Call It Capitalism

Thomas Jones

  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
    Cape, 369 pp, £18.99, August 2009, ISBN 978 0 224 08948 7

When Gravity’s Rainbow won the National Book Award in 1974, its famously reclusive author surprised everyone by turning up at the ceremony to collect the prize. Except that the rambling, shambling figure at the podium wasn’t Thomas Pynchon at all, but a comedian and actor, ‘Professor’ Irwin Corey, who had been hired by Pynchon’s publisher to impersonate the novelist. The audience gradually got the joke as Corey, who was once described by Kenneth Tynan as a ‘travesty of all that our civilisation holds dear and one of the funniest grotesques in America’, accepted the ‘stipend’ on behalf of ‘Richard Python’. ‘The great fiction story is now being rehearsed before our very eyes, in the Nixon administration,’ Corey announced. He described Gravity’s Rainbow as ‘a small contribution to a certain degree, since there are over three and a half billion people in the world today: 218 million of them live in the United States, which is a very, very small amount compared to those that are dying elsewhere.’

What part Pynchon played behind the scenes of Corey’s performance is unclear, but he probably played some because he has always kept a tight rein on his public persona, mostly by not having one – apart from a couple of guest appearances on The Simpsons in 2004 (he’s depicted with a paper bag over his head). When a CNN camera crew caught him on film in 1997, he phoned the network to ask them not to air the footage. They took the opportunity to quiz him about his reclusiveness. ‘My belief is that “recluse” is a codeword generated by journalists,’ he replied, ‘meaning: “doesn’t like to talk to reporters”.’ Authorised by Pynchon or not, Corey’s surrogate acceptance speech touched on many of the persistent themes and anxieties of his novels: that America is not, and has never been, the benign force it would like to pretend to be; that the lines between fiction and reality are uncomfortably blurred; that it’s hard ever to be sure that anyone is who they claim to be; and that many of the things people are inclined to take seriously – literary prizes, global conspiracies, life – may turn out to be someone’s idea of a great big joke.

Gravity’s Rainbow was written during the Vietnam War and published a year after the Watergate break-in. But it is set 30 years earlier, during the last war that the US engaged in as one of the unambiguous good guys. It opens with the flight of a V2 rocket launched from The Hague over the North Sea one December morning in 1944 – ‘A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now’ – and ends a literal moment, ‘the last delta-t’, before the single most devastating V2 attack of the war, which killed 567 people in a cinema in Antwerp on the afternoon of Saturday, 16 December 1944. Over the course of the intervening 750 pages the narrative loops nine months ahead to encompass the occupation of Germany, the fall of Berlin and the bombing of Hiroshima.

From the V2 to the atom bomb, Gravity’s Rainbow pursues the continuities between Nazi Germany and Cold War America. Pynchon learned a fair amount of what he knows about Nazi rocket technology from working at Boeing in the early 1960s. The novel’s first epigraph is attributed to Wernher von Braun, the designer of the V2 and later director of Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The I.G. Farben conglomerate, which owned the patent for Zyklon B, is a malign presence throughout the book. Though Farben was officially broken up in 1951 on account of its war crimes, various of its constituent parts – Agfa, BASF, Bayer – still exist, and Farben itself was listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange until 2003 as a trust company with various real estate assets. The reach, power and longevity of international corporations far surpass those of any individual or government.

The various structural underpinnings of Gravity’s Rainbow – the parabolic flight of a missile (one explanation for its title), differential calculus, the Christian calendar, Kabbalah, astrology, numerology, Tarot – have been relentlessly documented in books and on fansites, and are more or less interesting depending on your tastes. But what they all have in common is a tendency, or a desire, if not to impose order on chaos then at least to see patterns in it – a tendency shared, though rarely so explicitly or exhaustively, by all readers and writers of stories. More fully perhaps than any other novelist, including Don DeLillo, with whom he is so often (and so oddly) paired, Pynchon has explored and exposed the overlap between paranoia and fiction, between the plots imagined or unearthed by conspiracy theorists and the plots of novels, not least because both are concerned with what’s excluded from the historical record. The paranoid’s worst fear is that the conspiracy they see everywhere is their own invention, or a hoax dreamed up at their expense by someone out of reach.

In The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), the ‘true paranoid’ is defined as someone ‘for whom all is organised in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself’. The description could apply just as well to the protagonist of a novel, the person whose story it arbitrarily is, as if they were somehow of greater cosmic significance than anyone else. One of the many startling – and potentially off-putting – things about Gravity’s Rainbow is the way that a succession of implausibly named characters about each of whom you think, first time through, ‘Oh, so this guy must be the hero’ (Pirate Prentice, Tyrone Slothrop, Seaman Bodine), drop out of the narrative. It’s a picaresque tale without a picaro.

