Like many people, I first came across the expression “inherent vice” because of Thomas Pynchon’s novel. Unlike many people, I was lucky to read William Gaddis’ The Recognitions first. A few years after Pynchon’s novel came out, and about a year after Gaddis’ goliath crushed me, I read at last Inherent Vice. Then, curious, I looked up the press reviews. The novel didn’t strike reviewers as a remarkable addition to Pynchon’s oeuvre. They had mixed thoughts about it and treated it more like light entertainment. It’s probably not a masterpiece, but as I read review after review, it became clear to me that a consensus had rapidly established limits for understanding and appreciating it.
Reviewers, for one thing, maintained again and again that this wasn’t a deep novel, a thinking person’s book. That immeditately relieved the reviewer of the burden of thinking. The New York Times called it a “simple shaggy-dog detective story” pitting “likable dopers” against the Establishment. The Wall Street Journal mourned 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?” insinuating that Inherent Vice doesn’t belong in said category.
The reviews’ certainty of its flatness moved in tandem with their insistence on its courting nostalgia. For The Independent, this “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 agreed 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.” No one doubted that this nostalgia presented itself with manicheistic simplicity: heroic hippies versus government and capitalism. Indeed, The Quarterly Conversation bemoaned 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 he 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.” The Boston Globe filed this acritical attitude in the “personal-liberation mythology of the ’60s and ’70s” genre. I didn't even know that was a genre.
Pynchon’s paradisiacal sixties was a beach besmirched by a high tide of yacht oil. The Telegraph wrote 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 received long ago the benison of pop culture: “Vietnam, Nixon, urban riots, Charles Manson, assassinations,” in other words nothing new that enlarges our way of looking at the period. Paradoxically, by focusing on such garden-variety elements, the novel garnered some of its best compliments; reviewers were eager to state that it pinpointed the moment when America entered the modern era: the rise of 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 saved 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 dismissing it as “Pynchon Lite?”
After guiding reader's brains through many big bangs, had Pynchon's demiurgic powers finally failed to recreate the universe? Maybe Inherent Vice isn’t a great novel; however, its illusory levity may have contributed to careless, cursory readings. I do think that it asks interesting questions about American history; it proposes an interesting reassessment of the hippie legacy, albeit carefully hidden behind the author’s large heart, digressions, and courage to resist tedious conventional seriousness. Perhaps I was lucky because I knew what “inherent vice” meant when I went in. Reviewers didn’t dig into the text but strolled through its surface of sun and surf. They didn’t even dig past the title. Of the ten reviews I read, for instance, only two wondered at its meaning. The New Yorker dismissed it as “low-key metaphysical play” although it did admit that it might be missing its meaning. 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.”
Many misunderstandings about this novel clear themselves up once we ask this simple question: “The inherent vice of what?”
In risk management, inherent vice refers to materials whose very composition have a propensity to decay, which makes certain items uninsurable. Paintings, for instance, fall under this quandary, which is why the expression shows up repeatedly in The Recognitions, Gaddis’1955 novel about an art forger. Let’s just consider for a moment the relationship between painting and inherent vice. Nowadays, when painters have Marcel Duchamp’s blessing to urinate onto a canvas and hang it in a gallery, we tend to forget the lessons, methods, rules, and hard work that went into making a painting before 1900. When we contemplate a classic painting, admire its craftsmanship and puzzle at its mysteries, we forget we have in front of our eyes a brocade of organic, mineral and metallic substances prone to putrefaction and evanescence. Forget mastering the techniques of Flemish realism or abiding by complicated Renaissance theology; up until Modernism painters concerned themselves above all with fighting inherence vice, or in other words, staving off time’s slaying of painting 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. For example, the looseness of a badly-stretched canvas could make the paint flake and fall; dark colors should go after light colors, because otherwise they showed through the light ones and darkened 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); too much paint on the canvas frayed the corners with its weight. Inherent vice manifested itself in the composition of materials, like iron gall ink, quite fashionable in the 16th century, whose acidic properties caused paper to tear. Or it could involve a simple change of procedure: for The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci eschewed the fresco technique used in his time; instead of painting on wet plaster, the intonaco, he painted over a dry wall; this allowed him to work faster and achieve better colors. But only 20 years later the paint began to peel off and has required restoration 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 traditional techniques and steps in the right order on the Sistine vault and so his frescoes have stayed intact, with only minor bruises, until recently. However, in a perverse twist of fate, Leonardo’s iconoclastic attitude has made him a pioneer because 20th century art pretty much rejected technique in favor of experimentation, achieving fascinating results, but giving nightmares to restorers who don’t know how to save many famous modern paintings and sculptures from quick decay.
