canvas could make the paint flake and fall; dark colors should go after light colors, otherwise they showed through the light ones darkening them; orpiment, a much admired yellow pigment, defied usage since its corrosiveness destroyed surrounding pigments, although art forger Eric Hebborn claimed Van Dyck had the expertise to handle it without ruining the work – lesser painters stuck to the harmless ochre; the weight of a thick impasto could fray the corners, etc. Inherent vice even manifested itself in the composition of materials, like iron gall ink, quite fashionable in Renaissance times, but whose acidic properties cause paper to tear. Or it could involve a simple change of procedure: for The Last Supper Leonardo da Vinci eschewed his time’s fresco technique; instead of painting on wet plaster, the intonaco, he went over a dry wall; this allowed him to work faster and achieve better colors; but just 20 years later the paint began to peel off and has required care ever since: allegedly, only some 20% of the original painting remains intact since the last restoration, the rest belonging to restorers. By contrast, Michelangelo used the traditional techniques and steps in the usual order on the Sistine vault and so his frescoes stayed as new, with only minor bruises, until recently. Nowadays, though, we can laud Leonardo as a pioneer since 20th century art pretty much rejected technique in favor of experimentation, reaching for new possibilities and giving nightmares to restorers who don’t know how to save many modern artworks from accelerated decay.
As a metaphor, inherent vice has a tremendous appeal to writers, even if they do not know it by this name, since it speaks poignantly to the human condition; after all, we contain in ourselves our own destruction; as soon as we leave the womb our bodies begin withering. Gaddis, who lived in thrall of the idea that chaos had set the course through which modernity marched, filled his fiction with chairs that lose legs, shoelaces that break, physical ailments, crumbling houses strewn with piles of old papers, opaque legalese, and self-destructive greed. In the end he applied this metaphor to memory and reasoning themselves. At every moment, at all times, our mind is forgetting what our senses apprehend save for small quantities. Our consciousness fights us. In this predicament do we find the dying narrator of Gaddis’ final novel, Agapē Agape, battling a sick body and a medication-impaired brain too debilitated to make his ideas cohere.
Pynchon’s novel explores inherent vice from this perspective too, but in relation to hippies. This is a good time to point out that Pynchon plays fast and loose with definitions and treats hippiedom as an all-embracing category that includes hippies, dopers, surfers, rockers and just about anyone who importunes the system; nuances take the backseat on this bus driven by society’s pariahs. For the purpose of my essay I’ll adhere to it.
Although a blurry and bountiful category, the text keeps associating hippiedom with remembrance and forgetfulness. Doc’s memory is described as a “permanent smog alert,” and like other hippies he suffers from problematic “Doper’s Memory.” A cursory inventory of words reveals interesting facets: the verb “to remember” and associated words show up at least 52 times; to forget, 43 times; “to remind,” 7 times; “to recall,” 4; “to recognize,” 16; “to memorize” and “to reminisce,” once each. I found 2 instances of the adjective “memorable,” and of the noun “memory” 11, whether alone or in expressions like “memory lapses.” “To hallucinate” and “hallucination” show up globally at least 8 times; “to trip,” 1 (I probably wasn’t looking very hard for this one), to dream, 2 (ditto). “To drift away” or “to drift off,” in the sense of losing concentration or consciousness, also reoccur. Finally a profusion of expressions like “short attention span,” “name ring a bell?”, “my mind’s been wandering again,” and “slip my mind” clogs the pages.