Slothrop, who has the strongest claim of the vast cast of characters to be the novel’s centre of gravity, is last seen, nearly a hundred pages before the end, sitting on a curbstone in occupied Germany, watching the sun come up. For a while Slothrop has been stumbling round Berlin in the guise of Rocketman, an ineffectual parody of a superhero, like an X-rated version of Sesame Street’s Super Grover. Later, there’s an explanation of sorts for his disappearance: ‘“We were never that concerned with Slothrop qua Slothrop,” a spokesman for the Counterforce admitted recently in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.’ Seaman Bodine is ‘one of the few who can still see Slothrop as any sort of integral creature any more’: see him, that is, in the way that we’re supposed to see other people if we’re to keep a grip on our sense of their, and consequently our own, humanity. Though the use of the word ‘creature’ suggests that Slothrop and Bodine – and the writer and reader with them – may have slipped a link or two down the chain of being.

The idea of humanity, Gravity’s Rainbow implies, is a paranoid fantasy. But strip it away and all you have left are death, sex and the laws of physics. The place where they intersect is the black hole at the novel’s core, around which the plots and the paranoia orbit in a centripetal swirl. (At least, that’s one relatively respectable explanation for all the high-tech sadomasochism that saturates the novel.) Gravity’s Rainbow acknowledges that to see patterns in the chaos is to be deluded, but at the same time demonstrates the necessity of the delusion.

This isn’t to say that the patterns we project onto the world, the lines we draw on the earth, are any less real, or any less conseq-uential, for being imaginary. One reason for the Second World War was widespread disagreement about where the edges of Germany were. In Mason & Dixon (1997), Pynchon tells the story – or rather, a great many stories – of the surveying of the boundary line that separates Pennsylvania and Delaware from Maryland and West Virginia. The location of the unnaturally straight line was arbitrarily (or at least abstractly) chosen, and Pynchon’s characters get into all kinds of scrapes as a result of the incongruity between the imaginary line they’re plotting and the physical land they’re plotting it on.

The business of surveying it was a good deal messier and more chaotic than you’d guess from seeing it on a map. The finished line is a joined-up series of tangents to the many circuitous expeditions that Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon undertook between 1763 and 1767. When their work was completed, the fantasy of the men who’d hired them was stamped on the earth, and the battlelines of the Civil War that was to come a century later were already set in stone, literally: the line was marked out every mile with stones shipped out from England.

The opening of Mason & Dixon, ‘SnowBalls have flown their Arcs,’ is a softer echo of that first sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow: ‘A screaming comes across the sky.’ Flying bombs have been transmogrified into a children’s game. Looking back to the decades before Independence is one version of the quest for the chimera of America’s lost innocence. But it requires a shift in tense: the bombs are present, the snowballs are past. The quest for innocence is doomed to failure: however far back you go, the elusive quarry has always somehow retreated even further into the past. Innocence can never be written about in the present tense. Besides, with hindsight, the snowballs can be seen to prefigure the bombs: the trajectories and hostilities have always existed; it’s just a question of waiting for the technology to catch up.

If it wasn’t already apparent enough in his earlier novels, Pynchon’s 18th-century sensibility was fully unveiled in Mason & Dixon. Forget DeLillo; the Anglophone novelist whom Pynchon most closely resembles – with his delight in silly names, scatological jokes, wild digressions and impromptu outbursts of song lyrics, his disregard for distinctions between fact and fiction, his scientific background, his belief in the randomness of the world and fascination with the patterns that appear in the chaos – is Tobias Smollett. Perhaps the most striking of Pynchon’s reactions against the legacy of the Victorian novelists is his treatment of children, especially in Gravity’s Rainbow. He doesn’t merely defetishise them as vessels of mystical innocence; he refetishises them as irresistible sex objects. There is a satirical edge to all the spanking and fucking of children: it can be read as an exposé of the sexual component latent in the lingering Victorian ideal, or as an attack on the hypocritical prurience of moralising media crusades against paedophiles, or as an illustration of the brutalising effects of war, or as a more general allegory of the abuse of innocence. Or maybe it’s just porn – an uncomfortable doubt that maintains the edginess of the satire.

Something that people who don’t like Pynchon often complain about is that his ‘characters’ aren’t really characters, in the sense that developed over the course of the 19th century: basically, there’s never anyone to sympathise with. For his fans, there’s always enough else going on for this not to be a problem. But it’s also the case that Pynchon’s fiction reveals something bogus, even sinister, about the very idea of ‘sympathetic characters’. As readers we may rely on our liberal humanist ability to ‘empathise’ with immaterial strangers, but we can still tolerate with bland equanimity the manifold suffering of the wretched of the earth when we put down our novels and turn on the evening news. That’s OK: if we couldn’t, we’d all be suicide bombers. Still, in this respect, Pynchon’s alienating novels are altogether more ‘realistic’ than any number of finely wrought explorations of individual consciousness.

