- "God Knows, Few of Us Are Strangers to Moral Ambiguity": Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice
With his seventh novel, Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon brings his readers back to late 1960s California for the third time—though the story is set in 1970. As with The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Vineland (1990), Pynchon is again exploring a particular moment in America when social change seemed simultaneously both possible and impossible. The hippie culture of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll believed a chance had arrived for a new way of organizing American politics and society as the first of the baby boomers came of age, but simultaneously the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon defined an America that would at best tolerate the hippie ethos and then later exploit it for commercial purposes. In Gravity's Rainbow (1973), the masterpiece he wrote largely while living in California during the late 60s (and where he sets the final scene of that book), Pynchon records a graffiti slogan from the Weimar period in Germany: "AN ARMY OF LOVERS CAN BE BEATEN" (Gravity 155), which comments on the naiveté of the Vietnam War era slogan, "Make love not war." The cultural event haunting Inherent Vice is neither the 1967 "Summer of Love" nor the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair: An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music, but rather the aftermath of the Charles Manson Family murders.
The Los Angeles of spring 1970 in which Inherent Vice is set is a sprawling mass of freeways and land development concepts. Like Pynchon's other novels, Inherent Vice is populated by a wide range of characters, often with wacky names. Most are extreme caricatures of dopers, sex fiends, police and other government agents, and paramilitary vigilantes who police LA's more troublesome individuals, although "troublesome" is a relative category depending on the ideology of the one providing the "policing." As the novel's title suggests, there is "vice" inherent in nearly every aspect of LA life, and "moral ambiguity" (7) surrounds nearly every event and every decision the characters make. Although Pynchon's narrator winks at hippie drug users like Doc and his close friends and at the various sexual encounters between consenting participants, he fills the novel with examples of other activities that could easily be labeled "vice"; the legal definition might be termed more properly "corruption." Part of the text's project is for the reader to determine which forms of "vice" truly threaten society at large and which are harmless. The hippie dopers are essentially harmless (only a danger to themselves), but the vast heroin cartel of the multivalent "Golden Fang" needs to be taken down. Given the suspected police and government corruption protecting the cartel, the task falls in large part to Pynchon's protagonist, Larry "Doc" Sportello, hippie private investigator, or gumsandal.
All Pynchon novels are in some degree "detective" stories, although they tend to be described as quest narratives. Whether it is Herbert Stencil seeking the mysterious lady V., or Oedipa Maas trying to unravel the skein of the Trystero, or Tyrone Slothrop pursuing the Schwarzgerät, or the Traverse brothers' tracking down their father's killers, Pynchon has used the mystery plot to give his often sprawling narratives a skeleton—even though the central character, an innocent who stumbles upon seemingly vast conspiracies operating just below the surface of perceived reality (and recorded history), typically fails to solve the mystery in the end. With Inherent Vice Pynchon gives us his first "professional" detective as protagonist; Lew Basnight in Against the Day (2006), a novel that ultimately takes the reader to 1920s Los Angeles and a string of serial killings, and Manny di Presso in Lot 49 were also professionals, but not central characters, and I'm leaving out of this class government agents such as Brock Vond or Hector Zuñiga in Vineland. The detective plot of the novel unfolds more conventionally than any Pynchon text to date—even the trademark paranoia experienced by Doc and others seems to have more logical than fantastic sources. Like his precursors in the hard-boiled detective...