Socrates, in Phaedrus, condemned writing because it endangered memory, which he valued immensely. In the Medieval Era and the Renaissance mnemonic techniques proliferated and seduced many thinkers, who equated retaining information with harnessing power. Is it a coincidence that Pynchon’s powerless are defined by amnesia? Right from the beginning it’s obvious that, far from glamorizing hippies, the novel is satirizing the debris in the place of their brains, their short attention spans, their mental vulnerability, and their self-destruction via drugs. In Doc’s office, for instance, the door has LSD written on it, standing for Location, Surveillance, Detection. However “potential clients had been known to spend hours gazing at the ocular mazework, often forgetting what they had come for.” Doc finds Coy Harlingen, an ex-junkie who faked his own death, hiding amongst his old band members because no one can remember him; he attributes that to “heavy Doper’s Memory,” a recurring expression. And what about this myth from the surf community? “There was an ancient superstition at the beach,” we read: “take a Zig-Zag paper and write on it your dearest wish, and then use it to roll a joint of the best dope you can find, and smoke it all up, and your wish would be granted. Attention and concentration were also said to be important, but most of the dopers Doc knew tended to ignore that part.” (My italics.) But the zenith of this gullibility comes with the success an entrepreneur called Kevin finds in selling Yellow Haze. Kevin, the owner of Kozmik Banana, a “frozen-banana shop” that Bigfoot shakes down, “instead of throwing away the banana peels, was cashing in on a hippie belief of the moment by converting them to a smoking product he called Yellow Haze.” Health hazards befall “the deluded and desperate” who smoke it. By the time Adrian Prussia taunts Doc, “Fucking hippies, you’re so easy to fool.” the book has spent 300 pages making too persuasive a case for the reader not to agree. Timothy Leary, the psychedelic high priest, may have assured his followers that their brains were God, but if hippies moved him from the sky to the brain then he was as dead as the one Nietzsche wrote the obituary for. And Zarathustra’s words, “And we killed him,” equally apply. Although readers couldn’t know it from reviews that charged Pynchon with being too soft on hippies, the novel spends a lot of time mocking their vegetativeness, their zoning out, and their drug-soothed weak minds. From cover to cover, the novel portrays the hippie as his worst enemy, burning out on a lifestyle that paradoxically defied the Establishment while making it too easy for said Establishment to crush dissent.
Following its focus on mental deterioration, the novel depicts television as another hippie addiction: Doc spends many pages watching it, alone or with friends. Sauncho Smilax, his lawyer, calls him on the phone to discuss This way to his heart and Gilligan’s Island. Like many hippies in the book, Sauncho has that holy fool-like quality of garbling wisdom with nonsense: he experiences “hippiphanies” (Manson and the Vietcong are both called Charlie, etc.) and reads profound meanings in pop culture; one of his best moments occurs when he decodes Charlie the Tuna’s real message. “Charlie really has this, like, obsessive death wish! Yes! he, he wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumer capitalism, they won’t be happy with anything less than drift-netting us all, chopping us up and stacking us on the shelves of Supermarket Amerika, and subconsciously the terrible thing is, is we want them to do it…” Doc can only say, “Saunch, wow, that’s…” before Sauncho changes the subject with the nonsensical question, “Why is there Chicken of the Sea, but no Tuna of the Farm?” But Sauncho’s speech brings us back to inherent vice: much like materials that engender their own decay, the novel’s outsiders rush for self-destruction; their loyalty to a brand called “hippie” hasn’t liberated them, their self-denial notwithstanding, from the constraints of consumerist society, as we’ll see later.
The hegemony of the screen heralds a new improved addiction: psychedelic drugs make the mind wander, a no-no in a society built around pragmatism, mechanization, productivity and success; but television keeps the mind focused, concentrated, ideal qualities for boring office work and assembly lines, while weakening the mind’s immunities to conditioning. A subplot takes Doc to Las Vegas; there he listens to a character lamenting the replacement of “old three-reel slots” with new ones using “video screens,” so that “every time you play a machine, you get a little animated picture of reels spinning.” Screens and entertainment go hand in hand. In another episode, Doc ends up with several kilos of heroin belonging to criminals in his car trunk; his friend Denis temporarily hides them while he thinks of a way of getting rid of them. When he comes back to Denis’, he finds him staring at the “professionally packaged heroin,” confusing it for a TV set because Doc hid the smack inside a TV box. It’s probably unnecessary to belabor the symbolism of TV = heroin. Although Doc reasons with Denis, after smoking some pot he too sits down to watch it. “Alarmingly, Doc after a minute or two did find minute modulations of color and light intensity beginning to appear among the tightly taped layers of plastic.”
