“Sportello. Try to drag your consciousness out of that old-time hard-boiled dick era, this is the Glass House wave of the future we’re in now.”
— Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, Inherent Vice
I just finished reading Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s most recent book and the only one of his seven novels that I hadn’t already read. Although I was something of a hardcore fan of the reclusive author when I was in my 20s (who was it that said Pynchon and Jean-Luc Godard find every new generation of college students?), my extreme distaste for his 2006 novel Against the Day turned me off of reading Inherent Vice when it was first published as an uncharacteristically quick follow-up in 2009. The recent news that Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation has started shooting (the first of Pynchon’s works to be adapted for the screen) made me curious enough to finally read the book. And I’m happy to report I found it delightfully daffy from beginning to end: Inherent Vice is a surprisingly accessible, shaggy dog-stoner-detective story that seems to be deliberately minor in scale — but I much prefer good minor Pynchon to failed major Pynchon. Having said that, it’s still somewhat surprising to see the author working in the detective-fiction genre. Although Pynchon has acknowledged literary genres before, even “lowly” ones, it’s usually in the context of an incongruous mash-up — as in Against the Day, in which the boys’ adventure, western and spy novel elements not only provocatively clashed but were put to the service of a pretentious thesis about World War I representing the global triumph of Evil Capitalist Interests. Inherent Vice, by contrast, not only sticks closely to its main genre but seems to have nothing more on its mind than spinning an entertaining mystery-yarn about a bunch of eccentric characters. Which is precisely why it just might make a great movie. Remember that when Francois Truffaut asked Alfred Hitchcock if he would be interested in adapting a Dostoevsky novel, the master of suspense sagely replied that he wouldn’t — because it wasn’t possible to improve on someone else’s masterpiece.
Interestingly, Inherent Vice actually feels as if it may have been written with the intention of being adapted into a movie in much the same way that D’entre les morts, the source novel of Vertigo, was written by Boileau-Narcejac specifically for Hitchcock. This is not just because it is a remarkably concise and linear narrative coming from a master of the loose and baggy like Pynchon but also because the novel’s specific themes and story elements already feel familiar from other movies. The stoner-take-on-Raymond Chandler was of course perfected by the Coen brothers in The Big Lebowski, with which Inherent Vice also shares the additional tropes of a kidnapping plot involving a billionaire, the clash between counter-culture characters and the “square world,” a southern California milieu, some not-so-scary white-supremacist types and, hell, even lingonberry pancakes. No wonder Warner Brothers (as opposed to Annapurna Pictures) is financing this one. They could probably smell its potential cult status — and the Lebowski-like residuals that might bring for years to come — from a mile away. What seems even more likely, however, especially given Paul Thomas Anderson’s deep affection for and friendship with the late Robert Altman, is that the whole thing will turn into an extended homage to The Long Goodbye, which was the original (and the best and the funniest) attempt to bring Philip Marlowe out of that “old-time hard-boiled dick era” and confront him with the modern world. Although it was personally much easier for me to imagine Robert Downey Jr., PTA’s first choice, as stoner-P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello, I’ll be interested to see what the great Joaquin Phoenix does with the role. Phoenix has been doing “brooding and intense” so well and for so long that Inherent Vice should provide him with the welcome opportunity to show off some of the other, goofier colors on his impressive acting palette. If nothing else, we’ll get to see him wear some ridiculous disguises.
Paul Thomas Anderson fans, who are accustomed to waiting five years between the director’s projects, are already rejoicing at the prospect of seeing Inherent Vice debut only one year after The Master. (As with that last movie, a Venice Film Festival premiere for Vice in the fall seems likely.) In addition to my own excitement about the film, I’m also grateful to Anderson for getting me to finally pick up the book. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll even take another crack at Against the Day; hearing my students talk endlessly about big budget comic book and video game adaptations, and the endless sequels, remakes and “reboots” they engender, has already convinced me that its anti-capitalist message will go down a lot easier the second time around.