Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inherent Vice vs. The Postman Always Rings Twice

During my "adult years", crime novels were never really my cup of tea but lately since my John LeCarre kick (I read 4 of his novels the last three months), it seems that I have unconsciously continued to pick up more and more detective & crime novels.

When I was a young buck, I devoured the classic Encyclopedia Brown series written by Donald J. Sobol. The last few weeks I have been reading three of them and finished two, Thomas Pynchon's latest effort Inherent Vice & James M. Cain's classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. Trying to come up with a quick description, the vast difference between the two becomes obvious. Postman is the story of a drifter who falls in love with another man's wife and decides to try & knock her husband off with his assitance. Straight 1930's noir. Inherent Vice is the story of a hippie, dope-loving shamus who tries to get to the bottom of a large conspiracy regarding a real estate developer, his ex-girlfriend named Shasta and an assortment of possible police cover-ups.

I sat in Starbucks and flew through Postman in less than two hours. At a terse 115 pages or so, it is more of a novella but grips you right from the start and keeps you turning the pages until you unravel the full story. It's convoluted to a point but by using a limited amount of characters Cain focuses the action, lets it play out, & for the most part uses pithy realistic dialogue. An intriguing title with a perfect noir setting makes for a true "pulp" classic.

Inherent Vice takes place in the same locale (Southern California) about 35 years later. A lot has changed. Things have gotten more complicated & much more verbose (385 pages). The main issue with Pynchon is his story seems to circle around for ages. It meanders to different acquaintances of the protagonist Doc Sportello that all seem to mostly the same values but with no intent on keeping the story going. In fact, even when Sportello starts to move in the right direction, it seems he has 15 minute conversation about nothing, then he turns the radio station and gives us a full rundown of what he listens to, then forgets about what the fuck he is doing. This happens again and again. While I found it interesting a few times, I soon found it utterly boring.

After the first 100 pages the character list became so unwieldy that I couldn't keep anything straight and while they had an assortment of memorable outlandish names, that was also the problem. No name stuck out because they all stuck out and while talking to one he'd quote another and another until he basically revisited every characters situation in every long chippy conversation that this snarky stoner ever got entangled in. Names like Puck Beaverton, Shasta Fay Hepworth, Coy Harlingen (father of Amethyst, husband of Hope), Lieutenant Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen.

I hear Pynchon's reclusive, maybe we should get out more and test his dialogue on people who might want to read it. As a person who loves to make random associations ad nauseum, I found the musical & pop culture references tiresome. From waht I hear they are part of his trademark but often times they seem forced like he's writing to the reference. The main issue with the whole book is that it is less of a story, a more or a showcase of writing. In my opinion, the perfect novel speaks for itself, it has an invisible hand guiding it & you forget that it's involved. That is not the case with Pynchon & Inherent Vice. While I read Postman in one breezy sitting, it was more important that I couldn't put it down. I put Vice down many times. It took me ten days to really get through it and after day 4 I was ready to quit but my momma didn't raise no quitter.

Although I'd skip the third book I was reading this week, the Chandler influenced modern day narcoleptic private dic crime solving tale The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay (which is reminiscent of another very good book read this year The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, featuring another misleading narrator in the person of a very curious autistic teenager.)

So as we head into Labor Day weekend & the last beach true weekends for Northeast shore lovers, leave Pynchon's overwrought Vice on the shelf, bring the breezy, cheesy excellence of Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. You'll thank me later & you might want to bring another book or magazine for the rest of the time.

Related Links
Inherent Vice Book Wiki

New Yorker Review of Inherent Vice

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