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Pynchon's Coast: Inherent Vice and the Twilight of the Spatially Specific
Bill Millard

The epigraph to Thomas Pynchon's new novel will ring bells for anyone familiar with the events of May 1968 in France, that legendary flickering of radicalism that launched a generation of innovators and troublemakers, the soixante-huitards who have remained influential throughout the cultural, political, and business sectors of European society across four decades. It is the Situationist graffito "Under the paving-stones, the beach!" (one of the less misleading translations from the original, Sous les pavés, la plage). But the beaches of Southern California were never quite what the French Situationists had in mind, and the America with which Pynchon's fiction relentlessly grapples remains resolutely un-French in more respects than its cuisine, its music, and its puzzling refusal (at this writing, at least) to institute credible universal health insurance.

The beach towns where Pynchon's latest batch of colorfully named, unabashedly cartoonish characters do their best to evade and defy "the ancient forces of greed and fear" (130) should not be confused with the metaphoric, mythologizable, pristinely natural, Rousseauvian, capital-B Beach of the Situationist slogan, set into stark and simple contrast with the pavers or cobblestones that represent all that was false, dull, artificial, and oppressive about urbanity and civilization (at least in the eyes of certain soixante-huitards). These grungy California beach towns are specific places, places that hold power in Pynchon's imaginings of the transformational years, the late 1960s and early '70s, that he probably spent in and around Manhattan Beach, California, while writing Gravity's Rainbow— "probably" being the safe and necessary hedge here, because the friends who could confirm his whereabouts remain impressively resistant to biographical inquiry—precisely because they are constructed, inhabited, humanly (occasionally even humanely) shaped. They harbor memory, something more concrete than utopian longing.

A perversely close reading of the Situationist slogan can also give it two mutually antagonistic potential meanings. In the short-lived exhilaration of May '68 in Paris, the slogan's exclamation point was exhortatory: reading it on a wall, one was encouraged to recognize and celebrate the ur-Beach beneath the pavers, perhaps also prying up a few of them to hurl at the police. But imagine the line from a contrary perspective (that of, say, a real estate developer or a highway engineer), recast its tone so that the exclamation point drives home a different imperative, expressing the urgency of covering up unruly waterfront territory with something stabler like a nice safe street. Get that damned beach under some cobblestones where it belongs.

Inherent Vice is set not in 1968 but in the spring of 1970, after Altamont, after the Manson Family killings (a recurrent reference point), after what Hunter S. Thompson called "the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back" (Thompson 68). A few hippies having become murderous lunatics, the entire loose network of dissident subcultures (stoners, surfers, musicians, draft dodgers, actually existing politicals, all manner of unmoored young humanity) was now under suspicion. That beach, a dour new counter-Zeitgeist was saying, is likely to harbor pestilent things. Better bury it under some pavers, fast. And besides, paving it is a business opportunity.

Potboiling and pothead jokes

Three times in his career, after unburdening himself of large-scale works of historical fiction with alarming interdisciplinary breadth and deeply entangled metafictional implications, Pynchon has turned his attention to Southern California. His Californian novels are shorter and more focused, though in certain respects no less ambitious, than the mammoth books that precede them. They are temporally closer, more inclined to generate their atmosphere through American pop-culture references than through the sort of recondite material that sent yesterday's dedicated Pynchonologists to the deepest stacks of university libraries and sends today's arguably less fanatical ones to Google and Wikipedia: fewer equations, benzene rings, and controversies in the Cyrillic transliteration of Kazakh consonants; more Hollywood films and surf-rock bands.

The three Californian books interweave their central problems and plots through no less complex a world vision than their predecessors, but they are organized more conventionally around single central characters (Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, Zoyd Wheeler in Vineland, and now Larry "Doc" Sportello in Inherent Vice) rather than the multiple-protagonist structures that contribute to both the density and the difficulty of V., Gravity's Rainbow, and Against the Day (Mason & Dixon, with its pair of protagonists, is a special case). Pynchon's shorter works also partake, in generous if not overgenerous degrees, of the distinctive combination of spaciness, slackness, and tolerance for (or, as often as not, outright embrace of) the absurd that distinguishes California from the other 49 states. Pynchon's Californians embody and even exaggerate, where exaggeration is possible, the anything-goes, we're-all-bozos-on-this-bus, no-hobbyhorse-too-lame-to-ride spirit that non-Californians often attribute, stereotypically if not always inaccurately, to the residents of that state.

Imagining such people, one infers, must be (to borrow the appropriate line from Mick Jagger) a gas, gas, gas. It is as if Pynchon periodically unburdened himself of the dark and serious purposes he tackles in the larger works, with their more geographically and chronologically varied settings, and rewarded himself upon those works' completion with a bright, breezy beach vacation, a lighter weight project as a kind of dessert. No Pynchon book lacks a mixture of gravity and whimsy—his juxtaposition of those disparate qualities is both a commonplace of the scholarship about him and a fatally easy attraction for his would-be emulators—but the relative proportions in the three Californian books skew distinctly toward the latter (which is far from claiming the former is absent). It may be this indulgence of his inner pop-culture scavenger, his irrepressible tendencies toward groan-inducing lists, punchlines, and puns, and his defiantly libertarian (with a small L) attitude toward recreational mind-alteration that leads some of Pynchon's critics to equate his periodic visits to the West Coast with a regrettable form of coasting. Trained by his larger historical novels to expect the overwhelming from Pynchon, some readers find it hard to respect him when he relaxes.

Every book of Pynchon's since Gravity's Rainbow, large or small, has attracted a few reviews that set up comparisons, inevitably unfair, with that book's thermonuclear force, boundless inclusivity, and unfathomable ambition. After that, he broke over a decade and a half of public silence with... a guy named Zoyd who periodically jumps through glass to collect mental-disability checks? He's reduced himself to parodying genre fiction, on either a large scale (the boys'-adventure-book component of Against the Day) or a small (the relatively tight formal constraints of a hard-boiled detective plot in Inherent Vice)? He's populating his central locale, the town of Gordita Beach (resurrected from Vineland and, to those familiar with the area, a barely disguised stand-in for Manhattan Beach), with potheads whose memory lapses and indolence present variations on a recurrent joke at a Cheech-and-Chong level? Surely this must evince, as the previously sympathetic reviewer Laura Miller announced when Against the Day appeared, "the fall of the house of Pynchon." Surely it's time for the critical Lilliputians to bind their favorite giant with the cables of disdain.

Even one of his most perceptive readers, Ron Rosenbaum in Slate, now offers the line "Pynchon has frittered away his genius" as a casual example in a discussion of various contexts in which that loaded g-word might be used or abused. Rosenbaum frames the observation as a hypothetical, not a frank evaluation, and it is far from clear that he would stand behind it unhedgingly. Still, Rosenbaum's reference articulates a general critical frustration that the polymath who invented postmodern "systems fiction" practically singlehandedly has now chosen to work in the deprecated genre of the roman policier. Within Inherent Vice's relatively short page count there is a femme fatale re-entering the private-investigator protagonist's life in the opening pages for help unraveling a scheme that quickly becomes a missing-persons case; a cluster of separate investigations all leading to evidence that they are intertwined; a longstanding tension between the private gumshoe and an overbearing local police detective who despises his outsider status but occasionally offers grudging respect for his professional skills; further professional tensions between the police detective and federal agents; a thug with a swastika tattoo; a well-funded and shadowy sanitarium/detox center involved in disreputable psychiatric practices; several episodes of captivity and involuntary unconsciousness for the protagonist; and a series of red herrings and narrative blindsidings that link the initial individual disappearance to a malevolent collective entity (none dare call it, or at least Pynchon refrains here from calling it, conspiracy). There is even a saxophonist, though he plays surfer garage rock rather than the familiar flatted fifths of tobacco-smoky noir bebop. There is little here that a habitual reader of airport paperbacks would regard as incomprehensible.

