Posts Tagged ‘thomas pynchon


Good Tunes and Bad Vibes: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Inherent ViceInherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

At once Thomas Pynchon at his wildest and most accessible, funny and insightful and a mystery novel that isn’t really, Inherent Vice is a wild, great read.

Generally when people think of Pynchon, they think of big doorstopper books, weighty tomes of 800 or more pages. Hell, I read Against the Day earlier this year and the thing clocked in at over 1,000 pages. And even then, I wanted it to go on longer. This wasn’t like that at all.

For one thing, IV is a lot tighter than most of his books: I think only Lot 49 is shorter. But it’s also messy, a mystery that’s at once low-stakes and wide-ranging, impossibly high-reaching but also nicely wrapped up by book’s end with what seems like not a lot of revelation, but a tidy package of police corruption and organized crime.

Maybe its all the pot Doc Sportello smokes, but Pynchon’s circa-1970 Los Angeles exists in a kind of haze. It’s shadowy, maybe a little paranoid and definitely a little hungry: Doc eats everything from Tex-Mex to Greek to, yes, Pizza. Wouldn’t be a Pynchon novel without a slice or two. But it’s also a detailed place, packed with tidy, accurate details he uses to colour his city. One example: not only does he reference Zubin Mehta, then-conductor of the LA Philharmonic, but he casually refers to a show he did with Frank Zappa and the Mothers in yes, mid-1970. It’s impressive stuff.

The plot itself is reminiscent of detective noir, although not entirely of it. Millionare land devloper Mickey Wolfmann has gone missing and so does his mistress. While investigating, Doc is knocked out and a witness dies in front of Doc’s car. Before long, there’s a group of heroin dealers, a mysterious syndicate of dentists and a star LAPD detective named Bigfoot Bjornson are all involved, each after Doc in their own angle.
At times, I was reminded of Raymond Chandler’s fiction (especially The Lady in the Lake which has a similar plot), but as a whole, the mystery doesn’t really seem like the point here. It drives along the plot, but more as a device for Pynchon’s observations on society, where it was headed and where it is now. Mixed between the splashes of smoking and gritty detective work are sly comments on federal funding for police departments, the militarization of small police forces and big money’s influence on the government.

The book’s title comes from an insurance term referring to a hidden defect that destroys a product. In this book, the hidden impact of money and greed is what’s ripping apart the California Doc knows and loves. The police are paying off hippies to rat out their friends with money they get from the government, which only increases as more people inform on others. Landscapers move into communities and rip them apart to make new, more desirable places to live. And the musicians are slowly getting zombified.

But to me, it feels like gentrification is right at the book’s heart. Right at the beginning he opens with a quote on the beach. And more than once Pynchon writes about small neighbourhoods getting gutted and replaced by prefab, drab housing complexes. In one memorable scene, people wander around looking for a place that’s not there anymore:

“Now and then at the edges of the windshield, Doc spotted black pedestrians, bewildered as Tariq must have been, maybe also looking for the old neighborhood, for rooms lived in day after day, solid as the axes of space, now taken away into commotion and ruin.” (pg 19)

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. In some respects, IV is his funniest book. Doc’s stoner friend Denis is a constant supply of hilarious doped-up logic (“why is there chicken of the sea but no tuna of the land?”) and the rest of the cast is no slouch. There’s gambling on police investigations, sly comebacks, silly names and even a few songs here.

Compared to his other novels, IV initially seems like a departure, but quickly settles alongside his other books. He has the same vague paranoia and quick sense of humor he showed in Vineland, but here the cast is more human and has more of a spark to their lives. Likewise, it’s not as sprawling as Against the Day or Mason and Dixon, but even within it’s confines still ranges along the California/Nevada border.

