there will be vice?

I saw this story, and so far I'm not excited.

Of course, Inherent Vice could make a good movie. But I'm not excited about Paul Thomas Anderson directing that movie (which could easily be just a rumor, of course, and even if it is true it may still not happen).

First off, of course, it is true that Robert Altman would have been a good choice. On one hand, he didn't go in for adaptations of famous novels (perhaps because his attempt to direct Ragtime didn't work out so well), but on the other hand he spent the later part of his career deciding to do things at least partly because he had never done them before.

But I'm not convinced that Paul Thomas Anderson is his appropriate replacement, even though they were friends. I watched Boogie Nights once and it barely held my attention. It's very long, and very predictable.

Magnolia, however, is another type of beast. Even longer than Boogie Nights, but weirdly watchable (and certainly not predictable). Not a "good movie," but almost painfully heartfelt and sincere, and that's a rare quality in Hollywood these days. It's clearly Anderson's attempt at Nashville (it even has two of the same actors, which I can't imagine is a coincidence), but it's very earnest and didactic, not qualities usually associated with Altman.

(I knew somebody who saw Magnolia once and became obsessed with it, saying, "It's like a Zen koan!" Which made me want to point out that I thought koans were supposed to be short. But I didn't, because I think that was a pretty perceptive observation about what the movie was intended to be and the effect it was intended to have.)

Anyway, I don't think any of this makes Anderson the right director for Inherent Vice (of course, I'm not sure what would make somebody the right person for the job, other than being a resurrected Robert Altman).

(By the way, I guess I should turn in my cineaste card, since I have to admit that I have received much more enjoyment from the movies of Paul W. S. Anderson than I have from those of Paul Thomas Anderson.)

The trickiest part of the adaptation is probably that the movie has have a somewhat Lebowski-ish vibe throughout, and then sneak in and break your heart at the end, as the book does. Which is why the Coens couldn't do it (not that there's been any idea that they would, but it's been mentioned just because of the Lebowski connection).

Well, here is one thing I do know: Robert Downey Jr. is too old for the part of Doc Sportello. Doc is nearing 30, and Downey is 45. It wouldn't work for Doc to be 45 any more than it would work for him to be 15. If he was 45, then he would be the Dude, and then it's a whole different movie (I talked about this here).

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December 3rd, 2010

post-paranoia pynchon

I just re-read The Crying of Lot 49, which I hadn't picked in in a decade or two, and it was interesting (and quite enjoyable).

It was interesting to see Pynchon writing about the 1960s before "the Sixties" really happened (or at least before the specific time period that's the foundation for Vineland and Inherent Vice). And this was not a conscious decision on his part, since TCoL49 was the last Pynchon novel to be set in the era when he was writing it. He had no idea what was about to happen.

It was interesting to remember Pynchon's early emphasis on paranoia. His two later California novels are really "post-paranoid," the stage where you know for a fact that you have large and powerful enemies, you just don't quite know all of the details yet. After all, the Tristero may exist or not; if it does exist, Oedipa may have been meant to encounter it, or she could have stumbled into it by accident; or the whole thing could have just been a single line of text created by a printer named Inigo Barfstable in 1687; but the existence of the LAPD and the FBI (and organizations like Vigilant California) isn't really in doubt.

It was interesting to remember how often physics is invoked in the early novels. Entropy and Maxwell's Demon loom large in TCoL49, for example. There's not much of this in the later novels.

It was also interesting to read Pynchon before he had such a firm grasp on his tools. There's some wonderful writing here (the first sentence and the last few paragraphs are two examples of many), but some of the sentences jump up and yell, "Hey! Look at this sentence I'm writing here! Pretty cool, huh?"

Also, despite the fact that it is a very short novel (152 pages, compared to 385 and 369 for Vineland and IV, let alone the 600–1,000+ of the others), it would have benefited from some trimming. There are several pages near the end, for example, where Pynchon recaps various things that we already know (especially unnecessary in such a short book) and then makes explicit all of the questions he is about to avoid answering. The book would have been much improved by deleting everything between "Pierce Inverarity was really dead" (page 147) and "Next day, with the courage you have..." (page 151).

