Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

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Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A very lengthy-reading thriller set in the dopey days of late '60s San Francisco. There were flashes of comedy, and a general narrative drive to be enjoyed, but on the whole, this failed to take me places. Man.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 384 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
ISBN: 978-0224089487

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The close of the '60s, the dawn of the '70s. San Francisco. Some people say the most influential people are Nixon and his cronies. Some people say they're Charlie Manson and his cronies. Some people call the smog surrounding everyone in the Bay Area air pollution, others a drug haze. Doc, the sole proprietor of LSD Investigations, is approached by different people, requesting two jobs of him, which both point to the same bigwig property developer. One of these is from his ex, now with said mogul, another is from a man whose prime interest immediately dies. How will this escalate into a manic mystery, hitting on mysterious yachts taking odd journeys, missing people, Nixon, dead people coming back to life, unusual retreats, and a host more?

There is a druggy haze the people - especially Doc - live in here, and there is a smart way for that to emerge into the narration. Paragraphs will have the narrator breaking out of reported speech, and summarise, say, 20 words of dialogue in 20 words of its own. It will drift easily into and out of Doc's own vocabulary and point of view. This is all done subtly, but noticeably.

There probably are more pages here that drugs are used on, or suffered from than there are not. Normally this would not exactly endear a book to me, but from the first pages, the book was cutting through that and allowing me to enjoy the thriller side of things. It is again a hazy construct. It looks, bare-boned, to be very linear - this discovery leads to this conversation, leads to this errand - but staggers Doc around his state in a very convoluted, circuitous path. It hits on hippy, surfer, doper, family, The Family, police, FBI, and copious surroundings.

Is this, then, trying to be a state-of-the-nation read as well?

Well, there are flashes here and there of someone writing about this being the end of the Summer of Love and the beginnings of something darker. But a goodly proportion of that comes from the blurb writer. I am at too much of a remove to say how accurately this book renders the cusp of that decade. So I must approach it from the point of view of the thriller reader, and here damn it by saying it is at least a hundred pages too long.

There are touches of the Elmore Leonard, and suchlike flashy thriller writing and the narrative certainly embroils one into variety, some small danger, some unusual circumstances for Doc. But on the whole, I'm back to the haze again.

It was a surprise to find some humour in the closing pages - if it was there throughout, it was too much of the stoner, hippy variety, and boiling down to yawnsome details like Doc losing his memory (and more) due to the copious tokes he takes. Sorry, I missed it.

This surprised me, being the first book I've read by this author, whose rare publications are approaching the status of event novel. I would defend my low rating by saying this is a very American book - I know he's referring to Gilligan's Island, but nothing beyond that - there are bounties of cultural and cuisine references that just don't travel to these British shores. If you can defy the adage about the 60s, and remember it, and have some more knowledge of what this book is mirroring, you may well feel I'm short-changing it. But I stand by the conviction that, though impressively immersive, this is too long, too dopey, too hazy.

I must still thank the people at Jonathan Cape for my review copy.

A very different kind of fiction set in San Francisco can be found in the pages of The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer. For another book set ion San Francisco, we can recommend American Weather by Charles McLeod. We also have a review of Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon.

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