Inherent Vice, Chapter 6



Doc has lunch with Deputy DA Penny Kimball, with whom he’s having a low-key affair. For the most part, she questions him about Wolfmann and Sasha’s disappearances and the murder. She also asks about two stewardessess, Lourdes and Motella (or as Pynchon puts it, ‘stewardii’), and their connection to two guys named Cookie and Joaquin. Finally, she passes him onto the FBI, who question him, also about the stewardii. When he meets up with them later they go to Club Asiatique, where Doc meets up with the not-deceased Coy Harlingen, who warns him about the Golden Fang, a shadowy organisation based around a boat of the same name.

As I may have mentioned before (and will doubtless do so again), after a while it is hard to take anything in Pynchon’s novels literally. Everything starts to seem ominous, symbolic, a synedoche of the vast, but perhaps not entirely organised conspiracy that may (or even worse, may not- which would mean we were (gulp) responsible for the ills of the world) be in operation. So it is with Penny’s take on Doc’s frequent passing-out (p.69-70), most notably before Glen Charlock’s murder (in Chapter 2. Or 3).

“Besides, maybe you did do it, has that crossed your mind yet? Maybe you just conveniently forgot about it, the way you do so often forget things, and this peculiar reaction of yours now is a typically twsited way of confessing the act?”

On the simplest level, this is about Doc trying to evade responsibility, which is perhaps all that he can do. Pynchon’s characters are often cursed with the knowledge of what needs to be done, what should be stopped, but usually have neither the idea, means or opportunity of how to do so. In the face of such impotence, who can blame them for taking recourse in whatever comfort comes to hand? As Coy comments on page 86.

Only one or two of the old crew are left, and they’re suffering, or do I mean blessed, with heavy Doper’s Memory.

But since this is a historical novel, Pynchon may be suggesting that this kind of thinking is what has led to our twisted present. Also, that we need to do the opposite, to prevent things from getting worse (no one should ever doubt that this is possible).

On page 70 there’s a brief, almost summary-like passage about the case against trust.

He wished he could believe her more, but the business was unforgiving, and life in psychedelic-sixties L.A. offered more cautionary arguments than you could wave a joint at against too much trust, and the seventies were looking no more promising.

On page 73 there’s a mention of a ‘demonstration against NBC’s plans to cancel Star Trek‘, which, even more the passage discussed above, could be there for period detail, for plain fun (‘a convoy of irate fans in pointed rubber ears’) or as a nod to the death of utopian visions. We may never know.

There is a further attempt to make Doc an informer on p.75

More images of concealment on p.80.

At night it [Club Asiatique] seemed covered, in a way protected, by something deeper than shadow- a visual expression of the convergence, from all around the Pacific Rim, of numberless needs to do business unobserved.

Inherent Vice Chapter 5


PLOT: Doc goes to visit Wolfmann’s wife, who lives in a luxurious house and has the requisite beefy yoga instructor with whom she may be in league. Just to compound her potential villany, she has an ‘English smoker’s voice’ (p.55). Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t discover much except for a rack of pornographic ties.

p.55/56- Doc pretends to be from an organisation called MICRO, the ‘Modern Institute for Cognitive Repatterning and Overhaul’. We can read this as a continuation of the not especially subtle linking of computers with the less permissive times to come. But I think there’s another side to this, namely the optimism with which some looked forward to a machine-orientated future, one where people would have more time for themselves (which, now that I write this, suddenly doesn’t seem such an absolute good), be ‘freer’ etc. This dream, alas, seems to have gone the way of that of the counter-culture.

The idea that everyones dreams are spiralling away from fulfillment is even partially extended to the police. On page 57 the LAPD are getting in some ‘last minute catering before their federal overlords showed up’ and then on page 65 a uniformed cop who is riding with Bigfoot is listening to them

way too attentive, maybe even, if you wanted to be paranoid about it, as if he was undercover, reporting to some other level inside the LAPD, his real job basically, to keep an eye on Bigfoot…

It is not just the subculture of stoner-hippiedom that is going to lose out, but also those who support the status quo (no ‘system’ ever being concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number).

A fine joke on p. 58 about misattributing a quote from Robert Moses (who the Pynchon wiki says was “master builder” of mid-20th century New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County, New York. His career is summed up by his sayings “cities are for traffic” and “if the ends don’t justify the means, what does?)

You get that first stake driven, nobody can stop you.

to Van Helsing, the vampire hunter. In addition to being funny, this links the disparate enterprises of real estate, urban planning and perhaps surveying (see Mason & Dixon) to dark and unholy practices, the sucking of lifeblood etc.

