Raymond Chandler meets Ken Kesey.  Or, film noir on acid.  Or, as Veronica put it, a Pynchon novel.

Raymond Chandler meets Ken Kesey. Or, film noir on acid. Or, as Veronica put it, a Pynchon novel.

Inherent Vice

  • Author:  Thomas Pynchon  (b. 1937)
  • Published:  2009
  • Publisher:  The Penguin Press
  • Pages:  369
  • First Line:  “She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to.”
  • Last Line:  “For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.”
  • Film:  2014  –  (**** – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
  • First Read:  the day before it was released in 2009

The Novel:

I often write and watch movies at the same time.  But sometimes I listen to music while I write.  Tonight, writing the first parts of this review, I have music on.  There are 300 songs on this playlist, set on random.  And yet, for the first time in 11 months, the song that comes up is “I Love L.A.”, a song that makes me feel passion for a city that I never really adjusted to while I lived in its suburbs.

This book understands Los Angeles, understands the various little enclaves that have been built up in its surrounding suburbs.  I know this, of course, because I grew up in one – Orange County, that bastion of Republicanism just south where I spent the Reagan-Bush years (my recommendation: don’t grow in Orange County in the 80’s as a liberal Celtics fan – it is not the right place).  Much of the action takes place in Gordita Beach, a city that doesn’t exist, but which is based on Manhattan Beach, another suburb I am quite familiar with, as my cousins lived there in a house on 2nd just a block from the beach (“The kindest thing anybody’s ever called the parking in Gordita Beach was nonlinear.  The regulations changed unpredictably from one block, often one space, to the next, having been devised secretly by fiendish anarchists to infuriate drivers into one day forming a mob and attacking the offices of town government.”).  As much as I love the Raymond Chandler books and am fascinated by his Los Angeles, it is not really my Los Angeles, but Pynchon’s is much more so my city.  Witness this: “On certain days, driving into Santa Monica was like having hallucinations without going to all the trouble of acquiring and then taking a particular drug, although some days, for sure, any drug was preferable to driving into Santa Monica.”

Not a nuclear explosion - just a fire.

Not a nuclear explosion – just a fire.

I’m inclined to agree with that.  Hell, the last time I drove into Santa Monica I had that view to the right.  Though it may look a mushroom cloud, it was in fact just the smoke from the severe fires in the hills above L.A. in the summer of 2009.  There are definitely days where any drug is preferable.

Santa Monica, of course, is not the only place where Pynchon captures the pulse of the city.

Agent Borderline closed the folder abruptly and slid it into a pile of others on a credenza, but not before Doc saw a blurred telephoto shot of himself out in a parking lot, probably Tommy’s, sitting on the hood of his car holding a gigantic cheezburger, and peering into it quizzically, actually poking through the layers of pickles, oversize tomato slices, lettuce, chili, onions, cheese, and so forth, not to mention the ground-beef part of it which was almost an afterthought – an obvious giveaway to those who knew about Krishna the fry cook’s practice of including somewhere in this, for fifty cents extra, a joint wrapped in waxed paper.  Actually, the tradition had begun in Compton years ago and found it’s way to Tommy’s at least by the summer of ’68, when Doc, in the famished aftermath of a demonstration against NBC’s plans to cancel Star Trek, had joined a convoy of irate fans in pointed rubber ears and Starfleet uniforms to plunge (it seemed) down Beverly Boulevard into deep L.A., around a dogleg and on into a patch of town tucked in between the Hollywood and Harbor Freeways, which is where he first beheld, at the corner of Beverly and Coronado, the burger navel of the universe.

I first went to Tommy’s in January of 1989 when I was a Freshman in high school.  I had been to a track meet at the LA Sports Arena with my oldest brother and we went to Tommy’s afterwards, standing in the parking lot, eating triple triples with cheese (that’s three layers of meat, three layers of chili).  I was back at Tommy’s on Martin Luther King Day in 1992 with three of my best friends (that same day, one of those friends made an ignorant comment about some apartments in Inglewood, asking why the tenants don’t take better care of them and have more pride in where they live – the luxury of the upper-middle class to make such an ignorant statement about the working poor – three months later we saw those same apartments on television – they were burning down in the L.A. Riots – more on that down below).  When I first brought Veronica to L.A. in 2001, we went to Tommy’s.  We haven’t been back because she can’t cope with the concept of the triple-triple (with avocado) and says that she can still feel the food in her arteries.  But it is there, such an integral part of L.A. and of my history in the city (when I wrote a story that took place during the riots, two of the characters go to Tommy’s to eat in the middle of them).

