Thursday, June 23, 2011

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

It’s not often I agree with Michiko Kakutani, but when she calls Inherent Vice ‘Pynchon-lite’ she has it about right. That’s not to say it’s lightweight or inferior, but more that it seems to exist in its own amiable bubble, occupying territory somewhere between thriller fiction and 1960s counter-culture nostalgia. It’s part Gregory McDonald’s Fletch series, part Jim Rockford and part Hunter S. Thompson. To be sure, the novel does approach some typical Pynchon questions, but the overall sensation is still of Pynchon-on-vacation-with-his-feet-up-by-the-pool. Or maybe not. I still haven't decided.

But this begs the principal question: we know that Pynchon is a great literary novelist, but can he produce the goods within the context of what really is a humorous thriller? We know he is a great pastichist, of course – Mason and Dixon and Against the Day most recently – but can he hack it in the genre world normally occupied by Michael Connelly or Carl Hiassen. The answer, in the end, is no.

There’s much to enjoy in Inherent Vice. In particular, there are some wonderfully crazy set-pieces and the stoner dialogue is cringingly funny – "You are one crazy white motherfucker." "How can you tell?" "I counted." And the scene where three of them sit watching a “programme” on a television still wrapped up and unplugged, and don’t want to give up until ‘they’ve seen how it ends’ is howlingly good. But as a thriller, which is what should be driving the heart of the novel, the problem is that it’s not especially thrilling. The plot – a missing mafioso-type being hunted by the Feds, the LAPD and our investigator-hero, the pot smoking and acid munching Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, meanders along in an almost entirely tensionless way and the denouement, when it arrives, is a bit of a shoulder-shrug of indifference. It could do with some of the menace of Chinatown or the grit of Chandler or the intricacy of Michael Connelly’s plotting. For sure, the plot is convoluted, but not in a way that intrigues.

The novel is set in the post-Manson era of ‘circa 1970’, specifically the winter of 1969 and summer of 1970. It’s a fascinating period of history, the end of the dream, the summer of love brought to a shattering conclusion by political assassinations (MLK in April 68, Bobby Kennedy in June 68), the Tate murders (August 69), Altamont (December 69) and and the festering sore of Vietnam. Doc, the owner of “Location, Surveillance, Detection”, or “LSD Investigations” (ah, Pynchon, he loves his verbal humour) is largely oblivious of such concerns, wafting about as he does in a haze of pot-induced amnesia. This, of course, is a wonderfully funny inversion of the usual Columbo-type memory man who traps his criminal by remembering every tiny shred of evidence and turning it against him. Doc, on the other hand, has only the dimmest recollection of his most recent activities. Ultimately, though, he turns out to be more competent than his habitual demeanour would suggest.

His ex, Shasta Fay, embroils him in the central drama when she asks him to investigate a plot being hatched by the wife of her lover, Mickey Wolfmann, a local bigwig with shady connections. Wolfmann is subsequently kidnapped, with Doc left unconscious in a compromising position at the scene of the abduction. He is picked up and questioned by his old sparring partner, LAPD Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen. Sub-plots are developed: Coy Harlingen, the maybe not-so-dead musician; Japonica, the stoner rebrobate with the parents from hell; the Golden Fang, a shady organisation that seems to be either a dentists’ conglomerate or something more sinister; FBI agents who seem as interested in Doc as they do in Mickey Wolfmann; and more. So far, so good: a tight, interesting plot with plenty scope for development.

From here, though, the narrative becomes overwhelmed by Pynchon’s attempts to establish the world as a paranoid place of conspiracy and confusion. The trouble with depicting stoners in novels is exactly the same as dealing with them in real life: for a while, their spaced-outness is amusing, but after a while it becomes tedious, and ultimately an absolute pain in the neck. Pynchon’s drop-outs are attempting, in their out-of-it way, to warn us of something sinister in the turnings of the world, but ultimately we tune out of them as readily as they tune out of society.

