Sun, Aug 02, 2009 - Page 14 News List

[HARDCOVER: US]The American Dream: from freedom to fear

By Sarah Churchwell  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON


In Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 book, Gravity’s Rainbow, a character sings a song called My Doper’s Cadenza, which could serve as both sound track and subtitle for Inherent Vice. Set in the waning days of the era of free love, as Charles Manson brings a paranoid ending to idealistic dreams, Pynchon’s seventh novel bridges The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Vineland (1990), forming a loose trilogy traversed by the same (marginal) characters and (central) concerns, not to mention a permeating 1960s dope haze. In all three novels, California represents the final frontier of the American Dream and the last stand against corrupt institutions, the ultimate refuge of aimless dreamers riding waves of hope — and fear. Together, the three novels trace an arc from the mid-1960s to the Reaganite 1980s, from the birth of counterculture to the triumph of corporate culture, as the frontier closes for good and the long descent into betrayal and greed begins.

The book’s title provides Pynchon with a new metaphor for three of his oldest preoccupations: entropy, capitalism and religion, specifically Puritanism. For insurers and preservationists, “inherent vice” describes the innate tendency of precious objects to deteriorate and refers to the limits of insurability and conservation; it suggests that matter (and thus, by extension, materialism) carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.

As usual, Pynchon prefers to approach serious questions through frivolity and pastiche, in this case a psychedelic spoof of Raymond Chandler. His protagonist, Larry “Doc” Sportello, is a pot-smoking private investigator sent by an ex-flame on the trail of a disappeared property tycoon who may or may not have had a crisis of conscience and be setting up a quasi-socialist commune. The plot proceeds to meander amiably around kidnapping, murder, heroin smuggling, money laundering, loan sharking, insanity, drug addiction and rehab, revolution and counter-revolution, not to mention time travel, the lost continent of Lemuria, and Arrepentimiento, which a character defines as “Spanish for ‘sorry about that.’” A spirit of regret and thwarted hedonism prevails, as characters take refuge in sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

Along the way, Pynchon assembles a typical cast of eccentrics, misfits and dropouts with wacky names, who live life in pursuit of lost causes. Capitalism in Pynchon tends to take two primary forms (it is always, however, the enemy): the military-industrial complex and land-grabbing. His protagonists try to resist both, as Pynchon asks how a country that so mythologizes hope can traffic in fear, how it can romanticize its own land while dividing it (into “lots”) and selling it off.

Sportello may feel and behave like an outlaw, but he is uneasily aware of his complicity with the forces of law and order. Most mysteries begin in confusion and end in certainty; Pynchon likes to reverse this trajectory, so that what begins in relative order ends in pure chaos. His piling up of incident and jokes, of comic set pieces and hallucinatory discourses is partly pleasure for its own sake; he loves to fool around, extravagantly indulging his own playfulness. His penchant for embedding puzzles, games and jokes in his books is partly why Pynchon’s fans tend toward the cultish. But his jokes are also a form of whistling in the dark, dancing on the grave of betrayed dreams and abandoned hopes.

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