The preponderance of TV as a tool of control that seeks to create an addiction without psychedelic drugs’ capitalism-damaging side effects, also manifests itself in the popularity of cop shows. If drugs make users live in a state of “ordinary paranoia,” if they make users nervous, endanger relationships and lead to unrest, then cop shows, in the novel’s logic, exist to soothe. “PIs are doomed, man,” declares Doc about the old private eye shows, “Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, the shamus of shamuses Johnny Staccato, always smarter and more professional than the cops, always end up solvin the crime while the cops are followin wrong leads and gettin in the way.” But “nowadays it’s all you see anymore is cops, the tube is saturated with fuckin cop shows, just being regular guys, only tryin to do their jobs, folks, no more threat to nobody’s freedom than some dad in a sitcom. Right. Get the viewer population so cop-happy they’re beggin to be run in. Good-bye Johnny Staccato, welcome and while you’re at it please kick my door down, Steve McGarrett.” The book’s TV screens light up with them: The Mod Squad, Adam-12, Hawaii Five-O. Doc’s particular bête noire is The Mod Squad, or as he puts it, “Pro-cop fuckin mind control’s more like it. Inform on your friends, kids, get a lollipop from the Captain.” When Bigfoot suggests turning Doc into an informant (“You’d be surprised how many in your own hippie freak community have found our Special Disbursement Fund useful”), Doc compares the offer to it. (By the way, it wouldn’t surprise me if the novel’s title also puns on Miami Vice, the cop show that did so much to promote the image of sexy, cool, enticing cops.) A vicious cycle develops: hippies, as the novel portrays them, lead a benumbed, inanimate existence; they can’t or won’t hold jobs; their fried brains make them suitable to consume massive doses of television; so although hippies use drugs as a gesture of social protest, that gesture facilitates binding them to the mind control tool created by the same society they’ve rejected. Inherent vice.
And yet the Establishment also rots from innate instability. Ironically the US government inadvertently fosters the usage of drugs, although the novel depicts this in such an oblique way as to pass nearly unnoticed. Amongst the beach residents we find Doc’s buddy, Spike, an ex-grunt who went to Vietnam when the “freak culture” hadn’t yet become tangible, although assimilation on his return did not prove difficult: in Asia he discovered pot. “Me and Charlie, no worries, we spent a lot of time in town together hanging out smoking that righteous native weed, listening to rock ‘n’ roll on the Armed Forces radio.” Although deflated by the novel’s unsparing farcical tone, drug addiction amongst war veterans was a hot topic at the time. Even John Barth, a novelist you can seldom pull away from the Muse, mentioned in a 1973 commencement address (in The Friday Book) the plight of veterans who “turn to crime to support a drug habit picked up in service.” According to estimates, 20-50% servicemen used marijuana; 40% tried heroin, but only half became hooked to it. In 1971 president Nixon considered the matter dire enough to declare drug abuse “public enemy number one in the United States.” Congressman Robert Steele, who oversaw a congressional investigation into this matter, declared that a “soldier going to Vietnam runs a far greater risk of becoming a heroin addict than a combat casualty.” The reasons become easier to understand when we remember that Asia has been a major drug producer since Antiquity, and that soldiers found them useful to chill out from stressful combat situations. In a bizarre turn of events, America’s wars abroad to preserve traditional American values ended up exposing soldiers to the same evils it sought to eradicate. This, too, follows the logic of inherent vice. As does the Vietnam War itself. “Years later,” wrote historian Robert Merry in Taking on the World, “it would become fashionable to view the war as a policy aberration, a national tragedy that could have been avoided if America’s leaders had simply seen clearly enough to avoid the commitment entirely. But this would ignore the central reality of U.S. involvement in Vietnam – that it was a natural, and hence probably inevitable, extension of the American global policy established at the dawn of the post-war era.”
