Thomas Pynchon makes me giggle

by Fred Zackel

Thomas_pynchon As the 2011 Nobel Prize announcement nears (October 12th for our handicappers), the U.K. betting site Ladbrokes has posted odds for the prize, putting Thomas Pynchon at (give or take) 10/1 odds to win the prize for literature.

I got my fingers crossed.

First off, Pynchon is clever and that makes his playfulness most pleasurable. His favorite playground is America’s fondness for conspiracy theories. These theories, no matter how whacko they sound, summarize and reflect cherished American values and morals. Lots of us are alienated from official reality. We find it easy (and maybe self-defeating) to deny its validity. (As a student of mine once said, “I think a lot of the time we take for granted the history of the world.”) But what if our own conclusions are denied legitimacy? What Pynchon does that is so subversive is to deny them closure. And seeing how those well-intentioned wackos are left high and dry actually adds to my merriment.

I first discovered Pynchon as the best man for Richard Farina’s marriage to Mimi Baez. I was a big fan of Farina’s novel “Been Down So Long It Looks Up to Me,” and so I went looking for Pynchon’s first novel. “V” was a rabbit hole, or maybe an oubliette. I fell. Maybe I was pushed. One enigmatic woman may have been at the nexus of the great events of the 20th century? I also traveled decades and the world with a schlemihl named Benny Profane and with Herbert Stencil, questing after his father, who may have been a legendary British spy. Hunting alligators in the New York sewers? A living figurehead lashed to the bow-sprit of a boat? Jewish princesses getting nose jobs? Coeds with 72 pairs of Bermuda shorts? All culminating in the trash heaps of Malta a half-century before? A long, strange trip indeed. And I was hooked by a sideways look at how we perceive reality. And conspiracy. “They – whoever ‘they’ were – seemed to be calling the tune,” was one ominous thought. Later, “Any situation takes shape from events much lower than the merely human.” Most importantly I learned that progress was best imagined as only a new coat of paint on our xebec adrift.

I discovered Pynchon's second novel, “The Crying of Lot 49,” set in California, was much more accessible. Published in 1966, in addition to being in the detective genre, “The Crying Lot of 49” was a comedy. A comic book. A satire. Ominous and sinister. The New York Times review from 3 June 1966 called it a “streamlined doomsday machine.”

“One summer afternoon, Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.”

Oedipa Maas, our Great Detective, should have the skills needed to “solve the mystery”:

“Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disc jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?”

She too has stumbled onto a conspiracy:

“You one of those right wing nut outfits?” inquired the diplomatic Metzger.
Fallopian twinkled. “They accuse us of being paranoids.”
“They?” inquired Metzger, twinkling also.
“Us?” asked Oedipa.

She wanders the California maze, and the plot must be labyrinthine. Preferably it must show incredible interconnections between disparate events and occurrences. So Pynchon throws at her a parody of a Jacobean revenge drama entitled “The Courier's Tragedy,” that introduces Oedipa to the conspiracy, which may or may not include a 1960s corporate conspiracy involving the bones of World War II American GIs being used as charcoal cigarette filters. Oh, and there is drug usage, both legal and illicit. Including dosing American housewives with LSD. To this mixture, Pynchon adds a wealth of references to science and technology and to even more obscure historical events and sinister locations. Including but not limited to entropy and communication theory, a secret library within the Vatican and Maxwell's demon. Oh, and Yoyodyne, the most infamous aerospace firm beloved by Pynchonmaniacs.

And all leads to a postage stamp auction where …

We have to stop here and consider conspiracy theorists. Some theorists are their own white noise. They can’t stop shouting their paranoia no matter what. This very morning, for instance, while I was getting an oil change, an older rural couple talked very loudly and non-stop for 45 minutes about their secret fears. They seemed happiest declaiming that Onstar™ which is standard on many new GM models enables the U.S. Government to eavesdrop on its citizens. They were happy because they had All The Answers. For a while all conspiracy theories are amusing. But their theorists being relentless and thus having All The Answers makes them … tedious.

Pynchon’s heroes do not get that far. On their quest they often discover they are trying to solve a puzzle that may have been created by their own paranoia and /or their disintegrated personalities. Sometimes the spots on the butterfly’s wings are just spots and not the handiwork of spies like Robert Baden-Powell before the First World War.