These conventions are all the hallmarks of the American school of detective fiction, the noir tradition of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, James Thompson, John D. MacDonald, James Ellroy, et al., as distinguished from the more orderly English tradition embodied by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and P.D. James. While English fictional murders typically involve disruption of an essentially benign social order, restored through the ingenuity and courage of the investigator and his or her worthy colleagues, typically solving the logic puzzle concerning the dead body in the library of a respectable home, American potboiler plots unfold under more disturbing conditions. The investigator is not just a bohemian loner like Sherlock Holmes but an impoverished and outgunned underdog who must do battle on Chandlerian mean streets; powerful institutions (private and public alike) are riddled with corruption; murder is more a symptom of pervasive systemic evil than a correctable anomaly; and the private study of any single crime inevitably leads to the discovery of wider malfeasance assuming the pattern of a "spreading stain" (Porter 40). The detective story in either main tradition, precisely because it adheres to well-recognized plotting and atmospheric conventions, has long been a sturdy vehicle on which to hang a social message: one thinks of Wilkie Collins interrogating the legacy of colonialism in The Moonstone, or Janwillem van de Wetering's Dutch whodunits as parables embodying the principles of Zen Buddhism, or the ferocious commitment to environmental preservation and reclamation that animates both the hilarity and the poignancy of Carl Hiaasen's series set in the Florida Everglades.

Subtract the white-knight detective figure and the convention of resolution, and these conditions bear strong resemblances to the pervasive atmosphere in Pynchon that has so often been called paranoid, and that Pynchon defines as simply "the discovery that everything is connected" (GR 703). It is not difficult to place the obsessive quests in Pynchon—Herbert Stencil's pursuit of V., Lot 49's Oedipa Maas's tracking of evidence of the Tristero conspiracy, or Tyrone Slothrop's gradual recognition of his own peculiar psychosexual conditioning in Gravity's Rainbow—somewhere within, or at least close to, the questing hard-boiled tradition, though none of these investigations is ultimately susceptible to completion. Zoyd Wheeler's daughter Prairie performs a different form of detection in Vineland, seeking to reconstruct family history, with somewhat more measurable success; the same can be said of the Traverse brothers in Against the Day, out to avenge their father's murder (one may note that the motives for the various quests become steadily less singular and strange, more broadly comprehensible, between the earlier and later books). Pynchonian plotting sends character after character down the rabbit-holes of infinite connectivity within complex systems of information, and their failures to attain closure can obscure the implications of their recurrent attempts. In a nontrivial sense, Pynchon has always been writing mysteries. But mysteries themselves, even ones closely interwoven with verifiable historical detail, strike some readers as incapable of being nontrivial.

It is little surprise, as Pynchon strips down the density of the apparatus that Sportello must navigate and lightens the tone in ways that bring some sections of Inherent Vice closer to the comic ambience of Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard than to the menace of Hammettish/Chandlerian California, that a backlash sets in. How dare Pynchon, branded for so many decades as the reclusive mystery man, become so unmysterious as to write an actual mystery? It must be some embarrassing personal folly, or possibly an inside joke, something roughly comparable to an aging Bob Dylan recording an album of Christmas standards. It can only be, assume the sort of readers who are perpetually ready to pounce, because Pynchon is in decline. Or lost in memory, or stoned. Or so lost in memories of being stoned that he's in decline.

Dogs that neither bark nor speak

Amid the density of information in Pynchon's works, interpretive attention to areas on which he is silent can also be useful, beginning but not ending with his famous silence on matters of self-reference and publicity. His defiance of celebrity culture is difficult for the mechanisms of that culture to process, and the consequent accretion of his mystique is at this point inseparable from both the marketing of his work by his successive publishers and its reception by an energetic cult audience large enough to call the scalar definition of cult-author status into question. (Or, I would also argue, from its reception by the flip side of a cult readership: the group of readers who are prepared to be disappointed by anything less than a second lightning-strike on a par with Gravity's Rainbow.) Facts about Pynchon's personal life are hard to come by, but from the recurrent patterns, emerging loyalties, and vigorous anathemas that alert and/or dedicated readers perceive in his works, we do in fact know quite a bit about him—more of substance, perhaps, than we might know about various public figures who avidly court media coverage of their personal activities rather than parodying such coverage, as Pynchon memorably did in an episode of The Simpsons, appearing in cartoon form with a self-mocking voiceover, a brightly lit sign reading "Thomas Pynchon's House—Come On In!" and a paper bag on his head. Some of what is knowable about him is relatively trivial, some of it not trivial at all, and some makes a hash of the distinction.

One of his chief obsessions is the inextricability of usable information: an awareness that amid massively complex systems, the attainment of information takes the form he refers to, in a memorable phrase early in Gravity's Rainbow, as "not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into" (3). Unraveling it, getting truly and finally to the bottom of these systemic mysteries, is simply not an option, though the human mind appears both evolutionarily hard-wired and culturally encouraged to try. (His plurisignificant punning is surely a manifestation of this impulse: in his fascination with unraveling potential meanings from accidents of language, he trains his readers to expect the same and hunt for it, and this game yields perceptible rewards often enough that even the most tenuous connections can be worth the effort of imagining.)

This unraveling process can also take a theological form, as with the New England Puritans who incessantly close-read the physical and experiential world for signifiers of their own personal salvation or perdition, paranoiacally projecting their individual self-regard onto so much of the culture that developed on this continent in their wake; their psychocultural legacy haunts large parts of Gravity's Rainbow (and provides, among other things, the Perry Millerish strain in that work and the qualities that make it useful for thousands of academic investigations). Another form involves the heuristics of American political and economic institutions, the forensic study of why so much of this nation's promise of freedom in multiple and substantive senses has been squandered and warped; this impulse drives some of the dominant narrative threads in Against the Day, perhaps even more so than in the Colonial setting of Mason & Dixon. When the investigative compulsion is up against systems so impenetrable, the pure investigative impulse can easily conjure up the object of its investigations out of the flimsiest of clues and patterns, essentially out of thin air; this is one of the possible explanations of the Tristero plot in The Crying of Lot 49, perhaps the most plausible if the least entertaining of Oedipa's final array of interpretive options. Pynchon's obsession is conducive to the construction of detective plots, but it would be difficult to locate any belief in the closure toward which such plots conventionally converge.

As a lover of arcana with an incorrigible tendency to work obscure research and outlandish allusions into even his throwaway passages and one-liners, Pynchon reliably shows respect for scholarly or technical proficiency in practically any form or field, particularly on the part of characters who pursue such interests despite a lack of material reward. He treasures particularity over the generic, the long narrow three- to six-sigma tails of any bell curve over the dull bulky area near its median. The consequent tolerance and appreciation for deviance has a satirically harsh flip side, a loathing for any enforcement of conformity, a sense that high standards of performance, singularity, and strangeness are eternally at war with standardization. He is fond of dropouts and ne'er-do-wells and wiseasses and lost causes, antagonistic not only to plutocrats and police but dentists and moneychangers and bland suburbanites. His fascination with the lesser-known corners of the music and film worlds connects him with the community of comparable popcult geeks familiar with such arcana as Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) or the ultra-rare 1966 album, prized by rock record collectors, by the surf/folk/psychedelic band Fapardokly (not a coherent album or even a band at all, strictly speaking, but a loose collection of singles assembled by the tiny UIP label after the breakup of singer Merrell Fankhauser's group the Exiles, then released under a cobbled-together name derived from pieces of four musicians' surnames). Including the likes of Fapardokly (Inherent Vice 368) and Ghidrah (281) alongside contemporary references that more than a handful of readers will recognize, such as Jim Morrison or John Garfield, Pynchon clearly either treasures such things or respects those who do.

Pynchon not only exaggerates but favors those who embody exaggeration: badasses around whom legends arise, irresistible and improbably randy women, pursuers of laughable long shots, believers in ludicrous ideas. He is alarmingly forgiving toward New Agers and mystics, while allowing himself, his protagonist, and his secular-rationalist readers the safety valve of skepticism ("'You got my message. You just don't know you did,'" the kimono-clad spiritualist and hallucinogen distributor Vehi Fairfield says at one point; Sportello replies, "'Oh. Sure. Woo-Woo Telephone and Telegraph. I keep forgetting'" [108]). His preference for, in Calvinist terms, the Preterite over the Elect, politically and economically as well as attitudinally, is steadfast; at the same time he allows that there is a mixture of underdog independence and craven admiration for overdogs in practically everyone, himself included. He extends a guarded but genuine forgiveness to characters who are guilty of alarming things, from ordinary violence and betrayal to forms of irresponsibility that would be difficult to forgive in real life (the salient case in Inherent Vice being the inept parenting of the junkie couple Coy and Hope Harlingen, who expose their daughter Amethyst to hard drugs, recalling for some readers the much-publicized heroin addiction of Courtney Love while pregnant). The implicit ethical code in Pynchon's social world is riddled with complexities and unease, but it involves an underlying sense of perspective and context: compared with what large systems consistently do to people, what most people do to each other pales in comparison. An ethically compromised underdog in Pynchon will always be much closer to some type of redemption than an overdog who believes his powerful position is justified or justifiable.