Oh, and as Stormville pointed out many years ago, Oedipa's car does somehow manage to get itself from San Francisco (where she parks it before wandering around all night by foot and bus) to her hotel in Berkeley (where it is waiting for her the following morning). When I read the book the first time, I thought this was just plain carelessness (supporting the idea that TCoL49 was written quickly and mostly to make money – a theory which I still find convincing), but now that I've read Inherent Vice, where is an an extra day inserted between May 4 and May 5 (which is clearly deliberate), I wonder if Oedipa's helpful car is a simple continuity error after all.

No way to be sure, thank goodness.

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March 29th, 2010

godzilla and the duck

One thing got left out of my last post ("Inherent Vineland") because I couldn't figure out exactly how to express it. I was trying to explain the objective reason that things like the Godzilla footprint in Vineland are less valid and more annoying than, for example, the amorous mechanical duck in Mason & Dixon.

This difficulty is not going to be solved by changing the sentence structure, I discovered, because the real problem is that the basic premise is not true.

There is, on the other hand, a basic difference between the Godzilla footprint, which serves no purpose other than to amuse the author, and the various mentions of Lemuria in Inherent Vice, which actually tie into and support the basic themes of the book. But the Godzilla footprint and the amorous mechanical duck are pretty much of a piece, and the only difference is that by the time I got to the former I was already finding the whole book somewhat annoying (though also enjoyable in parts), and by the time I got to the latter (quite far into M&D), I was already completely hooked.

That's the only difference. As Johnny Carson used to say, "Buy the premise, buy the bit."

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March 15th, 2010

inherent vineland

I just finished re-reading Vineland, and it is true (as I reported before) that I remembered its flaws much more clearly than its positive aspects.

In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani said that Inherent Vice was "a workmanlike improvisation on Vineland." For my taste, it's more like another try, much more successful, at the same general idea. Inherent Vice is Vineland done right.

Many people have referred to the similarities and connections between the two books, but the echoes are more than just themes and ideas. There are a lot of shared details.

  • a girl named Trillium (possibly the same person Doc meets)
  • a 1964 Dodge Dart (possibly the same car as Doc drives)
  • Moe of the Three Stooges going "Spread Out!"
  • Mod Squad

And that's just within a few pages in Vineland. I just opened it to a page at random and saw Tex Wiener's École de Pilotage (which is also mentioned in Inherent Vice, of course).

As I read, I did feel like Pynchon must have been referring back to Vineland every page or two when writing Inherent Vice. Maybe he was using the wiki.

Both books are about the loss of freedom, the global clampdown (in every area of life, including and most importantly our brains) after the 1960s, but Inherent Vice gives a much clearer idea of what was lost. In Vineland we mostly see the People's Republic of Rock and Roll, but the PR3 is doomed to fail from the beginning. So, too bad about the infusion of paranoia, kids, but the whole experiment didn't have a chance anyway.

However, the most annoying thing about Vineland is how arbitrary a lot of it. Maybe Pynchon isn't the author to go to for deep psychological analysis, but there are things here, things which are vital to the plot, which are completely without motivation. Everybody loves Frenesi. Why? I have no idea. Even the characters themselves don't know why:

"...I can see why you guys married her."
"Why?" asked Zoyd and Flash, quickly and together.
"You're adults, you're supposed to know."
"Give us a hint?" Zoyd pleaded.

And Frenesi, the object of all this arbitrary attraction, lusts after Brock Vond, to the extent that she betrays everybody around her and everything that she believes in. Why? Still no idea.

Well, yes, I do know why. Because otherwise the plot doesn't work. To quote from the wiki:

"You know what happens when my pussy's runnin' the show." If this is Frenesi's only motivation for the series of betrayals (including her betrayal of herself) that lie at the heart of Vineland, it's a thin reed on which to build a book.

