California Dreaming in Inherent Vice

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California Dreaming in Inherent Vice



On the Pacific Edge of Catastrophe, or Redemption:
California Dreaming in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

Rob Wilson

Inherent Vice continues Thomas Pynchon’s interrogation into California as American edge-​​site perpetually situated on the brink of catastrophe, metamorphosis, or redemption. This “cop-​​happy” state of excess,
dread, corruption, and ecstasy functions as a crazed contact zone where
the novelist has long plotted—from The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), with its
hyperhermeneutic quest for systems decoding, to Vineland (1990) (“paranoia strikes deep,” warned Buffalo Springfield)—the hopes and fears for
America-​​Becoming-​​Empire or (against all historical odds) something globally different. Following upon embedded American Puritan figurations of
binary election/depravity, but giving it all a more post-​​Beat semiotic cast
as some proliferating soul-​​hunger for self-​​transformation and social justice,
Pynchon’s latest novel once again tracks this centuries-​​long battle for the
soul of America between what he calls the non-​​flatland Preterite (surfers,
dopers, fun seekers, rockers, hippie riffraff, drifters, seekers, Indians, the
poor multitudes, restless homemakers in little bars) versus the “straightBook Reviewed: Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (New York: Penguin Press, 2009). Subsequent references are cited parenthetically by page number only.
boundary 2 37:2 (2010) DOI 10.1215/01903659-​2010-​010 © 2010 by Duke University Press

218 boundary 2 / Summer 2010

world” Elect (land developers, bankers, tax-​​dodging dentists, big shots,
police within police, loan sharks, or worse).1 But the Roads of Excess may
simply lead back to the Machinations of Empire and dissolve this post-​​
Hiroshima U.S. binary into a community of lost souls, code failure, and the
security-​​state apparatus of everyday fear and trembling: a time of transnational wanhope, ungraspable totality, and cultural differentiation when “this
whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world.”2

In Inherent Vice, Pynchon labors in the time-​​honored generic
trenches of American “hardboiled fiction” to elaborate the transformative
energies of what California still stands for as worlding edge-​​space, as a
temporal promise of social transformation and popular-​​cultural redemption
not quite over. Postmodern space-​​time becomes charged with lyric states
of venom and wonder in Inherent Vice that the proliferating genres of pop
music would opaquely capture (see Coda) in repetitive plenitude and social
hieroglyphs, wherein (as Joshua Clover insightfully sketches in 1989: Bob
Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About ) “history can sometimes only appear
as trace, as mood and affect—the very things pop is more apt to capture
than the grain of quotidian life amid great upheavals, or the subtleties and
grandeurs of history writ large.”3 Confronting Greater Los Angeles as a
global megalopolis of libidinal excess and soul-​​hunger that has become the
“criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place” par excellence, as W. H. Auden
memorably described the noir setting of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles in the 1930s, Pynchon’s hero-​​detective quests along the beach coast
for some state of grace-​​cum-​​freedom and release, and thus embodies the
national fantasy “of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of
innocence, where he may know love as love and not as law.”4

This quest for paradise reborn, SoCal-​​style on a “global, yet Ameri1. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) articulates this binary as a global semiotic with disastrous
cold war consequences the United States is still entangled in post-​​9/11: see Glenda
Carpio, “1945, April 11: Thomas Pynchon and Modern War,” in A New Literary History of
America, ed. Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 2009), 775–80.
2. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” in The
Jameson Reader, ed. Michael Hardt and Kathi Weeks (New York: Blackwell, 2000), 192.
3. Joshua Clover, 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About (Berkeley and London:
University of California Press, 2009), 18.
4. W. H. Auden, “The Guilty Vicarage,” in The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (New York:
Random House, 1962), 151, 158.