Extended reference to John Garfield on p.58-59 (liberal actor who refused to name names when called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which led to his ruin).

Doc has a sudden erection on p.59 at the mere mention of Ida Lupino.

Every time her name comes up, so does this.

This recalls the conditioned erections of Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Finally, I am indebted to the Pynchon wiki for decoding ‘Arrepentimietno’ on page 62.

Spanish: n. repentance, penitence, contrition–all concepts important to Inherent Vice. There’s also a cool trilingual pun here: “pentimento” (now an English word, but from the Italian for ‘repent’) refers to an image in a painting that was painted over but then, with time, begins to show through the top layer of represented images.

Inherent Vice, Chapters 3 & 4


These are both very short chapters that mainly convey plot (that Bjornsen and Mickey G are close friends, and that Doc used to be a repo man).

Chapter 4 has this interesting passage:

Suddenly he was on some planet where the wind can blow two directions at once, bringing in fog from the ocean and sand from the desert at the same time, obliging the unwary driver to shift down the minute he entered this alien atmosphere, with daylight dimmed, visibility reduced to half a block, and all colors, including those of traffic signals, shifted radically elsewhere in the spectrum. (p.50)

Once again, Pynchon is describing an altered state of perception, this time the product of two elements that he has previously singled out (sand, in the references to the beach and the desert, and fog, or rather its polluted equivalent, smog). The aim here, as perhaps before, is to defamiliarise the setting, to highlight a loss of vision, certainly immediate, perhaps also on a grander scale (Doc here, as in Chapter 2, is driving whilst experiencing this).

The other point of interest is the ARPA, a forerunner of the Internet, which is described as looking like a ‘science fictional Christmas tree’ (p.53), which is  a more positive image than the mention of precursors to search engines in Chapter 2, which should caution us not to confuse Pynchon with a technophobe.

There is also a not particularly subtle aside about the only weapon Doc carrying when he was a repo man was a truth serum that looked like a set of drug ‘works’. What is  more interesting is that he never ended up using it.

It wasn’t long before he noticed how many of the delinquents he and Fritz visited seemed unable to keep their eyes off of it. He understood that if he was lucky, he might not have to so much as unzip it (p.52).

‘Lucky’ could be read as being ironic- that maybe it is not wholly fortunate to avoid the truth (though there are of course many good reasons why people work so hard at their denial).  There is a fundamental dilemma in trying to analyse these kinds of passages, not just in Pynchon, but also in postmodern literature in general, which is that of tone. As Linda Hutcheon has pointed out, it is often difficult to know just how much of an ironical attitude we should assume on the part of the author. Sometimes this means we just have to read more carefully; at other times, all we have to go on are our preconceptions.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 2



Doc goes to Channel View Estates to find Glen Charlock, Tariq’s friend (and Wolfmann’s bodyguard). On arriving the scene morphs into a brothel, then Doc loses consciousness, only to wake up with Charlock murdered and himself a suspect. Bigfoot Bjornsen of the LAPD eventually releases him, then tries to persuade him into becoming an informer. Mickey is reported as missing, as is Shasta. Doc gets a call from a woman named Hope Harlington, asking him to try and find her dead husband Coy.

The chapter opens with a description of the different kinds of vehicles on the freeway, what amounts to social typology, all of whom are subject to

the white bombardment of a sun smogged into only a smear of probability, out in whose light you began to wonder if anything you’d call psychedelic could ever happen or if- bummer!- all this time it had really been going on up north.

There is lot to unpack here. First, a general proposition about the unreliability of knowing even something as concrete (and natural) as the sun (and light, for Pynchon, is a frequent image- e.g. the frequent mention of splitting and refraction in Against the Day); then there is the uncertainty that in such light, which has been filtered through smog (an industrial product), anything psychedelic can happen. Before we go any further, let’s define some terms.

Psychedelic adj. 1a Expanding the mind’s awareness. (Oxford Concise English Dictionary)

My feeling, then, is that we shouldn’t get too hung up on the drug use in itself. What perhaps matters more is their effect (and also, I guess, that they are prohibited, controlled substances). I would like to plop down the opinion that this passage is about how constricted our awareness is in the modern world, how everything is mediated and controlled by the technological web (as also symbolised by the cars which everyone, despite differences in age, wealth and status, are driving) we have enmeshed ourselves in. The only snag is that I have no frakkin’ idea what that bit about ‘going on up north’ means.