Once certain stories have been made up about the way the world is – that there’s something called the Mason-Dixon Line, for example, or childhood innocence, or novelistic character – it’s impossible to go back to a world in which those stories haven’t yet been told. The epigraph to Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s latest novel, is a translation of the famous piece of Parisian graffiti from May 1968: ‘Sous les pavés, la plage!’ But just because the paving stones were laid on top of the beach, that doesn’t mean that the beach will still be there if you rip up the paving stones. On the contrary, perhaps the beach is only still there beneath the paving stones so long as you don’t rip them up. But then, what good is a buried beach?

That’s the kind of dumb-serious question – ‘Anybody understand why they call it “real” estate?’ is an actual example – that it might occur to one of the novel’s perpetually stoned characters to ask. The protagonist, Doc Sportello, is a diminutive private eye – ‘What I lack in al-titude … I make up for in at-titude’ – with a serious dope habit and an office in Gordita Beach, a fictional suburb of Los Angeles last seen in Vineland and based on Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon probably lived in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Inherent Vice is set in 1970: Nixon’s in the White House, Reagan is governor of California, and Charles Manson and his groupies are about to go on trial for mass murder. Whichever way you look at it, the 1960s are over, though Doc doesn’t seem to have noticed.

The novel’s title is taken from the world of marine insurance. ‘It’s what you can’t avoid,’ explains Doc’s lawyer, Sauncho Smilax, who specialises, not very helpfully for Doc, in maritime law. ‘Stuff marine policies don’t like to cover. Usually applies to cargo – like eggs break – but sometimes it’s also the vessel carrying it. Like why bilges have to be pumped out?’ Doc, when he first hears the phrase, asks if it’s ‘like original sin’, but it’s more like ‘double indemnity’. The novel begins with Doc’s ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth, coming ‘along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to’ – the nostalgia seeps out of the page – with a story about how her new lover, a phenomenonally rich property developer called Mickey Wolfmann, is at risk from his wife and her lover: they’re ‘working together on some creepy little scheme’ to do away with him and take his money.

It’s complicated, and it gets more complicated still when a guy called Tariq Khalil turns up (‘black folks were occasionally spotted west of the Harbor Freeway, but to see one this far out of the usual range, practically by the ocean, was pretty rare’) asking Doc to track down a member of the Aryan Brotherhood he knew in prison, who owes him money and who also just happens to be one of Mickey Wolfmann’s bodyguards. And then Wolfmann is kidnapped, the bodyguard is killed and Doc is framed for his murder. At this point we’re not even 25 pages in, and Doc hasn’t yet been contacted by the widow of Coy Harlingen, who used to play the saxophone in an experimental surf band called the Boards, and who may not in fact have died of a heroin overdose, as everybody supposed, but be working as a counter-revolutionary triple agent for the FBI or some other, even more secret government – or possibly supra-governmental – agency. Phew.

The experience of reading the novel is probably as close to getting stoned as reading a novel can be. It brings on fits of the giggles and paranoia jags, and badly messes with your short-term memory: the plot, as ever with Pynchon, is bewilderingly hard to follow, the plethora of characters almost impossible to keep track of without taking notes (as it happens, Doc’s a bit of a compulsive notetaker, to help compensate for his doper’s memory). It doesn’t, however, make you fall asleep or, despite the many descriptions of the consumption of every conceivable variety of fast food, give you the munchies.

Amid all the shenanigans, Pynchon finds time to acknowledge the rise of the world wide web – one of Doc’s contacts has hacked into ARPAnet, the precursor of the internet established by the Department of Defense and various West Coast universities – and to take a few sideswipes at the war on terror (‘these days … most of the energy in this office [the FBI] is going into investigating Black Nationalist Hate Groups’) and the credit crunch: ‘It isn’t new money exactly … more like new debt. Everything they own, including their sailboats, they’ve bought on credit cards from institutions in places like South Dakota that you send away for by filling out the back of a match cover.’