On the other hand, the things that happen in Inherent Vice are quite believable. Why does Doc refuse to sell out to Bigfoot, though he knows many of his contemporaries have decided to accept "Special Employee disbursements"? Why does Adrian Prussia get into his particular line of work? Why does Mickey decide to create Arrepentimiento?

And Trillium's unfortunate devotion to Puck is certainly more believable than Frenesi and Brock Vond.

With Pynchon's earlier novels there was some griping (at least I heard some) that the female characters were, even by his standards, pretty thinly drawn and mostly seen in terms of men and sex. (Quick, name a female character more pathetic than Jessica Swanlake.) In V. there is Mafia Winsome, who is certainly not submissive to her husband, but her goal is to rescue the world from certain decay through "Heroic Love," which in practice means "screwing five or six times a night, every night, with a great many athletic, half-sadistic wrestling holds thrown in." So, still defined by men and sex.

Vineland is apparently Pynchon's big breakthrough in this area, but his solution seems to be that all the men are whiny losers and all the women are above average. It's like watching a movie where all the men are played by Paul Giamatti and all the women are played by Angelina Jolie. Which might be amusing as a sketch on Saturday Night Live, but it pales over the course of a whole novel.

(However, I will admit that I really like DL Chastain and Takeshi Fumimota in Vineland. They're a great couple, and he is definitely not a whiny loser once they get together.)

Which leads to another question. It's pretty obvious that DL and Frenesi were lovers, but Pynchon suddenly gets vague whenever this subject comes up. And Prairie is obviously in love with her cohort Che, but he's even less specific about exactly what their relationship consists of. Why so coy? It's like watching a movie from the 1930s or 1940s and having to deduce where the sex takes place. Which is rather odd from the author of Gravity's Rainbow. But he certainly got over this peculiar reticence by the time he wrote IV, as I talked about here.

Anyway, as I said here (point #9), a lot of how I ultimately feel about Pynchon's novels depends on the endings, and this one sucks (especially as compared to IV). Prairie says "Get the fuck out of here!" to Brock Vond as he hovers above her on a cable (loved the part about "Death From Slightly Above," by the way), but then later (after he is safely winched up and gone) she hopes he does come back and take her away? Why? Nothing in her character has prepared for this.

Doc would have a few things to say about the whole thing. At least the "pro-cop fuckin mind control" in IV was realistic.

Oh, and sorry, but the "I am your father" shtick (true or not) is invalidated by the Star Wars rule.

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February 28th, 2010

tori amos and inherent vice

Tori Amos performed solo on her early tours, just her and her piano, with occasional assistance from Steve Caton on guitar. I never saw her during those years, but I have watched the Live from New York video many times.

She is, of course, an incredible stage performer, but there are moments in that concert where she becomes, shall we say, a tiny bit self-indulgent. You can see her think, "Oooh, this is an interesting note. Maybe I should see how long I can hold it... and I bet I could get a real cool screechy effect right here, too."

I first saw her on the next tour, the first one with a full band, and there was none of that. You have a band, you have restrictions. You can't just decide to pause all of a sudden because it seems like a groovy idea (especially when you have a rhythm section like hers, which is not exactly nimble).

The interesting part is that I saw her quite a few times after that, mostly solo (I was always inclined more toward the solo tours, since you may have been able to discern my opinion of her rhythm section), and she never went back to the self-indulgent stuff that annoyed me before. Leading a band gave her discipline, and she's kept that discipline ever since.

I'm re-reading Vineland, the Thomas Pynchon novel that Inherent Vice is most often compared to. It's surprising what a mess it is. The things I disliked about it are pretty much as I remember them (I'll write more about this when I'm done), and there are some wonderful things that I'd forgotten. But it's very loose. You start out thinking it's going to be about Zoyd Wheeler, but then we wander off (as if the author starts to find Zoyd about as annoying as this reader did) following other characters, each one of whom gets a long backstory. I'm about two-thirds of the way through, and basically nothing has happened since the first chapter, just lots of history filled in.