Reviews also had nothing to say about the complicated web that interconnects capitalism, hippies and the booming drug market. “It was occurring to Doc now, as he recalled what Jason Velveeta had said about vertical integration, that if the Golden Fang could get its customers strung out, why not turn around and also sell them a program to help them kick? Get them coming and going, twice as much revenue and no worries about new customers – as long as American life was something to escape from, the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers.” In the same way that the government produces junkie ex-grunts, society itself, in spite of its restrictions, or because of them, fosters the hippie lifestyle, of which drug consumption is a main pillar in the novel. And this attempt to escape can only lead to an escalation – higher highs, longer trips. “But actually when did it ever get that dramatic? Heroin in California? my gracious,” says Hope Harlingen with a naiveté that verges on self-delusional. If as the novel suggests drugs helped to escape instead of giving insight, as Aldous Huxley hoped they would, the replacement of marijuana with the deadlier heroin just proceeds from this impulse. Indeed in this context ODs even acquire a positive value. “Overdoses,” we’re told, “are good for business, suddenly herds of junkies are showing up at the door, convinced if it killed somebody then it must be really good shit, and all they have to do themselves is be careful and not shoot quite so much.” Two instances of inherent vice entwine themselves here: on the one hand, a malaise within a dysfunctional, fearful society that a decade before had organized witch hunts and shut down all mature political speech, and that creates in its youth a longing for new forms of freedom; on the other hand hippiedom propagates self-annihilation. “Flower child to wasted derelict, zap, like magic,” reminisces Hope. “And that’s the good part. Keep it up long enough… Well.”
Not only does the novel depict hippies as their own worst enemies, it also questions two of their most cherished myths: love and communality. “Love is the only thing that will ever save us,” says Petunia, Doc’s receptionist. But although often mentioned, the novel seldom shows it. Doc may tremble at the “ancient forces of fear and greed” decreasing “the sexual desire from epic to everyday,” but the book mostly shows cheap, impersonal, emotionless, hardly pleasurable sex, devoid of intimacy and tenderness. Love, he admits, has become a meaningless word. “With the unspoken footnote that the word these days was being way too overused. Anybody with any claim to hipness ‘loved’ everybody, not to mention other useful applications, like hustling people into sex activities they might not, given the choice, much care to engage in.”
The legendary grooviness and peacefulness of the era also takes some dents on their armors. Hippie or square, on the beach or in flatworld, women exist mostly to be fucked and maltreated, and sex, violence and abuse go hand in hand. When Doc looks for a henchman called Puck he’s told that “if Einar’s with him, they’ll be looking for girls to treat like shit, preferably ones who don’t mind too much.” A line that would not be out of place in counterculture memoirs. Bonnie Bremser’s Troia: Mexican Memoirs, still the best manual on how to survive marriage to a Beat poet, is fascinating for its portrayal of physical and psychological abuse in the early sixties. “Ray threatens to leave me, and I threaten to leave him if the violence continues. He maintains that it’s good for a chick to get pounded on once in a while for it increases the circulation and makes her pretty.”