Inherent vice, as a metaphor, has tremendous appeal to writers, even if they do not know it by this name, since it speaks poignantly to our human condition. After all, we contain in ourselves our own destruction, our bodies begin to wither as soon as we exit the womb. Pynchon used it many times but, being science savvy, called it entropy. Gaddis, who lived in thrall of the idea that the modern now marched to the tune of chaos towards doom, filled his fiction with chairs that lose legs, shoelaces that break, diseases, self-devouring capitalism, self-pitying ineffective intellectuals, byzantine laws that muddle instead of clarifying, and crumbling houses strewn with piles of old papers. In his last book he applied this metaphor to memory and reasoning themselves. We inhabit a consciousnesses that’s forgetting all the time, at every moment, retaining but a grain of what we perceive. Our minds fight us. This is the condition besetting the dying narrator of Agapē Agape, struggling against his sick body, a medication-impaired concentration, and a weakened mind incapable of making his ideas cohere. He wants to write down his thoughts before he dies, but what’s keeping him alive is exactly the medicine stopping him from concentrating.
Pynchon’s novel explores hippie life from the perspective of inherent vice. Hippiedom here is treated as an all-embracing category that includes hippies, dopers, surfers, rockers and just about anyone who importunes the system. Nuance is less important than the common goal of living on society’s margins. Although a broad and varied category, the text keeps associating those characters with remembrance and forgetfulness. Doc’s memory is described as a “permanent smog alert,” and like other hippies he suffers from debilitating “Doper’s Memory.” I haven’t kept rigorous count, but these themes come up a lot in the vocabulary: 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 memorable, and 11 of memory, whether alone or in expressions like “memory lapses.” To hallucinate and hallucination show up at least 8 times; to trip, 1, to dream, 2. 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, through the pen of Plato, condemned writing because it endangered memory, which was a valuable intellectual faculty in the days before writing media. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, mnemonic techniques proliferated and seduced many thinkers, who equated retaining information with harnessing power. Far from glamorizing hippies, as the reviews claim, Pynchon’s novel constantly satirizes the debris in the place of their brains, their short attention spans, their mental vulnerability, and their self-destruction via drugs. The door in Doc’s office, for instance, 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's faked his own death, hiding amongst his old band members because nobody can remember him – he attributes that to “heavy Doper’s Memory.” And then there’s the myth from the surf community. “There was an ancient superstition at the beach,” we learn: “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.” This gullibility is taken to its zenith when an entrepreneur called Kevin strikes gold by selling Yellow Haze from Kozmik Banana, a “frozen-banana shop” that Bigfoot shakes down. Kevin, “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’s mocks Doc – “Fucking hippies, you’re so easy to fool.” – it’s hard not to agree with the bad guy. Timothy Leary may have assured hippies that their brains were God, but if hippies moved God away 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. From cover to cover, the novel portrays the hippie as his worst enemy, embracing a lifestyle that paradoxically defies the Establishment while making it easier for said Establishment to crush dissent. This is one of the many examples of inherent vice embedded in the narrative. Although readers wouldn’t know it from the reviews, the novel spends a lot of time making fun of hippies for vegetating, zoning out, and impairing their minds with soothing drugs.