Pynchon is also inordinately fond of literal dogs, fond enough through much of his career to give them lines. Talking dogs repeatedly appear as prominent minor characters, usually early enough in a book that the joke has a mood-establishing role. An ether-sponge-wielding Roger Mexico discovers a dog hiding from the Pavlovian experiments led by Dr. Edward Pointsman early in Gravity's Rainbow (finding the dog in a pram, Mexico jokes about the Fred Allen radio character Mrs. Nussbaum, and the dog responds in classic vaudeville dialect: "You vere ekshpecting maybe Lessie?" [44]). Prairie and Zoyd Wheeler's wandering dog Desmond in Vineland speaks no words, but his return on the book's final page links that particular form of redemption -- who is unmoved when a family recovers its lost dog?—to the book's epigraph from blues singer Johnny "Clyde" Copeland, "Every dog has its day, and a good dog just might have two days." The Learned English Dog in Mason & Dixon is not only erudite and capable of song and dance but given to reflection on his own ontological status ("I may be praeternatural, but I am not supernatural. 'Tis the Age of Reason, rrrf?" [22]). The joke perhaps reaches its apex in Against the Day with Pugnax the Henry James-reading dog on board the airship Inconvenience, who, when asked what he is perusing, barks out "Rr Rff-rff Rr-rr-rff-rrf-rrf," which of course translates rhythmically as The Princess Casamassima (5-6). The first edition's pagination is even arranged so that the barks appear on one page and the title on the next after the page is turned, making its identification a small contest for the reader (it is by no means inconceivable that Pynchon, who is known to have worked closely with his book designer at Henry Holt, Raquel Jaramillo, to ensure that a particular historically accurate form of the ampersand appeared on the cover of Mason & Dixon [Cahn, Jingo], took similar pains with the page proofs of Against the Day to produce the James-title-quiz effect).

Pugnax may derive his name, in what would be an extraordinarily silly pun even for Pynchon, from the Linnaean species designation of an African and Eurasian bird called, in fact, the ruff (Philomachus pugnax), but its Latin meaning of "combative" also offers a useful contrast with the more mundane and unthreatening name Fido, another pointed implication in a book well populated by dynamite-wielding anarchists and their ruling-class antagonists. A breed of large Roman war dogs now extinct in their original form, the mastiff-like Molossians, indeed went by the name Canis pugnax and attracted the praise of both Aristotle and Virgil. This is quite a set of allusions to pack into the name of a housepet, or even a metafictional airship's mascot, but Pugnax in his name, his attitude, and his initial choice of reading—the otherwise genteel James's sole venture into the realms of radicalism and political violence—gives an unmistakable indication of authorial respect for pugnacity in all its forms. One is tempted to view the abrasive Pugnax as a kind of guide dog within a book very much concerned with the national ratio of guide dogs or guard dogs to lapdogs within its human population.

No dogs speak or read in Inherent Vice. The closest Pynchon comes to sustaining his canine-anthropomorphization joke—dedicated "Pynheads" of my own acquaintance have come to expect one loquacious pooch per book—is a reference to the blacklisted, sold-out, and semiretired film star Burke Stodger's dog Addison, who raises a single eyebrow at his owner and thus betrays the habit of watching too many George Sanders movies on TV (311). The authorial gesture in the direction of frank surrealism that is implicit every time a dog talks is pointedly missing here. Pynchon may have simply decided that Pugnax was an untoppable idea, or that the joke needed, if not exactly a rest, a substantial toning-down; he may also have regarded the intrusion of such a magical-realist element into an atmosphere closely and specifically derived from the real-world Southern California as a violation of not only plausibility but purpose. The theatrical Sandersian eyebrow-cock may be a silent communication of sorts from author to reader as well as from Addison to Stodger. After six novels, three of which are encyclopedic in scale, Pynchon has established his tonal signatures clearly enough that this type of slight deviation from them carries significance to the aficionado, much as the "curious incident of the dog in the night-time" in the Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze," where Holmes infers not from the watchdog's bark, but from his refraining from barking, that he is familiar with the perpetrator. When Pynchon refrains from giving voice to a dog, some new game is afoot.

If Pynchon is indeed simply off his game in Inherent Vice, his comedy would be one area where longtime Pynheads could presumably tell. I was struck by one item that I am convinced a younger Pynchon would have handled differently: one of several dodgy restaurants where the diner just might be taking his life in his hands (so to speak), a health-food joint "voted unanimously by local food critics the Southland's Most Toxic" and tellingly titled The Price of Wisdom, is located on the second floor upstairs from a Melrose Avenue dive, Ruby's Lounge (276). Readers well versed in the Bible can see the joke coming at least a few blocks away: the restaurant's hand-lettered sign reads "THE PRICE OF WISDOM IS ABOVE RUBY'S, JOB 28:18." The obscurantist whippersnapper in Pynchon, the side of him that incessantly and perhaps cacklingly sends his readers in search of clues, would have offered either the line or the chapter-and-verse citation, but not both. The reference may be overdetermined out of uncharacteristic clumsiness, but it may also be doubled-up to ensure that no one misses it. Neither sly allusiveness nor subtle ambiguity is a virtue in the type of text whose purpose is to direct people to a particular place (e.g., a commercial sign). And large parts of Inherent Vice, for reasons that extend beyond nostalgia, direct the reader to particular places.

Everybody knows this is nowhere

Inherent Vice is rich with particular spatial and cultural references. This is nothing new in Pynchon, but the concentration of them in a single region, instead of their distribution across the nation or the world, makes the book's rendering of southern California exceptionally credible and nuanced. The book is not only a valentine to a place where Pynchon spent memorable personal years but a veritable tour guide to the Southland's beaches, restaurants, highways, aerospace and oil industry districts, film studios, film stars' homes, and neighborhoods where a surf-rock band (one real, the Beach Boys; another, the Boards, fictional and for a time zombified) or a murderous cult (real) would plausibly be holed up. It delivers the literal flavor of the place, through references to local eateries like Tommy's burger joint (73) and Zucky's deli (96); it is an antenna for the local broadcasting atmosphere, citing Cal Worthington's late-night used-car TV ads (9) and KHJ top-forty radio (356). So many details are taken from the actual landscape of greater Los Angeles in the given period that Wired magazine has posted an online interactive map, open to reader submissions (Horowitz). One particularly significant reference early in Sportello's adventures remains as cryptically understated as the Price of Wisdom sign is overdone.

On his way to Channel View Estates, the unfinished housing development that will be the scene of the book's initial eruption of violence, Sportello parks at "what would be the corner of Kaufman and Broad" (20) and visits, to his regret, the massage parlor Chick Planet. The names are not randomly chosen, and it is not accidental that the intersection appears, with some delicate grammatical wire-walking, in the conditional mood and the future tense. Chick Planet is set up to service clients working on or near this site, but Channel View Estates is a construction site and does not yet exist as a set of residences; it has no history. It is typical of the places that were going up in staggering numbers around the Southland in the 1960s and afterward, and it imparts a distinctly Pynchonian yet historically informative spin to the noir-novel convention that Los Angeles is, in W. H. Auden's much-quoted words (referring to Raymond Chandler), "the Great Wrong Place" (Auden 408).

