It is not really surprising that crime fiction would be a genre appealing to otherwise "serious" novelists attempting to work with the conventions of a popular form adapted to the purposes of their own ostensibly non-genre work. Crime fiction portrays a world perpetually in extremis, and in the detective novel variant it emphasizes a process of discovery and revelation that in some ways models the very structure of narrative itself. (Although perhaps the detective is more like the literary critic, looking for the clues that will provide meaning, filling in the gaps and making the speculative leaps that will add up to a coherent interpretation of things.) It acts as a kind of palimpsest over which the literary writer might inscribe his/her own variations on "criminal" behavior and its sources in unruly human impulses.
Within the last year, both Denis Johnson and Thomas Pynchon, each certifiably qualified to be regarded as serious novelists, have published novels that imitate or burlesque crime fiction, Johnson's Nobody Move and Pynchon's Inherent Vice. Although Johnson's book seems the most thoroughly to be an "imitation" of the genre, if not an outright attempt to produce a plausible crime novel, the inanity of the title suggests we might want to take it instead as burlesque, while Inherent Vice might ultimately be regarded as an affectionate homage to the detective novel, even though it is marked by Pynchon's signature brand of wacky humor and seems to be having fun with the detective novel's propensity to spiral off into episodic pieces that don't always coherently join back up with the narrative whole. Ultimately Pynchon's idiosyncratic appropriation of the "novel of detection" is much more satisfying than Johnson's straight-faced mimicry of the "noir" crime story.
Frankly, if Nobody Move had been written by someone other than a well-respected author like Denis Johnson, I can't see any reason why it would even be published. At best it's a mediocre crime novel that tells a familiar story of hoodlums fighting over a large sum of money, supplemented by a few "colorful" characters including a token female character subsisting in a state of extreme moral degradation. It seems cast in the mold set by the tales of human depravity written by such virtuosos of the genre as Jim Thompson, but no one can sound the depths of degradation quite like Thompson, and Nobody Move comes off as a feeble echo of his achievement. At no point does it rise above or transform the narrative conventions of the hard-boiled crime novel. Indeed, in its reliance on long stretches of perfunctory dialogue, it fosters the impression it was written mostly to become a movie script.
Judging from his previous work, Johnson actually seems just the sort of writer who might profitably explore the boundary between crime fiction and his own mode of "literary" fiction. Many of his books depict the underside of American life, focusing on marginal characters and self-destructive behavior. His style as well, which is clean and precise and generally without affectation, would seem an appropriate medium for a noir-influenced narrative. Unfortunately, the depiction of the underworld mileu in Nobody Move is rote, the characters too clueless to be interesting, and the style sacrificed to cinematic realism. The novel represents a completely missed opportunity and is altogether dispensable.
That Thomas Pychon would come to draw on the resources of the detective novel seems, if anything, even less surprising than Denis Johnson's foray into the crime fiction genre. As many reviewers of Inherent Vice correctly pointed out, Pynchon's fiction has long incorporated the mystery plot as its essential narrative device, with characters such as Herbert Stencil, Oedipa Maas, and Tyrone Slothrop taking on the role of "detective." What Will Blythe says of Doc Sportello, private eye protagonist of Inherent Vice, is true of these other characters as well: "Doc attempts to solve a mystery that may or may not be solvable, so dense are the thickets of information through which he must hack, so opaque the motives of nearly everyone he comes across."
It might be said that this portrayal of Doc Sportello as a kind of perplexed if intrepid jungle explorer makes Inherent Vice a pastiche of the detective novel, or even a parody, an exercise in genre revisionism that takes the epistemological core of the detective narrative--the search for knowledge--and uses it to mock the the pretensions of such narratives to finally arrive at "truth" and to satirize the very notion that a "search for knowledge" in modern America is even possible. There is some truth to such an interpretation, of course, but I don't finally think that Pynchon's novel is a burlesque of the detective novel and nothing more. The touchstone for Inherent Vice is pretty clearly the fiction of Raymond Chandler in novels such as The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, and it could equally be said that Chandler's own work evinces a good deal of epistemological skepticism itself, and Philip Marlowe is frequently portrayed as attempting to hack his way through "thickets" of misdirection. Marlowe often seems just as confused by the opaque motives of those he encounters as Doc Sportello.