And, inevitably, there’s a vast and secretive organisation with tentacles that appear to be busily squirming in every dark corner that Doc pokes his nose into. It’s called the Golden Fang and, unlike Farben, it’s undocumented anywhere outside the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. When Doc warns someone that ‘this is the Golden Fang you’re about to rip off here, man,’ he gets the dismissive reply: ‘That’s according to your own delusional system.’ But ditch the silly name and the comic-book headquarters, and it’s hard not to agree that a system like the Golden Fang exists, only most people call it, more prosaically, capitalism. And it’s everywhere:

The Golden Fang operatives were cleverly disguised tonight as a wholesome blond California family in a ’53 Buick Estate Wagon … a nostalgic advertisement for the sort of suburban consensus that [the Golden Fang] prayed for day and night to settle over the Southland, with all non-homeowning infidels sent off to some crowded exile far away, where they could be safely forgotten. The boy was six and already looked like a Marine.

The ideological antithesis to the Golden Fang is the lost continent of Lemuria, submerged beneath the Pacific Ocean, which the hippies and surfers imagine as an anarchist utopia, more or less accessible depending on how much acid you happen to have taken. Utopias are what the paranoid imagine when they’re on a good trip. The trouble is, it’s not always straightforward to disentangle the positive paranoia from the negative, and impossible to know which side everyone – including yourself – is really on. The more closely you scrutinise the struggle between anarchist utopia and totalitarian capitalism – also one of the threads in Against the Day (2006) – the more interdependent they seem to be.

Just look at the drugs: an ineffectual pimp informs Doc that the Golden Fang is an ‘Indochinese heroin cartel. A vertical package. They finance it, grow it, process it, bring it in, step on it, move it, run Stateside networks of local street dealers, take a separate percentage off of each operation. Brilliant.’ Obviously no single organisation has this kind of reach. But global capital does. And the drug trade is as good an example as there is of what the invisible hand of unfettered capitalism might look like. The pimp’s tongue has been loosened by ‘a joint of Colombian commercial proven effective at stimulating conversation’. Indochina and Colombia: the sites of two of the lengthiest and most disastrous US interventions of the 20th century. The drug-dependent fantasy of the beach (Lemuria) can only be sustained as long as the paving stones (capitalism) remain in place: the people dreaming about the beach are inadvertently paying for the upkeep of the paving stones.

This might look like a mutually sustaining cold war between the values of the 1960s and those of the 1980s, an apparent antagonism that Pynchon also investigated in Vineland (1990). But actually all the elements of the conflict were already there in the 1960s. If von Braun is the malign spirit hovering over Gravity’s Rainbow, in Inherent Vice it’s Charles Manson, the white racist advocate of black power. He embodies the contradictions of the decade: he was into free love, getting stoned, the Beatles and the Beach Boys; he believed in the coming revolution; and he ordered his followers to go into other people’s homes and maim and kill in the service of a fugitive idea – just as Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon did. Manson’s in jail because he brought the slaughter home to California instead of exporting it to Central America or South-East Asia; he’s widely recognised as a nutjob because he preached about the coming of Helter Skelter instead of the menace of Communism and the domino effect, taking the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ for his bible instead of the Truman Doctrine.

Inherent Vice is heaving with references to pop culture, not just music and drugs but films and television too. Zombies and vampires of indeterminate metaphorical status stalk the streets of Los Angeles. Sauncho is often too freaked out by what he’s just caught on the tube – seeing The Wizard of Oz on a colour set for the first time, he wonders what the Technicolor of Munchkinland must look like to Dorothy – to pay much attention to what Doc’s trying to tell him. When Doc’s neighbour finds a huge stash of heroin in a cardboard box that once held a colour TV, he spends many baffled hours staring at it, trying to figure out what the programme is.

Both shorter and easier to read than any of Pynchon’s previous novels apart from The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice gives the impression of having been easier to write, too. It’s less than three years since Against the Day was published, compared to the 17 that passed between Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland. That may be one reason why, characteristically hilarious and thought-provoking though it is, Inherent Vice lacks much of the menace and the passion of its predecessors.

Then again, perhaps this flattening of affect is deliberate, analogous to seeing the world through a haze of cannabis smoke, or entirely mediated through TV. It’s not that the conspiracies and the paranoia aren’t there any more; it’s just that these days, as he looks back at California in 1970, it’s hard for Pynchon not to see it all as a bit of a joke. But there’s something profoundly bleak about the inability to take anything seriously. Since the conspiracy is inescapable, there’s nothing to do except laugh at it. Squint the right way, and what looked like wry indulgence morphs into nihilism.

Possibly the weirdest thing of all about Inherent Vice, however, a perverse bright spot in the smog of despair, is the thought that somewhere out there in one of the beach towns of LA County, never very far away from wherever Doc is carrying out his desultory investigations, somewhere among the dopers and the surfers and the hippie chicks, among the dentists and lawyers and loan sharks, among the voters who put Nixon in the White House and Reagan in the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento, Thomas Pynchon is secluded at his typewriter, at work on Gravity’s Rainbow.