A sense of place is more than atmospheric in the world of Inherent Vice; it is pervasive on every level and inseparable from the problems that drive the book. The role of real estate in establishing one's sense of reality appears in joke form early on, when a stoned Sportello lets it slip that he believes Sherlock Holmes is a flesh-and-blood person, on the grounds that he has a fixed location: "No, he's real. He lives at this real address in London. Well, maybe not anymore, it was years ago, he has to be dead by now" (96). A kind of moral geography, a network of loyalties derived from class, history, and common experience, permeates the book's dialogue and descriptions. One's position on ethical questions—particularly the all-important priority in the 1960s/'70s stoner code, protecting one's friends rather than informing on them—is implicitly grounded in one's local background. In one casually informative early conversation, when Sportello disparages the TV show The Mod Squad for encouraging youth to rat out their peers, his colleague Fritz Drybeam (who has just confessed enjoying the show) immediately replies, "'Listen, I came up in Temecula, which is Krazy Kat Kountry, where you always root for Ignatz and not Offisa Pupp'" (97). On the Offisa Pupp side of that line, LAPD Detective Lt. Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen's acute dislike of Gordita Beach, where he was assigned early in his police career, is based on the belief in a site-specific curse called down by a long-vanished tribe of toloache-smoking, hallucinating Indians on the town whose construction had defiled their sacred graveyards (355). The bonding of ethos to locale affects representatives of the Elect as well as the Preterite: Sportello's former client Crocker Fenway, whose negotiation and argument with the detective brings one of the book's most basic tensions to a climax (but more on that later), defends the values of his country-clubbing rentier class, against any egalitarian ethical claims by the more transient population from whom it extracts wealth, on the grounds that "It's about being in place.... [W]e're in place. We've been in place forever" (347). At the other end of the social spectrum, characters who have been incarcerated invariably refer to their penitentiaries conversationally as "the place" (25), with the implication that prison is the location that has affected their lives most decisively, perhaps the only one.

One of the moments of severest mid-quest confusion for Sportello—after returning from a visit to Las Vegas; spending a grim night in a motel unusually well-equipped for its era with cable TV, and thus overrun with glassy-eyed and culturally dislocated "Toobfreex"; viewing the depressing final preblacklist film starring his personal film-noir antihero John Garfield, He Ran All the Way (1951), which is "somehow like seeing John Garfield die for real, with the whole respectable middle class standing there in the street smugly watching him do it" (254); suspecting darkly that an end to the freedoms of the Sixties may be nigh; and "dreaming about climbing a more-than-geographical ridgeline, up out of some worked-out and picked-over territory, and descending into new terrain along some great definitive slope it would be more trouble than he might be up to to turn and climb back over again" (255)—is his momentary dread that his traveling companion has actually dropped him off in the wrong place and that he may have mistaken an entirely different but similar beach town for Gordita Beach, with its low-budget restaurants and familiar characters (256-257). As it turns out, he's in Gordita after all; an influx of collegians on break has simply driven the local crowd into temporary hiding. He soon learns that his community may even be reconstituting itself in an unexpected way: his lost lover Shasta Fay Hepworth, the femme fatale who first drew him into this investigation and then vanished mysteriously as femmes fatales tend to, is back in town. But the specter of a Gordita Beach interchangeable with other places, the idea that locations could become modular and undifferentiated, brings Sportello as close to a freakout as anything in the book, up to and including eerie drug experiences and imminent grievous bodily harm.

To return to Sportello's pivotal parking spot: unless Google Maps and Mapquest both contain uncharacteristic errors, there is no intersection of Kaufman and Broad in greater Los Angeles. A Broad Street does exist in Carson, near Long Beach, changing its name to Broad Avenue and extending a grand total of 12 blocks, but no street that it crosses is named Kaufman. No street anywhere near LA, in fact, is named Kaufman. What did exist in 1960s LA was the firm of Kaufman & Broad, later KB Home, a national leader in the construction of what were then called tract houses, the kind Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger mocked as "little boxes on the hillside," and what contemporary critics of American land-use patterns such as Andrés Duany and his colleagues, Anthony Flint, Dolores Hayden, Kenneth Jackson, and James Howard Kunstler now describe as greenfield sprawl. After founding their firm in Detroit in 1957 then moving to California in 1963, Donald Kaufman and Eli Broad grew wealthy from speculation in land and the construction of single-family houses in areas with single-use zoning ("Euclidean," named for the Cleveland suburb of Euclid, Ohio, site of a prominent legal precedent establishing the pattern, not for the Greek geometer), separating residential, commercial, and manufacturing functions geographically. (Eli Broad's name, coincidentally, is pronounced to rhyme with "road" and is unrelated to the Broad Streets that appear, often along with Main Streets, in countless American cities other than LA.) Broad would go on to become one of California's most prominent philanthropists, now better known for activities on behalf of LA's arts community, schools, and downtown revitalization than for his original role as what LA-based architecture scholar Kazys Varnelis calls "the king of sprawl":

Broad made his riches by building more cut-rate homes in suburban America between the late 1950s and 1980s than anyone else. As a founder of Kaufman Broad (now KB) Homes, Broad did more to create the contemporary condition of suburban sprawl than anyone else. Now over the last twenty years, Broad has increasingly dissociated himself from home-building, managing a large insurance firm instead. But Broad's shift is the product of the home market becoming too risky for investment, not because of a moral transformation. Today, however, Broad proclaims sprawl too expensive and hopes to underwrite a transformation within Los Angeles.... (Cathedrals 39).

An Inherent Vice character in a similar position will also turn to philanthropy in mid-career. But Broad's effect on the suburban environment, not on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is why his name and Kaufman's are in Inherent Vice.

In locating Channel View Estates near a not-yet-extant intersection with a planted reference to those two names, Pynchon moves his narrative into a realm that in some sense is as illusory as the realms suggested by passages including talking dogs. Yet a categorically different departure from geographic realism was at work here within the real economic world that gave names to Pynchon's imaginary intersection. The processes creating the fictional Channel View Estates resemble the departure from locally specific reality that the American real estate industry, during most of the 20th century (accelerating after World War II), actually took: a shift to a future where generic and commodified building forms replaced those grounded in local materials, climates, and traditions. A central component of this transformation was the lateral spread of new suburbs outward from central cities, demographically fueled by white flight and ethnic fears, and physically enabled by the trade in cheap land as new highway construction created sharp winner/loser divisions in realigning transportation routes and access to markets, and as agricultural economics steadily favored consolidation and agribusinesses over small farms. At the same time, as Sportello's African-American client Tariq Khalil illustrates in recounting the history of his own vanishing LA neighborhood (14-17), the corresponding policy of "urban renewal" demolished minority neighborhoods, usually with negligible effort at relocating their residents, for new highways linking business districts with suburbs.

The systematic consumption of both rural and urban land reshaped much of the American landscape with a relatively undifferentiated type of residential space, one that erased the physical features of local history in an attempt to meld the purported advantages of the two older categories: the country for health, aesthetics, and recreation, the city for commerce, sociality, and convenience. Provided an income earner could reach a center of employment, this artificial "town-country" offered a great expansion of space and convenience; its social costs, most obviously in environmental terms but also in the form of cultural homogeneity and tedium, were not as immediately perceptible as its benefits on the familial level. The scales of suburban houses of course differed in an economic hierarchy, with styles likewise varying to some degree. But the basic model reached a high degree of nationwise standardization: single-family domestic havens located outside central cities, separated in most cases by turfgrass. As development spread further from rail lines—within Hayden's historical typology, the older "streetcar buildout" pattern giving way to "mail-order/self-build" and "sitcom" suburbs—they were eventually accessible almost exclusively by automobile.

This long process had roots in both cultural beliefs and public policy: it was influenced by Andrew Jackson Downing's advocacy of country homeownership as a salutary moral influence on the population, and by Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities concept, but with commercial gain rather than utopian planning as the primary motivator. Deliberate federal policy choices accelerated the new construction after 1956 through the construction of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, with its tendencies to accelerate exurban development and erode the physical and social fabric of cities. Political motives included the desire to house returning veterans after World War II, but the federal bias extended as far back as 1934, when the Federal Housing Administration's energetic lending practices began encouraging single-family construction in suburbs, with a well-documented bias against rental properties, multi-unit residences, and minorities, amounting to a massive subsidy from the general taxpaying populace to the white and the relatively well-off (Jackson 190-218). (Sportello is well aware of the local history of FHA redlining: braced by the Tweedledum/Tweedledee pair of FBI agents Borderline and Flatweed and pressed for information on Khalil, he inquires, "what's with this FBI interest in Mickey Wolfmann? Somebody's been playing Monopoly with federal housing money? no couldn't be that, 'cause this is L.A., there's no such thing here" [75].)

