Pynchon at the Beach

Inherent Vice is the key to understanding Thomas Pynchon. Why do critics hate it?

thomas pynchon, inherent vice
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Since 1994, International Pynchon Week (IPW) has been held more or less every two years at an academic institution in Europe. The pandemic, however, played havoc with the schedule, which is why the 2022 conference ended up in Vancouver, at the University of British Columbia.

Sean Carswell, a Pynchon scholar and professor at Cal State Channel Islands, has spent his academic career researching the reclusive novelist and wrote the book Occupy Pynchon: Politics After Gravity’s Rainbow. I live in Southern California, and he urged me to attend the conference. “It’s not going to get any closer,” he said.

Carswell and I both write for the Los Angeles–based punk-rock zine Razorcake, and on numerous occasions, we’ve discussed Pynchon’s 2009 novel, Inherent Vice. The book is generally considered by book critics to be “Pynchon lite,” but my view is that it’s the best of Pynchon’s California novels.

According to Carswell, this is a view his colleagues share. “Although the critics panned Inherent Vice,” he said, “a lot of scholars were quick to recognize it’s an important book.”

So I went to Vancouver to find out what makes Inherent Vice so divisive.

Thomas Pynchon likes to take his time. Following the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973, it was 11 years before he put out another book.

That’s why Inherent Vice was such a surprise. Published in 2009, just three years after the sprawling Against the Day, this detective story set in the spring of 1970 and featuring a hippie private eye named Larry “Doc” Sportello surprised everyone.

The critical reception was less than positive. In the New York Times, Walter Kirn complained that the narrative progressed “from digression to digression…periodically pausing for dope-head gabfests of preposterous intensity.” Sam Anderson’s take in New York opened: “I hate Thomas Pynchon.” Even sympathetic critics didn’t regard Inherent Vice as altogether serious. “One way to enjoy Inherent Vice,” James Parker wrote for the Barnes & Noble Review, “might be to imagine it as the work, not of Thomas Pynchon but of a tenacious coven of Pynchon devotees—pranksterish post-Aquarian zanies who have the great man locked away somewhere and are writing the books they think he should write.”

I’ve never understood these dismissals because to my mind Inherent Vice is a skeleton key to Pynchon’s work. Set in the fictional South Bay city of Gordita Beach, it begins with Doc getting a visit from his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth, who fears her new lover, a real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann, is in trouble. Once Doc starts investigating, he is immediately implicated by his old nemesis, LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, in the death of a Wolfmann associate.

The setup is nearly identical to that of Pynchon’s 1990 California novel Vineland. There, a dope-smoking ex-hippie, Zoyd Wheeler, carries a torch for his ex-wife, Frenesi Gates, and is pursued by a door-kicking federal agent named Hector Zuñiga. In fact, Zoyd and Frenesi met and briefly lived together in Gordita Beach—just like Doc and Shasta.

The name Gordita Beach may be Pynchon’s invention, but it’s clearly modeled after Manhattan Beach. The author lived there during the late 1960s and early 1970s—as did I, 30 years after that. At one point, Doc crashes at an apartment that matches the location of 217 33rd Street, where Pynchon reputedly lived in 1969 and 1970. It’s between El Porto, the name given to the north end of the city after the famous surf break, and the pier. This makes Gordita Beach more than just the beach city of Pynchon’s imagination but also a place where the author lived and breathed.

Given how little we know about Pynchon, a man who has never given an interview and doesn’t have an internet presence, aren’t these echoes significant? Isn’t it reasonable to assume we can learn something from Gordita Beach? This was one of the reasons I came to IPW, to look more closely at Inherent Vice.

IPW is structured like most academic conferences, with panels throughout the day and informal events in the evenings. That’s where some of the liveliest debates took place.

The night before the panels started, I listened as Terry Reilly, professor of English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, offered some interesting theories about the importance of the book.

Reilly believes Pynchon started Inherent Vice in Manhattan Beach during the same period he was writing Gravity’s Rainbow. Such an interpretation featured prominently in the paper he was set to deliver the next day.

I asked Reilly what happened to Pynchon at the beach that made him keep returning to it in his fiction. He suggested that perhaps this information might be found in the Stephen Michael Tomaske Memorial Collection of Thomas Pynchon papers at the Huntington Library, which includes an autobiography written in consideration for a grant.

These papers, however, have been sealed and will remain so until January 2, 2040. Which doesn’t help us very much in the here and now.