Which is different from the Hitchcock example I mention in this post. In Family Plot, the story continues to move, just in a different direction than you expected. In Vineland, it pretty much stops.

Inherent Vice, on the other hand, is quite tight. There are flashbacks and backstory, but they're limited and focused; and the book generally moves forward, with things continuing to happen. Because for writers, genre restrictions are pretty much like getting a rhythm section. As Paul Anderson said in his commentary track for Resident Evil Extinction, "In a zombie picture, you can have a little romance, but then you have to get back to killing zombies." With a mystery, you have to line up your questions and start to answer them.

Writing a mystery also solves the problem that Robert Altman identified about "endings" (I quoted him here).

Where is the end of the story? How can you tell when it's over? Well, with a mystery, the story is over when the mystery is solved. That way, you don't end up like Michael Douglas's character in Wonder Boys, whose unfinished novel ends up well over 1,000 pages because he can't stop writing it.

I'm not saying, by the way, that all mysteries need to be solved. David Lynch, for example, frequently uses the form of a mystery, but he usually doesn't provide any answers. This often works really well (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, the first season of Twin Peaks). But he's just using the form, he's not really writing mysteries. Inherent Vice is the real thing (though it's obviously a lot more as well).

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February 8th, 2010

thomas pynchon’s gayest novel yet?

I was going to write that Inherent Vice has more gay people in it than any of Pynchon's earlier novels (with the usual caveat that I only made it 200 pages into Against the Day), but as I thought about it I realized that something much more interesting is going on.

There are really no "gay people" in Inherent Vice. What the book actually shows is a time and place when people didn't feel a need to declare their sexuality one way or the other (or another), when people felt free to experiment and do whatever they felt like at any given moment.

spoilers follow

show

Nobody declares that they're "gay" or "straight" or "bisexual," or feels any apparent pressure to make any sort of declarations. The only explicit statement at all is Puck's mention of Detective Indelicato's "hatred of homos." Clearly, the open spirit of experimentation doesn't extend to the LAPD.

And this is a specific instance of what Pynchon refers to in broader terms at the end, where Doc is driving through a thick fog and thinks that it might spread and settle in regionwide. "Maybe then it would stay this way for days, maybe he'd have to just 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."

He wants the fog to roll away and reveal another world, where people are not divided into all sorts of categories but instead can just be people.

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January 26th, 2010

big and heavy

(Or why Inherent Vice will never be recognized as Thomas Pynchon's best novel.)

I'm not saying that it is his best novel. I'm not ready to make that kind of assessment yet, and my choice would probably still be Mason & Dixon. However, the reasons why IV will never be recognized that way have nothing to do with its quality.

1) People are impressed by big books. There is a general idea, held by people who have never written either a novel or a short story, that writing novels is more difficult than writing short stories, and writing very big books is more difficult than writing shorter ones. As if albums with twenty songs are automatically better than ones with ten songs. As if "more difficult" = "better art." I was reading Mason & Dixon on the subway once, and the guy sitting next to me said, "I didn't think anybody ever finished his books." I had already read the book at least once, but I didn't mention that.

My experience, however, is that, in writing, shorter is the most difficult thing to do well. Ulysses is an amazing achievement, but "The Dead" is a better work of art.

And difficulty doesn't equate to quality. From what I've read, Rex Stout, probably my favorite mystery writer, wrote each of his Nero Wolfe novels in a few weeks, from the beginning straight through to the end, no rewrites, and then took the rest of the year off.

2) People think serious novels are more significant than funny ones, and IV is Pynchon's funniest novel yet. That's one assessment I am ready to make, though nothing in it is quite as hilarious as the disgusting English candy drill in Gravity's Rainbow, or the shenanigans at the Vrooms' house in Mason & Dixon.