Few couples actually display affection in Inherent Vice, and perhaps Pynchon’s disinterest in interiority renders that absence more salient. Sure, Sortilége has ditched a job at Doc’s office to live with Spike since “love was more important than a day job;” but before anyone awws at that let’s not forget that the book’s hippies would rather hold a burning coal than a day job. It’s mostly up to Doc and the Harlingens to prove that love still exists. But the story of how the couple met doesn’t come wrapped in romance. “Coy and I should’ve met cute,” says Hope, “with cuteness everywhere back then and all of it up for sale, but actually we met squalid, down at Oscar’s in San Ysidro.” Oscar’s is a joint near the Tijuana border; Hope has gone there to use the toilet to vomit some drugs she had bought in Mexico and hid inside her. “I had just gone running into this one toilet stall without checking first, had my finger already down my throat, and there Coy sat, gringo digestion, about to take a gigantic shit. We both let go at about the same time, barf and shit all over the place, me with my face in his lap and to complicate things of course he had this hardon.” Bremser’s memoirs give this level of sordidness an unfortunate tone of verisimilitude. Even so Hope’s description of heroin’s effects on her and Coy pale compared to Bremser’s will to survive. Running to Mexico with poet Ray Bremser after he was accused of a crime, and with a baby girl to take care of, she turned to prostitution, on Ray’s encouragement, in order to support the family and their drug habit. Due to her smack addiction, Hope had “heroin coming through in my breast milk” while she was breastfeeding her baby, Amethyst, who was born “swollen, red-faced, vacant.” Still the child grew healthy; Bremser had to give hers up to continue prostituting herself for Ray.
As for Doc, although his love for Shasta drives him through the narrative, his climatic reunion with her culminates in a BDSM session of creepy role-play: she acts like one of the “submissive, brainwashed, horny little teeners” who served Charles Manson, and allows Doc to spank her while she recounts to him her degradation as Wolfmann’s girlfriend, or rather slave: “He might as well have ben bringing me in on a leash. He kept me in these little microminidresses, never allowed me to wear anything underneath, just offering me to whoever wanted to stare. Or grab. Or sometimes he’d fix me up with his friends. And I’d have to do whatever they wanted…”
This void of affection also seeps into friendships. Although “Doc’s general policy was to try to be groovy about most everything,” on the beach “you lived in a climate of unquestioning hippie belief, pretending to trust everybody while always expecting to be sold out.” Bigfoot mentions that several hippies work as informants. Paranoia holds sway over Doc's buddies, alarm lurks in every relationship, the fear of betrayal strains relationships. Part of this paranoia is a side effect of cannabis, but hippies did have concrete reasons to be paranoid because they were smoking illegal substances: since the novel portrays drug taking as a sine qua non condition to be a hippie, paranoia is an inevitable by-product. Doc eventually reaches a hippiephany that hippies versus Establishment is a simplistic dichotomy. “What, I should only trust good people? Man, good people get bought and sold every day. Might as well trust somebody evil once in a while, it makes no more or less sense.” He says this after having to cut deals, first with Penny, his DA girlfriend, in exchange for information, and later with Crocker Fenway, a fixer trying to retrieve the stolen heroin. Doc has just discovered that Shasta betrayed him and accepts that no one is innocent, everyone carries deceit; although in shortage in flatworld, hippies can’t claim monopoly over trust.
But Petunia is right, love saves. For a novel that apparently celebrates outsiders nowadays famous for challenging societal conventions and creating an alternative morality, traditional notions of love and honor still command the narrative: for all the sexual epicness, Doc is propelled by his undying love for Shasta, the typical soul mate of romance fiction; he may have moved on to Penny but his affection remains monogamously attached to her. Likewise Doc wishes to reunite Coy with his family, especially Amethyst, “who ought to have something more than fading Polaroids” of her dad. He manages to get Coy out of his predicament thanks to the intervention of Crocker, who only helps Doc out because of the many times he returned Crocker’s drug-addled daughter home after she ran way. Doc’s pals may eschew traditional family units, live dangerously and without affinities, but in the end it’s the old-fashioned, self-serving sense of fairness and gratitude, the basic I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-my-back mercantilist mentality as opposed to the beach’s communal values, and wanting to bring a family back together that prevails. As it turns out, Inherent Vice is as bourgeois as Starbucks.