Developers like Kaufman & Broad, Miami-based Lennar Corporation, D. R. Horton of Dallas/Fort Worth, the same city's Centex Corporation, Pulte Homes of the Detroit area, and Toll Brothers of Philadelphia would transform suburban and exurban homebuilding into an aggressively rationalized mass-production industry. The mythology of homeownership in the United States focuses on Jeffersonian concepts of agrarian virtue and pioneer narratives of self-reliance involving Abe Lincoln's log cabin, but since the FHA expanded both the scope of the mortgage-lending market and the practice of redlining urban neighborhoods in favor of easy lending for properties on the outskirts, the steadily encroaching reality has been the essentially treeless residential tract, the cul-de-sac street layout, the ever-cheaper construction methods relying increasingly on ersatz materials such as sheetrock and vinyl siding, and the many forms of homogenization wrought by the automobile upon the landscape such as vast parking lots, strip malls, and drive-in businesses as well as roads themselves—in Kunstler's much-repeated formulation, a series of "places not worth caring about" (Home from Nowhere 22). Within the world of Inherent Vice, Sportello's sassy, earthy Aunt Reet, a realtor with a "phenomenal lot-by-lot grasp of land use from the desert to the sea" (6), minces no words about the likes of Channel View Estates, an "assault on the environment—some chipboard horror" (8). Her habitual acronym for "most tract houses of her acquaintance," an "OPPOS" (19), is never spelled out, but one needn't overcomplicate the decoding of its last three letters.

Into this physical setting—and this potent field for debate, since America's sprawling development pattern is deeply implicated in contemporary environmental and economic crises—Pynchon introduces a figure of demonic force. The man who goes missing almost immediately after Sportello begins investigating a suspected scam against him, Mickey Wolfmann, bears no particular personal similarities to either Donald Kaufman or Eli Broad, but he practices the same profession and occupies the same historical niche in LA's development. Wolfmann is another of Pynchon's outlandish exaggerators, someone well outside expected human boundaries, a larger-than-life figure "always in the paper" (4) who more closely resembles flamboyant media and film moguls like William Randolph Hearst, Adolph Zukor, and Thomas Ince (name-checked later in the book [209] for his rumored high-society homicide) than the less publicity-hungry real estate barons of his day; he is in some respects a precursor of later decades' overexposed celebrity speculators such as Donald Trump; while he is missing, he is just as much a part of the popular consciousness, with reported sightings popping up like posthumous tabloid appearances of Elvis Presley (76). His connection to another larger-than-life figure from American history, New York's "power broker" Robert Moses, is more direct: above Wolfmann's portrait in his house, a "fake chiseled stone frieze" presents the motto Wolfmann has lived by: "ONCE YOU GET THAT FIRST STAKE DRIVEN, NOBODY CAN STOP YOU. —ROBERT MOSES" (58). Sportello, naturally, reacts with a quip indicating his perception of the connection between any larger-than-life, triumph-of-the-will type and an element of the monstrous: "I thought Dr. Van Helsing said that."

Wolfmann insists vehemently on an accurate spelling of his name with the N doubled (7), implying that in this cinephilic city he is all too aware of his resemblance to Lon Chaney, Jr.'s signature role. Bearing in mind how frequently puns in Pynchon allude in more than one direction, one also recalls a line from Plautus that presaged the predations of Hobbesian capitalism, homo homini lupus or "man is wolf to man." Does a real estate developer necessarily shed some of his humanity in shape-shifting into an essential instrument of the rentier class? It is difficult to tell directly in Wolfmann's case; he bobs and weaves between the lines of Inherent Vice without ever appearing directly and speaking to Sportello or to the reader. Sportello sees him directly only once, briefly, in federal custody (243). He is as close as this book's social world comes to being a prime mover, but he remains offstage, knowable only by inference through his effects on other characters: Sportello's ex-lover and initial client Shasta, or his own untrustworthy wife Sloane, or the enforcers and other minor characters in his direct or indirect employ, or the presumptive Golden Fang operatives who kidnap and psychologically reprogram him, or Sportello himself through sad contemplation of how Wolfmann's connection to Shasta overmatched his own. Wolfmann's wealth, force of will, sexual omnivorousness, omnipresence in television advertisements for his properties, and legendary unpredictability—he is ethnically Jewish, "Westside Hochdeutsch mafia" (7), yet he maintains a bodyguard of motorcycle baddies recruited from the Aryan Brotherhood faction in prisons—mark him as an outsized, disruptive, Oz-like figure, as erratic as any of Pynchon's low-comedy stoners but relentlessly purposeful. He is obsessive enough about his many short-term lovers to have their likenesses hand-painted nude on a collection of neckties, yet casual enough about these ties to give away the one depicting Shasta to an apelike orderly, a presumptive act of indifference that is galling to Sportello (190, 193-194), who carries a torch for Shasta that burns even more steadily than his incessant joints. Wolfmann cultivates an aura of unapproachability and danger, disturbing even to tough old Aunt Reet, but the action that creates a genuine disturbance in this world, triggering an intervention in the form of his kidnapping, is an unexpected attack of ethical regret about the way he has made his living.

Detailed revelation of plot twists is unseemly in any review or comment on a thriller, but certain spoilers are unavoidable here, and a highly significant one is Wolfmann's decision, for a time, to shrieve his conscience through an act of utopian construction, an intentional community in an unspecified desert valley somewhere between LA and Las Vegas. First mentioned by Sloane Wolfmann's gigoloid "spiritual coach" Riggs Warbling (62), a building contractor, Architectural Digest reader, and aficionado of a mathematically complex form of construction known as the zonahedral dome or "zome," Wolfmann's zome-based desert housing project Arrepentimiento is later revealed as a drug-influenced personal obsession and the endeavor that causes even more powerful interests to question, and by kidnapping intervene into, his mental stability. Arrepentimiento translates as repentance or, in the more colloquial translation of the tattooed goon Puck Beaverton, "Spanish for 'sorry about that'" (248). Beaverton, Warbling, and the pair of FBI agents all give Sportello fragmentary information about this not-for-profit development, geometrically futuristic (with multiple references to Buckminster Fuller) and intended to provide rent-free housing to an impoverished (i.e., Preterite) population, the antithesis of the economic model that has created Wolfmann's fortune. Agent Flatweed fills Sportello in, with a snarl:

"It's you hippies. You're making everybody crazy. We'd always assumed that Michael's conscience would never be a problem. After all his years of never appearing to have one. Suddenly he decides to change his life and give away millions to an assortment of degenerates—Negroes, longhairs, drifters. Do you know what he said? We have it on tape. 'I feel as if I've awakened from a dream of a crime for which I can never atone, an act I can never go back and choose not to commit. I can't believe I spent my whole life making people pay for shelter, when it ought to've been free. It's just so obvious.'" (244)

Again, Pynchon grounds the fanciful in the actual. Lest anyone imagine that zonahedral domes are a pure product of his imagination, the form was in fact not only theorized but constructed as early as 1965 at the Colorado desert commune Drop City, where artists followed the geometric plans of inventor Steve Baer and built assorted zomes of salvaged materials; the project won the Buckminster Fuller Institute's Dymaxion Award for innovative and economical housing construction in 1966. A longer-lived intentional community in central Arizona, architect Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti, would become the model for the "arcologies" or self-contained single-building communities in William Gibson's Neuromancer; it is explicitly designed as the antithesis of sprawl, eliminating cars and tightly concentrating the human component of its resource use, sustaining itself economically since 1970 through craft sales, educational events, tourism, and donations, despite chronic underfunding. Probably the best-publicized of the desert architectural/ecological experiments is Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Ariz., beginning as an ill-fated study in the viability of an environment not simply self-contained but physically sealed, evolving into a more professional ecological laboratory managed by Columbia University after Wallace Broecker of Columbia University helped solve the chemical-balance problems that made the closed-system experiment a failure, and eventually being spun off as a museum and research center directed by the University of Arizona, combined with more conventional housing development on-site. Dissident utopian communities in the 1960s and afterward, whether they attained underground renown but ultimately collapsed from interpersonal difficulties (Drop City), failed amid plausible charges of mismanagement and were rescued by more conventional institutions (Biosphere 2), or attained a degree of independent institutional stability (Arcosanti), have generated much more than a colorful vocabulary of portmanteau neologisms and a modicum of scientific information: they have looked to the reconfiguration of living space for alternatives to a commercial land-use system that they perceive as environmentally unsustainable to the point of self-destruction, and they have established, for better or worse, a track record of artistic and intellectual influence in certain spheres, combined with financial and managerial unsteadiness. Deserts are, among other things, difficult and expensive places to maintain an off-the-grid living/working compound. Communities of this sort might do well to rethink the commitment to isolation that presumably motivates the choice of site.