According to “The Crying of Lot 49,” Pynchon uses the symbol of the muted horn to represent the voices we don’t hear or the connections that have been cut. It also represents all those are silenced by Big America, or rather Our Postmodern Life. It means the pointless, the loveless, the inanimate. Those on the margins and the margin itself. Which also suggests they may or may not actually exist …

In any Pynchon book, paranoia is a social disease. We catch it from living in this post-modernist American society. “Only the paranoid survive.” Andrew Grove, the founder of Intell, said that. Yep, the founder of the Silicon Valley corporate giant said it. If you’re not paranoid, you’re … naïve. Only the paranoid believe in conspiracy. (Who killed JFK? Have we landed on the moon? Was Obama born in Hawaii? Your answers tell me where you stand.) Or as Doc thinks in “Inherent Vice,” “Paranoia was a tool of the trade, it pointed you in directions you might not have seen to go.”

Forty-three years separates “The Crying of Lot 49” from “Inherent Vice.”

His seventh book, his private eye novel, “Inherent Vice,” was published in 2009. Also set in Los Angeles, this book was part detective novel and part literary romp. Pynchon received many astonishing reviews. “This reader would go so far as to call it a beach read,” said Carol Memmott of USA TODAY. Memmott added, “It's worth the trip.” Wow. No kidding. A beach read? USA TODAY? Wow, that’s a giggle.

Why a private eye book? Well, the mystery genre is a rubric, an outline, a template, a skeleton, and as such is always a serviceable platform to riff on, to improvise with. (Consider “The Long Goodbye” by Raymond Chandler, for instance. Boy, did he wander off the reservation.) As with any genre, it has its conventions, its touchstones that are comfortable and immediately acceptable for its readers. (This past summer Harry Potter and his nemesis Voldemort did a Reichenbach Falls jump together in the series finale.) And then there is the love of the genre itself. Pynchon does love the genre. No smirky, snarky dilettante descending from an ivory literary tower.

Larry “Doc” Sportello is the central figure. Doc might be the metaphorical grandson of Philip Marlowe, born of the nastiness within the Big Sleep and he might be the metaphorical son of “Jake, it’s only Chinatown.”

“[Doc] understood for a second and a half that he belonged to a single and ancient martial tradition in which resisting authority, subduing handguns, defending an old lady's honor all amounted to the same thing.”

Doc is not a gumshoe, but a “gumsandal.” He lives at the beach in a dingy bachelor pad in Gordita, a sort of Manhattan Beach in the 1960s, by the way. He lives on gorditas and beer. “The sign on his door read LSD Investigations, LSD, as he explained when people asked, which was not often, standing for 'Location, Surveillance, Detection.'”

And then she walks in …

“She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn't seen here for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she'd never look.”

Shasta Fay Hepworth, a former lover of Doc’s, is here because of a plot to kidnap her new lover. A missing (possibly kidnapped) billionaire real-estate mogul is named Mickey Wolfmann, who makes “Godzilla look like a conservationist.” Mickey has a collection of pornographic ties, decorated with images of his lovers. But in that collection of pornographic ties, which lover is absent? Worst of all, Mickey want to give away his money and, if the idea caught on, that could tear apart the national economy and thus national security.

The femme fatale enters the private investigator’s life. “There’s this guy,” she says. And also, “I’m just the bait.” We have entered familiar territory. Doc is caught by how her face looks with the orange light of sunset catching it.

We are also on the dark side of the California dream that has always slid into the California Nightmare. Bittersweet as Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald and all the private eye tribe.

“There is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to have the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must now live in forever.”

Boy, doesn’t that image of claim jumpers resonate through the end of California Dreaming?

What is an “inherent vice?” A term out of the marine insurance business that describes breakage and damage you just can't avoid. An uninsurable defect of a cargo or vessel that will trigger its deterioration.

“Is that like original sin?” asks the detective.

Ah, well, could be. Or maybe entropy, a concept from physics to describe a system winding down or corroding that permeates other Pynchon novels.

“Inherent Vice” is both an homage to and parody of the classic private detective. It is also both an homage to and parody of the 1960s Southern California beach life. Most of all, “Inherent Vice” is savoring that lost moment in time. Yet, even more than being a simple exercise in nostalgia, it counts the cost of losing those tropes. And it still feels threatened by what replaced them. By the ending, we get “a visceral sense of sadness and fallenness,” to quote John Wilson of Christianity Today. (Not kidding. Christianity Today.) Yes, the book is about Original Sin and Redemption. (Basic American Lit tropes, right?)

Pynchon sees the roots of our vices in the vices of the hippie era. These “inherent vices” were there that long ago, had anyone recognized them. Why did the future ended up so sucky when the ‘60s seemed so bright?

Doc is frequently dismayed, “caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness…”

Forget about the plot. You can catch up when you read the book for the second time. Remember that Leigh Brackett, William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler—both the original author of the novel and the scriptwriters adapting it—were unable to figure out who killed the chauffeur in “The Big Sleep.”

