Reading Pynchon #8

For anyone who has not yet seen Inherent Vice, what follows will include spoilers.

A first viewing of Inherent Vice (2014, hereafter IV14) brings one up against the differences between Anderson’s film and Pynchon’s novel (2009, hereafter IV09). The two narratives share characters and some locations, and plots do coincide. Dialogue has often been taken from the novel, although Pynchon’s text is frequently modified in some way. In short, the film is perhaps most interesting for being different; and the inherent vice in question is that which attends any adaptation/translation/representation, the impossibility of ‘keeping it the same’. There is, and should be, a sense of loss.

Despite this, some reviewers have considered the film a faithful adaptation, although they might not be agreed that this is a virtue. What is interesting here is the way fidelity is judged. For example, William Tucker thinks the film ‘impressively loyal to its source material’; ‘[it] does a superb job of capturing Pynchon’s paranoid tone throughout its convoluted and disjointed narrative’, while ‘[t]he seemingly endless number of characters also reinforces the complex, interconnected network of a Pynchon novel’. That ‘impressively loyal’ suggests that adaptation was a major challenge, one that Anderson has survived, even if what follows is an odd juxtaposition of ‘convoluted’ and ‘disjointed’. Tucker does seem to suggest that Anderson has found a filmic equivalent to Pynchon’s novel. Elsewhere, by way of contrast, Lee Weston Sabo is less enthusiastic. That the film is ‘more or less a faithful adaptation of Pynchon’s novel’ counts against Anderson; his decision ‘to adhere so closely to the novel indicates a lack of desire to transform or elevate the work’. Again, it might be thought odd that Anderson has ‘adhere[d] so closely …’ etc, if the film is only ‘more or less a faithful adaptation’.

At this stage it might be worth noting the omissions that render IV14 less than faithful, if ‘being faithful’ means simply ‘what happens’, reducing both film and novel to the most superficial elements of plot and dialogue. Joanna Freer goes into some detail; to her list of omissions might be added anything to do with Doc’s family, as well as much of the novel’s discussion of family discourse, not to mention the ARPAnet. Having jettisoned most of the novel’s discussion of family, Anderson must therefore find a new way of dealing with the narrative significance of Coy’s return, of which more later. Further, given that much has been made of Pynchon’s references to film and television, it might also be said that, in IV09, a central theme is television as a source of information about the world, specifically coverage of the Manson trial and basketball play-offs that run through the novel (this combination is not accidental). None of this is retained. Generally, these omissions help bring to the fore Doc’s relations with Shasta and Bigfoot: that these characters are juxtaposed  is evident in the novel but features more prominently in the film.

Freer suggests that the Las Vegas sequence, omitted from the film, is a ‘fairly lengthy excursion [that] does little in the novel to move the plot forward’. However, this omission means that Trillium’s relationship with Puck is necessarily abandoned, and this one example can be used to briefly illustrate the complexity of Pynchon’s narrative; in turn this gives an indication of the challenge to Anderson as screenwriter. In IV09 Doc’s response to the Trillium-Puck marriage (246-248) is echoed by his response when Coy eventually returns to his family (362-363), but a couple of pages later he finds out that Trillium is in hospital (366). These passages take their place in Pynchon’s detailed discussion of family; and it is apt that Doc finds out about Trillium from the ARPAnet (Sparky’s computer recognising hospitals as family members). Doc’s reunion with Puck (‘You look like somebody I ran across once’, 317) now has entirely different narrative connotations.

None of the above is meant as a criticism of IV14. Anyone who wants to read Pynchon should do so without expecting a film version that does the job for them. Further, as Albert Rolls points out, neither IV09 nor IV14 offers the kind of closure associated with a conventional text and the film ‘is about something other than its plot’. Any interest in the adaptation should be to work out its purpose. Rolls suggests that the film might be considered ‘a piece of Pynchon criticism’ and so, instead of bemoaning the absence of some aspect of the novel’s narrative, one might consider Anderson’s selections as a commentary.