Wolfmann's pair of properties, Arrepentimiento and Channel View Estates, represent antithetical ways of organizing American land in pursuit of contrasting utopian impulses: as an admirable if financially doomed exercise in architectural innovation and charitable housing, or as a conventionally profitable, predictable, environmentally disastrous and socially/culturally/aesthetically soul-crushing sprawl-burb. The name Channel View carries multiple connotations, none complimentary. Channelview, Texas, is an oil-refinery suburb of Houston infamous for the 1991 "Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom" case, in which a woman hired a hit man to kill the mother of her teenage daughter's rival for a place on a pep squad. The "channel view" function in major audio or graphics software packages such as ProTools, Logic Studio, or Photoshop narrows down a user's visibility to a single audio track or color within a multicolor image. But the name's primary and obvious implication involves the compulsive watching of television. Sportello's taunting nemesis Bjornsen overtly acknowledges this, greeting the detective in custody as he awakens from a head blow, telling him he is at "Channel View Estates, a future homesite where elements of some wholesome family will quite soon be gathering night after night, to gaze tubeward, gobble their nutritious snacks..." (22). The combination of spatial isolation into private homes and television proved through the later twentieth century to be conducive to popular auto-anesthesia, narrowing people's access to independently sourced information and to each other. The auto and the Tube: a pair of technologies optimized to propagate mass autism. Those snacks will undoubtedly be mass-market junk food, not the equally cheap but more distinctive fare available from one-of-a-kind joints like The Price of Wisdom or the surfer shack Wavos. The constriction and control of vision in every sense is essential to life in a place like Channel View Estates.

At Arrepentimiento, in contrast, Wolfmann's more generous and idealistic impulses are up against larger, darker forces whose victory is practically predetermined. They are bodied forth as the shape-shifting, hard-drug-dealing, murderously manipulative entity known as the Golden Fang, appearing variously as a boat, a building, a tax scheme, and a kind of mafia, but also as a psychic archetype reminiscent of a passage in Gravity's Rainbow on the human incapacity for true independence from the power of wealth ("the Counterforce... are as schizoid, as double-minded in the massive presence of money, as any of the rest of us, and that's the hard fact. The Man has a branch office in each of our brains, his corporate emblem is a white albatross..." [GR 712-713]); perhaps it is simply equivalent to plutocracy in all its external and internalized forms. Sustaining the financing, completion, and operation of Arrepentimiento in defiance of the Fang would require degrees of will and autonomy that no one, even Wolfmann, can marshal. The reader sees the place only as another construction site, this time abandoned in an incomplete state, with an armed and deranged Riggs Warbling first threatening, then recognizing and welcoming Sportello and his sidekick Tito Stavrou, explaining that the project is dead, soon to be dismantled or even bombed. "Someday they'll get Mickey to approve a rocket strike," Warbling laments, "and Arrepentimiento will be history -- except it won't even be that, because they'll destroy all the records, too" (251). Having begun as Wolfmann's LSD-influenced vision, then having nearly, miraculously, attained physical form, Arrepentimiento is already under erasure by the time it moves from the realm of rumor to the book's immediate action.

Of the two antithetical construction projects ("Michael Wolfmann Concepts") that organize the spatial expansion of the world of Inherent Vice beyond the limits of stasis and nostalgia, which one is more plausibly The Great Wrong Place? Given the social and environmental implications of different developmental forms, the question of whether Arrepentimiento or Channel View Estates is more preposterous comes close to being the central problem bearing on the novel's real-world implications. Inherent Vice's relations to the external landscape are of more lasting interest than Sportello's investigation itself, since the surface-level whodunit questions within the text proper—the reasons behind Wolfmann's disappearance and reprogramming, bodyguard Glen Charlock's murder, an older murder involving Bjornsen's past, and a series of further political murders by a hit man acting under legal protection—are all either answered or deferred through the sort of trap-door plot devices that Pynchon shares with Chandler and Ellroy. As in the darkest and best of the hardboiled tradition, the spreading stain of culpability extends well beyond questions of who perpetrated any particular crime: the crime is how an entire place, an entire society, got to be the way it is. And thanks to both impersonal market mechanisms and the specific decision by a Wolfmann into whose hide the Golden Fang (in whatever form that malevolent force has assumed) has finally clamped down good and hard, the Pynchonian Southland, like the real one and increasingly large parts of the real U.S., came to look far more like Channel View Estates than like Arrepentimiento.

Pynchon makes no attempt to frame this interpretive competition between the abandoned utopia and the completed dystopia a fair fight. That Channel View Estates and places like it thrive and multiply appears here as a national tragedy, perhaps a planetary one, whether one infers that the failure of Arrepentimiento and similar eco-utopian experiments to thrive was foreordained in their nature or contingent on particular decisions. The reasons to evaluate Channel View Estates harshly are self-evident throughout the text; the only character who seriously defends the place, Bjornsen in his initial rude-awakening speech to the dazed Sportello, does so in caricatured conformist terms early in the book, before he has evolved from a hippie-hating cartoon authoritarian to someone with more complicated loyalties—perhaps even becoming an instrument of Sportello's salvation, through an act that can be read as either inadvertently backfiring or expressing a conscious intention to help Sportello bargain his way out of a jam. It is worth noting that Sportello's evolving relation to Bjornsen is one of the strongest and most mature aspects of the second half of Inherent Vice (removing Pynchon's generally scathing treatment of police, refreshingly, from the one-dimensionality that mars late sections of Vineland), and that after their final exchanges of wrap-up plot information, Bjornsen's own pursuit of a quite different sense of justice elicits a response from Sportello that readers of the previous Californian novel may consider a substantial surprise (350) and that no Pynchon character would ever have extended to Vineland's Brock Vond or Against the Day's Scarsdale Vibe. Forgiveness, or at least a form of nonjudgmentalism toward individual behavior, is in ample supply in Pynchon's work. Channel View Estates, however, is an assault on the region, rendering it blander and more generic, as well as on the Earth, expanding resource-consumption and ecological degradation; it is unforgivable.

Transactions in surreal estate

For all its grounding in spatial and cultural specificity, Inherent Vice maintains one strand of continuity with the nonrational realms found in previous Pynchon works. The boundaries of realism do not exclude the surreal, the mythic, and the potentially delusional, and Sportello entertains occasional hallucinations that may or may not be informative, though they are at least informative about the contents of his own mind. Psychoactive drugs and the states they produce allow Pynchon to introduce this material without violating the real-world assumptions of the thriller genre and plunging thoroughly into the magical-realist sphere of talking dogs, immortal light bulbs, and not-quite-dead creatures that seem to have walked out of the Tibetan Bardo Thödol. One significant secondary character whom Sportello assists against tall odds, the saxophonist Harlingen, would almost certainly have been among Pynchon's Thanatoids had he appeared in Vineland, but here his undead state takes the forms of heroin addiction, a faked death, estrangement from his family, detoxification at the sinister Chryskylodon (Greek for "Golden Fang") Institute, and enslavement to the rightist group Vigilant California (the "Viggies," part brownshirt paramilitary faction and part cult) as a low-level snitch and political operative. Harlingen's unpleasant odyssey takes him through a series of states that link the economy, contractual bonds, and middle-class mainstream existence to varieties of addiction: "It was occurring to Doc now... that if the Golden Fang could get its customers strung out, why not turn around and also sell them a program to help them kick? Get them coming and going, twice as much revenue and no worries about new customers—as long as American life was something to be escaped from, the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers" (192).

That the Golden Fang may be no more definably real than the Tristero system, or may be so real that its influence permeates the FBI, the Las Vegas Mafia, and the LAPD, ultimately appears to be beside the point, as Sportello's mission morphs from a cluster of criminal investigations to a discovery of the deeper nature of the place he inhabits and an attempt to protect specific persons, including Shasta, Harlingen and family, and himself, from harm. (In Against the Day, in fact, Pynchon presaged the Fang by mentioning a Chums of Chance title, The Chums of Chance and the Wrath of the Yellow Fang [1019], as the final such book mentioned in the text, placing its initial incarnation squarely in the realm of the unreal.) The point of the Golden Fang comes to be not that it is a literal smoke-filled-room-style conspiracy with identifiable manipulators—its appearance as a literal tooth-shaped six-story building inhabited by low-comedy dentists and described as a mere tax dodge, located at the very site where a Ouija-board message, surely another manifestation of "Woo-Woo Telephone and Telegraph," had once driven Sportello and Shasta on a wild-goose-chase dope-buying mission only to find an empty lot (164-169), is enough of a letdown to make the whole idea of conspiracy-hunting appear self-parodying—but that it is indistinguishable from the capitalist economy, from the impulses toward commodification, indistinction, and extraction that enable it. The repeated dealings with paranormality, drug visions, and improbable coincidence bring Sportello certain options for organizing information, and one of his last such moments offers an image the reader can reliably classify as an insight. While held under duress by the thug Beaverton and given a massive dose of PCP, Sportello encounters the personified Golden Fang itself and finds it tall, cloaked, and leeringly theatrical about the use of its teeth: in other words, unambiguously vampiric. "'As you may have already gathered,' it whispered, 'I am the Golden Fang. [...] they have named themselves after their worst fear. I am the unthinkable vengeance they turn to when one of them has grown insupportably troublesome, when all other sanctions have failed'" (318).

