I idly remarked in this post that I didn’t seem to be reading much fiction these days. Part of the reason for this is that reading other people’s fiction can mess with my head a little while I’m writing… but I’m not writing much (except for this blog) at the moment. But my struggles with Thomas Pynchon’s latest, Inherent Vice, suggest another cause entirely. And it’s not good news.
As you might infer from the cover, Inherent Vice is a genre novel, a private dick affair set in Southern California at the end of the Sixties. The hero is an aging hippy called Doc Sportello who gets caught up in an intrigue which I would tell you more about, if I could. But the fact is, I’m hopelessly lost. Every time I open this book, a fog descends which is so opaque that it feels as if I’ve been inhaling lungfuls of the weed that all the characters smoke constantly. Even the most basic plot points elude me. I turn the pages, wondering who these strange people are. I listen to their conversations (all rendered with a delightfully skewed touch), frowning as I try to follow along. A while ago I listened to Christina rip through the book in a few days, laughing out loud every few pages, thoroughly enjoying it – and here I am, trudging along in baffled, desolate silence. I remind myself of my grandmother in the months before she died, just without the colostomy bag.
Not, I should explain, that this is Pynchon’s fault. He’s Thomas Pynchon, after all. (If I start criticizing him they’ll take my green card away and send me back to England for seditious literary opinions. It’s right there in the Patriot Act. True story. *) No, the blame lies with me, which is what is so disturbing.
Apparently I have become a goldfish. My short-term memory is shot to pieces. Each night I open this damn book, gaze down at the page, and wonder who the hell these people are. I remember my wife’s delight at these same pages, and just feel stupid. This is the literary equivalent of what happens on Friday nights.
I’ve been pondering the cause of all this disenchantment and forgetfulness. I suppose it might have something to do with my early starts – by the time I clamber into bed at the end of the day, I’m exhausted. Perhaps it’s because I’m more used to reading nonfiction these days – where the overall arc of the narrative exists outside of the author’s imagination, which might perhaps make it a a little easier to follow for inattentive idiots like me. Maybe I’m just getting old.
But then, maybe it is Pynchon’s fault. Maybe he’s to blame for creating characters I don’t care about enough. Maybe his decision to write an arch, self-indulgent pastiche is the problem here.
In the end it doesn’t much matter who’s to blame. As a writer, I feel guilty on principle for not sticking books out to the end (the worst kind of review, not that TP cares what I think,) so I rarely abandon them half-way through. But I’m 157 pages in, and am contemplating giving up. I don’t even want to find out what happens at the end, because I’m not sure what happened at the beginning. This is just no fun.
(* Except not actually true.)