Detective Stories: Puntificating with Pynchon

by Brian Honigman    /  November 1, 2009  / No comments



In detective stories there’s no birds sing. Joy is forbidden, temptation the sign of the devil, illicit, enthralling, a siren not a song. Joy is the accomplice of crime.  Solving a crime, no matter how chaotic or even random the path, is an epistemological triumph, where the detective follows the rules without following the rules.

The world of Thomas Pynchon’s newest novel, Inherent Vice, is as irreparably flawed as any hard-boiled dystopian mystery. But it is also a world where good karma is every bit as important as fingerprints, good sex (even extreme sex) is not punished, where you not only face the music, you can’t escape it—it won’t turn off.  It’s as if the novel includes a built-in AM radio that’s always on.

Inherent Vice has generally been reviewed as “Pynchon lite.”  But I think it is a wise book, under-rated because it is not portentous, indeed the opposite, in which the case for joy is made, joy as a way toward meaning and central to life rather than a spin-off.  The hero is no longer a passive schlemiel but a “private dick” in every way, who uses his head and feeds it, but unlike the other characters in the book who struggle or blithely fail, he is able to balance joy and responsibility; bridge hedonists, criminals, and police of all stripes, pick your combinations; and bring parents around to children.

He accepts no fees from clients, yet money magically arrives whenever he needs it.  And like found money, puns abound, as if language itself was able to celebrate its accidents without sacrificing itself to disorder.

The plot is convoluted as any Pynchon novel but it moves differently—in bursts driven by the puns and random twists of language, reminding me of Flann O’Brien’s The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman, as if the songs and words rattling around in our heads were characters driving the story and solving the crime was a matter of being in tune with the many voices within.

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