Reading Pynchon #9

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

The first part of this review began with differences between IV14 and IV09, and moved on to the role, in the context of obligatory ‘stoner’ references that have proven a distraction, of Doc as a detective. Not yet discussed has been the role of the film’s narrator, Sortilège, whose function is central to the way in which the narrative juxtaposes Bigfoot and Shasta. Sortilège, therefore, emerges as a key element in the transformation IV09 undergoes to become IV14. Her status throughout is problematic and Stephen Maher describes her as ‘the film’s possibly hallucinated narrator’; although one might be inclined to remove any doubt, given clear indications that, even though she might appear to be a character within the film, her very existence as anything other than Doc’s creation can be challenged.

Sortilège is mentioned in the Pynchon in Public Day podcast, where she is seen as offering a contrast to other female characters; however, that she recites passages from the novel was seen as a possible fault of a ‘reverential screenplay’: that Anderson has failed to properly distance his screenplay from the novel has been a criticism voiced elsewhere, as indicated in the first part of this review. In response it might be argued that the simple device of a reader transforms what is written; that Sortilège can be seen as a central figure in the adaptation makes her role key to any judgement of the way novel has become film. Possibly the passage that introduces Sortilège in IV09 (bottom of 11) contributed to the decision to use her in this way (and perhaps Anderson also had in mind the role of Cherrycoke in Mason & Dixon; just as Doc’s awakening recalls the opening of Vineland as much as the opening of IV09).

The passage on 11 also links Sortilège to what would later become the Internet, so her role as narrator might have something to do with the decision to abandon references to the ARPAnet: after all, at the end of the film, Shasta says that Sortilège ‘knows things, Doc, maybe about us that we don’t know’. Moreover, Sancho’s explanation of the title (351) has been given to Sortilège, whose version is modified, omitting his elaboration: ‘… but sometimes it’s also the vessel carrying it. Like why bilges have to be pumped out?’ Sancho’s version of this speech does seem to distinguish content (‘cargo’) from form (‘the vessel carrying it’), and it might well be that Anderson’s version is a mere simplification (maritime law is an appropriate subject for Sancho, less so for Sortilège). However, it might also be read as signifying the impossibility of any translation or adaptation, or representation that is not doomed to failure if the aim has been simply to reproduce, in which case it does seem apt that the line has been given to Sortilège.

Upon her first appearance one might see her as a walk-on chorus; she has not yet been identified by name, so she might be one of several similar figures designed to represent the kind of community invoked by Doc at the end of the novel. She is then identified when she next appears in a scene with Doc, discussing Shasta’s reappearance (the early scene getting pizza when she tells Doc to change his hair). In two scenes she is discovered sitting next to Doc as he drives to a meeting; but it is then made clear that he is alone in the car. If he has imagined her presence in these scenes, one might speculate that she is an invention throughout; a second glance at the pizza scene reveals that (in what is, admittedly, a short scene) Doc and Sortilège are not acknowledged by other characters. Elsewhere she appears in a flashback (the scene with the Ouija board) that represents Doc’s memory; and then, significantly, she provides Doc with the motivation to go after Adrian Prussia. Moreover, that the film has used scenes in cars to establish her imaginary status, might also add a note of ambiguity to the final two‑shot of Doc with Shasta.

That the voiceover narration has been given to a character whose existence is doubtful is interesting. As a narrator who is omniscient (she know what she is not, and cannot be, present to witness) she might be regarded as a stand-in for the author; however, if she is then exposed as a figment of Doc’s imagination, his creation, he thereby becomes the author of a narrative designed to reunite him with Shasta. Further, the use of a female reader contradicts a convention that would have assumed the voiceover narration, sharing for the most part Doc’s point-of-view, would necessarily have been male, if not delivered by Doc himself. At times the voiceover does substitute for Doc’s voice, for example, when he discovers the connection between Bigfoot and Adrian Prussia. In short, the use of Sortilège as a narrator draws attention to her relationship with Doc, making her far more prominent a character in the film.

At the outset, as Sortilège is quickly exposed as a character in the film, she seems to be speaking to someone, all but directly addresses the camera and therefore the film viewer, although eye-contact here is difficult to establish. One might, then, look more closely at the scene as it develops. Doc is first seen lying down, the camera positioned directly above him: he is not, therefore, seen here from Shasta’s point‑of‑view as she appears in the doorway. Further, in this close-up, Doc is staring into space, introspective. He might well be stoned (Shasta: ‘Thinks he’s hallucinating …’) but the shot is that of a man alone with his thoughts until interrupted. Later, Shasta’s return sees her as described by Sortilège at the start of the film; to compare this scene with Doc’s first sighting of her in IV09 (261) and what comes after (in particular, 303ff) is to appreciate the economy of Anderson’s adaptation but also the way Shasta is transformed into an imaginary figure. After they have had sex Doc is seen, for the second time, studying the postcard he receives after her disappearance; its arrival precedes the flashback with the Ouija board.

The treatment of Shasta’s character leads to the striking difference provided by the film’s ending. IV14 prioritises Doc’s relations with Bigfoot and Shasta; and the final two-shot of Doc and Shasta is perhaps an allusion to The Big Sleep and the apparent union of Marlowe and Vivian at the end of Hawks’ film. In each case, the film’s conclusion is a rewriting of source novels. The Big Sleep’s conclusion is perfunctory, the kind of ‘Hollywood happy ending’ that did not interest Chandler until, arguably, Playback, the last in the series. However, if Hawks’ film offers closure, one might wonder if this is also the case with Anderson’s film, where the final shot also has Doc looking in the rear‑view mirror, the camera angle allowing him (as with Sortilège at the beginning of the film) to almost make eye-contact with the viewer. These two moments are filmic with no direct counterpart in the novel. Moreover, there is something unsettling about Doc’s expression here.

To be concluded.

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