If I had to compare this to his other novels I’ve read, I’d probably slot it ahead of Vineland and behind M&D and AtD. It’s a quick, fun ride and his observations into society are fascinating. He wrote this one over a half-decade ago, but we’re still having discussions about some of the points he slyly raises. Overall, IV is good and a good starting place for Pynchon newbies, but I’d halt before calling it his most successful novel, either. And if you’re looking for something up the noir genre, you’re bound to be a little disappointed, too.


The Rise and Fall Of Folk Music: Positively 4th Street – David Hajdu

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard FariñaPositively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña by David Hajdu

A confession: I may have a slight Bob Dylan obsession. I own a bunch of his albums, have written a bunch of pieces about him and own a handful of books about him and his music. Dylan’s a fascinating guy: how did this awkward, mumbling guy from Minnesota take the folk world by storm, explode into rock music and revolutionize music in less than five years?

Those questions were part of the attraction for David Hajdu’s book positively 4th Street. His four-headed biography also covers Richard Farina and the Baez sisters, Mimi and Joan. And Hajdu’s book more than delivers. He covers the rapid rise of Joan Baez, the emergence of Dylan and the long incubation period for Farina’s novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (previously reviewed here!). It’s not always pretty, sometimes not even nice. If I’m being honest, it’s why I enjoyed this so much.

At the book’s centre are the two Baez sisters, Joan and Mimi. They grew up on the west coast with Quakers for parents and learned guitar early. As a musician, Joan was prodigiously talented: before she turned 19, she performed in coffeehouses, popped up on compilation albums and debuted at the Newport Folk Festival. She was also driven to succeed: Hajdu recounts how she hustled her way backstage at Newport, hung just off to the side and asked just about every performer if she could duet with them.

Joan didn’t let people get in her way, even if they were family. Hajdu writes how Joan shut her sister Mimi’s career down almost before it started, telling Mimi she couldn’t sing to protect her own career: “I didn’t want any competition,” said Joan, “and I felt my success would overshadow her.” (pg 25) Indeed, this dismissive attitude comes through at various points; later, upon hearing “Blowin’ In the Wind”, she remarks how she didn’t think Dylan “had it in him.” (pg 120)

Is it insecurity? I don’t think so, especially when compared to Hajdu’s portrait of Richard Farina. While Farina comes off occasionally as a fun guy, prone to throwing parties and generous with praise and adventure, he also appears as insecure as jealous husbands get: opening (and answering!) his wife’s mail, telling his first wife Carolyn Hester what to eat and how to dress and convincing other people to sneak his pistol across international borders.

He does not come off as a nice guy at all. Prone to flattery and lying, Farina would tell people either what they wanted to hear or wild half-truths: he had ties to the IRA, a metal plate in his head, he fought in the Cuban revolution. For all the fun parties he threw, for all his innovations to folk music – Hajdu makes an interesting case for him revolutionizing the way the people play the dulcimer  – he never comes off as someone who’d be fun to be around for any length of time.

It’s interesting to compare him to Dylan, though. They share some traits, especially one for reinvention. But where Farina comes off seeming like a self-promoting liar at times, Dylan comes off like an enigma: he tells so many blatant falsehoods about himself – he raced motorcycles! Ran away to join the circus! Played on early Elvis albums! – he almost dares you to realize he’s fucking with you; Farina just seems to crave attention.

And once Dylan enters the book, his personality dominates it. Hajdu covers his early years and especially his relationship with manager Albert Grossman. It was Grossman’s pushy management style that led to his songs being covered by artists like Peter, Paul and Mary even as his first LP stalled on the charts, but Hajdu alleges cash payoffs to club owners and reporters helped ensure Dylan found stage time and notice in the press.

But if he needed a push to get started, he quickly shot off like a rocket. Before long, Joan and Bob were on top of the folk world. Hajdu covers some of the breathless coverage from the trade papers of the day, who write about them in gushing terms. While they each influenced the other, he’s also careful to show how wide apart they were even at their closest; politically, musically and even in terms of personality, they were ill-matched.

