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Breath as Inherent Vice, pt. one (of five)

(photo: lyconaut’s photostream, on flickr)

What we can learn about the exit strategy of Thomas Pynchon through the pot-addled California avenues of Inherent Vice.

The term “inherent vice” derives from maritime law terminology, and pertains to something in the nature of the transported article(s) potentially harmful to the article itself. According to statutes in the same legal vicinity, these “flaws” should be made known to the handler in advance, so that he can take the necessary precautions during transportation (and of course increase his fee). For example: eggs break and ice-cream melts, to cite two rather obvious applications of the term. They should be packed and transported with due caution (egg cartons and freezers, respectively). There are, though, items whose inherent vice is not as readily apparent: massive gilded frames with invisible faults that can crack and injure the Dutch master’s works on their way to an oversea exhibition. Weird top-heavy abstract sculptures, made by an Austrian brutalist artist called Wolff-Tarap, and imported by sturgeon-egg moguls from the shores of the Caspian Sea, topple over or break in two. More importantly, and appropriately for this study, writers die. It’s in their nature. With every breath, their bodies take another small step towards death. For people who deal with immortality for so long (or with the closest to immortality they can get to), their final yards are often anticlimactic. It seems that their diminishing ability to draw breath correlates with their ability to write books that remain forever lodged in the mind of the reader. The sentences become tamer, the ideas less pyrotechnic, the pages reduced in number, their bag of tricks all used up. As it has been said of schizophrenia, in a rather unfortunate phrasing, the symptoms mellow out as time goes by, and as the patient grows old. Take DeLillo for example, who, after Underworld, seems to be on a permanent vacation, writing slight novellas which, although clearly the output of a great mind, are no match for his earlier works; BurroughsGhost of Chance; Philip Roth’s- (never mind, Philip, or Henry, Roth, are not good examples); McCarthy, whose The Road traces a fitting parallel to Inherent Vice: he, too, chose to write late in his career a novel in a genre he was unaccustomed to in a much simpler, straightforward way than that of his earlier novels (still, it’s one of the best examples of post-apocalyptic fiction ever published). If his brothers-in-arms’ trajectories are anything to judge from, Pynchon is heading towards smaller and smaller books. Inherent Vice is just the first step in a theoretical progression of books extending to infinity. Will there be another? No one knows, maybe not even him. My father, no stranger to the pull of entropy, says writers turn to shorter forms as they grow older, for fear that they may die before they can finish something longer. Others think that writing resembles love. It dies down eventually to an amenable shadow of its former searing majesty. Whatever the case might be, every book is an aggregate of signals, and the small books of great writers are a way for them to say that death is approaching. Well, it has always been so, but in their youth and middle age they had the luxury of thinking they were immortal, the way their books would be. Both, writer and books, are destined to fail.

The cool thing is that writers get to choose their afterlives, unlike the rest of us. I know, a tricky concept to introduce, given that the afterlife doesn’t exist. But see, parts of Thomas Pynchon’s brain, his thought processes, the spinning gyroscopes of connectivity between his various experiences or simulations thereof, will remain, and anyone will be able to access them (live in them) by shelling out ten bucks or just taking the bus to the library. His body won’t live on, but, let’s take a trip out onto thin ice here, his essence (or at least the essence he chose to construct and reveal), whatever makes him the human being he is, will remain in some form, encoded in words, the pinnacle achievement of our race. He’s been busy crafting mental spaces all his life, so it’s only fair that he gets to choose what these greener pastures will look like. If that isn’t a life after life, then what is? With such a reading in mind, Inherent Vice acquires a different meaning, no more just a spectacular specimen of surf noir, or one of Pynchon’s more straightforward books, but a wish.

Above all, a wish.

(this essay first appeared in Greek in the electronic magazine The Zone, www.thezone.gr)

(the second part is scheduled to appear on Wednesday, 23 December 2011)



3 thoughts on “Breath as Inherent Vice, pt. one (of five)

  1. Huh? CL49, written early, is the shortest novel, and Against the Day, the book just before Inherent Vice is the longest. There’s no progress from long to short, and those who pay attention are secretly hoping the Civil War novel that Pynchon may have been working on as early as the mid-60s may still get completed sometime.

    Posted by Peter K. | November 19, 2011, 05:42
    • Peter,
      I don’t think I am implying that there is a progress from long to short. After all, DeLillo wrote Underworld in his fifties. I am just saying that there may be a pattern. The writers that tend to dare the most, turn to shorter works when they get old, for any number of reasons. That being said, this assumption could be entirely wrong, and I am sure there are plenty of exceptions (or manifestations of the rule disguised as exceptions).
      Now, do you have any links that could yield some information on the Pynchon Civil War novel? Any pointers would be appreciated.

      Posted by Kechagiar | November 19, 2011, 11:53


  1. Pingback: Breath as Inherent Vice, pt. two (of five) « Seven Steps Back - November 29, 2011

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