Okay, maybe it isn't the funniest, but it is the goofiest. And it has the most sex, the most drugs, and the most rock and roll. And it probably involved less research than some of the others. So, it's definitely less impressive to the people who get impressed by the sorts of things that impress Academy Awards voters (who usually like movies which are long, historical, serious, and involve lots of suffering). However, as in I Heart Huckabees, the funniest stories are sometimes the most profound, though they are often not recognized as such because of people's prejudices on this subject.

Which may relate to the schism between people who think Shakespeare's greatest achievements are the big tragedies (Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.), and people like Orson Welles and Harold Bloom who think his greatest achievement was creating Falstaff.

3) Plus, of course, IV is a genre story (a mystery) and people have their prejudices about that, too.

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November 15th, 2009

a few random thoughts about inherent vice

1. The plot actually does make sense. Who committed what crime and why, it all ties together.

2. The setup is classic: an old flame comes to the detective, asking for help. He agrees to help her, and, when beginning the investigation, he is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, his police department nemesis is there, accusing him of a murder. The cop then decides to release him, but the old flame has already vanished. (This is, for example, the plot of virtually every episode of Pat Novak for Hire.) Other clients come to the detective, to hire him for apparently-unrelated cases, but then connections start to appear.

3. Various critics have commented on the zany, typically-Pynchonian names (Buddy Tubeside, Rudy Blatnoyd, Dr. Threeply – and that's only the medical men), but nobody has commented on the pattern. Neighborhood characters have nicknames (Ensenada Slim, Flaco the Bad, St. Flip, Downstairs Eddie). Minor characters have zany names (Japonica Fenway, Jason Velveeta, Art Tweedle). Important characters, characters we're supposed to follow and even care about, have regular names, such as Doc's semi-g.f., Penny Kimball. Doc's relationship with Penny would come across completely differently if she was named Petunia Leeway or Trillium Fortnight. And that's also what cues us (subconsciously) that the Charlocks and the Harlingens are families we should care about.

4. When Doc is snooping at the mansion where the Boards (a surf band) live, he comes upon a room where a bunch of people are watching, with incredible attention and seriousness, Dark Shadows, and the narrator mentions that Dark Shadows had, at that point, "begun to get heavily into something called 'parallel time,' which was confounding the viewing audience nationwide, even those who remained with their wits about them, although many dopers found no problem at all in following it."

What "parallel time" really means (which is not completely defined in the novel) is another dimension, which you could find yourself in by accident (either temporarily or permanently), simply by walking through the wrong door at the right time, where the people look like the people you know (being played by the same actors), but they have different names and personalities and relationships than the people you're familiar with.

Well, Dark Shadows was indeed in parallel time at that point (May of 1970, the "1970PT" storyline to be exact), but this is significant for other reasons. For one thing, as has been discovered by readers even more obsessive than I am, there is an extra day in Inherent Vice. It's, possible to figure out what day each event takes place because Doc is following the NBA playoffs throughout, and there's an extra day between May 4 and May 5. During that day, many people act out of character (some fairly extremely), as if Doc has himself stumbled into parallel time for a day.

5. Another possible occurrence of parallel time (which I discovered myself) is this curious progression: in Chapter Six, Doc has lunch with Penny and then she hands him over to the FBI for questioning; in Chapter Sixteen, Doc sees her again, and this betrayal is a big issue between them; but in Chapter Eight (which falls in between those two other events), Doc spends the night with Penny and it's never mentioned.

6. And also, in Chapter Eighteen, Doc loses one of his huarache sandals, and walks around with only one for a while. In Chapter Twenty, Sauncho calls him on the phone and mentions, entirely unnecessarily, that Doc should wear some Topsiders for their proposed boat outing, rather than that one huarache he's been wearing. But, as far as we can tell, Sauncho hasn't seen Doc since he lost the sandal. They have two conversations during that time, but the first is presented as a dream, and the second (where Sauncho defines the legal term "inherent vice") appears to be a flashback.