Dylan’s quick sense of reinvention keeps the book moving. While Farina and Mimi became a married folk duo, experimenting with incorporating rock into folk and as Joan’s music took a more direct, anti-establishment bent, Dylan was jumping headlong into rock, playing with The Hawks and writing in wild, pot-fuelled bursts. It couldn’t last.

Throughout the book, Hajdu never lets Dylan get one over on him: Dylan was capable of writing great music, but he was capable of being vicious and cruel, too. Hajdu never shies away from Dylan cheating on Joan, from his ever-increasing drug use or from him eviscerating Joan in songs like “She Belongs To Me.” Here’s his take on “Positively 4th Street”:

“The subject of (the song) is prey to a twisted psychology close to sadism… Once he establishes himself as a wounded victim, Dylan uses this justification to rip his opponent apart.” (pg 279).

Hajdu mixes this criticism throughout the book, providing background for songs and explaining technical points about the music, but it’s never as outspoken as Clinton Heylin’s books on Dylan. It’s well researched, with a nice bibliography and background notes and he’s interviewed just about everyone involved (even Thomas Pynchon!). While only Dylan refused interviews, Hajdu had access to a trove of unpublished interviews from the Experience Music Project.

Rating: 8/10. I enjoyed this one a bunch, plowing through it in only a few days. It’s a compulsive, informative read on an interesting time in music. While nobody really comes off too nicely in this, that’s part of the appeal for me: it’s not an exercise in mythologizing, another book about how great Dylan or Baez are. It’s a book about four young people, each of them flawed in their own way, who broke into folk before breaking it apart. Recommended.


Balloons, cowpokes and drugs – Against the Day – Thomas Pynchon

Against the DayAgainst the Day – Thomas Pynchon


A sprawling read, Against the Day is a romp through styles, politics and countries, not all of them real. It’s a little loose, more than a little all over the place but it also ranks right up there with his best, both for its insights into late-stage capitalism and for sheer enjoyability.

Generally, the book follows the live of Webb Traverse and his family. A dynamiter by trade and an anarchist by choice, Webb gets mixed up with Scarsdale Vibe, a corrupt, rich mine owner. Throughout the years, these two family keep running into each other, often popping up unexpectedly in places as diverse as Colorado, Mexico and Venice.

At the same time, Pynchon follows several others: private detective Lewis Basnight; early photographer (and amateur alchemist) Merle Rideout and his daughter Dahlia; a shadowy, cultish group of British mystics called the TWITs; and, by far my favourite, a Hardy Boys-esque group of young balloonists calling themselves The Chums of Chance.

As you’d expect from a 1000+ page read, the plot defies an easy description. Pynchon runs several seemingly unrelated plots all at once, bounces between different authorial voices (the Chums sections read like a pulpy boys book, for example) and goes everywhere: the Chums sail through sand dunes, fly missions across the Alps and even travel inside hollow Earth. Everyone has their own, similar personal journeys.

At the same time, all the loose threads start adding up and, to Pynchon’s credit, he gets everything to add together in the final 200 or so pages. It’s still a long, rambly book – it probably could’ve been trimmed down a bit, really – but he makes it all work into one giant tapestry. Mostly, anyway: I’m not completely certain where a couple of the threads led. But it reads better than other huge tomes like Infinite Jest, which has half the story and twice the pretension. A better soundtrack, too.

Side note: An incomplete list of Chums books Pynchon drops throughout the book:

  • The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth
  • The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit
  • The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis
  • The Chums of Chance Nearly Crash Into the Kremlin
  • The Chums of Chance and the Wrath of Yellow Fang

I would definitely read all of these.

Still, the deeper I got into this book, the more overwhelmed I felt. A few weeks in, I almost felt like keeping notes on who was where and when. I even did, from time to time. I expect most people will feel the same: it’s a daunting read.

