Thomas Pynchon is an author well known for his novels being very dense, complex, and full of thematic meanings and symbolism, but many readers claim that Inherent Vice is a little more of a casual and laid-back read that still manages to be gripping and intense.
This crime detective novel, first published in 2009, captures the Noire aesthetic of the 1970s incredibly well, making it a fan-favorite among followers of Thomas Pynchon’s discography.
Behind the quirky characters and occasional humor though is actually some very deep and personal messaging that helps to elevate the book’s quality tremendously, something that many readers only realize once they are several chapters in.
Today, we’re going to take a deeper look at this beloved novel to understand why exactly it is considered by many to be one of Pynchon’s finest works, and why it is definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the period!
Overview Of The Novel
Detective Larry “Doc” Sportello is a carefree hippie who is well-known around the LA area for being one of the most reliable private detectives in the area, despite the fact that he is constantly involved in the very active drug scene of California in the 1970s.
One day, he receives a visit from his former girlfriend, Shasta, who is now having an affair with the extremely wealthy and powerful real-estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann.
Shasta begins pleading with Larry to look into a plan being hatched by Mickey’s wife, Sloane, who is supposedly trying to get Mickey admitted to a mental health institution for her own selfish gain.
This is just one of the “five plots” that take place across the story of Inherent Vices.
Alongside looking into the suspicious Mickey case, Larry must also investigate the sudden disappearance of Shasta, before then running into heroin addict Coy Harlingen who struggles to take care of his child and begs Larry to help him become sober.
Later in the book, there is also a plot surrounding Lieutenant Bigfoot who knows something about the mysterious murder of his partner, and then a case concerning the Golden Fang criminal syndicate which is smuggling heroin and cocaine around the city.
This sounds like these plots should overlap and create confusion, but Pynchon writes them so that they are introduced gradually which actually benefits the pacing tremendously, especially since many of the stories also feed into one another by the end.
About The Author
While Thomas Pynchon began writing several short stories in the years following his time in the US Navy, he soon after began writing novels with V. being the book that really put him on the map for many fans of American fiction.
Every 2 to 3 years, Pynchon would release another novel that would receive generous reviews, that was until he would write Gravity’s Rainbow, a book centered around the production and dispatch of V-2 German rockets in World War 2.
Despite the strange premise, the book would win the 1973 US National Book Award for Fiction, which earned him the respect of many of his peers.
Pynchon would become synonymous for incorporating a vast range of topics and themes into a single book, including science, mathematics, wildlife, war, and religion, something that some readers take issue with but others adore due to the sheer variety it offers.
Pynchon is also known for being a recluse, with only a handful of images of him existing over his entire life. In fact, many people had no idea what he even sounded like until he voiced himself in an episode of The Simpsons.
Pynchon has released 9 novels throughout his career so far, with the most recent being Bleeding Edge which came out in 2013.
Review Of Inherent Vice
Inherent Vice may be one of the easier Pynchon novels to follow, but this doesn’t mean that it still doesn’t demand your full attention.
The huge cast of characters, multiple plot threads, and classic 1970s terminology can be rather off-putting for a lot of people, but for many others, it only adds to the sense of unpredictability and wildness that is associated with the period.
Compared to a lot of his previous books though, Inherent Vice provides a much lighter and more jovial tone which provides a nice breath of fresh air for the author, with each one of the cases being broken up constantly by hilarious gags and funny dialogue.
While Larry may be in the middle of planning out his investigation for murder or a disappearance, he also just loves sitting back and smoking dope while watching the NBA, so the overall tone doesn’t become too heavy.
It never feels like Larry is being ignorant or lazy though, it’s more like Pynchon has created him as a metaphor for the crazy and often hypocritical nature of America at that time.
With that said though, while the breezy nature of the book makes it an easy read, in typical Pynchon fashion he does still sneak in a few ideas about counterculture and the freedom that people had in the 60s and 70s that we have seemingly lost nowadays.
Themes In Inherent Vice
For many readers who aren’t looking for any deeper messages or themes in the book, Inherent Vice is a fun and casual read that can be flicked through in a few days, but that doesn’t mean Pynchon isn’t still trying to say something in this whimsical story.
There are some who have called the narrative of Inherent Vice ‘messy’, but in many ways, this is very purposeful from Pynchon, especially considering the character we’re following.
It’s very clear at the beginning of the story that Larry is a pothead and it is suggested that he may also dabble in other drugs too, so the constant switching between plots, and the zoning in and out of current events, feels like Pynchon is trying to imitate Larry’s mental state.
It’s worth noting that drug culture was at its peak in America during the 1970s, with cocaine especially being glamorized in popular media, while the lingering hippie movement of the 60s was also popularizing LSD and marijuana.
While Pynchon certainly isn’t endorsing these substances, at multiple points in the story, he does touch on just how rampant these drugs were not just among citizens, but officials and officers too, like Larry for example.
The title of the book is a reference to the idea in Christian teachings that we are all born as sinful beings, something that is seemingly confirmed when Larry questions near the beginning “Is that like original sin?” when pondering what inherent vice even means.
Pynchon has been no stranger to questioning religious teachings in his novels, but in Inherent Vice, he tackles it head-on by asking the reader: if we are sinful from our birth, how exactly do we become virtuous?
This is something Larry constantly ponders while his mind wanders during his many smoke sessions as he tries to determine whether investigating the sinful acts committed by other people in his work will somehow bring him closer to god and salvation.
The counterculture movement took America by storm in the 1960s, but it was still very alive in the early 1970s.
Rather than just brushing over the suspicion of the establishment and all the revolts that came with it though, Pynchon reflects on the freedom this period granted the individual.
Despite how much crime and mystery surrounds this book, there is always a sense that the citizens are always unified against the establishment and those who have the power to exploit them by telling them what they can and cannot do.
Whether it’s the crazy non-conformist costumes worn by Shasta, the way Coy constantly blurts his trump out on the street, or simply just Larry’s suspicions about the police force, all of it displays a kind of freedom and personal liberty that we don’t see as much anymore.
There is actually a second meaning of the title that comes from a House of Commons speech by Winston Churchill who said “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings”.
Throughout the novel, we clearly see both sides of the spectrum and how a capitalist-crazed America had begun being affected by its obsession.
While Mickey Wolfmann’s exploitation of the real estate industry allows him to dip his hand into the police force and even politics, there are others like Coy who failed to meet the capitalist standards and were therefore forgotten about by society.
With the socialist movement growing in America throughout the 70s, Pynchon reminds readers about the dangers and negative effects of the economic strategy the government was promoting at the time without actually advocating socialism itself.
Inherent Vice is an enjoyable, fun, and hazy look into a wild and outlandish 1970s LA through the eyes of the lovable laid-back detective, Larry Sportello, and is a brilliant example of how the essence of that period can still be replicated by authors in current times.
The novel perfectly blends the serious and gritty crime plots with lighthearted and humorous moments, and with plenty of deeper themes to explore while you read, this is definitely one of Pychon’s best works to date!