Inherent Vice, Chapter 1


By way of introduction, let me say that my aim here is simply to record the experience of reading IR– the thoughts and associations that occur, and presumptuously, the pleasure of it -not to attempt to deliver any kind of verdict or review (at least not until the end). I’ll be reading each chapter twice, once in a normal fashion, the second time with an eye for things that seem strange/interesting/generally symbolic, my hope being to pull out material to which I shall return. I shall attempt a telegraphic plot summary, but I’m expecting this to fall by the wayside at some point. All page numbers are from the Jonathan Cape UK hardback edition.


‘Inherent Vice’ is a legal tenet referring to a “hidden defect (or the very nature) of a good or property which of itself is the cause of (or contributes to) its deterioration, damage, or wastage. Such characteristics or defects make the item an unacceptable risk to a carrier or insurer. If the characteristic or defect is not visible, and if the carrier or the insurer has not been warned of it, neither of them may be liable for any claim arising solely out of the inherent vice.”

There are number of things this suggests: ‘original sin’, and its implications of humanity being cast out of Eden; that a given decline (or fall) was inevitable; that this or some other defect, being part of our nature,  means that no one is ultimately responsible, save perhaps our manufacturer.

The epigraph, ‘Under the paving-stones, the beach!’ is attributed to Paris, May, 1968, when the stones were lifted and thrown at the police (and by extension, the authorities). For all its apparent exuberance, the suggestions of freedom, nature etc, perhaps this has a more somber implication, because if you lift the paving-stones (whether to throw them or not) there is no beach, just more of the city- hard, unyielding rock.


Chapter 1 has the classic noir set up of a private investigator (‘Doc’) being visited by a desirable ex-girlfriend (Shashta) who claims to be in trouble owing to a proposed double cross of her lover Mickey Wolfmann.

Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look.

We can take this as basic description. But we can also see it as the start of a theme about people (and societies) changing, perhaps inevitably, about the difficulty of maintaining ideals. It continues:

“That you Shasta?”

“Thinks he’s hallucinating.”

“Just the new package I guess.”

And whilst we might still be on the first page, it’s not too early to start asking why Pynchon has made this a psychedelic noir- is it supposed to be a paean for a more liberated time, an apologia for escapism, or a slightly harder view of the many different things we do our ‘best’ to deny?

Pg 4 and 6 have characters distrusting technology, Shasta saying she tries to never use the telephone, then a more substantial passage about Doc’s Aunt Reet who prophesises the coming of search engines that will tell ‘you more than you want to know’ (perhaps a nod to our need for delusion), then speaks of ‘the stories that seldom appeared in deeds and contracts’, the more personal stuff that there will be no record of. This is an old thematic horse of Pynchon’s, previously, most lovably ridden in Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon.

Page 5 has Doc being cynical about the idea of ‘free-love’- especially for its “other useful applications, like hustling people into sex activities they might not. given the choice, much care to engage in.” This may be just a chance for Doc to flash his hard-boiled credentials (the world weary P.I.); it is also a means of puncturing the notion (for those who even entertained it) that the 1960s were an idyllic time.

And after all the chatter above, it is worth stating, very loudly, THAT THIS IS ALREADY A VERY FUNNY BOOK. Wollfmann has been described as

technically Jewish, but wants to be a Nazi, becomes exercised often to the point of violence at those who forget to spell his name with two n‘s.

There has also been reference to an ‘overfed leopard’.

The remainder of the chapter is taken up with Doc trying to sort out his hair, the least edible pizza ever made, and another common theme of Pynchon’s, that of dispossession. Tariq Khalil comes to visit Doc, also wanting him to get in touch with Mickey Wolfmann, over a property development in his neighborhood. This culminates in Doc reflecting on

The long, sad history of L.A. land use… Mexican families bounced out of Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium, American Indians, swept out of Bunker Hill for the Music Center, Tariq’s neighborhood bulldozed aside for Channel View Estates.

On the one hand this reminds us what all this swinging hedonism is built on; on the other, it invokes a ‘karmic adjustment’, the debt that needs to be paid (which Pynchon explicitly refers to on page 14, when relating the tale of a black family whose house was burned down after WWII by the Klu Klux Klan. The site, which was left  derelict, became the focus of youthful transgression, much to their parent’s chagrin). The name of the Estates- ‘Channel View- may signal the nature of the karmic punishment- that of televisual enslavement.

So far, so fun… (apart from these summaries I wrote a piece on Pynchon for this book, and an article about going to a Pynchon conference.)

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