An unvoiced conflict emerges from the book’s pages: the hippies’ delusion about their specialness versus the concrete portrayal of their enslavement. “My parents saw us locked into a dismal slavery,” says Hope, “but Coy and I, all we saw was the freedom – from that endless middle-class cycle of choices that are not choices at all – a world of hassle reduced to the one simple issue of scoring. And how was shooting up any different from the old folks and their dinner-house cocktails anyway? we figured.” Although her tone hints at doubt, Hope’s feeling of superiority runs with more conviction through Bremser’s memoirs: prostitution, hunger, domestic abuse and submission to a husband who gnawed at her self-esteem notwithstanding, she never shook off the belief that life on the road was better than the 9 to 5 schedule. When she has to reflect about her travails, she shifts from graphical crispness to lyrical vagueness: “Do I have to tell this story on into the night, telling away the sickness? How I went to Acapulco for my health and saw everyone getting fucked for money there, too? The whole world was sick!” Bremser wrote this shortly after returning from Mexico, and what it lacks in self-examination it makes up in emotional detail. The novel, coming out decades later, has the benefit of a more evenhanded meditation on the era’s distance between idealism and practicality.
After all this, can we still only read Inherent Vice as a light-hearted homage to the Endless Summer? I hope I’ve shown you that’s too narrow a read. Although displaying genuine affection for its couch rebels, it also ridicules hippies’ delusions and failures; it reevaluates the era’s ethos and scrutinizes dark aspects that our own era does not perceive as such. What does it say about reviewers when on the “horrors” list they included things like Nixon, Vietnam and Charles Manson (all things that Doc barely talks or thinks about), but never once mentioned Amethyst, the heroin baby (her name, by the way, is Latin for “not intoxicated”), a character who so disturbs Doc she becomes one of the narrative’s engines? What does it say when Doc looks with distress at pictures of her showing symptoms of addiction, but the blasé reviewers overlooked the scene? All banded together to deride Pynchon for creating a love letter to the 1960s, but they showed instead they could only see the ‘60s they themselves had been reared to know. When confronted with an interpretation that deformed the traditional image, those who accused Pynchon of wearing rose-tainted spectacles showed themselves blind to the novel’s critiques.
In a way, this is as it should be. Each novel is made from a series of decisions. We must ask ourselves why Pynchon opted to vehemently ignore more constructive aspects, which of course existed. If I understood it correctly, Inherent Vice’s focus on traits like irresponsibility, laziness, drug abuse, and amnesia intends to show hippies’ legacy on us, on the now. Hippies may have come and gone, but their flaws found great attraction: hedonism, the glamorization of drugs in popular culture (perhaps the reason why reviewers ignored the emotional core of Amethyst’s subplot), living for the moment, fear of growing up, short-attention spans, TV-shackled minds. A question: is there a considerable difference between the novel’s typical hippie and pop culture’s portrayal of modern-day teenagers whom we are so quick to generalize as imbeciles and slackers?
This novel received much-repeated praise for pinpointing the birth of modern America. Although I partially agree, in so far as anyone can ascertain when “modern America” started, I think reviewers went about the wrong way. It is a fact that Doc learns about the Internet’s forerunner, and even voices some concerns about its potential to spy on people. Likewise we can read the following lines, “Nobody can predict a year or two hence, but right now Nixon has the combination to the safe and he’s throwing fistfuls of greenbacks at anything that even looks like local law enforcement,” and make a connection with the post-9/11 anti-terrorism irresponsible funding that delighted many private contractors. But such a reading of history would portray Pynchon as a poor history student, which his oeuvre shows him not to be. Surely Pynchon would know that back in the late 1940s the CIA pretty much had an unlimited cash fund (which Vladimir Nabokov’s cousin, Nicolas, on the agency’s payroll, used to finance a lavish Paris-based lifestyle) to spend on fighting Communism. Yes, ARPAnet had potential to spy on people, but the government didn’t need to wait until the 1970s for that; only a naïve reviewer would think the US Government had to wait that long to start spying on its citizens; Pynchon, in passing, even references the American Security Council, an agency operating since 1955 with that stated purpose. Robert Coover’s The Public Burning makes a persuasive case that modern America actually started in 1953. Evil politicians? Check. Paranoid authorities? Check. The entertainment industry in the service of social brainwashing? Check. Constitutional rights out the window? Check. Who’s right, who’s wrong? I think we can all agree that any skilful novelist willing to comb through history books can pick up the most obscure and disparate events and facts of a decade or era and make them cohere, through the power of vision and imagination, into something meaningful – that’s just what novels do. “Turning points” in history are just convenient consensuses that make life easier for historians to break books into chapters; time is a flux of billions of events, some moving one after another, others co-occurring in parallel across space; and as Duchamp can turn a urinal into art by calling it art, so can a novelist transform any year into the birth of anything through sheer rhetorical virtuosity. Before Alan Moore and Eric Campbell created From Hell who thought the year 1888 had so much heft?
