It could, of course, be some other Thomas Pynchon. After all, the famous one, the author of Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, the one frequently touted for the Nobel, is—take your pick—either reclusive (the media’s tag of convenience) or “reporter-averse” (Pynchon’s preferred term). One of the 72-year-old writer’s few public appearances this century was as a cartoon character in a 2004 Simpsons episode, and even then he wore a paper bag over his head; Wikipedia’s entry gets by with a 1957 photo of Pynchon in his U.S. Navy uniform. It’s the kind of thought that’s bound to arise when contemplating the un-Pynchon-esque properties of what Penguin Press insists is his seventh novel, Inherent Vice. For one thing, it clocks in at a trifling 369 pages, a pygmy of a book compared to Gravity’s Rainbow (887 pages) or the Neal Stephenson-level hefty Against the Day (1,085 pages). More germane, Inherent Vice strangely, compulsively readable, a word usually applied to the author only by diehard Pynchonites.
But under the surface, it’s the real thing, with all of Pynchon’s eternal themes and quirks on display—paranoia, weird outbursts of song, puns, wretchedly named characters (consider Dr. Buddy Tubeside, or Jason Velveeta), endless pop culture references, obscure historical facts, the all-devouring passage of time. Pynchon channels both Raymond Chandler and one of his own more pleasant acid trips in a noir mystery set in the dying days of the psychedelic ’60s in Los Angeles. Doc Sportello, his private eye protagonist, is hired by his ex-girlfriend to look into the possible disappearance of her new, fabulously wealthy, boyfriend. As is traditional in the genre, the original problem that sparks the story is virtually forgotten as Doc—an undersized, peace-loving hippie sort (Joel Cairo, let alone Sam Spade, could knock him over with a finger)—encounters a confusing tangle of motives, hustlers, and deeply crazy people, some pleasantly so and some not, including a swastika-tattooed, Ethel Merman-obsessed ex-con. And it’s very funny.
That’s despite the fact the novel displays a palpable sense of possibility missed, of a kinder, better world order rolled over by resurgent forces of order. The coming shadow of the Internet—possibly the worst thing a privacy-loving recluse ever heard of—hangs over everything. “This ARPAnet trip,” one character says of the Net’s forerunner, “I swear it’s like acid, a whole ’nother strange world—time, space, all that shit.” Light-hearted as it is—Pynchon is visibly having fun, as will his readers—Inherent Vice is far from light-headed..