Unless the dream wasn't really a dream after all...

7. Throughout the book, there is a wonderful series of disgruntled and disaffected waiters and waitresses, usually describing in great detail the shortcomings of the dishes they are about to serve. Also there is a series of interior spaces which are described, in various different ways, as being larger than you would expect from the outside.

8. There's another series, too ("what we in homicide like to call, 'pattern'").

V. is V.

Gravity's Rainbow is clearly V-2.

If we consider Vineland to be, for the purpose of argument, V #3, then,

Inherent Vice would be #4. In Roman numerals, "IV." Which happens to be the initials of "Inherent Vice." Coincidence?

9. As my father always said, anybody can write a good first act, the trick is to be able to write a good third act. My overall feeling about each of Thomas Pynchon's novels is really based on two things. One: Did I manage to finish the thing? Two: How does it end?

  1. V. (1963) is a complete pleasure. It has a great ending.
  2. I need to re-read The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). It's been too long.
  3. Gravity's Rainbow (1973) is a "great book," winner of this and that award, etc., etc. It has many great parts, but I have never liked the ending. I've read defenses of the ending, but they have never convinced me.
  4. Vineland (1990) is okay, but I didn't care for the ending. I've only read it once, though.
  5. Mason & Dixon (1997) is a complete pleasure. It has a great beginning, middle and end. Harold Bloom (according to wikipedia), "has hailed the novel as Pynchon's 'masterpiece to date.'" Which I would agree with (whether or not he actually said it).
  6. Against the Day (2006) failed test #1. I didn't make it past page 200 or so. I knew it was a bad sign when I was reading it and the biggest pleasure I got out of the whole thing was finding a typo. However, I'll probably try again some day. I vaguely remember I had to start Gravity's Rainbow a few times before I got a good momentum going.
  7. Inherent Vice (2009) has a wonderful ending. Just about two pages, great writing, sentence after sentence, and very moving.
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November 8th, 2009

the year matters

I'm still re-reading Inherent Vice, but there is one comment I wanted to make.

Some reviews compared it to The Big Lebowski and even The Long Goodbye (the Altman film, not the Chandler book). There are obvious similarities, as I indicated before, but there's also a big difference. Both Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe and the Dude are men out of their time, out of step with the world around them.

Inherent Vice, however, is about the brief period when a lot of people shared Doc Sportello's ideas and ideals and habits. In fact, it's about the exact moment when that began to change, so in that way it's much more like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

It even has its own version of "the wave speech" (on page 254, where it talks about "...Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn't find his way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness... how a certain hand might reach terribly out of the darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good."). And that scene takes place as he's in a motel, with at least one television on, on his way back from (of all places) Las Vegas.

Thompson was writing at his best in the early 1970s, which was very well indeed. But Pynchon, the old paranoid (and with many years of hindsight that Thompson didn't have, since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was written at the tail end of the process in question), is much clearer about the fact that the wave didn't just roll back; there was also somebody pushing.

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September 7th, 2009

my history with thomas pynchon

Well, first of all (if you couldn't guess), my history with Thomas Pynchon consists entirely of me reading his books.

And I confess that I'm hazy even about that "relationship." For example, I don't know which of his books I read first. I have the idea that I tried Gravity's Rainbow a couple of times, couldn't get into it; tried V., liked it; buckled down and read GR; then read The Crying of Lot 49.

Is that true or not? I have no idea. I know I avoided Vineland for a long time, as if sensing somehow that I would find it disappointing, which I did.

The rest I do remember. Bought Mason & Dixon the day it came out (loved it), bought Against the Day the day it came out (made it one-fifth of the way through, then stalled out), bought Inherent Vice the day after it came out (loved it immediately, wrote about it on my blog, posted on the wiki, started this blog).

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September 5th, 2009

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