But I’m glad I kept with it. Aside from some brilliant writing and insights into America (this book feels as timely as ever when Pynchon gets into the struggles between the rich and poor), but because it’s packed with fun little moments: punny names, dick jokes, bursts of song and drug abuse. One character gets hooked on a particular brand of psychoactive dynamite. A dog mauls another character’s crotch. Characters get mixed up in vendettas, world wars and, occasionally, fall in love. Oh, and because it’s a Pynchon book, there’s a section dealing with pizza.

I’ve only read a couple of Pynchon’s books and I’d have no qualms recommending this, but not over the other them. It doesn’t have the same heart, focus or emotional payoff that Mason & Dixon had and it’s a lot more sprawling and not quite as fun as Vineland, which was a wild ride through 20th century America. But I’m still glad I read it: not only is it a fun read, but it’s provoking, too.

An underlying theme in the book is the struggle between rich and poor, the free market versus trade unionists, the labour struggles of the early 20th century. As a private detective, For example, the anti-labour violence of the Pinkerton Agency appalls Lew. The Rideouts aren’t against violence, so long as it serves a purpose: “Nothing vegetable or human that ain’t of some use,” says Webb, “except mine owners, maybe, and their got-dammed finks.”

But the Traverse family eventually learns there are far more evil people than just mine owners and they’ll do just about anything to make a buck. Pynchon’s message about the lengths greed will go rings as true now as ever; it’s interesting he wrote this book just a couple of years before the financial crisis of 2008, during the high years of the Bush administration.

Rating: 8/10. Maybe a little long in the tooth and certainly a bit of a challenge, but still a funny, gripping, wild read. Recommended: it took me most of July to read this and for nearly that whole month, I was more interested in reading this than in anything on TV, in theatres or Netflix.


Flipping College Upside Down: Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Fariña

Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to MeBeen Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Fariña

An interesting, occasionally funny and very 60s novel about campus life, Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me is something of an overlooked classic by the sadly ill-fated Richard Farina.

Set at Athene College in 1958, it follows Gnossos Papadopoulos as he skips classes, gets swept up in campus politics and drug-dealers and smokes an awful lot of pot. Most of action hinges around opposition to a new college president who wants to keep female students from hooking up. But Gnossos largely tries to keep his way out of that: he avoids a vengeful ex, falls in love and keeps away from cops, all while keeping a joint in one hand and a beer in the other. Some of the novel’s funniest scenes have him trying to talk his way out of a bad situation with a heaping helping of 60s slang. If nothing else, Gnossos is a charmer.

But only when he wants to be: while it’s occasionally, Gnossos dark side comes out as the novel progresses: I cringed on the way Gnossos treats women, which lurches between outright cruelty and passive misogyny. For all his cool and street-smarts, he soon finds himself wrapped in events outside his control; he’s much more naive than you’d think from the novel’s first half. And as the book goes on, he increasingly seems out of his element. But then again, everyone (Gnossos included) has to grow up sometime.

The rest of the novel’s cast isn’t quite as well-shaped as him, but they’re an interesting bunch: a hispanic Catholic convert, a crazed ex who attacks Gnossos with a stiletto, a scheming invalid who speaks in French and Latin terminology, a closeted lesbian who hangs out with the boys. It’s a fun cast, although they sometimes feel like little more than players there to move Gnossos along.

There are occasional moments of genuine pathos, though. After spending most of it’s time in the cozy confines of his college, the novel takes a trip to Cuba during the Revolution and the fun, free-spirited innocent of the cast gets blown away with a harsh dose of reality. Farina really snaps the reader back to attention here, reminding everyone that while college is a lot of fun, it’s certainly not the real deal.

As a writer, Farina was a capable novelist, although his prose has a couple irks. One is how often he runs into lists, listing everything in a kitchen or hanging in a busy music room. And I don’t really care for his treatment of the female characters here, who generally lurch between extremes that seem ripped from a Greek tragedy. Although maybe that’s the point: there’s quite a few Greek puns at work in the novel, right down to Gnossos himself (see: Knossos).