Wilson / Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice 219

can” scale of postmodern hedonism and semiotic glut, is marred by innate-​​
depravity predilections implied by vice-​​squad connotations in the title,
inherent vice bespeaking myriad agents of incarceration, need, insecurity, death, and foreclosure: for, in the ruefully Jamesonian tones of Pynchon’s Late Capitalist plot in Inherent Vice, “everything in this dream of
prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-​​driven
world [would] reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch,
fondle, and molest” (129). As the commodifying forces of money, sex, narcotics, lust, greed, and death go on “reclaiming the music, the resistance to
power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday” (130), we witness an American vernacular revolution of pop-​​carnivalesque energies being infiltrated,
mimed, hollowed out, taken over, as if the 60s were foreclosed at birth by
the security apparatus of police forces (as vanguard for the postindustrial
state) lurking within what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls the Golden Gulag.5
Pynchon’s figuration of California as such turns from New Age pedagogies of edge-​​state ecstasy into a prison-​​house state of containment, control, infiltration, simulation, zombification. For Pynchon, being “born again”
transmutes into more ominous formations of goth zombies returning from
the tomb, mutated citizens becoming the apolitical living dead: like the surf
saxophonist junkie for the Boards, Coy Harlingen, who allegedly dies of a
heroin overdose and comes back from the dead as an LAPD informant and
faux-​​left demo-​​infiltrator: “every single one of these Boards was a zombie,
undead and unclean” (132).6

Inherent Vice thus registers as eco-​​horror narrative, like Roman
Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) from the same era, a neo-​​noir tale of L.A.
water rights, environmental assault, surveillance, and land abuse at Channel View Estates, criminality hidden in the light and real estate of the cop-​​
happy Southern California sun: South Central goes on being phased out
as an ethnic enclave, as ruled over by a stoned Jewish developer named
Mickey Wolfmann, who hangs out with a biker gang linked to the Aryan
5. On this large-​​scale infrastructural shift in California’s economy across the 1980s into
a prison-​​industrial complex, see Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus,
Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press,
2007); and Dylan Rodriguez, Forced Passages: Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison
Regime (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
6. On the mutating and politically unstable formations of conversion and “counterconversion” in world Beat and post-​​Beat era figures like Jack Kerouac, William Everson, Albert
Saijo, Ai, and Bob Dylan, see Rob Wilson, Be Always Converting, Be Always Converted:
An American Poetics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009). Pynchon
gives “rebirth” a King-​​like echoing from gothic horror, as what zombies do.

220 boundary 2 / Summer 2010

Brotherhood army in prison, at the same time the yogic hippie flying in
from other lives advises like a pragmatist, “Change your hair, change your
life” (12). “Long, sad history of L.A. land use, as Aunt Reet [the realtor]
never tired of pointing out. Mexican families bounced out of Chavez Ravine
to build Dodgers Stadium, American Indians swept out of Bunker Hill for
the Music Center, Tariq’s [black] neighborhood bulldozed aside for Channel View Estates” (17). Reaganomics begins taking over the 60s, oppositional culture and all, and there might just be one more “desert beneath
the pavement” worthy of being exploited by chambers of commerce and
innocence. The Developers are winning out over the Situationists here,
with their space-​​conquering motto taken from the urban developmentalism
of Robert Moses: “Once you get that first stake driven, nobody can stop
you” (88).

Cast into a maze of music, food, cult, and quest, all these lost souls
and more are tossed up on the same Pacific shores on the tail (tall tale) end
of the psychedelic 60s in Greater L.A., circa 1970. A land of “rebellious and
exotic natives,” Californians surge in and out of the law’s reach (73) and
shadowy activities mount on this and that side of Pacific-​​Asia expressing
“the convergence, from all around the Pacific Rim, of numberless needs to
do business unobserved” (80) as if circulating in some huge “Club Asiatique” full of “Oriental intrigue and romance” (83). Blue Cheer’s Vincebus
Eruptum and “Telstar” by the Tornados serve as background music, for a
lurid array of self-​​questers all linked by “tentacles of sin and desire and
that strange world-​​bound karma” as seen globally spreading out across the
maritime Pacific and Caribbean trade (91), as Pynchon sketches this rueful
slice of globalizing totality through L.A. lowlife clubs and crime gangs in a
time crazed with funny money, market need, and mounting debt.

The paranoid entity of “capitalist inducement” (66) here under investigation (by the hard-​​boiled period-​​and-​​genre figure-​​cum-​​doper PI, Larry
“Doc” Sportello, and his corrupt ingénue ex-​​lover Shasta Fay Hepworth
as femme fatale) is called, with the quasi-​​Orientalist splendor resonant of
pulp fiction cartels, the good ship Golden Fang: a Pynchonesque metonym for the totality of global-​​capitalist circulation administering dope to the
strung out and then detoxification to the cured, and issuing marine insurance to boats to protect against the “inherent evil” of lost or plundered
goods. The quest for insuring against marine risk across the Pacific falls
into the oceanic space of waves, rifts, edges, unforeseen events, and tubular crossings: meaning, it generates an ever-​​more global insecurity. The PI
of the plot quest is hunting for acidhead-​​billionaire developer Mickey Wolf-