But this isn’t just about L.A., of course.  This is about the sixties in general (P.T. Anderson said that someone said to him while making the film that it was about the 70’s – Anderson replied “Fuck off, we’re making a movie about the 60’s!”).  Doc Sportello, the detective at the heart of this mystery (and it is a mystery, confusing to all involved and perhaps even more confusing to the readers, but it is Pynchon after all) is a refugee from the sixties, somehow making his way through the new decade, but holding on to what he can:

On first signing the lease, the two tenants, like bunkmates at summer camp, had tossed a coin for who’d get the upstairs suite, and Doc had lost or, as he liked to think of it, won.  The sign on his door read LSD INVESTIGATIONS.  LSD, as he explained when people asked, which was not often, standing for ‘Location, Surveillance, Detection.’  Beneath this was a rendering of a giant bloodshot eyeball in the psychedelic favorites green and magenta, the detailing of whose literally thousands of frenzied capillaries had been subcontracted out to a commune of speed freaks who had long since migrated up to Sonoma.  Potential clients had been known to spend hours gazing at the ocular mazework, often forgetting what they’d come here for.

It’s not just the drug references that take on the departed decade either: “Don’t get me wrong, I love surf music.  I’m from its native land, I still have all these old beat-up singles, the Chantays, the Trashmen, the Halibuts, but you’re right, some of the worst blues work ever recorded will be showing up on the karmic rap sheets of surf-sax players.”  He’s also covered the contempt which the police, especially the L.A. police, view those who are still stuck in a decade which that force is glad to be rid of: “I apologize if I’ve interrupted some exceptionally demanding hippie task, like trying to remember where the glue is on the Zig-Zag paper, but it seems we have yet another problem, not unconnected with this fatality of yours for introducing disaster into every life you touch, however glancingly.”

All of this just shows how brilliantly Pynchon has his finger on the pulse of the L.A. that had endured long after Chandler had passed on, after the days that James Ellroy writes about, after the horrible days in ’65 when so many things burned, and onto the haze of the seventies.  It’s both real L.A. and a satire of L.A. (you can actually find a map of what Pynchon does around L.A. here).

Oh yeah, there’s a plot too.  And that’s about how the book works on it – there’s a plot too, in between and around all of this.  It involves a Doc’s ex-girlfriend and her new guy – a big real estate mogul.  Or, maybe it’s about the Aryan Brotherhood bodyguard of the mogul who Doc is hired to find, but then ends up dead with Doc lying on the ground next to him.  Or it could be about a mysterious organization (or maybe it’s a ship) called the Golden Fang.  When Pynchon starts in on the Golden Fang you begin to remember what it’s like to be in Pynchon territory:

As it turned out, his firm, Hardy, Gridley & Chatfield, had been keenly, almost desperately, curious about the Golden Fang for a while now.  Her insurance history was an exercise in mystification, sending bewildered clerks and even partners clear back to nineteenth-century commentators like Thomas Arnold and Theophilus Parsons, usually screaming.  Tentacles of sin and desire that strange world-bound karma which is of the essence in maritime law crept through all areas of Pacific sailing culture, and ordinarily it would have taken no more than a fraction of the firm’s weekly entertainment budget, deployed at a carefully selected handful of local marina bars, to find out anything they wanted to know from nightly chatter, yarns of Tahiti, Moorea, Bora-Bora, dropped names of rogue mates and legendary vessels, and what had happened aboard, or might have, and who still haunts the cabin spaces, and what old karma lies unavenged, waiting its moment.

And so we meander on through.  We discover more and more about the Golden Fang, although in some ways we actually learn less and less.  We follow the trail of the missing mogul, or maybe a sax player who’s supposed to be dead, but is instead still playing sessions and getting arrested on television for harassing Nixon.  And in the middle of it all is Bigfoot Bjornsen, a brutal cop with a penchant for kicking in Doc’s door and eating chocolate frozen bananas, but who has a wonderful scene with Doc where they simply sit and talk and remember that in spite of the occasional kicks to Doc’s ribs, they, in some way, genuinely like each other.  But once it’s all through, or at least once we’ve stopped trying to follow the plot, we get those final lines, which seem to be so true, both true to Pynchon and true to Doc and due to the whole area:

Doc figured if he missed the Gordita Beach exit he’d take the first one whose sign he could read and work his way back on surface streets.  He knew that at Rosecrans the freeway began to dogleg east, and at some point, Hawthorne Boulevard or Artesia, he’d lose the fog, unless it was spreading tonight, and settled in regionwide.  Maybe then it would stay this way for days, maybe he’s just have to keep driving, down past Long Beach, down through Orange County, and San Diego, and across a border where nobody could tell anymore in the fog who was Mexican, who was Anglo, who was anybody.  Then again, he might run out of gas before that happened, and have to leave the caravan, and pull over on the shoulder, and wait.  For whatever would happen.  For a forgotten joint to materialize in his pocket.  For the CHP to come by and choose not to hassle him.  For a restless blonde in a Stingray to stop and offer him a ride.  For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.

P.T. Anderson hits cinematic brilliance once again.

P.T. Anderson hits cinematic brilliance once again.

The Film:  If I had thought about it, I suppose I would have come to inevitable conclusion that I needed P.T. Anderson to make this film.  First of all, he had the talent, indeed has more talent than just about any director that’s ever stumbled into Hollywood.  Second, he has proven that he knows Los Angeles, knows how to write a movie about Los Angeles, and how to capture the feel of an era.  First of all, there is Boogie Nights, with all the requisite atmosphere in the L.A. porn scene (that was the film about the seventies).  But then there is Magnolia, the film that understands precisely how things can be connected in L.A. and yet still not be connected.