The novel also depicts television as another hippie addiction: we find Doc watching television many times, alone or with friends. Sauncho Smilax, his lawyer, calls him on the phone to discuss TV shows like This way to his heart and Gilligan’s Island. Sauncho, like many hippies in the book, has a holy fool-like knack for garbling truths with nonsense: he experiences “hippiphanies” (Manson and the Vietcong share the same name: Charlie, etc.) and reads profound meanings in pop culture; one of his best moments occurs when he turns Charlie the Tuna into a parable of capitalist consumerism. “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?” Pynchon deploys this technique a lot, he makes his characters utter interesting points then quickly drowns them in silliness, goading the reader to move on without reflection. But Sauncho’s speech brings us back to inherent vice, to self-destruction; his words fit nicely with the novel’s anti-heroes whose loyalty to a brand called “hippie” hasn’t liberated them, their denial notwithstanding, from the constraints of consumerist society. Television is another form of addiction and consumerism; they’re all Charlie the Tuna.
Drugs make the mind wander, a no-no in a society built around pragmatism, mechanization and success; but the TV screen’s hegemony heralds a new improved addiction: television keeps the mind focused and concentrated, ideal qualities for boring office work and assembly lines, while corroding the mind’s immunities to conditioning. In one subplot Doc travels to Las Vegas; there he listens to a character regretting the replacement of the “old three-reel slots” by new ones with “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 this novel. In another part, Doc ends up with several kilos of heroin belonging to criminals in his car trunk; his friend Denis hides them temporarily while Doc looks around for a way of disposing of them. When he returns 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. I don’t need to belabor the symbolism of TV = heroin. Although Doc reasons with Denis, after smoking some pot he himself sits down to stare at it with his buddy. “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 seeking to create an addiction without the capitalist-damaging secondary effects of psychedelics, also manifests itself in the popularity of cop shows. If drugs make users live in a state of “ordinary paranoia,” if they make them nervous, endanger relationships and lead to unrest, 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.” Instead “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 novel’s TV screens light up with these brainwashing shows: Adam-12, Hawaii Five-O, and Doc’s particular bête noire 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 something out of The Mod Squad. (By the way, it wouldn’t surprise me if the novel’s title also punned on Miami Vice, the cop show that did more than any other to promote the image of cops as cool, sexy and enticing.) By now we can identify another paradoxical situation: hippies lead a benumbed, inanimate existence; they can’t or don’t hold jobs; their fried brains make them suitable to consume massive doses of television; so although they use drugs as a gesture of social protest, that gesture makes it easier to bind them to the mind control tool created by the same society they’ve rejected. That’s another example of inherent vice.
Nevertheless, the Establishment itself rots from innate instability. Ironically the US government fosters inadvertently the use 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 left to Vietnam when the “freak culture” hadn’t yet become tangible, although assimilation into it on his return has not proved difficult: in Asia he had 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 to mundane stuff, mentioned in a 1973 commencement address the plight of veterans who “turn to crime to support a drug habit picked up in service.” (1) According to estimates from that period, 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.” Spiro Agnew, the vice-president, was also anti-drugs. (Ironically, his daughter, Kim, a troublemaker at the time, was busted for carrying them.) 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 producer of drugs 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, has its own inherent vice logic. As does the Vietnam War itself. “Years later,” wrote Robert Merry, “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.” (2)
Reviews also failed to appreciate the complicated web that interconnects capitalism, hippies and the growing drug market. Allen Ginsberg believed that the Narcotic Bureau promoted the use of heroin “since it meant more appropriations and more jobs within the Bureau,” Timothy Miller wrote in The Hippies and American Values. Doc has similar ideas about the cynicism behind the drug business. “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 the government produces junkie ex-grunts, society itself, despite its restrictions or because of them, propagates the hippie lifestyle, of which drug consumption is a main pillar. And this attempt to escape can only lead to an escalation – higher highs and 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. Even then some hippies realized this effect. “And so you get stoned and grin and giggle and waste away the most joyful, alive years of your life. Talking about drugs, where to get them, now much, how good, who’s been busted, - never speaking of ‘heavy’ real things, like nature, art, each other, ecstasy,” wrote Ron Norman for Seventy-Nice Cent Spread in 1968.