This is a pity, because Pynchon weaves some great material into the narrative. The Manson murders are a recurrent theme, as are Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. What we have, then, is a United States that has lost its way, indeed some sense of its dignity and innocence. I have a little difficulty with this, I have to say: it seems a pretty willful overlooking of, say, 1950s McCarthyite paranoia or 1850s Manifest Destiny’s Indian genocide.

But perhaps that’s unfair: rather, it could be argued that, like Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon routinely sets his novels at periods of rupture, where society is changing, not usually for the better, where dreams and aspirations are being lost to paranoia and darkness. This is Pynchon’s rage against the dying of the cultural light: in Inherent Vice, he is asking us to view Doc Sportello as the spirit-of-the-sixties ascendant, some form of alternative-reality triumph of the dream they dreamed in that beautifully naive summer of love. And that’s a noble enough aspiration.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mike Waterson

A couple of days ago I wrote about Mike Waterson being extremely ill. Mike died at 3.00am this morning. A true giant of English music has gone, but he was also a completely ordinary man. He had no pretensions, he just wrote and sang his songs, and they will live on.

Increasingly, I am feeling privileged and hugely fortunate to have attended the Watersons concert in Hull last August. It was the last great celebration of that great musical family in Mike's lifetime.

Great chat up lines in literature (3)

It's coincidence that all three entries in this irregular series are by Dostoevsky...

Prince Myshkin is asked by Mrs Epanchin and her three daughters to tell them what he can read in their faces. He does so, in typically Dostoevskian fashion:

1. “You, Adelaida Ivanovna, have a very happy face; it is the most sympathetic of the three…. You are simple and merry…”

2. “You too, Alexandra Ivanovna, have a very lovely face; but I think you may have some secret sorrow. Your heart is undoubtedly a kind, good one, but you are not merry. There is a certain suspicion of 'shadow' in your face, like in that of Holbein's Madonna in Dresden.”

3. “As for your face, Lizabetha Prokofievna, I not only think, but am perfectly SURE, that you are an absolute child — in all, in all, mind, both good and bad - and in spite of your years.”

The best is reserved for Aglaya. He is coaxed: "But she's pretty, prince, isn't she?" He replies:

4. "Most wonderfully so," said the latter, warmly, gazing at Aglaya with admiration. "Almost as lovely as Nastasia Philipovna, but quite a different type."

What a line. Almost as lovely as somebody else, but not quite... Guaranteed success...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Bunch of Thyme

A bit of a strange experience yesterday, at the Beverley Folk Festival. We went to the first screening of a DVD recording of a concert by The Watersons last year at Hull Truck Theatre. Now, of course, we were actually at that concert - I wrote about it here - so we were watching something we'd already attended.

There was a real sense of fin de siecle about watching it. Since the concert, Norma Waterson has been seriously ill. Indeed, she spent eleven weeks in intensive care. Her husband, Martin Carthy, was meant to introduce the film yesterday (and appear in concert later), but he, too, was ill and couldn't attend.

And Mike Waterson, I understand, is ill again. He was frail at the concert and his health has since deteriorated. The last time I talked to him, a couple of years ago, was about ten yards away from the room we were in for the screening, in the corridors at the back of the main stage where the Watersons had just been performing.

Overall, watching the film, it just felt like the ghosts of the past were circling. The Watersons' final two songs, too, were devoted to time and its passing. Firstly, a beautifulfuneral song from Staithes, written to be sung as a body is lowered into the ground, with the haunting refrain, "goodnight, goodnight, goodnight". And secondly, which I wrote about in my original blog on the concert, Norma's astounding interpretation of A Bunch of Thyme.

As the song says, Time brings all things to an end.

Monday, June 13, 2011


I watched this on the plane a few weeks ago. It's not the best environment to watch a film, admittedly, but I was pleased to get the chance to see it because I came across one of the screenwriters on another forum a while back and I was curious to see what the film was like.