There is a recurrence of the epigraph on page 20, but instead of beach, there is now ‘desert beneath the pavement’ , a much starker image, with connotations of ruin (past, future, imagined, actual) and sterility.

Doc, after realising that the ‘Pussy Eaters Special’ does not require his participation, experiences a spatial distortion and passes out. It’s too early to say whether this blackout is mainly for the purposes of plot (it also makes the transitions between scenes much simpler) or whether it is motivated (as a kind of avoidance, denial etc).

Nice piece of irony on page 24. Bjornsen, after being exposed as an avid collector of ‘all kinds of Wild West paraphenalia’, is quick to agree with Doc that it is a ‘man’s own business what he puts in his pick-up’ (p.25), yet constantly mocks Doc’s drug use and calls him ‘hippie scum’.

Hilarious notion of Donald Duck having to shave his beak (p.28).

When Bjornsen explains the murder on TV (p.30), he concocts a story about it being from some civilians taking place in a ‘training exercise in anti-guerrilla warfare’, what he calls a ‘harmless patriotic scenario’ gone tragically wrong. In addition to satirising the media’s need to make everything into a synecdoche (a crime one could never accuse a literary analyst of), Pynchon may also be making a wider political comment on American militarism.

Ominous predictions on page 32 and 40- the former from Bjornsen about Nixon having ‘the combination to the safe’, the latter from Doc about it being ‘perilous times, astrologically speaking, for dopers’ who’d been born between ‘Neptune, the doper’s planet, and Uranus, the planet of rude surprises’. Which I think we can also take as meaning that the counter-culture is about to be  shit on.

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.)

Inherent Vice reviews


Some early reviews of Pynchon’s new book, most of which applaud its comic elements, though there have been some grumbles (which at times have verged on the pissy) about it lacking the substance of its ancestors. In the next few days, I’m going to start reading and blogging it, probably at the rate of about 25 pages a day (about 2 weeks in all). I do this purely for my own edification, but company, in such surroundings, is always a pleasant surprise.

A screaming comes across the sky


Consider this your advance warning.

From September, I shall be doing a PhD on Thomas Pynchon at the University of Edinburgh.  Some, or even much of it, may take place in this column. Look forward to half-baked statements, scraps of literary theory, tedious unpickings of sentences, obscure allusions, deployment of dodgy terminology, some of it made-up (for example, yesterday, whilst semi-drunk, I hatched the phrases ‘bathetic inversion’ and ‘bathetic mimesis’).

My ‘proposal’ follows below. It is what I think I will be doing, until I start doing it. Then, after an indeterminate period- months, years -I will have a moment of panicked horror when I realise I have been doing something completely different, most likely very far from Pynchon. It will be like wandering in an unfamiliar city where every scrap of wall and face seems delightful till you realise that night is close and you are lost and a figure is coming towards you.


As a symbolic structure, the historical novel does not reproduce the events it describes; it tells us in what direction to think about the events (White:1978 cited in Huthceon:1988).

The novels of Thomas Pynchon are dense, encyclopedic narratives, rich in allusion and context. Most, if not all, can be considered ‘historical’, in the sense that the majority of their action takes place in the past, ranging from the mid-18th Century setting of Mason & Dixon, up to a period that resembles (whilst not quite being) the 1980s of Vineland. As many have argued, most recently Smith (2005) and Thomas (2007), Pynchon uses these different historical contexts as a way of challenging received interpretations of history, so as to shift the focus from a unitary, cohesive narrative of progress, to one that emphasises plurality, injustice, and the structures of authority (including those of ‘narrative’ and ‘historiography’) that promote inequality. My proposed course of research is to analyse the means by which this project is continued, and extended, in Pynchon’s most recent novel Against the Day (2006), with the aim of understanding its significance in the context of his previous work.

The novel’s framing narrative is the Boys-Own style adventures of ‘The Chums of Chance’, which span the chronology of the book, from the late 19th Century to the start of the First World War. These ‘Chums’ travel round the world in hot air balloons, at the behest of semi-mysterious figures, accompanied by a dog with a penchant for the novels of Henry James. This comic pastiche is another example of Pynchon’s ‘serious unseriousness’ (Tanner: 2000). As in V. and Mason & Dixon, the presence of absurd elements (songs, fantastical creatures, elements from popular culture) is used to satirise the naïvete and self-delusion of many of those involved in the business of Empire (and indeed, many of the ‘Chums’, by the end of the book, do question their service of the imperial powers).