Wilson / Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice 221

mann (with echoes of bootlegging Jay “Jimmy” Gatz sublimating into The
Great Gatsby), who is about to turn into a philanthropist and give it all away
as one of those “straight-​​to-​​freak converts” (308) to the social revolution of
potlatch generosity. As if the L.A. police, or globalizing capital, or criminal
elements all woven into one would let him exit: “Being tight with the Golden
Fang of yours by way of scag-​​related activities in the Far East, they got
Mickey programmed into Ojai for a little brain work” (334), meaning what
I would call a neoliberal counterconversion back to his workaday task of
environmental plundering and normative profiteering by the Pac Rim capitalist Elect.

So plots, counterplots, and subplots multiply, if only inside the doper
mind of the PI, and all the more so outside, in what Donald Pease would
track and undo as the paranoid U.S. state-​​fantasy of the Nixon and Hoover
apparatus, which goes all the way down from cold war street to soul as
affect and interpretation.7 More utopic energies of Southern California youth
culture in the “reckless era” of unironical hipness are nonetheless carried
by the Situationist graffito from Paris 1968, “Under the paving-​​stones, the
beach!” here set in a post-’60s Pacific-​​edge space. American vernacular
subjects stand “watching the ocean for someone to come in on the last
wave of the day, in to shore and safety” (5), as if trying to locate “a different
karmic thermal [wave] above the megalopolis” (11), or more romantically
put on the edge of cosmic sublimity, “as if the contrast knob of Creation had
been messed with just enough to give everything an underglow, a luminous
edge, and promise that the night was about to turn epic somehow” (6).

But under these American subversives lurk countersubversives, and
more subversives secrete inside of these, ad infinitum, as in some bad feedback loop of entropic repetition and subterranean co-​​optation: “The Golden
Fang operatives were cleverly disguised tonight as a wholesome blond California family in a ’53 Buick Estate Wagon, the last woodie that ever rolled
out of Detroit” (349). All forces, from the LAPD to the Beach Boys, work on
supporting Southland development, greed, excess, in suburban consensus:
“Real estate, water rights, oil, cheap labor” permanently in place (347).

The incarnational hopefulness of California Dreaming is embedded
in a fleeting character like St. Flip of Lawndale, who surfs the gnarliest
waves on the mysterious Outside zone of the Pacific Rim where Califor7. See Donald E. Pease, The New American Exceptionalism (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2009), on the cold war geopolitics that provided the United States its
governing logic during this era and helps comprise what we would call Pynchon’s world
affect and everyday spatiality of “paranoia.”

222 boundary 2 / Summer 2010

nia merges into freak sightings of Lemuria rising, the Lost Atlantis before
things went dystopic. St. Flip’s faith in beat beatitude abides in surfing the
Pacific edge, “What was ‘walking on water,’ if it wasn’t Bible talk for surfing?” (99). “Hippie metaphysics” (101) and “hippiphanies” (207) surround
everyday paranoia with this surfer’s quest for oceanic consciousness, “the
deep focus of a religious ecstatic who’s been tapped by God to be wiped
out in atonement for the rest of us” (100) done to the tune of the Surfaris’
“Wipeout” in the Empire-​​ridden Pacific Rim.

Or, is this Pacific Rim just the California edge-​​space of ESP and
occult flying objects tapped into by the acid-​​drenched guru Vehi Fairfield,
who “found a spirit guide named Kamukea, a Lemuro-​​Hawaiian demigod
from the dawn of Pacific history, who centuries ago had been a sacred functionary of the lost continent now lying beneath the Pacific Ocean” (105) and
waits to be tapped into via psychedelic visions of worse? Such questers
seek to find their “way out of a vortex of corroded history” (110) as they gaze
into the darkness everywhere setting in along these L.A. beach streets
and airport motels becoming filled with “the insomniac, the stranded and
deserted, not to mention an occasional certified zombie” (115).

