Inherent Vice? Thomas Pynchon?

I recently saw Inherent Vice – PT Anderson’s screen adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name.  For the first time in a long time, I found myself sitting in a theater fundamentally confused about both what was going on (who was connected to whom, how and why) and also what, if any, the broader meaning of what what going on was.

Now this does justice (For me anyway) to the feeling I get when I read Pynchon’s novels.  I’ve read a few – besides Inherent Vice, also The Crying of Lot 49, Bleeding Edge, the first 100 pages or so of Against the Day, and I’m about 150 pages from the 774-page Mason & Dixon.  I’ve never read Gravity’s Rainbow, which is supposed to be the best of them (though from what I’ve read, The Crying of Lot 49 was really memorable, at least for the feeling it evoked, and the symbols it manipulated, even if I can’t remember that much about the plot (something about an alternative postal service?).

I’m really writing this in the hopes that some readers have seen this movie and/or read the book, and therefore might be in a position to comment intelligently on it.  I don’t think I am.  I’ll just share a few thoughts.  Part of me wants to dismiss the whole movie as a failure, and dismiss Pynchon’s novels as simple provocations without any substance but I know that’s too quick.  And I’ve been drawn to reading them on multiple occasions so there must be something there.

Thought 1 – a review I read said something like “this movie had too many clever intrusions and winks at the camera to really draw you into it.”  This strikes me as both true and totally missing the point.  That’s exactly what Pynchon’s books are all like, so I have to assume that Pynchon is producing this effect intentionally.  One quick example – the lead character is named Doc Sportello.  At least twice, someone says “what’s up doc?” to him, and I really think I’m supposed to think of Bugs Bunny, even though I’m also perhaps supposed to think that the character in the movie is not thinking of Bugs Bunny.  Sometime like this happens a lot in Mason & Dixon – there’s this dramatically-ironic allusion, a joke between the author and the reader at the character’s (and at realism’s) expense.

Thought 2 – a learned friend I have said that the reason he doesn’t like Pynchon, but does like Joyce (the two are often compared) is that whereas both are confusing, Joyce always seems to contain an underlying humanism that, once the obscurity is brought into focus, emanates from the text; one feels a real joy in humanity in Joyce.  For Pynchon, on the other hand, you get the feeling that your sense of unity and yearning for joy is constantly being intentionally undercut by some narrative sleight of hand – a new character, a new setting, an intentional contradiction – i.e., intrusions and winks at the camera, but in written form.  You feel like a dog chasing down a car you can never get to.

Thought 3 – reading Pynchon (and watching this movie) feels a lot like listening to atonal music (like Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, for example).  Every time I get a sense of the melody, it gets disrupted.  This happens because the music avoids a “home key,” by using each of the 12 semitones within the octave before moving on to use them again (that’s what 12-tone music in its purest form does – I’m not sure if that’s literally true of the piano concerto).  The way music usually makes you feel comfortable is by repeating some notes more than others, to create a sense of consonance, a “key.”  Schoenberg’s music has other good qualities, but continuous, consonant melody is not one of them.  A critical piece I read once suggested that by being “liberated” from the expectation of tonality, you could enjoy other things by not being so focused on something you were used to hearing.  For me, this often just becomes a sense of ambience or atmosphere, a mood rather than a linear tune.

There were times while watching Inherent Vice (and while reading Mason & Dixon, for that matter) that I felt that.  Anderson’s film certainly effectively evokes several moods.  And there were moments when I just thought “fine, who cares why this guy is now a character, why that guy just died, etc. – I’ll just enjoy the array of sounds, images, words and symbols in front of me.”

But then there were other times where I felt like the only person at a party who was not high.

My real question is – assuming this is the intended effect, what is the point?  I’m not asking that rhetorically, like as if to say “there is no point.”  I’m really asking – what is the point of producing stories that use narrative tools to disrupt our sense of unity, our sense of story, to wink at us from time to time?

Thought 4 (mostly unrelated) – The first time I watched The Big Lebowski, I felt some version of all of the above (though in a more comic mode).  I remember feeling especially exasperated when the Knudsens were introduced.  “Of course” I thought “why not introduce new characters 90 minutes in?”  Now I know Lebowski (“Brother Seamus” subplot and all) to be one of the brilliant comedies of our time.

But my question here is simpler (and more rhetorical): is Inherent Vice (both the novel and the movie) just a wholesale ripoff of Lebowksi?  Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello talks almost exactly like Jeff Bridges’ Jeff Lebowski, dresses like him, gets high just like him, gets drawn into a confusing non-kidnapping just like him (I’m sure there are many more plot parallels) – and then there are thematic and motif-type parallels: dialogue, image and other language playfully bounces ideas between those modalities, and in both cases, there is a lot centering around phallic symbols (“what’da’ya need that for dude?”).

Though I’ll say this for the Coen Brothers – their movie is much, much funnier.  I suspect even if I saw Inherent Vice as many times as I’ve seen The Big Lebowski, I’d still think the same thing.  But then I don’t think Inherent Vice is supposed to be a comedy necessarily… Anyhow I think I’ve equivocated enough.


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