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from saturday's books section

I have two theories about the possible origins of Thomas Pynchon's new novel, Inherent Vice. Theory one: It's a postmodern genre work that ironizes the very conventions of detective fiction that it follows, while at the same time articulating and satirizing the excesses of violence, drug use, sloth and sex that typify late-20th-century American culture. Stretching, bending and self-reflexively interrogating the stretchy, bendy, interrogative textures of detective fiction, the novel, this first theory proposes, is an exercise in, say, epistemological entropy and/or consumptive consumption.

  • Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon, Penguin Press, 369 pages, $35

Theory two: It's an idea Pynchon came up with late one night after watching The Big Lebowski and Fletch. Having returned home from his latest midnight-bag-of-burning-dog-poop gag on Dick Cheney's front stoop (Cheney and Pynchon are, according to a recent Wikipedia entry, next-door neighbours living in converted missile silos in the western suburbs of Undisclosed Location, America), this theory goes, Pynchon caught this double feature about the often very funny intersection of hapless hippie-dippie druggie dudedom and hard-boiled L.A. mayhem and mystery and thought it looked like something fun to try writing himself.

For years now, Pynchon's books have provoked reactions that, generally, correspond to these two theories: Either you're convinced that he's a literary genius and you're willing to write a doctoral dissertation to prove it, or you're convinced that he's a literary wing nut and you're amazed that people keep reading his books.

Inherent Vice, which is set in California at the tailpipe end of the sixties, will probably confirm the positions in both camps. It will also, I think, initially attract some readers of highbrow crime and detective fiction looking for a book to enjoy between the next Elmore Leonard or Michael Connelly effort, or before rereading another Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett classic.

These readers will, no doubt, be more flummoxed than others, because it's the very nature of a genre novel that it keeps its promises, fulfilling certain pleasures of expectation and discovery, including standard types of characters and standard kinds of premises and challenging but satisfying denouements.

From its opening pages, Pynchon's novel seems set to offer at least some variation of such fulfillments. The story begins with Larry (Doc) Sportello, private eye, receiving an unexpected visitor, his sexy heartbreaker of an ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth, who comes to him in need of help: Her current lover, construction magnate Mickey Wolfmann, is in some kind of dark trouble, and Shasta knows that it's people close to him, inspired by jealousy, greed and lust, doing the scheming. And because she knows this much but doesn't know what to do about it, Shasta's in trouble too, and turns to her ex.

"Need your help, Doc," she admits, before reminding him, "You never did let me down." What's a hardened man with a soft, bruised spot for an old flame to do?

And so we're off, in two familiar if divergent directions at the same time. One direction is into the territory of hard-boiled detective fiction. Doc, thinking he's only trying to figure out what's happened to Mickey Wolfmann while protecting Shasta (who quickly also goes missing), uncovers a sprawling, complex web of lies, intrigue and double-crossing that smudges the dividing line between good and bad, innocent and guilty, help and betrayal, cop and criminal, friend and enemy, do-gooder and fall guy.

Meanwhile, players, motives and mysteries proliferate, as do opportunities for the embittered hero to give up on his investigation, to give in and join the bad guys he's investigating, and, climactically, to give over his life for having done his job too well and discovered more than he should have.

Were Inherent Vice only a straight take on detective fiction along these lines, dominated by sharp-edged dialogue and cynical reflections and the kind of suspenseful, fast-paced writing that brilliantly figures in a sequence late in the novel, when Doc has to shoot his way out of a bad situation gone really bad, it would make for fine and fun reading, even if, for fans of such books, altogether familiar.

But remember, we're also in Pynchon territory: Instead of just skillfully trafficking in the stuff of detective fiction, he overloads his novel with the absurdities and convolutions that feature throughout his work - most immediately evident in the character names, which include, among such many others, Bigfoot Bjornsen, Sauncho Smilax, Puck Beaverton, Leonard J. Loosemeat, Vincent Indelicato, Fritz Drybeam, Adrian Prussia, a girl named Japonica and a pair of FBI agents named Flatweed and Borderline.

Watch the web trailer for Inherent Vice, narrated by Thomas Pynchon <object width="560" height="340"><param name="movie" value=""></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="560" height="340"></embed></object>

It's likewise evident in his capacities as an incisive, very funny satirist of American life, which inspire items such as a mechanic's garage called the Resurrection of the Body; a paranoid man's trying to make a case for the significance of the Charlie Manson trial going on just as Americans are fighting "Charlie" in Vietnam; and a detailed description of a Gilligan's Island made-for-TV-movie where the castaways meet Godzilla, which Doc mostly sleeps through, only to wake up "the next morning to Henry Kissinger on the Today show going, 'Vell, den, ve chould chust bombp dem, shouldn't ve?'"

Pynchon devotees glory in this kind of stuff; others, I think, tend to weigh its brilliance and enjoyments against the difficulties and plain weirdness that accompany it. Of course, if you discover that you're continually making such measurements instead of just reading a book, that tells you something less than promising about your fortitude as a reader, or, more damning, about the book itself. Inherent Vice is significantly shorter and less demanding than other recent Pynchon novels, if ultimately less compelling as well. Having weighed things out, unless I'd get some extra letters behind my last name for the effort, I think I'd watch Fletch twice before reading it a second time.

Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at Ryerson University and author of Governor of the Northern Province, a novel.

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