One recalls Sportello's earlier Dr. Van Helsing stake-driving joke on seeing the Robert Moses motto in Wolfmann's house. If any hallucination or monstrosity in otherwise realistic fiction points toward elements of the work's realistic component, some connection is lurking here between imaginary blood-sucking creatures and real entities deserving that metaphor. Of all the available visions of predation that American pop culture provides (and that Pynchon the midnight-movie buff recurrently draws from in various contexts, such as zombie legends and Japanese monster films at multiple points here, King Kong in Gravity's Rainbow, or Frankenstein's monster in his New York Times Book Review Luddism essay), a vampire acts through insidiousness, persuasion, contagiousness, and parasitism, not overwhelming force or size. It lives off the blood of others, rather than shedding blood violently. Vampires are a natural match for developers or landlords, for any rentier whose income derives from ownership of assets rather than productive work. Elements of surreality intrude only occasionally in Inherent Vice, but they do so in this climactic moment in order to comment on real estate.

Among Sportello's late conversations wrapping up loose ends and resolving uncertainties, the most adversarial is his encounter with a representative of both the Golden Fang and the longtime property-holding, white-shoe, old-money class, Crocker Fenway, at Fenway's private club the Portola (named for the 1769 expedition of Gaspar de Portolà to claim Californian territory for Spain, though Fenway is oblivious to a mural depicting that party's landing near Los Angeles). Fenway's profession is never specified, but he describes himself as a well-known fixer, and his use of the phrase "holding in gratuitous bailment" implies he is an attorney (341); Sportello is aware, having earned a considerable fee some years earlier rescuing Fenway's floridly disturbed runaway daughter, that "the Fenways were heavy-duty South Bay money, living on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in a gated enclave located inside the already gated high-rent community of Rolling Hills" (171). When Sportello encounters Fenway again to negotiate the return of a massive stash of heroin (Golden Fang property that Sportello has had planted on him by police but managed, improbably, to get away with concealing), their relative bargaining positions for the moment are such that Sportello can afford not only a claim for a nonmonetary quid pro quo (amnesty for Harlingen) but a few class-conscious zingers:

"How much money would I have to take from you so I don't lose your respect?"

Crocker Fenway chuckled without mirth. "A bit late for that, Mr. Sportello. People like you lose all claim to respect the first time they pay anybody rent."

"And when the first landlord decided to stiff the first renter for his security deposit, your whole fucking class lost everybody's respect."(346-347)

Sportello goes on to wave an extremely red flag in front of this particular bull. When Fenway rails against "His Holiness Mickey Wolfmann," calls Channel View Estates "that promise of urban blight" (tellingly mistaking the generically suburban for the urban), and praises his own landholding class for struggling to keep "high-density tenement scum without the first idea of how to clean up after themselves" out of an otherwise green and pristine neighborhood, Sportello calls him on the ersatz environmental objections ("Bullshit, Crocker, it's about your property values") and presses him for a response regarding the "bad-karma level" that landlords have steadily and massively accumulated. Fenway's reply, along with defending his clubfellows' ability to remain "in place," concedes the rentiers' aggression toward the renters in this eternal class war over living space.But it also skewers the whole cultural segment on whose behalf Sportello for once has taken the role of spokesman, everyone in 1960s California and elsewhere who has opted out of the tiresome and rigged race that the likes of Fenway always win:

"Real estate, water rights, oil, cheap labor – all of that's ours, it's always been ours. And you, at the end of the day what are you? one more unit in this swarm of transients who come and go without pause here in the sunny Southland, eager to be bought off with a car of a certain make, model, and year, a blonde in a bikini, thirty seconds on some excuse for a wave – a chili dog, for Christ's sake." He shrugged. "We will never run out of you people. The supply is inexhaustible." (347)

Fenway's reappearance in the book a few pages earlier had interrupted Sportello's idyllic dream mixed with political resolve, "a kind of courtroom summary" by his lawyer Sauncho Smilax as the two watched the schooner Preserved (which had been commandeered for a time for nefarious uses and renamed The Golden Fang, but somehow exorcised and restored to its real name) sail safely away, perhaps even carrying Harlingen and his family; the dream-Smilax spoke of "the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to have the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever" (341). The lament for the abused land, even framed as a mock-elevated, somewhat windy speech inside a dream, describes something that Pynchon, as much as any of his Preterite characters, values highly. Yet it also articulates an aspect of the pivotal conversation soon to come, and of Pynchon's work more broadly, that explains why there have always been distinct limits to his appeal. Those "evildoers known all too well" certainly include Fenway as well as Wolfmann in his avaricious pre- and post-Arrepentimiento phases, and anyone who disrespects particular places enough to trade land as a commodity. Politically, it is useful to recognize our bloodsuckers as clearly as possible, but for aesthetic purposes there is such a thing, and not a good thing, as knowing them all too well.

In certain critical quarters there has long been a characterization problem in Pynchon. One reasonable way to put it is William Logan's observation, apropos of various excesses in Against the Day, that "no one has ever wept over the death of a Pynchon character the way thousands wept over Little Nell." Defenders might counter either that his major characters rarely die in view of the reader, that Dickensian sentiment is too shopworn an effect to treat unironically, or that certain of Pynchon's deaths (without hesitation, I would nominate those of Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason) are in fact seriously moving. But the objection still stands. Those who seek psychological roundedness and credibility above all else in fiction do not customarily find it here, certainly not in overprivileged heavies like Fenway. Perhaps Pynchon's general refusal of interiority for many characters indicates not an inattention to individual psychology or, as James Wood would have it, an outright authorial incompetence at the task of constructing credible, nuanced, and realistic individual perspective (for Wood, arguably the central task of any serious novel). The steady attainment of greater self-awareness by Sportello, despite his intellectual and cultural limitations and his memory-beclouding inhalations, indicates that Pynchon is capable of considerable psychological nuance when he puts his mind to it. I would add that on the far larger canvas of Against the Day, the extended Cyprian Latewood plot (which arises in mid-novel, too far along for the more impatient reader or reviewer even to have noticed it) presents a decisive response to Wood's charges of chronic immaturity, superficiality, and overtheatricality. But an equally plausible alternative is that Pynchon habitually eschews a close focus on individual psychology because of a fully serious conviction that it is simply not as interesting as broader social systems, either as an intellectual problem or as an aesthetic object.

In an Inherent Vice review that refers specifically to Crocker Fenway's class-superiority speech as an instance of hollow, unreal villainy, Laura Miller contends that "there's something profoundly futile about mounting a protest against vast, complex systems that use ordinary people like interchangeable cogs by writing novels that are vast complex systems in which the characters amount to interchangeable cogs." The objection is a serious one, even when one appends a recognition that his most important characters (including the one glimpsed only through assorted glasses darkly, Wolfmann) are far from interchangeable. Yet protest is only one aspect of Pynchon's engagement with these systems; he also anatomizes them, including his and our own roles within them. While mounting a sustained ethical argument against systems that serve greed and arrogance, he also exercises, and often successfully promulgates, a sustained fascination with their workings. Some of the ways an economic system operates are to foster varieties of false consciousness, convince people to believe they are freer than they are, substitute trivial forms of freedom (Fenway's car, bikini, and chili dog) for substantive ones, and drive people's attention inward, toward their own emotions and motivations, where it can be less socially disruptive and more containable than if it were directed externally, historically, and socially.

