The New York Times recently announced that Paul Thomas Anderson has a film adaptation of the novel being released in December 2014. The IMDB website has already listed it as 8.6 in a scale of 10. Knowing Pynchon's particular fascination with film, you can bet this was raked over carefully.
It's 1969. Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, private eye, is navigating a world of cops and zombies in L.A. Nixon is President. Reagan is Governor. Doc is stoned much of the time. He buys into nothing, and the paranoia that comes with being blitzed actually serves him well: we can allow ourselves to operate with half a brain and get on with the joy as long as we retain a healthy skepticism about who is managing our lives around us and offering us goodies. Sportello keeps reminding us to “focus in and pay attention” to weird “inexpressible imbalances in the laws of karma.”
Though I began this crime genre novel smirking over Pynchon’s descriptions of sex, drugs, and rock&roll (!) in L.A. (!) in the sexy sixties (!), gradually I became aware (like awakening from a pot-induced lethargy) that Pynchon actually has a point here. “like…far out, man, you’re actually making sense to me.” But mostly, it was just groovy hanging out with this cool dude.
He drops his truths into paragraphs thick with love beads and leis: “Over the years business had obliged him to visit a stately L.A. home or two, and he soon noticed how little sense of what was hip the very well fixed were able to exhibit, and that, roughly proportional to wealth accumulated, the condition only grew worse.” We all know there is a unfettered beauty to having nothing--no matter the storm has taken my roof, the better to see the stars—so we begin to trust this dopehead with more important observations…like what to eat. Check out the “Shoot the Pier, basically avocados, sprouts, jalapenos, pickled artichoke hearts, Monterey jack cheese, and Green Goddess dressing on a sourdough loaf that had first been sliced lengthwise, spread with garlic butter and toasted.”
Doc is in his late twenties, and has ample experience already with the way cops operate. He doesn’t like them because in his experience they lie and find ways around doing the right thing for the folks they were hired “to serve and protect.” They have powerful inducements to serve and protect their own ass, which they often do. But even the folks out to neutralize our dopehead protagonist seem to like him as he pursues for his former “old lady” Shasta the people that threaten her new bf, a millionaire real estate tycoon who has seen the errors of his ways. Several people turn up dead, and others warn “You don’t want to be fucking with this, Doc.”
The names will send one back: Bambi, Jade, Spotted Dick, Golden Fang, and Coy. We get lyrics, too, entire soundtracks that play in our heads as we squint against the smoke in the air. My favorite is “one of the few known attempts at black surf music”:
”Who’s that strollin down the street,
Hi-heel flip-flops on her feet,
Always got a great big smile,
Never gets popped by Juv-en-ile—
Who is it? [Minor-seventh guitar fill]
Who never worries about her karma?
Who be that signifyin on your mama?
Out there looking so bad and big,
Like Sandra Dee in some Afro wig—
Who is it?
And what about this jewel of a set-piece:
”Back at his place, Doc found Scott and Denis in the kitchen investigating the icebox, having just climbed in the alley window after Denis, a bit earlier, down at his own place, had fallen asleep as he often did with a lit joint in his mouth, only this time the joint, instead of dropping onto this chest and burning him and waking him up at least partway, had rolled someplace else among the bedsheets, where soon it began to smolder. After a while Denis woke, got up, and wandered into the bathroom, thought he would take a shower, sort of got into doing that. At some point the bed burst into flame, burning eventually up through the ceiling, directly above which was his neighbor Chico’s water bed, luckily for Chico without him on it, which being plastic melted from the heat, releasing nearly a ton of water through the hole that had by now burned in the ceiling, putting out the fire in Denis’ bedroom while turning the floor into a sort of wading pool. Denis came drifting back from the bathroom, and not able right away to account for what he found, plus getting the fire department, who had now arrived, confused with the police, went running down the alley to Scott Oof’s beach place, where he tried to describe what he thought had happened, basically deliberate sabotage by the Boards, who had never stopped plotting against him.”
The plot, such as it is, is studded with dazzling gems that threaten to distract one from Doc’s inexorable forward slide towards finding out who is actually screwing who: “…the patriots running [Coy] were being run themselves by another level of power altogether, which seemed to feel entitled to fuck with the lives of all who weren’t as good or bright as they were, which meant everybody.” Doc, to his everlasting credit, began to worry who he was helping and who he was hurting in the course of his meandering investigations. Even his buddy Sparky helping him out by following the action on the ARPAnet led to soul-searching. Too much information. About everybody. There must be a reason Pynchon decides to make dentists the money-grubbing felonious brains behind the importation of heroin, but I guess we’ll never know for sure.
And now for one of my favorite passages: Pynchon describes a phenomenon we may not have experienced before, but one which we will recognize forever after with a burst of delight and wonder.
”In the little apartment complexes the wind entered narrowing to whistle through the stairwells and ramps and catwalks, and the leaves of the palm trees outside rattled together with a liquid sound, so that from inside, in the darkened rooms, in louvered light, it sounded like a rainstorm, the wind raging in the concrete geometry, the palms beating together like the rush of a tropical downpour, enough to get you to open the door and look outside, and of course there’d only be the same hot cloudless depth of day, no rain in sight.”
As I sought the source of the Nixon quote (which sounds as tone-deaf as the man actually was) “There are always the whiners and complainers who’ll say, this is fascism. Well, fellow Americans, if it’s Fascism for Freedom? I…can…dig it!” I came across a review which places this novel in the context of Pynchon’s other works. I said in an earlier review (of Bleeding Edge) that Pynchon is remarkably consistent, and the above reviewer tends to agree. Trust, but verify. Stay vigilant. Watch yourself. “ …stay focused and stay active and [do] not take what those powerful around you say at face value.”[The Closed Circuit Game: A Hippie Noir, by Salvatore Ruggiero]
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