If drugs help only to escape, as the novel suggests, instead of giving insight, the replacement of marijuana with the deadlier heroin just proceeds from this impulse. In this context ODs even acquire a positive value. “Overdoses 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: first, a malaise within a dysfunctional society causes hippies; second, their goal of escaping society unwittingly invites self-annihilation and feeds the greed they repuadiate. “Flower child to wasted derelict, zap, like magic,” says 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 beloved myths about them: love and communality. “Love is the only thing that will ever save us,” says Petunia, Doc’s receptionist. But although love is 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 sex, almost never pleasurable sex containing intimacy and tenderness. Love, he realizes, 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.” (3)
The be-ins’ legendary grooviness and the peacefulness of the era also take some blows. Hippie or straight, on the beach or in the 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 seem out of place in memoirs written by counterculture members. “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.” So wrote Bonnie Bremser in Troia: Mexican Memoirs, the best manual on how to survive marriage to a Beat poet. Although beats and hippies are not exactly the same thing, their lifestyle is similar enough for Bremser’s memoir to add some insight into the novel. Furthermore, as Miller explains in The Hippies and American Values, “The progression from beat to hip is a fairly obvious one; the beats of the 1950s advocated dropping out of society, promoted new forms of art and literature, smoked marijuana, listened to unorthodox music (jazz), rejected traditional sexual norms, and even popularized the word ‘hip’.”
Few couples display love in the novel, and perhaps Pynchon’s uninterest in psychology renders that absence more salient. Sortilége, for instance, has ditched a job at Doc’s office to live with Spike since “love was more important than a day job,” but that doesn’t say much about romantic priorities since the novel profusely shows that anything is more important to Doc’s beach friends than a day job. The burden of showing that love exists in the novel’s world falls on the shoulders of Hope and Coy Harlingen. Hope hires Doc to find out what happened to her husband, presumably dead from an OD. The story of how they met doesn’t come wrapped in romance; it looks more like something out of Bremser’s messed up marriage. “Coy and I should’ve met cute, 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 has bought in Mexico and hidden 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 a whiff of plausibility. Even so Hope’s description of heroin effects on her and Coy pale compared to Bremser’s will to survive. Running into Mexico with beat poet Ray Bremser after he was charged with a crime, and with a baby girl to take care of, she turned to prostitution, with Ray’s encouragement, in order to support the family and their drug habit. As for Hope, due to her smack addiction she 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 her husband.
As for Doc, although his love for Shasta propels him through the narrative, his climatic scene with her ends up in a BDSM session with uncomfortable role-play: she plays at being one of the “submissive, brainwashed, horny little teeners” who served Charles Manson, and encourages Doc to spank her while she narrates to him her degradation as Wolfmann’s girlfriend, or rather slave: “He might as well have been 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 instability 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.” Hippies, as Bigfoot at one point tells him, work as police informants. Outside drugs, nothing seems to pull them together. “Drugs leave a feeling of being different from anyone else who does not use drugs and a brotherhood, if only chemical, with those that do,” wrote an anonymous writer in East Village Other in 1967. Paranoia holds sway over Doc's buddies, alarm lurks in every relationship, betrayal hums in the air. Part of this paranoia is a side-effect of smoking cannabis, but hippies did have concrete reasons to be paranoid since they were smoking illegal substances. Because the novel portrays drug taking as a sine qua non condition to be a hippie, paranoia is a natural consequence. Doc himself 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 deceives everybody. Although loyalty is in shortage in the flatworld, hippies can’t claim monopoly over it.