A refusal to play the game of psychologism, an overt declaration through repeated cartoonish characterizations that we are all quite often superficial and cartoonish, is not a welcome message in all quarters, but in Pynchon's practice it is plausibly purposeful. He would not be the first to claim that all happy families are in some way alike (or, after Nabokov, that they in fact are not alike), but he does break distinctive ground by adding that all unhappy families are also in some way alike, as are all individuals in love, all individuals who have lost love, all individuals when observed in the act of wistfully recalling bygone love, and so forth—whereas spatial communities of any real interest (to pick one of the many categories of human collectivities Pynchon is concerned with, professions being another) display complex, fascinatingly detailed, infinitely evolving differences of natural and built forms, social fragmentation, technology, and cultural expression.

To develop a clearer sense of just what it is Pynchon prefers to emphasize, it may be useful to examine one last pair of passages involving characters' perceptions of land and, since the book's title phrase and master metaphor is a concept from maritime law, of water as well. Another of the hallucinogen experiences through which Sportello passes involves a trip customized for him, complete with a thematically appropriate and extraordinarily patience-testing soundtrack (Tiny Tim's "The Ice Caps Are Melting" set on repeat), by the acid guru Fairfield (108). Sportello has some troublesome history with this character, whom he has met through another of the book's more significant supporting personages, a woman going by the single and singular name of Sortilège. She is exactly the kind of woo-woo New Ager whom Pynchon (among others) finds in great abundance in California and frequently sets up for ready mockery. Her name, denoting divination by lot-casting, implies randomness, a kind of spiritual placebo effect, yet in her attunement to purported "invisible forces" and her willingness to help friends deal with them, "she had never been wrong that Doc knew about" (11). Among her many beliefs astrological and otherwise, one that even the Gordita surfers find hard to take—and this is a crowd that includes St. Flip of Lawndale, whose religion equates Christ's walking on the Sea of Galilee with surfing, the absence of waves on that body of water being no apparent impediment to belief, and who once bought "a fragment of the True Board" (99)—is a faith in the legend of the lost continent of Lemuria, a Pacific equivalent (and in some versions a precursor) of Atlantis. (The Lemuria mythos has real-world adherents, one might note [e.g., Jones], alongside whose credulity regarding extraterrestrials and sacred mountains the doctrines of Sortilège and Fairfield resemble op-eds in the Skeptical Inquirer.) Lemuria and Atlantis disappeared under water, Sortilège is convinced, because of environmental abuses, and North America is headed the same way: "'The good news is that like any living creature, Earth has an immune system too, and sooner or later she's going to start rejecting agents of disease like the oil industry. And hopefully before we end up like Atlantis and Lemuria'" (105).

Oil from the nearby El Segundo refinery befouls the sand and the feet of Gordita residents, much as tar globs actually do surface further north at Pismo Beach. In this locale, the effects of both production and consumption of petroleum are hard to overlook. When Sportello eats Fairfield's bespoke blotter, he hallucinates not only "the vividly lit ruin of an ancient city that was, and also wasn't, everyday Greater L.A." (108) but an ancient war between the two lost continents that subsumes the U.S. war in Indochina and thousands of years' worth of other proxy conflicts, plus a quickly rising water level. LSD, suggestibility, and perhaps a blurry sense of geopolitical history can explain much of the form of Sportello's vision. Knowing what contemporary earth scientists have demonstrated about climate change, however, one need not take Lemuria or ancient guiding spirits seriously to sense that Sortilège, at least in her immune-system metaphor, may in fact be onto something.

Toward the book's end, another conversation between Sportello and Smilax, a marine salvage specialist, evokes disasters and rising water in explaining the marine-insurance concept of inherent vice, which applies not just to individuals (as an alternative term for original sin) but to any entity with built-in flaws, anything on which insurance represents a shaky bet. The idea that the phrase might apply to an entire part of the world, not just to a vulnerable cargo such as eggs (prone, of course, to breakage), to leak-prone vessels, or to human nature, is not a fanciful extension; it appears directly in the dialogue, as Sportello follows up on Smilax's examples:

"Like the San Andreas Fault," it occurred to Doc. "Rats living up in the palm trees."

"Well," Sauncho blinked, "maybe if you wrote a marine policy on L.A., considering it, for some closely defined reason, to be a boat..."

"Hey, how about a ark? That's a boat, right?"

"Ark insurance?"

"That big disaster Sortilège is always talking about, way back when Lemuria sank into the Pacific. Some of the people who escaped then are spozed to've fled here for safety. Which would make California like, a ark."

"Oh, nice refuge. Nice, stable, reliable piece of real estate." (351-352)

This is more than just another in the long series of spacy exchanges Sportello has with well-baked friends. The combined suggestions that Inherent Vice might characterize the entire state and that its presence renders any entity harder to insure add up to a proposition with broad implications: one of many things compromised by a critical flaw is the entire territory, the American land-development system itself. The way California was physically developing in 1970, the way the U.S. has largely continued to develop—sprawling laterally to an extreme degree, maximizing energy consumption and vehicular miles traveled, locking much of the population into the addictive network of homeowner debt, spewing greenhouse gases, postponing accountability for the population-wide insistence on maximal convenience, and generally mismanaging its physical inheritance for private profit—demonstrates a systemic inherent vice, well beyond what any individual can influence. Of course, if American civilization is an ark of sorts, certain parties are in fact captaining it. Smilax notes, a few pages later as they watch the Preserved (the real schooner this time) hitting a wave so anomalously large that it scuttles her, that whoever is navigating is "committing either suicide or barratry here" (358). Barratry in admiralty law is gross misconduct by a vessel's master or crew, stealing, scuttling, or otherwise damaging the vessel or its cargo. Smilax's observation is too potent a metaphor to be limited to a single schooner.

Inherent vice is a broader concept than original sin or criminal culpability; it is about the world more than it is about us. The ways of complex systems (physical, ecological, or socioeconomic), Pynchon seems to be stressing, are not reducible to the desires, concerns, self-regard, or beliefs of individual human beings, though they do respond in some degree to individual choices. Those individuals nearly always deserve mercy and second chances, he intimates, and the worst offenses in his world consist of the denial of mercy to those in need of it. But individual fates and fears do not loom large enough to overshadow larger things. Pynchon observes a distinction between being humane and pretending that humanist values comprehend everything. It may be that the objections raised against Pynchon by readers with a strong allegiance to the values of earlier phases of fiction—sometimes overall admirers or former admirers like Miller, sometimes less patient readers like Wood, with his powerful if intemperate castigations of the genre he calls "hysterical realism"—are essentially attempts to use nineteenth-century criteria to evaluate twenty-first century phenomena. That moral gravity can extend to matters beyond the scale of individual human morals is a difficult concept to grapple with (perhaps one with structural analogies to a certain architectural trope that Pynchon has used repeatedly, once in Mason & Dixon and twice here, Chick Planet [21] and the Arrepentimiento zome [251]: a space that appears larger inside than outside). But it is precisely the flexibility and expansiveness of postmodern fiction that makes it possible to consider and perform the cognitive gymnastics such an idea demands.

What Pynchon may in fact have constructed is a novel of ideas in potboiler disguise, frankly if subterraneanly didactic, motivated more by the urgency of disseminating the core idea—the inherent tragedy and potential for disaster associated with certain forms of humanly built space and social organization—than by the aesthetic criteria of humanistic realism. One shoehorns one's experience of a Pynchon book into such a category at one's peril; he is Thomas Pynchon, after all, with very little left to prove to anyone. If he regards the potential cautionary effect of an elaborate ecological/developmental parable, a useful and provocative countermyth against the cavalier treatment of irreplaceable places, as more a pressing matter than the furthering of his own reputation for certain kinds of gravity, there are probably worse vices.

Works Cited

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Logan, William. "Back to the Future: On Pynchon's Against the Day." Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2007, pp. 226-247 [].

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Varnelis, Kazys. "Cathedrals of the Culture Industry" []. Originally "Catedrales de la industria de la cultura," Pasajes de Arquitectura y Critica 39 (August/September 2002): 14-17. English version republished in Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Design Annual 2004, pp. 35-40 [].

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Contributor's Note

Bill Millard is a New York-based writer covering architecture, culture, medicine, and interdisciplinary topics. His work has appeared in Oculus and eOculus, the Architect's Newspaper, Icon, the LEAF Review, the RIBA Journal, Annals of Emergency Medicine, Postmodern Culture, Content (OMA/R. Koolhaas et al., eds.; Köln: Taschen, 2004), and other publications. He has adapted some of this article's material on American spatial development from his manuscript in progress, with research supported in part by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts: The Vertical and Horizontal Americas: The Built Environment, Cultural Formations, and the Post-Automotive Era.

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