Friday, September 4, 2009

The Books of Summer

Part of the joy of writing for a "new millennium culture blog" is that the term is so meaningless that I can focus on just about anything. But while I'm tempted to cover such epoch-defining stories such as virtual Kurt Cobain channelling Flava Flav, instead I'm going to focus on a more well-defined medium: books.

I know what you must be thinking - books are so last millennium. However, if the recent successes of Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code prove anything, it's that books are still an important force within our popular culture, even if its products are inevitably picked dry by the commercial forces that be. With Labor Day weekend marking the traditional end of summer, I thought it would be worthwhile to write on what remains a mainstay of popular culture - beach reading.

I'm a graduate student in the humanities of all things, and for nine months of the year my reading choices are so damn pretentious that I can't look at my bookshelf with a straight face. So far in 2009, I've punished myself by plowing through Robert BolaƱo, David Foster Wallace, and other authors with similar claims to bloated pomposity. But with the advent of summer, it becomes appropriate for even the most irritatingly elitist of readers to pick up the nearest trade paperback and vacate to the beach.

And strangely enough, the best beach book that I've encountered this summer is Inherent Vice, the new novel by Thomas Pynchon, an author whose books are usually so overripe with academic pretension that it's amazing that they don't just explode upon touch. Pynchon has always been a doubled-edged sword for literary critics; on one hand, he's the man who writes books so complex that they need wikis in order to make sense of the plot. On the other hand, he's the man who fills his books with enough popular culture references to make the writers of Teen Beat blush, a man who refuses traditional interviews but has no qualms about appearing on The Simpsons. Literary critics have spent most of their time focusing on the former Pynchon while effectively ignoring the latter. In a way, this is unfair; Pynchon is as much a cultural critic as he is a beacon of postmodernism. And Inherent Vice is his first work to focus solely on popular culture while for once ignoring the complex structures and metanarratives that normally worm their way into his books.

The book is a noir mystery, one part Raymond Chandler and two parts Carl Hiassen, about a private eye unravelling a complicated web of intrigue and corruption in 1970s Los Angeles. Richard Nixon is the president, Charles Manson has just been arrested, and most of the main characters seem to be caught up in a brave new world that they don't quite comprehend.

In that sense, Inherent Vice is classic Pynchon. The plot, like most noir plots, is irrelevant to the setting and the characters. The protagonist, "Doc" Sportello, is a hippie private eye who also happens to be a big fan of the L.A. Lakers. Sportello loves the city of L.A., and the last vestiges of the laid-back atmosphere that still remains in California from the Summer of Love a few years back. In a plot that perhaps best compares to The Big Lebowski, Sportello leisurely helps his ex-girlfriend in getting to the bottom of a cabal of murder and political corruption, all while constantly smoking up and inhaling pizza, Chinese food, and chocolate-covered bananas.

Sportello's nominal antagonist is the policeman "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, a conservative cop who despises those damn kids with their long hair. Like many classic noir scenarios, Sportello finds himself in competition with Bjornsen, the hippie private eye versus the square policeman.

The plot is certainly funny enough though a little obtuse. Luckily, Pynchon never takes it too seriously, though the humor can swing a little too much toward the juvenile. The characters we meet along the way are as engaging and interesting as Pynchon ever wrote, and the setting of sunny beach days and warm breezy nights evoke a good picture of southern California through a slightly nostalgic lens. In many ways, this is the perfect beach book. The plot is irrelevant enough that it doesn't require undue concentration. You can lean back in your beach chair, drink of choice in hand, and lazily work your way through a concise and entertaining mystery story with a great cast and a story in which you can easily lose yourself.

But, of course, Pynchon is never that simple, and there are more serious undercurrents in the novel for those beach readers seeking a little more. I mentioned the sense of nostalgia in the novel, and in many ways, the books serves as a requiem for a lost age. Sportello is still trying to adhere to the lifestyle of peace and love, but the Manson murders have left a dark stain on the hippie movement, and there's a sense that the Summer of Love is gone forever, never to return. Sportello remarks on the large number of hippies leaving his home and emigrating to northern California, a theme that hearkens back to Pynchon's underrated 1990 novel Vineland. A brief meeting with a computer specialist working on the grandfather of the Internet, as well as a sojourn into the unscrupulous capitalism of Las Vegas, hint at the Age of Aquarius being overrun by the unstoppable march of modernity.

Strangely enough, the hippie-hating Bjornsen is also sympathetic when it comes to this nostalgia. Though he and Sportello stand as polar opposites in almost every way imaginable, they are more alike than they might want to admit. Bjornsen is portrayed as a 1950s traditionalist thrown into a world that has passed him by. The two characters, the radical hippie and the old-fashioned reactionary, are both marching into the 1970s with the world as they knew and loved it gone forever, and major changes on the rise that neither of them quite agree with. Whether lamenting the decline of family values, or the collapse of hippie idealism under violence and murder, there's the inescapable feeling of loss - the world will not be the same for either character ever again.

But I've fallen back into my own pretentious reading habits. All academic analysis aside, Inherent Vice is an immensely enjoyable beach read. My only regret is that it's not available in trade paperback, the format of choice for summer reading. It's a three-day weekend. Enjoy the last gasps of summer and pick yourself up a fun book to enjoy before the warm weather fades away for good.