Unfortunately, reviewers have likely spent more time reading each other and/or press releases, and the following comments can be taken as typical of the way film and (by extension) novel have been presented to audiences and possible new readers. Doc is ‘a stoner Philip Marlowe’ (here); or a ‘stoner beach-bum PI’ (here); and he ‘stumbles in a narcotic haze through LA at the fag-end of the 1960s’ (here). As a ‘lackadaisical detective’, he ‘smokes pot like it’s going out of fashion and rarely knows what day of the week it is never mind what case he’s working on’ (here). Anyone who bothers paying attention to film or novel might question such sloppy judgements, of course. No matter, character and narrative become fused, and it is ‘a frustratingly hazy movie which never quite makes sense’ (here). Perhaps ‘you can tease out noodles of story line here and there’, but it remains ‘chewed-over Chandler’ (here). Anderson can be charged with failing to produce a realist narrative (the same can be said for Pynchon before him, of course).

Lee Weston Sabo’s review is more substantial than most but still follows the script: the film is ‘a gumshoe comedy where a pot-smoking beach bum of a private investigator tries to unravel a bizarre conspiracy’. For now it is worth commenting further on Sabo’s review, given the discussion of another point made frequently, IV14’s relationship to The Big Lebowski, ‘an obvious and direct source’; both Doc and BL’s the Dude are ‘burned-out pothead version[s] of Philip Marlowe who can hardly keep [their] thoughts straight’. However, this is where one can be misled by an obsession with the dramatised use of recreational drugs. In BL the Dude has more in common with the Hitchcockian figure (Roger O Thornhill in North By Northwest, say; or Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps) who inadvertently finds himself involved in a plot that will dislocate him and challenge his sense of self. In the Hitchcock plot, as in BL, solving a mystery is essential if they are to get back their identity.

The stoner/pothead motif has proven to be something of a distraction when discussing both IV14 and IV09 before it: Kathryn Hume has commented on the narrative function of Doc’s drug-taking in the novel (12-13) and it is clear that he is not ‘just another pothead’ who (joke alert!) happens to be a detective. That Doc, like Marlowe but unlike the Dude, is a licensed private eye is a key point too readily overlooked; he might spend a lot of time stoned or getting there, but both novel and film contain many references to professionalism, or professional ethics, too many to be overlooked. The descriptions above, and many others that are similar, fail to do justice to Doc’s resilience and, in particular, the encouragement he receives (in IV14) from Sortilège when, following the return of both Mickey Wolfmann and Shasta, any mystery regarding their respective disappearances has been apparently resolved.

The role of Sortilège as narrator/guardian angel will be discussed later. For now it is worth noting that Ali Chetwynd has written on the importance of duty in Pynchon’s recent fiction, a significant development in his writing; and so, for example, ‘Doc becomes less preoccupied with uncovering the Golden Fang than with what he can do for those of its victims, like Coy, that he has encountered in his search for information’ (932). According to Chetwynd, then, a quest for the truth has become less important than doing what is right. This is one way of addressing the narrative function of family relations since Vineland; and also points the way to a useful comparison of IV09 and IV14, given the way Pynchon’s narrative has been edited for the film. However, reference to Chandler’s Marlowe novels is unavoidable, so Chetwynd’s article might also suggest an approach to IV09’s relationship to Chandler’s novels. In particular, one might consider a distinction drawn between the earlier novels, in which the narrative is confined to a short period of time (hours/days) and those that follow, where the narrative unfolds at a rather more leisurely pace. In the latter, Marlowe’s agency is less likely compromised by a quest for truth (‘following leads’). A dope haze might affect one’s perceptions of the world; it should not be used as an excuse to abandon morality.

In an afterword to Simenon’s Dirty Snow William T Vollmann refers to Marlowe’s ethics: ‘… with each passing decade, Marlowe’s corpse decomposes evermore rapidly into a skeleton of outright sentimentality’. And so, ‘[t]o some readers he already seems as quaint as Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer’ (247). Given the reference here to nineteenth-century historical romance, one might end, then, with a nod in the direction of James J Donahue’s Failed Frontiersmen, which includes a chapter on Pynchon, albeit with no more than passing reference to IV09. Possibly, IV14 should be seen as, in part, a commentary on IV09’s commentary on the political values of the counterculture that Doc inhabits, if awkwardly.

To be continued.

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