Pynchon’s edge-​​space is also the riffraff California of B-movie sets,
but it is desperately material and real, as in the vitamin B12–doling Doctor Tubeside’s office (13), with his upbeat nurse named Petunia Leeway,
near the airport off East Imperial. With paranoia a tool of his trade, our
POV character “Doc” Sportello runs LSD Investigations—meaning “Location. Surveillance. Detection.”—out by Gordita Beach, as watched over by
a hallucinatory third eye on acid (14).8 Overdrugged and hypersignified,
Pynchon’s California becomes a hyperpoetic stage-​​set site rife with late
60s vibrations, pilgrims on lost quests, sinister woodies, Asian psychedelics, Nixon-​​faced fake twenty-​​dollar bills, karmic adjustments, infiltrations,
doper dentists, ocean dumpings of lagan, unlisted radio frequencies, car
repair shops called Resurrection of the Body, stoner astrology, bachelor
8. Following upon Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49 in the antimodern embrace of
magical and millenarian modes of thinking and meandering ties to anarchistic multitudes,
“Doc” Sportello could be considered one of those postmodern pilgrims helplessly driven
to seek out (decode) the truth in the social whole, that is, in some vision of capitalist
totality that would include its own oppositional energies. For postrealist tactics animating
this will to postmodern sublimity and anarchistic forms of liberation as a postwar American novel genre, see the following articles in the American Novel Dossier, boundary 2
36, no. 2 (Summer 2009): Lee Konstantinou, “The Brand as Cognitive Map in William
Gibson’s Pattern Recognition,” 82–93; John A. McClure, “Do They Believe in Magic? Politics and Postmodern Literature,” 127–40; and Bruce Robbins’s introduction, 7–8.

Wilson / Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice 223

pads, cults, Mansonoid conspiracies, pop music effluvia, indigo lights, gourmet eroticism, surf rituals, paranoid alerts, white lights, fluorescent posters,
vibrating water beds, surfadelic music, satanic overlooks, bad-​​luck planets,
weird mixtures, fates gone wild and wrong, with a bit of “light bulbs and
laundry detergent [thrown in] for straight-​​world cred” (27).

If computer networks are beginning to emerge via systems like
ARPAnet in this “Vigilant California” of the Late Capitalist Right, these are
data mines in the employ of government and police surveillance via “government money” (54). The quest for selfhood drives on into zones of inherent depravity beyond good and evil, occult semiotics, “deeper into whatever
complications of evil, indifference, abuse, despair they needed to become
even more themselves” (120). And, of course, traffic flow means L.A. conglomerations of spatial segregation and energy flow, the multi-​​everything
freeways, as if spelling out some kind of “horizonless” (19) consumerist

The crazed names in Inherent Vice constitute, finally, some kind of
plasticlike catalog-​​poem of counterconversion figures enduring like Beat
zombies inside Dylan’s Desolation Row or Christmas album, or just lost
in the infinite archives of some post-​​ARPAnet’s Google search: “Big Foot
Bjornsen, Sancho Smilax, Glen Charlock, Shasta Fey Hepworth, Tarig
Khalil, Aunt Reet, Scott Ouf, Coy Harlingen, Fritz Drybeam, Agents Flatweed and Borderline, Burke Stodger, St. Flip of Lawndale, Flaco the Bad,
Zigzag Twong, Farley Branch, Elmina Breeze, Boris Spivey, Puck Beaverton, Jason VelVeeta, Shiny MacMcNutley, Dr. Treeply, Japonica Fenway,
Mr. J. Krishnamurti, Arther Tweedle, Leonard Loosemeat, Adrian Prussia, Knucklehead Jack, Petunia, Trillium Fortnight and Chlorinda,” as one reader, Richard Ferris, compiled it for this singularly Pynchonesque genre he called “Pot Noir, So Cal Style” (October 16, 2009).

Too late for urban redemption or rural retreat into a pastoral regreening, we learn to doubt and still maintain California as a lyric state of venom
and wonder: “It was as if whatever had happened [in California] had reached
some kind of limit. It was like finding the gateway to the past unguarded,
unforbidden because it didn’t have to be. Built into the act of return finally
was this glittering mosaic of doubt. Something like what Sauncho’s [lawyer]
colleagues in maritime insurance liked to call inherent vice. ‘Is that like original sin?’ Doc wondered. ‘It’s what you can’t avoid,’ Sauncho said . . .” (351).

California hopefulness and world dreaming lingers on, still, amid
the wall-​​to-​​wall hungers of depravity, sin, excess, paranoia, and need, like
some kind of quest for semiotic salvation obtained by crossing the Pacific

224 boundary 2 / Summer 2010

edge: “May we trust that this blessed ship [Golden Fang] is bound for
some better shore, some undrowned Lemuria [in the Pacific], risen and
redeemed, where the American fate [becoming the Empire of Capital],
mercifully, failed to transpire” (341), runs one refrain, as the Mythical Break
of oceanic redemption heads catastrophically to shore. This Endless Summer turns into the Endless Bummer, sad to say, and Good Vibrations will
transmute into Bad Omens. Even California Dreaming, cast inside Pynchon’s U.S. Empire, turns deadly.