Inherent Vice is at least as much a homage to the radicalism of writers like Chandler and Ross McDonald, a testament to the adaptability of the detective novel to various settings, styles, and concerns, especially in contexts in which the very possibility of uncovering "truth" is or ought to be a lingering question. Doc Sportello may seem a sorry excuse for a private eye--a shambolic, laid-back stoner--but he's also dogged and perceptive, and he feels a sense of duty toward those he is enlisted to help. If he is led through some mazes that remain mazy and if the full import of what he discovers is not altogether assimilated, this is only par for the course in Pynchon's fiction, and having gone through the process of seeking the truth has been more enlightening than not, both for Doc and for the reader. Through Doc's peregrinations around Los Angeles, he and we become more fully aware of the historical and cultural forces at work that will transform the hippie haven of Gordita Beach into just a memory of personal and countercultural resistance to the encroaching power of new technologies and an unleashed capitalism that will shut down the brief emergence of a more humane way of life--the way of life associated with "the sixties"--before it could become more than a fragile utopian moment.
What ultimately makes Inherent Vice compelling is that in accepting the narrative protocols of the detective novel--which includes the obligatory visit of the femme fatale who initiates the action, an encounter with goons that leaves Doc unconscious, episodes of verbal sparring between Doc and a cop, etc.--Pynchon also manages to produce a novel that is recognizably Pynchonian. The detective novel is used to his purposes and is thus in this instance transformed into a comic picaresque in which, as with most picaresque narratives, characters are thinly developed beyond a few essential features, their adventures themselves of more importance than what these adventures might add to our sense of the characters as "rounded" individuals. (Thus the frequent enough criticism that Pynchon's characters are "cartoonish" is completely misconceived.) I think I agree with Thomas Jones that
the Anglophone novelist whom Pynchon most closely resembles – with his delight in silly names, scatological jokes, wild digressions and impromptu outbursts of song lyrics, his disregard for distinctions between fact and fiction, his scientific background, his belief in the randomness of the world and fascination with the patterns that appear in the chaos – is Tobias Smollett.
In such novels as The Adventures of Roderick Random, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, and The Expedition of Humphry Clinker--even the names of the protagonists are appropriately Pynchonesque--Smollett helped establish the picaresque as a narrative strategy in the early English novel, but despite Smollett's influence on, for example, Charles Dickens, both he and the kind of picaresque narrative emphasizing "randomness" and digression was superseded by the post-Flaubert novel of realism and the "well-made story." Writers like Pynchon and John Barth partially revived the picaresque strategy in the 1960s, and surely both V and Gravity's Rainbow can usefully be read as picaresque accounts of randomness and incipient chaos.
What really unites Pynchon and Smollett is an essentially comic vision of the world, a world full of mishaps, bad luck, and evil portents, that presents itself not as an orderly arrangement of plot points but as an entirely contingent series of events--one thing leads to another. And it is a comic vision that at its best is also greatly entertaining. Pynchon's best work is above all funny, and the most unfortunate consequence of the scholarly attention Pynchon's fiction has gathered over the years is that too much emphasis has been put on "paranoia" and "entropy" and other weighty matters, obscuring the fundamental fact that Pynchon is in the line of great American literary comedians. His work is "postmodern" to the extent it is comic in a particularly thoroughgoing way, not because it invokes the second law of thermodynamics or posits the existence of global conspiracies. When his fiction becomes bloated and leaden, as I would argue it does in both Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, it is because he has lost this comic facility, or is intentionally disregarding it.
Thus for me Inherent Vice marks a return to the approach he seemingly abandoned after Vineland. It takes us on a comic/picaresque journey around southern California at the turn of the seventies, playing much of what it records for laughs even as it exposes us to acts of murder, brutal violence, drug trafficking, sadism, and economic rapacity--all the "inherent vice" to which humanity inevitably succumbs. The detective novel conventions give the novel a structural spine that helps to focus the novel's comedic energies while also allowing Pynchon the flexibility of form that characterizes his best work. Some might say the kind of pothead humor that arises from his choice of mileu and protagonist sometimes descends to the level of Cheech and Chong, but this is arguably a necessary side effect of the aesthetic strategy Pynchon employs: the world in which Doc Sportello roams is comic precisely because of the perspective the dope-smoking detective provides.
If finally Inherent Vice is somewhat less satisfying than Pynchon's other two California novels, Vineland and The Crying of Lot 49, not to mention V and Gravity's Rainbow, I would identify its most serious flaw as a kind of sentimentality about the vanished hippie world it evokes. It's a sentimentality only reinforced by the novel's conclusion--Doc driving in the inland fog, clearly enough symbolic of the coming cultural fog of the 1970s--although the novel's strongly sympathetic portrayal of the hippie scene has by then long since itself settled in. Perhaps it has been lurking in Pynchon's work all along, but the wistful tone of innocence lost pervades this novel, and a little too obviously for my taste. The characters in Inherent Vice, including Doc Sportello, are subject to a mild degree of comic mockery, but not enough to deprive them of their status as heroes of naivete.