A friend of mine went into a bookstore in Los Angeles and asked the man behind the counter if they had a copy of Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon. My friend had heard the buzz surrounding the film adaptation by Paul Thomas Anderson, and he wanted to read the novel first. A reasonable request, but the bookseller wasn't accommodating.
"You don't want to read that," he said.
In his view, Inherent Vice didn't stack up to Pynchon's longer works, like Gravity's Rainbow, Mason & Dixon and Against the Day—dense, encyclopedic novels that tell the secret history of the United States through the lens of outsiders, outcasts and first-class fuck-ups.
These three novels cover more than 2,500 pages and introduce hundreds of characters. In comparison, Inherent Vice is a relatively slender 366 pages and has a single point of view—something Pynchon hadn't done since the release of The Crying of Lot 49 in 1966, making it his most accessible novel in half a century.
That's why Anderson made Inherent Vice into a movie. It has an L.A. backdrop and follows a single protagonist with a complete character arc, at least by Pynchon's standards; he's notorious for making his characters disappear. Tyron Slothrop, the main character of Gravity's Rainbow, vanishes two-thirds of the way through the novel, never to be seen again.
I love these big, sprawling books with their ridiculous puns, transgressive sex scenes and subversive storylines, but they're not for everyone. Sometimes they're not even for me. It took me many attempts before I managed to finish V, Pynchon's first novel. One of the few things we do know about Pynchon is that he served in the U.S. Navy. I'm a former deck seaman, and not even a fictional boatswain's mate named Pig Bodine aboard the John E. Badass was enough to get me through the book when I first picked it up in college.
Maybe the bookseller thought my friend was up for the challenge that is Gravity's Rainbow, which is what he sold him. Or maybe he's an asshole.
Either way it's a shame. My friend grew up in Hermosa Beach, a 10-minute skateboard ride from Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon used to live. The north end of Manhattan Beach is called El Porto, and it takes its name from the world-famous surf break popular with wave riders from all over Southern California. In Pynchon's novels, El Porto is called Gordita Beach, and Inherent Vice is a love letter to L.A.'s South Bay, the beach cities in particular.
The novel opens when Doc Sportello, a hippie private eye who prefers weed to whiskey, gets a visit from an old girlfriend named Shasta.
"It had been dark at the beach for hours, he hadn't been smoking much and it wasn't headlights—but before she turned away, he could swear he saw light falling on her face, the orange light just after sunset that catches a face turned to the west, watching the ocean for someone to come in on the last wave of the day, in to shore and safety."
It's a classic set-up for the mystery that unfolds. Shasta's in trouble that may or may not involve her lover, a real-estate tycoon with a retinue of violent goons, one of whom turns up dead, and Sportello is implicated in the murder. The opening scene is drenched in nostalgia for a carefree California beach town that no longer exists.
"Weeknights out here wasn't too different from weekend, so this part of town was already all ahoot with funseekers, drinkers and surfers screaming in the alleys, dopers out on food errands, flatland guys in for a night of hustling stewardesses, flatland ladies with all-too-grounded day jobs hoping to be mistaken for stewardesses."
I know because I used to live in El Porto, too—exactly 100 steps from Pynchon's pad on 33rd Street. It had changed a lot from those days when Pynchon might run into The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson or The Smothers Brothers when he ventured out to the bar around the corner.
It's always been a place where the cares and concerns of the rest of Los Angeles—Hollywood in particular—seem very far away. From the perspective of the Manhattan on the other side of the world, where Pynchon lives now, it must seem like a lost world, a world he's preserved in the pages of a book. It's a world my friend would have loved exploring, because it's his world, too. That's as good a reason to read a book as it is to write one.
I'm not telling you to read Inherent Vice or to go see the movie; but I'm not telling you not to.