Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 16, 2024

Lit Bit: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

By AMANDA AUBLE | March 12, 2015

My first experience reading a Thomas Pynchon novel felt like climbing a mountain, except Pynchon never let me find stable footing. I got lost in long, meandering flashbacks and struggled through vague dialogue. Where was the “said,” “asked” and even “exclaimed” that I once looked to as a grounding landmarks? As soon as I thought I had nailed down a character, Pynchon either shifted them into the background or, more likely, introduced a host of new voices.

In my Intro to Literary Studies class here at Hopkins we read Pynchon’s most recently released novel Bleeding Edge, a paranoia-ridden tale of fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow and her ventures into alternate realities. The book discussed themes of cyber terrorism and even the 9/11 attacks. At the time I had never even heard of Pynchon, and as a freshman hoping to major in English, I was immediately daunted.

Nevertheless, with the required reading piling up, I forced myself through the text and started to find a rhythm. I hadn’t believed my professor when he said that reading out loud would help, but I realised how Pynchon’s dialogue mimicked reality better than standard novel dialogue used to dictate speech. By the end of the book I was still climbing the mountain, but I learned to follow Pynchon instead of fighting his style.

Moving from the realms of cyberspace, I recently decided to pick up Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Set in the late ‘60s just as feelings of free love start to become scarce, this narrative is also a play on an almost film-noir-type detective story. Inherent Vice chronicles private investigator/Southern Californian stoner Doc Spordello as he searches for his missing ex-girlfriend and her real estate tycoon boyfriend. Doc runs into characters like skinhead motorcycle gang members, an eccentric dentist and his antithesis, the straight-laced, hippie-hating police sergeant Bigfoot. Doc is not an active character, and he routinely finds himself thrust into escalating situations. Although he feels passive at times, it is a fun ride following Doc’s clouded memories and questioning him along the way.

Although this book demonstrates classic Pynchon style, I feel that the information and themes presented are much easier to grasp than what I previously experienced in Bleeding Edge. In place of tech-talk and dystopian images, Inherent Vice provides real sounds, smells and sights for the reader to experience. Anyone looking for a way to ease themselves into a Pynchon novel should definitely check out Inherent Vice.

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