ARPAnet’s presence, I think, has a more meaningful point in relation to the novel’s theme of forgetfulness. It’s less Big Brother in infancy than current obsession with data storage. A character tells Doc that this new technology will make everything “eternally present.” It’s never been easier to pile up data to make sure the future will know everything about us; but it’s not a given that posterity will care to know. Art historians haven’t overlooked the irony that the ability to record everything digitally is occurring in tandem with a widespread phenomenon of ahistoricism. Pynchon’s “eternally present” expression is very similar to what art historian Massimo Carboni used said in a 2012 conference on contemporary art restoration (his paper can be found in What’s Changing, edited by M. C. Mundici and A. Rava): “An absolute present that also includes the eternally returning to itself in the present typical of fashion, a present without depth, stretched out in a synchronic, horizontal and continuous flow. Whether we like it or not, this is the model of historicity, or rather of non-historicity, in which we live.” When Socrates condemned writing it was because it created only the “appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” Technology improves, Pynchon’s novels argue, but it doesn’t improve us. The here and now consume all attentions; information is widely, freely available but few seek it or use it, mass; nor can information saturation replace the ability to reason about the right one. This is less catastrophic than it sounds; we still have memory and civilization. But doesn’t an “eternal present” concisely describe the lives Doc’s friends lead? Moseying about without memory, unfazed about the future, poor at planning ahead, dreaming more than doing? A historical perspective is useful, at least to show us how little we differ from our grandparents.
It has not been my intention to make it look like the novel demonizes hippies, for whom I have sympathy. At one point Shasta tells Doc that she met Hope and Coy when they were still heroin addicts, baby in tow, “so flushed and listless” from the drug effects. She realized they were junkies but “held off from lecturing” since she had been in enough crap “to know she didn’t qualify for any grand-lady parts.” That’s good advice. Hippies and the larger counterculture movement were important to civil rights, fighting racism, pacifism, integrating homosexuality, emancipating women, relaxing dress and language formalities, creating a new ecological consciousness, and fighting capitalism and its dehumanizing effects, as Timothy Miller has shown in The Hippies and American Values. And their limitless optimism gave us the always inspiring words of Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Terence McKenna, John C. Lilly and others. The word hippie comprises a wide gamut of meanings and nuances. Some attempted practical measures, communes flourished during the 1960’s-70’s as experiments in new ways of living: The Farm, established in 1971, still exists to this day; it required courage to abandon the certainties of bourgeois life. Of those who tried it, some loved it, some resented it, some gave up, some keep at it like Stephen Gaskin. Hippies came in different temperaments: some espoused mystical beliefs; others had entrepreneurial savviness to open vegetarian restaurants; some did drugs, others forbade their use in communes; some were monogamous, others experimented with group marriages. They can’t be reduce to a stereotype. But they’re certainly up for critique like anything else in society. It may sound heretical to suggest this of Pynchon, the counterculture idol, but he’s made a career dismantling myths. Gravity’s Rainbow, as Thomas LeClair showed in The Art of Excess, portrayed humans as Gaia’s defilers, reversing our delusion as its tamers and guardians; Mason & Dixon shattered the myth of an America born out of innocence; Vineland showed a community not giving in to the popular, me-first appeal of Reaganomics. Why should hippies be exempt from scrutiny? Given the positive alternatives, we should ponder why Thomas Pynchon deliberately chose to emphasize the most self-defeating aspects. Doc’s hippie friends are like a sponge, soaking up the motto of their time – sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ all that – riding a wave of fad but incapable of turning the call to resistance into anything meaningful and transcendental. Unfortunately those negative traits, so easily co-opted by mainstream’s marketing machine, ended up prospering better than the ideals. But I don’t think the novel attacks hippies; rather it takes a bittersweet look at their shortcomings, especially the ways they participated in their own dehumanization.
