Since 1994, International Pynchon Week (IPW) has taken place more or less every two years at an academic institution in Europe. The pandemic has disrupted the schedule, however, which is why the 2022 conference ended in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia.
Sean Carswell, a Pynchon Scholar and professor at Cal State Channel Islands, spent his college career researching the reclusive novelist and wrote the book Occupy Pynchon: The Politics After The Gravity Rainbow. I live in Southern California and he urged me to attend the conference. “It’s not going to come close,” he said.
Carswell and I both write for the Los Angeles-based punk-rock zine Razor Cakeand many times we discussed Pynchon’s 2009 novel, inherent vice. The book is generally considered by book reviewers to be “Pynchon lite”, but I think it is the best of the California Pynchon novels.
According to Carswell, this is a view his colleagues share. “Although critics dismissed inherent vice“, he said, “many scholars quickly recognized that it was an important book. ”
So I went to Vancouver to find out what makes inherent vice if divider.
JHomas Pynchon likes to take his time. Following the publication of The Gravity Rainbow in 1973, it took 11 years before he published another book.
That is why inherent vice was such a surprise. Released in 2009, just three years after the sprawling Against the daythis detective story set in the spring of 1970 and featuring a hippie detective named Larry “Doc” Sportello surprised everyone.
Critical reception has been less than positive. In the New York Times, Walter Kirn complained that the narrative progressed “from digression to digression…periodically pausing for dope-head gabfests of absurdly intense”. Sam Anderson’s point of view New York open: “I hate Thomas Pynchon.” Even sympathetic reviews did not consider inherent vice as quite serious. “A way to enjoy inherent vice“wrote James Parker for the Barnes & Noble Review“might be to imagine him as the work, not of Thomas Pynchon but of a tenacious clan of Pynchon devotees – zany post-Aquarius pranksters who locked the big man away somewhere and write the books they think that he should write.”
I never understood these dismissals because in my opinion inherent vice is a master key to Pynchon’s work. Set in the fictional South Bay town of Gordita Beach, it all begins with Doc being visited by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth, who fears that her new lover, a real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann, is in danger. difficulty. Once Doc begins to investigate, he is immediately implicated by his former nemesis, LAPD Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, in the death of an associate of Wolfmann’s.
The setup is nearly identical to that of Pynchon’s 1990 California novel Vineland. There, a drug-smoking ex-hippie, Zoyd Wheeler, carries a torch for his ex-wife, Frenesi Gates, and is pursued by a federal agent named Hector Zuñiga. In fact, Zoyd and Frenesi met and briefly lived together at Gordita Beach, as did Doc and Shasta.
Gordita Beach’s name may be Pynchon’s invention, but it’s clearly inspired by Manhattan Beach. The author lived there in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like me, 30 years later. At one point, Doc crashes into an apartment that matches the location at 217 33rd Street, where Pynchon is said to have lived in 1969 and 1970. It’s between El Porto, the name given to the northern end of town after the famous surf spot, and the pier. This makes Gordita Beach more than the seaside town of Pynchon’s imagination, but also a place where the author lived and breathed.
Given how little we know about Pynchon, a man who has never given an interview and is not present on the Internet, aren’t these echoes significant? Isn’t it reasonable to assume that we can learn something from Gordita Beach? That’s one of the reasons I came to IPW, to take a closer look inherent vice.
IPW is structured like most academic conferences, with panels throughout the day and informal events in the evening. This is where some of the most heated debates have taken place.
The day before the panels started, I listened to Terry Reilly, an English professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, offer some interesting theories about the importance of the book.
Reilly believes Pynchon started inherent vice in Manhattan Beach during the same period he was writing The Gravity Rainbow. Such an interpretation figured prominently in the document he was to deliver the next day.
I asked Reilly what happened to Pynchon at the beach that made him keep coming back to it in his fiction. He suggested that this information could perhaps be found in the Stephen Michael Tomaske Memorial Collection of Thomas Pynchon Papers at the Huntington Library, which includes an autobiography written in return for a grant.
These papers have however been sealed and will remain so until January 2, 2040. Which does not help us much here and now.
Like many readers, I discovered Pynchon’s novels while undergraduate, but my training took a few detours. After high school, I joined the Navy and rose through the ranks from deckhand to boatswain. I didn’t know I was following in his footsteps.
