I’m on a 60s LA kick. Just finished up Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays and Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is on deck, which could serve as a nice capper to this run.
Play It As It Lays and Inherent Vice share a frayed vision of the 60s, but the similarities stop there. Play It As It Lays is desperate, sad, and heartbreaking. It is steeped in melancholy. If the 60s were supposed to be liberating and life affirming, the characters in this book never got the memo. It’s a crashing dream. We get snippets of the life of Maria. Model turned actress turned Hollywood wife heading for a crack up. All the booze, the drugs and loose morals do nothing but undermine her self-worth. It’s a haunting book. Play It As It Lays, written in 1970, seems ahead of its time in re-evaluating the 60s or certainly poking holes in the Eden-esque 60s mythology.
Inherent Vice, on the other hand, fully plays into that myth. Free love and free drugs abound. Surf music is on the radio, rock and roll is in the streets, and revolution is in the air. But this is a crime novel, so not all is well. A Cointelpro sting, a drug ring, and a bizarre real-estate scandal threaten the stoners’ surf paradise. However, Pynchon’s characters remain oblivious to the menace, having a rollicking good time. They all are just too stoned to be too concerned.
Plopped down in 1969, months after the Manson murders, Inherent Vice is a hazy, drug-fueled noir. It owes a huge debt to Raymond Chandler, but floats in a psychedelic fog. I loved it at times, but at other points the haze got a bit thick. With an intensely convoluted plot, filled with oodles of characters, the narrative slip slides around in a cloud of pot smoke, oft times obscuring the narrative. At some level that approach leaves you with some impressionistic scenes, but with so many plot turns to keep track of, confusion ensues. Interestingly, I heard an interview with Paul Thomas Anderson, who adapted Inherent Vice for the screen last year. I have yet to see the movie, but he talks about using Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye as a model for his film. This completely informed my reading of Inherent Vice. Altman’s take on Chandler is narratively challenged and heavy on vibe. It’s elusive and hard to pin down. I was never the hugest fan, but the mood of that film has stuck with me years after viewing. Though I didn’t love Inherent Vice throughout, it actually has fueled my interest to take in the movie. It seems ripe for the screen, a dizzying visual ride, prone to slipping in and out of the narrative fold. I can get behind that.
On a side note, I haven’t read Pynchon since college. I loved him then, but haven’t read any of the comeback novels. I couldn’t help being struck by how wacky and goofy Inherent Vice was. Great heaps of Carl Hiaasen craziness abound in these pages. So my question is whether Hiaasen’s books are hugely influenced by early Pynchon or whether Pynchon has succumbed to influences by more modern writers? And speaking of modern influences, there a bit of James Ellroy and bit of The Big Lebowski floating around in this Inherent stew.