Imagine the cult film The Big Lebowski as a novel, with touches of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential thrown in for good measure. Imagine your favorite Raymond Chandler or James Crumley mystery retold as a hippie whodunit, set in Gordita Beach, Calif., at the very end of the 1960s. Imagine a great American novelist, one who is now a septuagenarian, writing with all the vivacity and bounce of a young man who has just discovered girls. Most of all, imagine sentences and scenes that are so much fun to read that you wish Inherent Vice were twice as long as it is. Imagine saying that about a Thomas Pynchon novel … a terrific pastiche of California noir, wonderfully amusing throughout...and a poignant evocation of the last flowering of the '60s, just before everything changed and passed into myth or memory.
The experience of reading the novel is probably as close to getting stoned as reading a novel can be. It brings on fits of the giggles and paranoia jags, and badly messes with your short-term memory: the plot, as ever with Pynchon, is bewilderingly hard to follow, the plethora of characters almost impossible to keep track of without taking notes (as it happens, Doc’s a bit of a compulsive notetaker, to help compensate for his doper’s memory). It doesn’t, however, make you fall asleep or, despite the many descriptions of the consumption of every conceivable variety of fast food, give you the munchies … Characteristically hilarious and thought-provoking though it is, Inherent Vice lacks much of the menace and the passion of its predecessors. Then again, perhaps this flattening of affect is deliberate, analogous to seeing the world through a haze of cannabis smoke, or entirely mediated through TV.
It’s a slightly spoofy take on hardboiled crime fiction, a story in which the characters smoke dope and watch Gilligan’s Island instead of sitting around a night club knocking back J&Bs. It’s The Maltese Falcon starring Cheech and Chong, The Big Sleep as told by the hippy-dippy weatherman … The twist is the time period. The events in Pynchon’s story take place in the spring of 1970, something we can infer from frequent references to the Manson trial and the N.B.A. finals between the Lakers and the Knicks. And the book is loaded—overloaded, really, but Pynchon is an inveterate encyclopedist—with pop period detail … Inherent Vice is a generally lighthearted affair. Still, there are a few familiar apocalyptic touches, and a suggestion that countercultural California is a lost continent of freedom and play, swallowed up by the faceless forces of coöptation and repression.