I suppose my reactions are mixed. Javier Bardem (who played Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, of course) is simply stunning. It is an extraordinary performance from an actor who has a mesmerising screen presence. He plays a man who is dying of cancer. If I'm honest, the depiction of the cancer's ravages is wholly unconvincing, seeming to consist almost exclusively of making him feel tired. The truth is a lot grottier and grittier than that. But nonetheless, Bardem invested his character with a stunning depth of emotion.

My main difficulty with the film is that it is simply so unremittingly bleak. There is no let-up. A couple of scenes display a relative lightness, most notably the one when the family are reunited and eating around the dinner table; but overall the film offers no escape from the brutality of life in modern-day Barcelona. This is the sort of critique of modernity that allows for no redeeming qualities. We just have greed and corruption and pain and death, and whenever goodness does break out - Bardem's character is symbolic of that - it fails to achieve any lasting impact. There is a school of thought that seems to revolve around the notion that everything to do with modern life is vile, and Biutiful comes close to inhabiting that territory.

One final observation which struck me concerns Cormac McCarthy. I know the screenwriter in question is a reader of McCarthy, and it shows in this film, in the bookends (filmends?) in which Bardem's character, Uxbal, has a spiritual/mystical experience. I'm afraid these don't work at all for me. They are clunky and out of sympathy with the rest of the film. The idea is alluded to in a few scenes, notably in the discussion with the old woman about the spirits of the dead, but the climax, in which Uxbal's father is "going on before" into another realm, like Sheriff Bell's father in No Country For Old Men, feels contrived. The scenes at the beginning and end are trying to turn the film into a theological/philosophical analysis of "the beyond", the realm outside our human comprehension. That's okay, I have no problem with that; but that is not what the rest of the film is about.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Martin Rushent 1948-2011

Back in the late seventies and early eighties, when I was first getting into music, I would guess about 60% or 70% of my record collection was produced by Martin Rushent. He was responsible for work by Buzzcocks, Altered Images (ah, Clare of my youth), Human League, XTC, Generation X, Pete Shelley (Homosapien - I haven't heard that album in years) and a host of others. The only clunker I can think of is The Associates' Perhaps, one album of theirs I really disliked. Rushent straddled punk and the synth-led new romantic eighties period.

In particular, he was responsible for the first three Stranglers albums - still the only ones worth listening to, in my opinion. Theirs was a phenomenal sound, built round the stunning keyboards of Dave Greenwood and the hypnotically powerful bass of JJ Burnell, which was used as a lead instrument in a way I'd never heard before. I've got the original white seven inch version of Walk on By that came with the first pressings of the Black and White album, and I must have played this song hundreds of times, sometimes on repeat. Rushent's production on those three albums is amazing. He helped create a unique sound.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Some books

Boston Public Library has an impressive collection of literary criticism. Oh, to have these in my library...

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Boston Public Library Lending Library

More from Boston Public Library, this time from the lending library.

It's big...

I have to be honest and say it looks rather old-fashioned. Lots of brown, lots of old looking bookshelves, very formal. This is the kind of library and lay-out I started out in back in the eighties.

And the other thing I noticed is that they have a large stock, and tehy do not seem to weed it much. There are lots of very old looking books, rebinds in plain covers, which you just don't see in the UK any more. Once upon a time I would have written this as a criticism but not any longer. I think it is a strength. The best way for libraries to compete with Amazon, Abe, et al, is not to compete with them. Rather, they should play to their strength, which is a back catalogue of out-of-print books. But in the UK we are throwing them all out. Boston has the right approach.

This is their collection of the Best of American Short Stories - and I can guarantee that there is no possibility of anything so comprehensive in any UK library.

Ah, the shelving trolley. Very relaxing, shelving...

Thursday, June 02, 2011

More Boston Public Library

The courtyard:

John Singer Sargent mural:

The function room (this can be hired out for parties - what a party...)

Mark Twain

In Boston Public Library

Boston Public Library

As an ex-librarian, I generally look in on libraries wherever I am, and how could I not in Boston, the oldest public library in the US?

This is the reference section. Pretty impressive...

The gallery:

The reading room:

The central staircase:

Now here's a shelf-full of books:

This last one is now my wallpaper on my laptop.

More later.