Tuesday, June 8, 2010

there's an old geezer in our neighborhood

So I finished Inherent Vice yesterday - it turned out to be a really fun, engaging read, if somewhat lighter than what Pynchon is generally known for (Gravity's Rainbow, V, etc.). Granted, I also don't read a whole lot of postmodern detective novels, so it's not like I would know if IV was a totally by-the-numbers affair.

I've been reading reviews of it since, and it strikes me that no one is really interested in looking at this book on its own merits. Good or bad, all the reviews put it into the context of Pynchon's legacy as an author* and either laud this turn towards the comprehensible or lament the gradual dumbening of a once-great novelist. Here's a list of reviews to parse through, if you like, and to consider as a reference point for this blog post.

If nothing else, reading them has been an unintentionally hilarious look at academic paradox. People were mad at Pynchon (and still are to this day, in lessening numbers) for writing big slabs of post-modern brainfuckery that went off on unpredictable genius tangents at the expense of plot and/or character development, and now they're mad at him again for writing, to use a tired phrase, "beach reading." IV is not a mountain to conquer or a hill to die on, it's just a novel. A good one too, for the most part, with a lot of wonderful line-by-line writing and imaginative description, often in period lexicon. One of my favorite passages from early on in the novel is description of a touristy beach painting on the narrator's wall as a window into a California that never was. Where other late-60s nostalgia pieces focus on more general shifts in the national mood during that time, IV is very localized, to the point of exposing just where the realities of Nixon-era California diverged from the myths.

My hypothesis is that a lot of reviewers, especially those who consider themselves Literary, are pissed because reading this book doesn't make them look smart. Carrying it with the cover facing out won't impress anyone on the metro. There's a certain feeling of accomplishment one feels after finishing a Pynchon novel, particularly if one understood a single word of it, and that is lost with IV because it just isn't that kind of novel. It's challenging, yes, and immersive, but it doesn't wring out your brain like a sponge. Maybe Pynchon decided that he just wanted to write something fun, since he's old and feels like he's earned it and all the books that everyone hates/seeks intellectual validation from are still in print.

In any case, IV is done. I've still got Light Boxes and The Left Hand of Darkness and a bajillion other books of varying rigor left to finish, so I'm gonna quit jabbering and get back to work.