Friday, August 28, 2009

Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice

Doc Sportello?
Illustration by Erik T. Johnson
(Image from NYT)

Thomas Pynchon has come out with another book rooted in the countercultural sixties, his Inherent Vice. Back in February 1973, that would still have been avant garde literature, but it now feels more like ancient history. Perhaps even more ancient than the sixties since its antihero, the private eye Doc Sportello, harkens back to the to the pre-sixties gumshoe antiheros created by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler . . . but less into whiskey and more into pot.

I haven't read the novel, just Walter Kirn's New York Times review "Drugs to Do, Cases to Solve" (August 20, 2009), but I might read it since Kirn makes it sound funny, as in this passage on StarKist's Charlie the Tuna commercial:
"It's all supposed to be so innocent, upwardly mobile snob, designer shades, beret, so desperate to show he's got good taste, except he's also dyslexic so he gets 'good taste' mixed up with 'taste good,' but it's worse than that! Far, far worse! 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."
I suppose that one needs to have experienced the popular StarKist commercial to get the humor and to have lived the sixties to undertand the point, Charlie as expression of an inverted paranoia -- 'They're not out to get me!'

Meanwhile, the paranoiacs of Pynchon's countercultural universe suffer the opposite problem "paranoia [as] a version of normal pattern­making amped way up by . . . [the] intake of hallucinogens." They foresee that, unlike Charlie, they're the ones "to be caught, processed, put in a can." Such countercultural paranoia was, in hindsight, utterly lucid thinking. Drugs were illegal. The cops and the government and the culture were all out to get them. Even those paranoiacs had real enemies.

On Doc Sportello's StarKist riff and its like, Kirn observes:
These manic outbursts aren't arbitrary, of course, but cluster around the novel's core concern with the waning of the Summer of Love, when all was balmy and celestial, into the chilly Autumn of Authority, which Pynchon implies has yet to end.
Realistically speaking, of course, that countercultural world couldn't have survived and was itself more an expression of Pynchon's infamous 'entropy' than the 'square' world of authority, which does at least know how to organize and defend itself.

Call it the 'square' world's inherent virtue.

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