But Petunia is right, love saves the characters. For a novel that allegedly celebrates outsiders nowadays famous for challenging societal norms and creating a new morality, traditional notions of love and honor still command the narrative: for all the sexual epicness, Doc acts out of 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 imbroglio thanks to the intervention of Crocker, who only helps Doc because of the many times he returned his daughter, Japonica, home after she ran way, which reaffirms again the importance of family in the novel. Doc’s buddies may eschew traditional family units, live dangerously and without deep commitments, 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 put a traditionally nuclear family back together, that prevails. Inherent Vice, as it turns out, is quite bourgeois. It may sound heretical to say this of Pynchon, the counterculture idol, but the text speaks for itself.
Although the novel is rather surreptitious about it, its conflict can be construed as 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, this 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 being one of the 9-to-5 squares. When she has to reflect about her travails, she shifts from graphical crispness to defensive 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 fascinating details about the same period that Inherent Vice covers.
It’s time we stop reading Inherent Vice as a light-hearted homage to the Endless Summer. Underneath Pynchon’s genuine affection for his pariahs and couch rebels, there’s a strong chastisement of hippies’ delusions and failures. The novel reevaluates the era’s ethos and scrutinizes dark aspects that our own time does not perceive as such. Just read the reviews. What does it say about the reviewers when their list of “horrors” included items like Nixon, Vietnam and Charles Manson, things that Doc barely talks or worries about, but neglected Amethyst, the heroin baby? She's a central character who so disturbs Doc she becomes one of the main reasons he tries to untangle the mystery. (4) What does it say when Doc looks with distress at pictures showing her symptoms of addiction, but the blasé reviewers overlook them? Although reviewers banded to deride Pynchon for writing a love letter to the 1960s, they only paid attention to the ‘60s they themselves have been reared to know, ignoring the dark alleys in this period that Pynchon illuminates. They were the ones expecting a love letter to the Endless Summer.
Reviewers, however, repeatedly praised the novel for pinpointing the birth of modern America. They arrived at this conclusion because it makes a few comparisons between then and now. Doc learns indeed about the Internet’s forerunner, and even voices some concerns about its potential to spy on people. Likewise, some lines are supposed to sound prophetic: “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.” It was easy to say that in 2009 and make a connection with the irresponsible post-9/11 anti-terrorism funding that delighted private contractors. But such a reading of history in fact portrays Pynchon as a poor history student, which his oeuvre shows him not to be. Pynchon surely knows that way back in the late 1940s the CIA pretty much already had an unlimited cash fund to spend on anything to fight Communism (and which the agents used to finance lavish lifestyles in Paris). Sure, ARPAnet had potential to spy on people, but the US government didn’t need to wait until the 1970s for that; only a naïve person would think the government would wait that long to start spying on its citizens. Pynchon even references in passing the American Security Council, a secret agency operating since 1955 with that exact purpose. And then it’s just complicated to ascertain when exactly modern American was born. Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, for instance, makes the persuasive case that modern America started in 1953. Who’s right, who’s wrong? I think we can all agree that any skillful novelist willing to comb through history books can pick out the most obscure and disparate events and facts from a decade or period and make them cohere, through the power of organization and imagination, into something meaningful – that is the definition of any novel. Alan Moore’s From Hell convinces the reader for a moment that the modern world really started in 1888. It’s all a matter of vision and virtuosity. “Turning points” are just consensual conveniences 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 a novelist can transform any year into the birth of anything through sheer rhetorical chutzpah.