Instead of some promised trip to the surf of Tahiti-​​like paradise or
release into subterranean Mexico, Inherent Vice’s fog-​​bound American
journey into redemptive energies (with its echoes of Kerouac’s On the
Road and the spontaneous-​​bop California energies quested for in “Good
Blonde”) ends up death-​​bound and fear-​​haunted at Terminal Island. Still,
the last song playing on the car radio AM, a spectral voice by the edge of
the mighty Pacific, is “God Only Knows” as crooned in all psychedelic innocence by the Beach Boys, as if paranoia does not reign globally supreme
and the production of vice is not inherent in the system.

We cannot tell if Pynchon now sees any escape from this commodifying system of cultural plenitude and capitalist containment, wherein fictional songs and dead-​​end groups coincide with one-​​hit wonders and more
pop genres before punk, grunge, hip-​​hop, rap, rave, and more shook up the
post-​​Dylanesque new world order as Clover maps. Here I would invoke as
postmodern documentary or libidinal symptom’s blurb for its
Inherent Vice online selling site that Pynchon’s novel opens up as market
niche: “Have a listen to some of the songs you’ll hear in Inherent Vice—
the playlist that follows is designed exclusively for, courtesy
of Thomas Pynchon. (Links will take you to individual MP3 downloads, full
albums, or artist pages.)”

“Bamboo” by Johnny and the Hurricanes
“Bang Bang” by The Bonzo Dog Band
Bootleg Tape by Elephant’s Memory
“Can’t Buy Me Love” by The Beatles
“Desafinado” by Stan Getz & Astrud Gilberto, with Charlie Byrd
Elusive Butterfly by Bob Lind
“Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra
“Full Moon in Pisces” performed by Lark

Wilson / Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice 225

“God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys
The Greatest Hits of Tommy James and The Shondells
“Happy Trails to You” by Roy Rogers
“Help Me, Rhonda” by The Beach Boys
“Here Come the Hodads” by The Marketts
“The Ice Caps” by Tiny Tim
“Interstellar Overdrive” by Pink Floyd
“It Never Entered My Mind” by Andrea Marcovicci
“Just the Lasagna (Semi-​​Bossa Nova)” by Carmine & the
“Long Trip Out” by Spotted Dick
“Motion by the Ocean” by The Boards
“People Are Strange (When You’re a Stranger)” by The Doors
“Pipeline” by The Chantays
“Quentin’s Theme” (Theme Song from “Dark Shadows”) performed by Charles Randolph Grean Sounde
Rembetissa by Roza Eskenazi
“Repossess Man” by Droolin’ Floyd Womack
“Skyful of Hearts” performed by Larry “Doc” Sportello
“Something Happened to Me Yesterday” by The Rolling Stones
“Something in the Air” by Thunderclap Newman
“Soul Gidget” by Meatball Flag
“Stranger in Love” performed by The Spaniels
“Sugar Sugar” by The Archies
“Super Market” by Fapardokly
“Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen
“Telstar” by The Tornados
“Tequila” by The Champs
Theme Song from “The Big Valley” performed by Beer
“There’s No Business Like Show Business” by Ethel Merman
Vincebus Eruptum by Blue Cheer
“Volare” by Domenico Modugno
“Wabash Cannonball” by Roy Acuff & His Crazy Tennesseans
“Wipeout” by The Surfaris
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by The Beach Boys
“Yummy Yummy Yummy” performed by Ohio Express

<Abstract for Wilson / On the Pacific Edge of Catastrophe>

Inherent Vice continues Thomas Pynchon’s interrogation into California as American
edge-site perpetually situated on the brink of catastrophe, metamorphosis, or redemption.
In his latest novel, Pynchon labors in the time-honored generic trenches of American
“hardboiled fiction” to elaborate the transformative energies of what California still
stands for as worlding edge-space, as a temporal promise of social transformation and
popular-cultural redemption not quite over. In bleaker plot strands, we witness an
American vernacular revolution of pop-carnivalesque energies being infiltrated and
hollowed out, as if the utopic energies of the 1960s were foreclosed at birth by the
security apparatus of police forces, land development, and the global totality of capital as
situated on the Pacific Rim.

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