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Books

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

(continued from pt. one)

Pynchon is back with his latest novel and on the surface it contains everything we have come to expect: the sentences multiplying like fractals upon the page; the elliptical dialogue; the unfathomable structure that extends between parts, paragraphs and chapters, passages that no-one can see, but travels through nonetheless; a system of plots lost somewhere beyond a gauze made of unlikely-named characters, tangents growing fungoidly off tangents that one unwisely followed, thinking “this must mean something” because after all, it’s all about meaning, right? Well, Pynchon was never one for the clear-cut declaration, the crystal thought delivered from his ivory tower. Instead, he prefers the doped-up voice heard from the sewer grille, every word punctuated by languid drifts of pot smoke. His is a literature of emergent pattern, the way DeLillo’s is, the meaning arising gradually out of, or kept perpetually hidden by, an avalanche composed of thousands of pieces of information. In this way it resembles consciousness, which supposedly appears automatically once a threshold of sufficient synaptic connections has been overcome. In his books, buried under layers and layers of data, lies a hyperdense core composed of paranoia, entropy, and the longing for freedom. These books manage to say all the things that others deficient in information don’t manage. Of course, you may argue that Pynchon’s books, especially, have gotten as close to a simulation of life as literature ever has: Random as they may feel, these books are possessed of a purposeful complexity. They are massive, they sport a cast of hundreds, and their plots never complete -quite like how “real” life is-, books full of clouds of information, washes of entropy, infrequent moments of illumination, plus the odd road-to-Damascus epiphany. In the last pages waits not some answer but a transcendent non-ending, a look down a passage to some other place.

Unavoidably, Inherent Vice gets compared to Vineland, and not unjustly, nor unkindly. Their features include the same doper-cop connection, vanished exes who have shacked up, connected on some deeper level with the opposition, one would say if one wanted to add insult to injury, and at least Frenesi’s deviation is explained –she’s turned on by Power, as so many of us do–, but as far as Shasta is concerned, what does she seek in Wolfmann? (Maybe she’s turned on by the Antagonist). We find ourselves once more in a California hazed with marijuana smoke and a cast of delinquent characters, whose tachymeters are seemingly stuck in Late Adolescence. One can just take Vineland, and shift the action from the redwood forests of NoCal to the surfer collectives of Gordita Beach, give Zoyd a new name and a sense of purpose other than regaining Frenesi’s affections, plus an occupation which pays rarely, if at all, and you’ve got yourself a pretty good approximation of Inherent Vice.

This time, the era comes into sharper focus, more… ermmm… “real” (a very dodgy word to use on Pynchon, but then again, he should have known better than to mix in his books all that scrupulously researched historical detail), brimming with racial lines, class lines, religious denominations, capitalism invading the countryside –or more precisely economy, since who was it that said that communism was green, or even vegan–, policemen buying up dopers as if they were sitting on the shelves of a supermarket, Dope Fiend Aisle, but this time, somehow, the fragile era seems ascendant, incollapsible, despite the palpable nostalgia for a vanished time and a vanished place. Entropy affects what has come before the start of the book and what will come after its end, sure –where would Pynchon be without it?– but the world does not collapse. The heroes, avenues, misfits, and conspiracies are this time balanced on a surfboard riding the crest of a Dana Point wave not yet begun its inward-spiral end, surfers caroming up and down its gigantic face, and the holy 70’s the figurehead perched on the crown, suspended there through the actions of head-shops, surfer-freaks, NoCal dope growers out in the valleys, corrupt policemen, Mexican labor, union organizing and fuzzy surfer guitars vibrating throughout. He seems to think, in Inherent Vice, that if he keeps at it long enough, if he believes in it, then maybe the wave won’t crash, but will reach the beach still cresting, and the land, California –America!– will open up all the way to the Atlantic, an inverse Red Sea, to let it pass and head to Atlantis, back to the roots, bypass the sinister construct of the United States and get one more shot at this, find another untouched continent, this time maybe full of all-powerful and kind natives, free energy, alien technology, and trees made of adamantium.

Just one more chance, and maybe we can get it right, craft a New World, instead of a more spacious and greedy iteration of the Old One.

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

(the third part is scheduled to appear on Saturday, 30 November 2011)

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  1. Pingback: Breath as Inherent Vice, pt. three (of five) « Seven Steps Back - November 30, 2011

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