Nevertheless, I do think that Pynchon is using hippies to say something about the modern world. I’ve wondered why he focused so much on the negative aspects of hippiedom. After all, as Miller points out in his excellent book, hippies had lots of qualities and were important in raising awareness about ecology and vegetarianism; they challenged mores about homosexuality, sexual shame, visual looks, clothes. And, of course, they tried to live more authentic lives outside the tyranny of consumer society. Pynchon, though, ignores the constructive aspect of their legacy and emphasizes traits like irresponsibility, laziness, drug use and mental debility. My guess is that he does this because he wants to show how yesterday’s hippies have mutated into the apathetic, unromantic youths of today who are uninterested in political activism and lack the passion for changing the world but retain their flaws: hedonism, the glamorization of drugs in popular culture, living for the now, fear of growing up, short-attention spans, TV-shackled minds. William Braden warned in 1970 in The Age of Aquarius that hedonism could be used by the establishment to enslave people. Curiously, the novel’s hippies seem tailor-made to draw as many possible similarities with popular perception of the modern-day teenager who can’t be separated from their shinny screens. Is this the ultimate example of inherent vice? Did the hippies, by using hedonism and escapism as weapons against the Establishment, create a future youth that has used these same weapons to be enslaved?
If ARPAnet means anything in the novel, I think it’s alluding to something more than an obvious point about surveillance technology. (Bertrand Russell wrote a whole book about it fifty years before the novel). A character tells Doc that this new technology, with its power to store data, will make everything “eternally present.” That current society lives in an “eternal present,” an expression also used by historian Richard T. Hughes, is a condition we’re all aware of. Art historians haven’t overlooked the irony that a widespread phenomenon of ahistoricism is co-occurring with the technological ability to record everything. It’s never been easier to store data to make sure that the future will know everything about us, but then man-made climate changes and ecological disasters put that future into jeopardy whereas people tend to have but a narrow and localized grasp of History. The here and now consume all attentions. This is a running theme in Pynchon’s work: technology improves, but it doesn’t improve us. The ability to store everything also means we can give up the personal responsibility of knowing or learning history – it exists in binary code at the reach of a finger, provided we want it; except a thousand distractions keep us from wanting it. (5)
An “eternal present” describes our current society as well as the lives of Doc’s friends: they go about devoid of memories, unfazed about the future, incapable of planning ahead, just meeting everyday needs, or rather subsisting. As Miller points out, the hippies were utopians who thought they were going to heal society of its past evils; as such, they carried within them the inability to reflect about the past. A case in point, hippies jumped into utopian communes without interest about its tradition in America. As Roy Ald wrote in 1970 in The Youth Communes, “the hippie development is of a totally new order, wherein the past, in a sense, is irrelevant.” That’s probably not accurate: a commune in Washington State called Tolstoy Farm was probably a shout-out to Gandhi’s commune of the same name built in South Africa in 1910. But, yes, there’s this sensation that the past didn’t matter a lot to them. What was a necessary condition for their romantic optimism has turned into a lifestyle bereft of references. This eternal present, myths of progress aside, seems quite tangible all around us. Is the novel saying that this is the negative legacy of hippies? That’s one way possible of looking at it.
Shasta says at one point that she met Hope and Coy when they were heroin addicts, driving with their baby, “so flushed and listless” from the drug effects. (Hippies disapproved of heroin; when I read the novel I wasn’t aware that hippies distinguished between “dope”, good drugs that give you good trips, and “drugs”, which could be anything from cocaine to alcohol and tobacco, substances that dulled consciousness instead of expanding it, freely available to control citizens. It would be cool if someone one day analyzed the use of both words in the novel.) Although Shasta realizes that they’re junkies “she held off from lecturing” since she had been in enough crap “to know she didn’t qualify for any grand-lady parts.” That’s a wise advice. It would be foolish to ignore the benefits of hippies and counterculture in fighting racism, accepting homosexuality, emancipating women, relaxing dress codes and language formalities, creating an ecological consciousness, valuing collectivism over the selfish individualism in America, fighting capitalism and its dehumanizing effects. The word hippie comprises a variety 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 and provides social services; it required courage to abandon the certainties of bourgeois life. Of those who tried it, some loved it, some resented it, some gave up. Hippies had 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 reduced to a stereotype, although Pynchon comes close to it. Doc’s hippie friends are like sponges, soaking up the motto of their time – sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ all! – riding a wave of fad but unable to turn the call to resistance into anything meaningful and transcendental. Unfortunately, those negative traits, so easily co-opted by mainstream’s marketing machine, ended up lasting longer than the ideals. Why is Pynchon finally exploring this darker aspect of hippiedom now? He had been sympathetic to hippie characters in previous novels. I think what’s changed is that when he wrote about them in the past they were contemporary to him. Pynchon needs to wait for things to become history before he can write about them; his fiction is almost always set a few decades at least in the past. By 2009, hippies were distant enough for him to take a sober look at their own shortcomings, especially in the way they expedited their own dehumanization.