In a way, dehumanization tends to be the destination, the prerogative, of rebels and vanguardists. Bonnie Bremser’s flight from routine resulted in forced prostitution; in his history of Surrealism, Jules-François Dupuis reminds us that the Surrealists, in their drive to challenge conventional sexual mores, celebrated incest and pedophilia, which, no matter how much we like to consider ourselves daring, I think remain limits no one wants to cross. Before them, the British sculptor Eric Gill, in the interest of experimenting, recorded in his diaries sexual activities with his underage daughters, and a dog. In 1918 Arthur Cravan, the dada legend, got in a boat alone and disappeared off the coast of Mexico, presumably drowning, a fate similar to Christopher McCandless’s. Living against the grain was the dada specialty; Hans Richter, one of the founders of dada, wrote in Dada: Art and Anti-Art of Francis Picabia’s “absolute lack of respect – even for his friends.” The urge to be absolutely original, to destroy everything known, to renounce ordinariness, often has the side-effect of eroding relations, doubting ordinary needs like love and friendship, and retreating from everything with a veneer of banality, to the point life becomes untenable, and nihilism alluring. The history of vanguards tells this cautionary tale in a thousand different ways. At the end of them we find T.S. Eliot’s admonition in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that the “search for novelty in the wrong place” leads to “the perverse.” The key words, to me, are “wrong place.” But perhaps the tale gets retold so often because vanguards can’t advance without some necessary amnesia. In its final chapters, Inherent Vice turns into an iteration of the eternal war between rich and poor. “We will never run out of you people,” gloats Crocker Fenway. “The supply is inexhaustible.” When Doc threatens him with a wishful popular insurrection, Crocker calmly replies, “Then we do what has to be done to keep them out. We’ve been laid siege to by far worse, and we’re still here. Aren’t we.” The villains show to have a better grasp of history than Doc; he sees the sixties and seventies as an exceptional era; the rich just see another era of defilement. Perhaps lack of memory is a precondition to continue to believe in utopia. The belief in a better future can only endure if a new generation ignores the missteps of a previous generation that also believed in changing the world, whether it be the artists who met at Cabaret Voltaire, the Surrealists, the Beats, or the hippies. Utopia is a belief that requires people to ignore the fact it has always failed in the past, and to persist through the “vortex of corroded history,” looking to get out of it into a better, kinder world.
However if vanguards have a duty to forget in order to make progress, novels can create alternate memories that remember the past with more palpability, more self-examination. Let’s conclude with a final example of inherent vice: when Hope shows Doc some Polaroids of Coy she wants to keep for Amethyst, he wonders at the pointlessness of it. “Doc remembered how Polaroids have no negatives and the life of the prints is limited. These, he noticed, were already beginning to shift color and fade.” To the popular image of the hippie era as colorful, cool, funny, and unstressed, the novel counterposes with an era metaphorically and literally incapable of remembering itself, giving way to myth and half-dreamt illusions. In the first chapter, we read that a picture at Doc’s house “showed a Southern California beach that never was – palms, bikini babes, surfboards, the works.” If it never was, what existed in its place? An answer is in the book’s pages. Reviewers generally agreed that Inherent Vice has smart, fun dialogue, endearing characters, a gripping plot, and lots of humour. I would add that it also offers a refreshing meditation on American history. I don’t know if that alone can rescue it from being “Pychon Lite,” but I hope at least I have showed a more interesting way of (re-)reading it.