Humphry Clinker

Sun Sep 13, 2009

The best review I’ve read of Inherent Vice thus far has been Thomas Jones’s piece in the LRB. I was especially pleased with the surprising comparison to Smollett. Also, the proposed dialectic relationship between Pynchon’s anarchist utopianism and technocratic capitalism—that the true lesson is that one is not imaginable without the other—leaves us to conclude that Pynchon is not in fact given to sentiment, does not want anyone to keep cool but care, but is rather a nihilist.

Jones begins his review with a discussion of his own history with Gravity’s Rainbow. Having always been attracted to difficulty (I remember trying to read the first page of Finnegans Wake when I was nine or ten years old), I first read it when I was a freshman in college. Would I have made it through if the library didn’t stock Weisenburger? Probably not. I remained fascinated with the book throughout my undergraduate years, a fact that I became somewhat embarrassed by when I realized how typical it was. (I suppose my first inkling of how unbalanced Pynchon fans could be came when I subscribed to waste-l in 1995.) I even wrote an independent study project on the book’s critical reception, which I rather unwisely used as my writing sample for graduate school applications.

But even now one of the first things I went to in the Harry Ransom Center was the Pynchon collection. I’m sure these have been circulated widely on the internet now, though I haven’t looked for them, but was most remarkable to me was the preservation of sensibility. I think the first of the few letters there was written when Pynchon was in his mid-twenties, and the sense of humor and general outlook seems to me remarkably consistent almost fifty years later. (One tidbit that raised my eyebrows a bit, mainly because I’d never heard it from anyone, even those who had found and reported on his transcripts, was that calculus was the only class at Cornell he failed.) The musicality and delight in puns of indescribable wretchedness are there fully formed, for instance. I have an interest in personal identity and style, particularly in writers who can assume many different guises, who can write books so different from one another that people would not, not knowing the author in advance, be able to guess who wrote it. Pynchon, needless to say, is not at all like this, though would future philologists, after some Memoirs Found in a Bathub-like catastrophe, be able to identify the author of Vineland as that of Against the Day? It’s somewhat hard to imagine. (I also remember Wallace, in one of his letters to DeLillo in that very same archive, expressing incredulity that Pynchon could have written Vineland. He makes some remark about it sounding like it was written by someone who sat stoned in front of the television all day, which, you know, doesn’t sound all that uncharitable.)

I haven’t yet seen a blog-review of Inherent Vice which didn’t include a blockquote, so here you go:

Somehow unavoidably, the war in Indochina figured in. The U. S. being located between two oceans into which Atlantis and Lemuria had disappeared, was the middle term in their ancient rivalry, remaining trapped in that position up to the present day, imagining itself to be fighting in Southeast Asia out of free will but in fact repeating a karmic loop as old as the geography of those oceans, with Nixon a descendant of Atlantis just as Ho Chi Minh was of Lemuria, because for tens of thousands of years all wars in Indochina had really been proxy wars, going back, back to the previous world, before the U. S., or French Indochina, before the Catholic Church, before the Buddha, before written history, to the moment when three Lemurian holy men landed on these shores, fleeing the terrible inundation which had taken their homeland, bringing with them the stone pillar they had rescued from their temple in Lemuria and would set up as the foundation of their new sacred life and the heart of their exile. it would become known as the sacred stone of Mu, and over the centuries to follow, as invading armies came and went, the stone would be taken away each time for safekeeping to a secret location

In the great rigmarole about the disappeared continents, Mu and Lemuria are sometimes identified, sometimes separate continents themselves. In the passage quoted above, the stoned Doc Sportello is granted this vision of noumenal reality through unusually strong pharmaceutical enhancement, as you might imagine, a device used throughout to depict the symbolic economy of the novel directly. (Lemuria, coincidentally, takes its origin not from Roman ghosts but from Madagascarian fauna (“P. L. SCLATER in Q. Jrnl. Sci. I. 219 In Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands we have existing relics of this great continent, for which as the original focus of the ‘Stirps Lemurum’, I should propose the name Lemuria! [OED])

Sportello, who’s as effectual throughout the novel as a man who with a multiple-pack-a-day of marijuana could be, turns out to be a crack shot and capable force-improviser, in what I suppose is a nod to generic convention. What Pynchon does with the infamously convoluted plots of post-Chandler noir is also predictable, with results as complex as a Harry Stephen Keeler novel. I couldn’t help but wonder, however, if with the “Golden Fang,” Pynchon isn’t following Joyce’s own personal vendettas and identifying the corrupting forces of the times with the merely brash, successful, and eloquent: “He peered sideways up and gave a long slow whistle of call, then paused awhile in rapt attention, his even white teeth glittering here and there with gold points. Chrysostomos” (U, 3). He’s not much of a talker, at least in mixed company, by the accounts I know.