This film knows precisely what to keep from the book and what to drop (there are characters excised, such as the moment when Doc’s parents come to town).  Anderson’s script knows when to keep things close (the initial meeting at the massage parlor with the requisite sex that breaks out in front of Doc’s unbelieving eyes) and when to push it further back (what actually happens stays off-screen and the later scene in the backseat of the car is dropped entirely).  Anderson knows that there is a plot here, a mystery to be solved, even if Doc isn’t necessary the right person to be solving it.  He knows how to keep the mystery moving forward even if the mystery itself doesn’t know where it’s supposed to go.

Anderson is a magnificent writer.  He’s twice been Oscar-nominated for original scripts and now he’s twice been Oscar-nominated for adapted scripts.  Both of the two adapted scripts take place in California and both are adapted from novels, but the first (There Will Be Blood) took place in a different kind of California and veered in far directions from its source material, while this one is a fairly faithful adaptation of a much different kind of novel.  He also knows how to use music in a film – Boogie Nights and Magnolia made that perfectly clear.  And whether it’s the fantastic use of Can’s “Vitamin C” (I song I wasn’t familiar with, but sure am now) to open the film or a great use of “What a Wonderful World” later in the film, the music is always perfect.

But what Anderson is really known for is the magnificent work he draws from his actors.  Boogie Nights draw a career best performance from Burt Reynolds and should have won an Oscar for Julianne Moore.  Magnolia drew another career best – this time from Tom Cruise.  Punch Drunk Love showed that Adam Sandler could actually act if the right director drew the performance out.  There Will Be Blood brought Daniel Day-Lewis a second Oscar.  The Master earned three acting nominations at the Oscars.  Here, Anderson has a first-rate cast, with best performances coming from Joaquin Phoenix, who steps right onto the screen in a perfect embodiment of Doc and Josh Brolin, who absolutely deserved an Oscar nomination as the brutal Bigfoot (the moment where he kicks in Doc’s door is brilliant) who somehow also manages to find the right humorous notes (asking Doc’s maritime lawyer if he needs to involve pirates) or even tender ones (the final scene between the two).  Aside from that, there is the right ensemble cast to support them, whether it be Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro (“Clients pay me for work, Doc), Owen Wilson (perfectly cast as the sax player from a surf band), Jena Malone or Katharine Waterston, who glides into the film and brings it to a climax in more ways than one.  Though you shouldn’t take that to mean they’re back together.

Two last words about this film.  Though I desperately wanted to see this film, the day I saw it I didn’t intend to see it – I was too busy trying to catch the bigger Oscar films.  On a day while waiting for the oil company to show up and fix our furnace (which wouldn’t turn off – it was set to 55 and when I flipped the emergency off switch the temperature in our apartment was up to 76) I went to see Foxcatcher.  But Foxcatcher was sold out and Inherent Vice was starting a half hour later.  Foxcatcher was the film that my Oscar-obsessed brain wanted to see.  But, on that day, Inherent Vice was definitely the film the rest of me needed to see and I loved every minute of it.

And the last word brings me back to Los Angeles.  I have a conflicted view of this city.  Though born in New York, my roots are in L.A..  My father was born there, but it goes back much further.  My great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was part of the Zuniga expedition that founded the city in 1781.  My blood runs from his and my ancestors owned huge parts of what is now the city.  But that ancestor also came at the time of Junipero Serra, a man taught in the California history I learned as pretty much the founder of California, but really, a brutal fanatic – the kind of man who felt that heresy was worth death.  This comes at the same time that he is being considered for sainthood (today’s L.A. Times has competing editorials on the argument, here and here).

As I have said before, I grew up in the Los Angeles of the Reagan-Bush years.  On 29 April of my senior year of high school (1992), my best friend, John, and I were headed to what was supposed to be a protest outside the Parker Center, the home of the Los Angeles Police Department.  That protest was in response to the verdicts, handed down that day, acquitting the police officers who had beaten Rodney King.  Luckily for John and I, just before we left the house, the Los Angeles riots erupted and we never left the house.  My experience of being around L.A. at that time, of watching a place I had driven by a few months burn down, of the possibility of the SAT that weekend being suspended (there were concerns that violence would break out in Orange County, though come on, it’s Orange County, that was clearly never going to happen), of still, endlessly in my mind, seeing that man hang in the air before delivering that blow to poor Reginald Denny is still all in my head.  That’s why I wrote a story about it, a story with a break in the middle of the night, when two friends sit on the back of their car eating triple triples in the Tommy’s parking lot.  And as Doc walks towards the Parker Center it all came flooding back.  And maybe that’s why P.T. Anderson was so much the right person for this film.  Because he brought all of L.A. rushing back to me, the good and the bad.  Yes, I hate the city with that racist bastard Darryl Gates, whose actions as the head of that police force brought shame, and in the end, violence.  But, in the end, as my father’s high school classmate says, “Everybody’s very happy / ‘Cause the sun is shining all the time / Looks like another perfect day / I Love L.A.”