Farina himself hangs out at the fringes of this book: his interest in folk music, the singing sisters of a teacher seeming to echo his then-wife Mimi Baez and her sister Joan, for example. And according to Thomas Pynchon’s introduction, the novel was heavily inspired by their shared time in university. And the saddest thing of all is what happened as the book saw release: just a few days after it hit shelves, Farina died in a motorcycle accident.

Rating: 7/10. As a whole, it’s a fun, free-wheeling college novel: occasionally poignant, sometimes frustrating but generally pretty funny. But it’s a different kind of funny from, say, Animal House: this isn’t quite a campus comedy. It reminds me a little bit of Thomas Pynchon’s California novels, especially Vineland (Zoyd Wheeler seems like a grown-up Gnossos sometimes). And Pynchon himself has a nice introduction, setting the scene for the novel’s background. Recommended, but generally if you’re a fan of that style of novel.


At Play With the Thanatoids: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

Vineland (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

Sometimes I’m asked who my favourite living writer is. My answer? I dunno. It’s probably why my coworkers joke that I don’t read anything written before 1950.

But its a tricky question: is it the author of my favourite book? The writer of the most books I’ve enjoyed? Can it be someone that’s never written a book, but whose writing I enjoy reading?

Or can it be can author who I keep thinking about long after I finish reading his books?

For me, Thomas Pynchon is that kind of writer. He sticks in my craw. Admittedly, I’ve only read a handful of his books: Mason and Dixon (previously reviewed here), The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, a handful of essays, plus a couple false starts on Gravity’s Rainbow. But I think about his novels a lot: puns that reveal themselves a month after I’ve finished a book (Prairie Wheeler = Prayer Wheel) and scenes I keep thinking back to (the part of M&D that touches on Hollow Earth theory and aliens). And lately, I can’t help but think about Vineland a lot.

What is Vineland? It’s a romp through post-Nixon California featuring an aging hippie named Zoyd, a DEA agent addicted to bad television and two tow-truck drivers who may or may not be the Grim Reapers. It’s a sci-fi thriller, a pulpy kung-fu flick and a frantic history of a renegade film company. It has a punk band, led by a guy named Billy Barf, playing a mob wedding and an alien attack repulsed by an analog synthesizer. And the Thanatoids, just wait until you get to them!

Vineland’s got a little bit of everything thrown in and it’s a relentlessly fun novel, often laugh-out-loud funny, not only when Pynchon goes into songwriting mode, but especially when he does. But that’s just scratching the surface.

The more I think about it, the more it feels like so much more than those. It’s a novel about the fallout of the sixties, when the war on drugs began in earnest, and how the federal government waged war on its own citizens. This is the kind of stuff Hunter Thompson was talking about when he asked “Where were you when the fun stopped?” This novel goes from somber to ridiculous without batting an eye and when it does, it does with a bang: it’s stunningly well-written and kept finding myself stopping and rereading passages. No mean feat when you’re writing about aliens, punk rock or a made-for-TV movie about the 1984 NBA Finals.

In an age where the NSA’s been revealed to spying on everyone, the paranoia of Vineland doesn’t seem quite as comical. Even at its most far-fetched it feels oddly just removed from reality. Surely it couldn’t quite unfold like it does here… but then again, weren’t warrantless wiretaps a thing that only happened before Obama was elected?

Rating: 8/10. If you’re curious about Pynchon’s novels, Vineland’s probably the best place to get started: it’s not too hard to follow, it’s shorter than M&D and it’s a fun read to boot, especially when it gets dark and Pynchon shines a light on how quickly everything changed for people like Zoyd. In some corners it’s viewed as his worst novel, but I maintain that if this hadn’t been the book that followed Gravity’s Rainbow, it’d be a lot better received. There’s been a ton of books about the changes America underwent between 1969 and 1981, but few are as fun as this. Recommended, especially for those looking forward to watching Inherent Vice.