Book Review: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon can write; there’s no doubt about that.  He can spin a sentence as well as anyone.  It’s a pleasure to read this novel just for the word-craft.  But looking deeper, I think what I object to most is the novel’s flippancy.  It’s light – almost a piece of fluff – despite the plot complexity.  The characters are shallow – not characters, in fact, but caricatures.  They appear “cool” on the outside, with their casual joint-toking and pill-popping, but inside they are hollow; nobody’s home.

That’s the trouble with other “hippy” novels too, or at least novels that I have looked to in hopes of finding something to reflect my own experience in the late 60s and early 70s, the last sad dying days of the hippy era.  “Another Roadside Attraction”, for example, is absurd – but then, it never tries to be anything else.  “Dog Soldiers” deals with the dark fringes of the drug world but never attempts to go into the mainstream.  I have been searching for good novels that deal with the hippy experience in depth but have so far been disappointed.  That’s one reason, in fact, that I wrote my own, of which I will speak no more here, as it is now making the rounds of the New York publishers.

The thing is – in my experience hippies were not cool at all.  They were lost individuals.  Some just jumped on the bandwagon for the party; they would have been just as happy swilling beer or whiskey in another era, and indeed many switched to alcoholic highs further down the road when their paranoia got the better of them and they decided to stick to something legal.  Others were sincere searchers, but looking in the wrong place.  Fragmenting your psyche is not one of the roads to enlightenment, but one of the side-paths to destruction.  Others went along because they saw their friends or those they admired doing it, and became lost, disappointed, confused; these often fared far worse than the rest in the hippy milieu, because they came into it not knowing what to expect and by the time they realized that drugs were not the purported cure-all people claimed them to be, it was too late and they were even more lost than when they had begun the journey; they were confused, delusional, unable to cope with reality.

I fall into the last category.  Smoking too much pot, and then by extension taking too many psychedelics, disturbed me for years, made me listless, rudderless, unable to focus on anything worthwhile, even the writing career I had realized by then that I wanted.

So, no – taking drugs is not a joke and what happened in the hippy era is far more complex and relevant to what the world is today than Pynchon gives it credit for.  I wish he had created real characters that we could weep for and empathize with.

That said, I have to admit that “Inherent Vice” is good entertainment, in the same way that a comic book, or as they call them today, a graphic novel, entertains.  Just don’t expect much more.  That’s the mistake I made:  I did.

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