In a way, dehumanization has always been the destination, the prerogative, of rebels and the avant-garde. People living in the margins can go crazy. 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. Before them, the British sculptor Eric Gill, in the earnest 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. Living against the grain was a dada specialty. Hans Richter, one of the founders of dada, once wrote of Francis Picabia’s “absolute lack of respect – even for his friends.” (6) The urge to be absolutely original, to crush everything known, to renounce ordinariness, leads to side-effects like unstable relations, doubting spiritual needs like love and friendship, and retreating from normalcy bearing a veneer of banality, to the point that life becomes untenable and cynicism and nihilism become seductive. The history of the avant-garde tells this cautionary tale in a thousand different ways. At the end of them we find T.S. Eliot’s admonition that the “search for novelty in the wrong place” leads to “the perverse,” and although he meant poetry it equally applies to revolution. (7) But perhaps the tale gets retold so often because revolutionaries can’t go ahead without a bit of amnesia. Inherent Vice’s final chapters reenact the eternal war between rich and poor. “We will never run out of you people,” says Crocker Fenway. “The supply is inexhaustible.” When Doc threatens him with a wishful 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 seem to have a better grip on history than Doc and his buddies. Doc sees the sixties as an exceptional haven, the rich just see another opportunity for defilement. But 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 failures of a previous generation that also believed in changing the world, 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 that it has always failed in the past, to persist through the “vortex of corroded history,” as we read in the novel, aiming to get out of it into a better, kinder world.
However, if rebels have a duty to forget so they can make progress, novels can also be used to create alternate memories that remember the past with more palpability, more self-examination. Let’s end this 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 this action. “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 Pynchon provides a counter-image of a time incapable of metaphorically and literally remembering itself, giving way to myth and 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? The novel attempts to answer that. Reviewers generally agreed that Inherent Vice has smart, fun dialogue, endearing characters, a gripping plot and lots of humor. Let me add that it also contains an interesting meditation on American history. Perhaps that alone can’t rescue it from being Pychon Lite, but I hope that being aware of this makes it a more rewarding reading experience.
1 John Barth, The Friday Book, p. 118, G. P. Putnam’s Press, New York, 1984
2 Robert Merry, Taking on the World, quoted from Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War, pp. 310-311., The New Press, New York, 2013
3 “There’s nothing like a little love, and most Haight-Ashbury merchants are shucking it out by the truckload,” Jeff Jassen wrote in Berkeley Barb in 1967.
4 It’s not an accident that the Latin etymology of Amethyst means “not intoxicated.” She's the symbol of purity in the novel's sordid world.
5 “The truth is that many Americans live their lives in the eternal present, a present informed and shaped not by history but by those two golden epochs that bracket human time,” he writes noticing how religion informs this lack of curiosity. Myths We Live By, p. 156, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 2004. Sadly it’s hardly an American problem; the idea of an eternal present is becoming common; art historian Massimo Carboni has also noticed it: “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.” Maria Cristina Mundici & Antonio Rava (editors), What’s Changing: Theories and Practices in the Restoration of Contemporary Art, p. 141, Skira, Milan, 2013
6 Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-art, p. 87, Thames & Hudson, London, 2004
7 T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays, p. 33, Dover Publications, New York, 1998.