4.5 out of 5: Cloaked as a detective thriller, Inherent Vice contains the snappy dialog, complicated plot, and criminal underworld types typical of the genre. Don’t be fooled by the packaging, though. This novel is pure everything-including-the-kitchen-sink Pynchon with satirical song lyrics, paranoia, drugs, pop culture, lawyers, sex, politics, zombies, more drugs, and a side-trip to Vegas. The neat resolution of a convoluted plot is not really the point. Instead, let go of your need for closure and join Pynchon for a buoyant romp through the psychedelic haze that was L.A. in the late 1960s.
Doc, an amiable, drug-addled personal investigator, stumbles onto a vicious international crime ring as he works on a case brought to him by his ex-girlfriend. By turns brilliant and bumbling, Doc exudes a kind of humble innocence and is the likeable center of this novel. He's both trustworthy and trustful and never far from questioning his own abilities and actions ("Did I say that outloud?"). In a typical example of the endearing workings of Doc's logic, he tries to deduce the origin of a postcard he receives "from some island he had never heard of out in the Pacific Ocean, with a lot of vowels in its name":
The cancellation was in French and initialed by a local postmaster, along with the notation courrier par lance-coco which as close as he could figure from the Petit Larousse must mean some kind of catapult mail delivery involving coconut shells, maybe as a way of dealing with an unapproachable reef.In Doc's world, postcards delivered via coconut catapults make perfect sense.
Clearly, Pynchon is having fun with the detective genre. In one scene, Doc drives to a mansion protected by a moat with a drawbridge. After the drawbridge descends "rumbling and creaking," "the night was very quiet again—not even the distant freeway traffic could be heard, or the footpads of coyotes, or the slither of snakes." Beneath all the humor and satire, there's a darker message here. The fun is almost over for Doc and his fellow hippies as paranoia, the harbinger of future oppression, overtakes the fun-loving sixties "like blood in a swimming pool, till it occupies all the volume of the day."
At times Inherent Vice is overly constrained by its purported genre as Pynchon weaves together the complicated plotlines of a detective story, maintaining too tight a grasp on a linear reality. The excessive plotting hampers some of the book's whimsical exuberance. But, unlike much of Pynchon's previous work, Inherent Vice is eminently readable and even, at times, actually suspenseful. At under 400 pages, Inherent Vice is also one of Pynchon's shortest novels. If you've been too intimidated to attempt a Pynchon novel up to now, try this one.