Pynchon interrupted his studies at Cornell University to serve two years before the mast. The influence of his time in the fleet is all over his first novel V, and I felt like I had secret insights that weren’t available to my teachers or peers. One of his recurring characters, Pig Bodine, was a boatswain like me, but a much more vulgar version.
This connection intensified when I moved to Manhattan Beach and discovered that I lived a few hundred steps from where Pynchon had written parts of The Gravity Rainbow– and, if Reilly is right, inherent vice.
For the scholars who laid the groundwork for Pynchon’s studies, The Gravity Rainbow is considered the masterpiece. The tears of lot 49 is the most accessible introduction. “For the old guard,” Carswell explained, “Pynchon was validation for literary criticism because you can’t read it on your own.”
Yet many young IPW researchers feel inherent vice has been replaced The tears of lot 49 as the “gateway novel”. Several said they had positive experiences in teaching inherent vice to undergraduate students.
The change in thinking about inherent vice has a lot to do with Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film adaptation, which features Joaquin Phoenix as Doc. “If you like the movie,” says freelance writer and high school teacher Jacob Singer, “you’ll love this book.”
Justin St. Clair, an associate professor of English at the University of South Alabama, takes the argument one step further: “It may be heresy,” he says, “but I think I like better the movie than the book.
Not all Pynchon scholars admire Thomas’ interpretation. The film valiantly picks up many of Pynchon’s storylines, but it fails in other respects. For Reilly, he ignores the most important aspect of the book: the many and varied references to the Manson family. Set in the time between the Tate-LaBianca murders and the Manson trial, the novel captures the moment Californians lost faith in the counterculture. Reilly believes that Quentin Tarantino Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood does a better job of bringing up what Pynchon calls the “mansonoid conspiracy” that was in the air as this long, strange journey turned toxic.
On the last day of in-person communications, there were two presentations on inherent vice. In “Complex adaptive systems and inherent vice” Singer argued that “typical plot analysis does not focus on groups”. His analysis clarified my belief that any attempt to adapt Pynchon would ultimately fail because too much is happening under the surface.
The novel communicates with itself – and the places it represents – in an underground way.
inherent vice opens with an epigraph: “Under the cobblestones, the beach”. It’s a slogan made popular during the uprisings in France in May 1968. The beach refers to the sand under the cobblestones that students dug up and threw at the police. For Pynchon, what lies beneath the surface has always been a source of fascination.
Manhattan Beach, for example, is built on dunes that may have been used by the Tongva, the original inhabitants, as a burial ground. (In VinelandHector suggests it to Zoyd.) At the beginning of inherent vicethere’s a scene that underscores Pynchon’s instincts as an archaeologist of the downtrodden.
Doc is in his office when he receives a visit from Tariq Khalil, a black ex-convict. Doc reflects on how unusual it is to see a black person so close to the beach. It would be easy to misinterpret his observation as casual racism. But that’s not how Pynchon works.
Doc’s reverie extends to the harassment of black people by the local police department, a practice “dating back to shortly after World War II, when a black family had actually attempted to move into town and the citizens, along with the helpful advice from the Ku Klux Klan, burned the place down and then, as if an ancient curse had come into effect, refused to allow another house ever to be built on the site.
His memory is correct. The property in question is now an oceanfront park located between 26th and 27th streets. Through Senate Bill 796, which Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law in September 2021, the land, known as Bruce’s Beach, will be returned to the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce, the owners who were forced to relinquish their property as described in Doc. .
It was big news last year, but not in 2009, when inherent vice has been published. At the time, only a handful of people knew of the origins of the park.
The movement is classic Pynchon. Throughout his novels – which cover topics ranging from the founding of America to the destruction of Europe – he is interested in those on the wrong side of imperialism. In other words, Pynchon is obsessed with real estate: both the builders and the dispossessed. It is no coincidence that in the center of The tears of lot 49 and inherent vice are dead or missing developers.
I suspect we’ll never know what happened to Pynchon at the beach. But just like we don’t need to know the source of the cries across the open sky The Gravity Rainbowthe story of what haunted him may remain in the fog that shrouds the South Bay at the end of inherent vice. It’s in the petrochemical darkness that looms over seaside towns, sand spitting onto the shore with every breaking wave. It’s in the novels that capture that time and place like no one has before and no one will again.•