Fear, Loathing and Inherent Vice or: Doc Sportello’s Holistic Detective Agency

Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice in addition to being a damn fine detective novel is also a snap shot of Los Angeles in the late 1960’s.  The portrait is as raucous and day-glo as we expect any picture of the sixties to be (literally, Pynchon spends a lot of words on letting us know what psychedelic color schemes rooms and outfits are in), but through detective Doc Sportello’s marijuana haze we sense the paranoia that we expect from Pynchon.

This calls to mind that other great sixties hangover, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Hunter S. Thompson, being Hunter S. Thompson, can’t help but rip the whole summer of love mythos a new asshole.  For Thompson, the sixties ended up being just like Vegas, a veneer of flourescent colors and family-friendly fun painted over a selfish, drug-fueled, sex-crazed mess.   Of course, Thompson exaggerates.  Everything about the book is over the top.  The drug collection is impossibly large, the trips impossibly vivid, the various criminal activities of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo probably just impossible.  Everything is out of proportion — this is the grotesque (or to those who love the book, the sublime).  Ralph Steadman (or whoever chose Steadman to illustrate the book) clearly understood that.  And the end of the day, this is a horror story .  We can’t stand the thought of Dr. Gonzo electrocuted in the tub to the goofy-triumphant (grotesque/sublime) strains of “White Rabbit,” we tolerate even less the idea of looking away.  J.J. Cohen wrote in Monster Theory “fear of the monster is a kind of desire,” which is probably why Thompson quotes adorn so many posters and t-shirts.  Thompson forces us (although we only pretend its against our will) to see how fucked up we are even under some kind of hippie horseshit (as Thompson may have put it were he less eloquent).  This is what is entailed by “a Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.”  Consider this a strung-out, bad crazy Heart of Darkness.

Thompson uses his famed lack of subtelty to get across his (perhaps equally unsubtle) point, but this is far from Pynchon’s style.  Pynchon is far more ambivalent, leaving the reader some room to breathe.  If Thompson’s novel is a horror story, then Pynchon’s is a detective story, which should surprise no one.  But in particular, it is a holistic detective story.  Alan Moore, upon seeing the title of Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Angency thought that to solve a crime holistically, one would have to solve the society in which that crime took place.  This was the operating principle behind Moore’s Jack the Ripper comic From HellFrom Hell proposes that London society at roughly the time of the Whitechapel murders is the starting point of Anglophone society as it stands today.  That time period saw among other things:the beginnings of Zionism, woman’s suffrage, new developments in medicine and physics, and of course, the first modern serial killer.

We might similarly see the late sixties as the birth of the twenty-first century.  ARPAnet, a precursor to the internet is mentioned frequently throughout the novel.  Use of soft drugs is becoming prominent among otherwise law-abiding citizens (Doc’s parents even smoke a joint).  New organized crime syndicates, and street gangs rise to power even as the mafia loses its hold over Las Vegas.  The most significant element of Doc’s world, though is popular culture.  It is simultaneously monolithic and infinitely fragmentary.  Doc watches The Love Boat in full knowledge that his parents are watching it at that same moment, and watches Adam-12 even though he hates cops.  But his musical obsessions are local bands and obscure acts that today are record store curiosities (where Thompson’s soundtrack is so mainstream that I have to imagine its supposed to make us a little uneasy about the crazy man grooving in the tub to Jefferson Airplane).  In the 21st century, billions of people watch American Idol, but anyone can be a minor celebrity on youtube.  For us and Doc, pop culture is the language we speak.  The narration (which is close third person, giving us Doc’s thoughts) mostly frequently crafts simile and metaphor by registering comparison to tv shows.  If nothing else, we seem to share with the sixties an all pervasive sense of pop-culture.  At the time of the novel, the Manson killings have just occured, wherein a cult leader killed a minor celebrity over what he thought some major celebrities were communicating to him.  Unlike Thompson, (or Moore for that matter), Pynchon doesn’t tell us what these sixties resonances tell us about our own society.  I suppose, then, that Doc doesn’t holistically solve the crime he’s investigating.   That is left as an exercise for the readers, the holistic detectives of the present.

Published in: on June 27, 2011 at 11:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

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