A private eye would not be conventional unless he has a nemesis within the police department. Doc’s nemesis is Detective Lt. Bigfoot Bjornsen, an LAPD detective who does Cal Worthington-like TV spots on the side. Celebrity is all, eh? Bjornsen is also a secret collector of barbed wire, who, when not chomping on his trademark chocolate-covered frozen bananas, can be found hanging out at the Waste-a-Perp Target Range in the “Urban, Gang-related and Hippie (UGH) section.” (Bananas are a big part of Pynchon; he had bazillions of them in his masterpiece “Gravity’s Rainbow.”)

Some readers aren’t amused by the drugs in Pynchon’s novels. Yet drug usage has always been at the roots of detective fiction. For instance, Sherlock Holmes needs to be drawn out of the purple haze of his seven percent solution just to work pleasantly with others, while Pynchon’s Great Detective “Doc” Sportello can resist the impulse to light a joint. I have always been amused that Sherlock Holmes was NOT incapacitated by his coke addiction. On the other hand, ol’ Sherlock made claims only a doper would make. He chain-smoked, but he could also instantly identify 150 different perfume. Uh-huh.

I can giggle at drug usage and their delirious effects because I can also see how dope usage can be a writer’s strategy to promote suspense or set up scenes or even work as a critique on a society. “Inherent Vice” has a lot of cheap jokes about dopers. “My mind’s been wandering again?” Or when “Doc started a file on all these reports, and hoped he wouldn’t forget where he was stashing it.” Who knows what happened when the private eye was stoned? “Here’s the second time you’ve been found asleep at a crime scene.” Doc … passed out. (Maybe.) Some one-lines are pure 1960s nostalgia: Two can score as cheaply as one. A cute retro one says, “Let’s light this up and pretend we came out to smoke it.” Pynchon links drug usage to other jokes, including one about Driver’s Ed: “All that stuff they wanted you to remember, man?” Pynchon’s language is lovely here, too: “a driveling of dopers…” At times he descends into just plain silliness: asking an Ouija board where we can score. When Doc comes across money with Nixon’s face, he thinks again, he thinks he is merely having trouble focusing. Or is that a prediction of Nixonian legacies?

I giggle over Pynchon’s sideways mania. The lost continent called Lemuria is known as “the Atlantis of the Pacific.” St Flip of Lauderdale is a mystic surfer who ventures out too far to catch impossible waves. Penny Kimball, an ex-lover of Doc’s, is a deputy district attorney who sets up Doc. (Bad Penny!) Rudy Blatnoyd is a drug-dealing dentist. A Japanese greasy spoon that offers the best Swedish pancakes in Los Angeles, for another. (I got heartburn there, I swear.) Counterfeit money with Nixon’s face on it? The jellyfish teriyaki croquettes? Vietnam is compared to your mother doing smack? A building in Los Angeles that is a six story high golden fang? The paranoia of a gated enclave inside the already gated community? A California blonde with store-bought teeth? And purple pork rind that glows in the dark? The bikers who roll past in military precision?

I read Thomas Pynchon because he's fun. Pynchon is shameless in his joking. Look for wonderfully silly names and goofy acronyms. There is also graphic sexual activity within the book. At the same time, his concerns are important, and his statements about the political underbelly of America have helped make his books sell, yes, in the millions.

Yes, there is plenty these days to giggle over. In the wake of Weinergate, a woman interviewed on CNN said we already live within a Surveillance State. Get used to it. Bad enough the cctv follows you around the room … does your smart phone know where you are? And for whom is it recording this data? Ever been profiled by the TSA? Wanna be patted down? Do you know who can access and has already accessed your medical records?

We live in a time when an algorithm can decide you’re a terrorist. So we Pynchon fanatics snuggle up with and find a temporary comfort in Pynchon’s narratives, knowing that he is sane and so are we and we can always set the book down and see that the world may never be again the way it seemed to be …

Pynchon’s books ask what is most frightening: That no one is in charge, that all is chaos and no meaning can be found. That someone unknown is manipulating for reasons unknown. (Princess Diana spoke of the Gray Men of the Palace. Hmm.) Conspiracies are a narrative fun, as long as you can abandon them. Those who cannot still want to see Obama’s birth certificate, or bin Laden’s corpse, or what’s under Trump’s hairline, or what makes Sarah run.

At the core, I love Pynchon’s suggestion that we quest after love. In Pynchon’s world, we are all lonely and looking for love. But we live now. “Kindness without a price tag …” Sounds deliciously tempting. If only …