Like many readers, I discovered Pynchon’s novels as an undergraduate, but my education took a few detours. After high school, I enlisted in the Navy and moved up the ranks from deck seaman to boatswain’s mate. Little did I know I was following in his footsteps.

Pynchon interrupted his studies at Cornell University to serve two years before the mast. The influence of his time in the fleet is all over his first novel V, and I felt like I had secret insights that weren’t available to my professors or my peers. One of his recurring characters, Pig Bodine, was a boatswain’s mate like me—although a much more vulgar version.

That connection intensified when I moved to Manhattan Beach and discovered I lived a few hundred steps from where Pynchon had written parts of Gravity’s Rainbow—and, if Reilly is right, Inherent Vice.

For the scholars who laid the groundwork of Pynchon studies, Gravity’s Rainbow is regarded as the masterpiece. The Crying of Lot 49 is the more accessible introduction. “For the old guard,” Carswell explained, “Pynchon was validation for literary criticism because you can’t read it by yourself.”

Yet many of the younger scholars at IPW feel Inherent Vice has replaced The Crying of Lot 49 as the “gateway novel.” Several reported having favorable experiences teaching Inherent Vice to undergraduates.

The shift in thinking about Inherent Vice has a lot to do with Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film adaptation, which features Joaquin Phoenix as Doc. “If you like the movie,” says Jacob Singer, a freelance writer and high school teacher, “you’re going to love that book.”

Justin St. Clair, associate professor of English at the University of South Alabama, takes the argument one step further: “This may be heresy,” he says, “but I think I like the movie better than the book.”

Not all Pynchon scholars admire Thomas’s interpretation. The film valiantly takes on many of Pynchon’s plotlines, but it falls short in other ways. For Reilly, it ignores the most important aspect of the book: the many and varied references to the Manson Family. Set in the period between the Tate-LaBianca murders and the Manson trial, the novel captures the moment when Californians lost faith in the counterculture. Reilly believes Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood does a better job of evoking what Pynchon refers to as the “Mansonoid conspiracy” that was in the air as that long, strange trip turned toxic.

On the last day of in-person papers, there were two presentations about Inherent Vice. In “Complex Adaptive Systems and Inherent Vice,” Singer argued that “typical plot analysis doesn’t center on groups.” His analysis clarified my belief that any attempt to adapt Pynchon would ultimately fail because there’s too much going on beneath the surface.

The novel communicates with itself—and the places it represents—in subterranean ways.

Inherent Vice opens with an epigraph: “Under the paving stones, the beach.” It’s a slogan made popular during the uprisings in France in May 1968. The beach refers to the sand underneath the paving stones that the students dug up and threw at the police. For Pynchon, what lies beneath the surface has always been a source of fascination.

Manhattan Beach, for instance, is built on dunes that may have been used by the Tongva, the original inhabitants, as a burial ground. (In Vineland, Hector suggests as much to Zoyd.) Early in Inherent Vice, there’s a scene that underscores Pynchon’s instincts as an archaeologist of the oppressed.

Doc is in his office when he is visited by Tariq Khalil, a Black ex-con. Doc reflects on how unusual it is to see a Black person so close to the beach. It would be easy to misread his observation as casual racism. But that’s not how Pynchon operates.

Doc’s reverie extends to the harassment of Blacks by the local police department, a practice “dating back to shortly after the Second World War, when a black family had actually tried to move into town and the citizens, with helpful advice from the Ku Klux Klan, had burned the place to the ground and then, as if some ancient curse had come into effect, refused to allow another house ever to be built on the site.”

His memory is correct. The property in question is now a beachfront park that sits between 26th and 27th Streets. Thanks to Senate Bill 796, which Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law in September 2021, the land, known as Bruce’s Beach, will be returned to the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce, the owners who were forced to abandon their property just as Doc describes.

This was big news last year, but not in 2009, when Inherent Vice was published. Back then, only a handful of people were aware of the origins of the park.

The move is classic Pynchon. Throughout his novels—which address subjects ranging from the founding of America to the destruction of Europe—he is interested in those on the wrong end of imperialism. To put it another way, Pynchon is obsessed with real estate: both the builders and the dispossessed. It’s no accident that at the center of The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice are dead or missing developers.

I suspect we may never find out what happened to Pynchon at the beach. But just as we don’t need to know the source of the screaming across the sky that opens Gravity’s Rainbow, the story of what haunted him can remain in the fog that envelops the South Bay at the end of Inherent Vice. It’s in the petrochemical murk that hangs over the beach cities, the sand coughed up on the shore with each breaking wave. It’s in the novels that capture this time and place like no one has before and no one will again.•

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