However, it seems likely that Pynchon’s intends to do more than simply undermine the rhetoric of imperial duty. The notion of an air-borne set of global agents is strongly reminiscent of the science fiction writing of the period (Jules Verne, H.G. Wells et al). By merging this fantastical strand with well-documented historical events, Pynchon (as in his previous work) calls into question the veracity of all presented historical events. This, of course, is what we would expect from any self-respecting (and self-regarding) piece of historiographic metafiction (Hutcheon:1988). Pynchon’s specific purpose may be to interrogate these visions of technological progress, in particular the arguments that such technical advancements would be socially beneficial (see Lindqvist: 2001). In his previous novels, most notably in Gravity’s Rainbow, scientific and technological ‘progress’ has been closely equated with dehumanisation and destruction (Smith: 2005). There are also a number of scenes in the novel where the future literally encroaches on the present, in the form of ghosts from the approaching First World War, and of “Trespassers” from “the end of the capitalistic experiment” (Against the Day: 467). One potential course of inquiry is thus to examine how Pynchon, by embedding ‘science fiction’ within received history, undermines our narratives not only of the past, but of the future as well. My discussion of Pynchon’s use of genre-elements is likely to be informed not only with reference to his previous work, but also by his forthcoming novel, Inherent Vice (2009), which promises to be “part-noir, part-psychedelic romp”.

As in many of Pynchon’s previous works, Against the Day utilises recurring symbolic tropes (Smith: 2005). Whilst it will require close reading to unpick these elements in Against the Day, a first reading of the novel suggests that light— its refraction, reflection, its ordering and disruption —is a leitmotif throughout the novel, perhaps representing some of the different uses to which versions of the past, or visions of the future, may be employed by those who possess (or lack) power.

In terms of methodology, my approach will be to try and embed the kind of micro-textual analysis performed by Thomas (2007) within the type of framework Smith (2005) utilises. Whilst both approaches have much to recommend them (Thomas’s focus at the level of the sentence; Smith’s sense of the novels’ grand thematic arcs), singly they possesses methodological weaknesses: on occasion, Thomas is forced to rely on rhetoric to bridge the logical gaps in his arguments for the great significance of a single phrase; whilst Smith sometimes try to second-guess Pynchon’s intentions without anchoring such supposition in the text . By combining these two approaches, I hope to complement their respective strengths whilst balancing their shortcomings.
In order to provide a theoretical context for my analysis, my research will also include a discussion of the debates regarding the value of metafictional historiography, such as whether or not, in a form so imbued with irony, one can determine the “boundary between parody and mimetic representation” (Witzling: 2007). Or, to put it more crudely, How can one be sure of the political stance of any given text?, assuming as White (1978) perhaps does, that a (postmodern) text can have anything so coherent and knowable.


Hutcheon, L. (1988) A Poetics of Postmodernism, Routledge: London.
Lindqvist, S. (2001) A History of Bombing, Granta: London.
Pynchon, T. (2006) Against the Day, Vintage: London.
Smith, S. (2005) Pynchon and History, Routledge: London.
Tanner, T. (2000) The American Mystery: Essays on American Literature from Emerson to DeLillo, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Thomas, S. (2007) Pynchon and the Political, Routledge: London
Witzling, D. (2007) Everybody’s America: Thomas Pynchon, Race, and the Cultures of Postmodernism, Routledge: London.

Inherent Vice


There aren’t many authors left with even a whiff of mystique (witness poor Cormac McCarthy on Oprah). Everyone has been interviewed and photographed to the point where their work is almost the shadow of their biography. With the exception of J.D. Salinger, who we must assume to be still living, despite most evidence to the contrary (the last thing he published was Hapworth in 1965), the only other living writer of mystery is Thomas Pynchon, about whom almost nothing is known except that he is male, American, white, married, and in his seventies. He is the author of such universes-in-book-form as Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day, and forthcoming in August 2009, Inherent Vice, which promises to be a neo-noir detective story with shades of the psychedelic.

Pynchon is reportedly neither pathologically shy, nor a misanthrope. He just doesn’t seem willing to take part in the commodification of his work, which is wholly commendable, though perhaps no longer possible in today’s publishing climate (says he, somewhat defensively, as he types his blog). There’s an extract (probably the beginning) in the Penguin Press Summer 2009 catalogue.

Why should you care? Because Pynchon writes beautiful prose. Because he explores the tangled ways in which our present mess (by which I mean the state of things since World War I) emerged, solidified, occasionally slackened, then tightened once again. It is about the modern world that you and I, for all our sins, are temporarily stuck in.

Happy New Year. Perhaps.

%d bloggers like this: