Monday, January 14, 2013

Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

It's like The Maltese Falcon with long hair, surfer rock, and reefers

The very distinction between mystery stories and hardboiled stories is the neatness of the world in which the detective snoops. Saying that an Arthur Conan Doyle or an Agatha Christie (or heck, even an Edgar Allan Poe) mystery is comparable to a Dashiell Hammett or a Raymond Chandler novel is like saying pennies and pipes are the same because they're both made of copper.

In one case, the ills of the world stem from a single source, and logic and level-headedness can riddle out the problem. Cut down one rotten tree to save the forest. In the other, crimes are less clear-cut, stickier, and far more wide-reaching. Cut down one aspen, and its roots will still feed a hundred other connected trees.

Isn't life hardboiled? How often can we solve a problem with a single solution while preserving the world as it was? You're overweight; the solution is not simply cutting calories or taking longer walks, but a range of approaches without a definite end point, some of which are outside your immediate control. Your nation has an epidemic of mass shootings; where in the nebulous web of causes and possibilities can you reduce the chances of death by firearms?

Logic does not help solve your problems when your ex-girlfriend runs off with a real estate magnate, when a dental surgery office has ghostly but undeniable ties to a drug cartel that's also a schooner, when your culture swaps the very use of logic for spiritual guidance.

Wait. Those may not be your problems, precisely. But Doc Sportello tackles them in Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. Pynchon's take on the hardboiled is spot-on, even after factoring in the translation to the psychedelic sixties. Pot is spiked instead of scotch, and Hollywood starlets are replaced by Gilligan and the Skipper. But Doc's problems are the same in principle if not in details to our more mundane individual conundrums. The same core issues infest Sportello's world as infest Sam Spade's and Philip Marlowe's -- and ours.

In some ways, the world never changes. From decade to decade, era to era, through cultural upheavals and technological sea changes, we deal with the same shit over and over and over. We might yearn for simpler times, but let's face it -- they never were simpler, and they never will be. Real problems are often interconnected, complex, and tangled. Their threads stretch back as far as we do, and their frayed ends are not in sight.

But does that mean we don't try to riddle the unsolvable, untie the Gordian Knot, square the circle? Hell no. Just because we can't uproot the whole forest of vice and unhappiness and serious problems doesn't mean we don't face it anyway. I think that's what the hardboiled authors realize -- we can't solve the world, but we can define it. We can make it more than livable. We can make it whatever we want it to be.

Doesn't that sound more intriguing than simply excising the problem spots from an otherwise pristine and unchanging world?

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