Usually, I read the book before seeing the movie. This time, things happened differently. Although I have had Thomas Pynchon’s 2010 novel, Inherent Vice on my book shelf for a few years, I gave up and decided to just see the movie first and then read the book. I was really curious what a Pynchon novel would look like on the screen. Besides that, I really like Joaquin Phoenix’s acting. He has the ability to turn every gesture or shrug into a moment for reflection about what it means to be human – at this moment – in America’s history. How should one live today? Is it better to be aloof but aware? Or is it better to be radical, hyper aware, emotional and active (a demeanor we see in many films and documentaries, but satirized in Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes)? There are characters for each of these dispositions in many Pynchon novels. This one is no different.
While my wife wasn’t so into the film, I was transfixed by many things: the comical detective narrative, the foggy atmosphere, the odd pacing of this film, and its plot, which involved Aryans, Jews and a stoner schlemiel detective, who doesn’t have a Jewish name: “Sportello.” (Note: Pynchon uses the schlemiel detective motif in his novel, V and in The Crying of Lot 49). He is nicknamed “Doc” (Phoenix plays Doc in the film). It seemed as if Pynchon – in this later novel – was interested in recasting the schlemiel detective; while in V, he (Benny Profane) is half-Jewish and half-Catholic, this time he is not. And, strangely enough, Pynchon situates the schlemiel detective into a case that involves an arch villain who is Jewish. His name is Micky Wolfmann and, as one informant in the film suggests, he loves things German and wants to be a Nazi:
“Westside Hochsdeutch mafia, biggest of the big, construction, savings and loans, untaxed billions stashed under an Alp someplace, technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi, becomes exercised often to the point of violence at those who forget to spell his name with two n’s.”(7)
Wolfmann surrounds himself with members of the “Aryan Brotherhood.” And Doc gets drawn into his life and this situation because an old fling of his named Shasta drifts into his home at the outset of the novel:
She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hand’t seen her for a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all flatland gear, her a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look. (1)
Shasta and the hippie motif she represents are juxtaposed to two scenes: one, the Wolfmann scene, in which, we learn, she was involved with him in an affair; the second, a “money situation” – now that Wolfmann’s wife knows about the affair, Shasta wants Doc’s help. The take away: Shasta seems to be hooked into a bad scene which involves a “Jew” who “wants to be a Nazi” and she needs a schlemiel detective’s help to save her from being sucked into this mess.
Shasta outlines the scene to Doc while he teases details out. The subtext is fascinating because it deals passes through questions of Good and Evil and loyalty to arrive at the economic bottom line:
“Is, they want me in on it,” she said. “They think I’m the one who can reach him when he’s vulnerable, or as much as he ever gets.”
“Bareass and asleep.”
“I knew you’d understand.”
“You’re still trying to figure out if it’s right or wrong, Shasta?”
“Worse than that.” She drilled him with that gaze he remembered so well. When he remembered. “How much loyalty I owe him.”
“I hope you’re not asking me. Beyond the usual boilerplate people own anybody they’re fucking steady –“
“Thanks, Dear Abby said about the same thing.”
“Groovy. Emotions aside, then, let’s look at the money. How much rent has he been picking up?”(3)
Doc may be a schlemiel detective but, as one can see from the above passage, he has very realistic views. The only thing is that he numbs himself to their implications (perhaps because he smokes pot a lot) and, as we see throughout the book, he suddenly remembers things and usually stumbles over things he missed. His detective method is a blend of intelligence and happenstance.
Ultimately, its not the drugs that keep him aloof. Doc has an existential stake. He doesn’t want to focus too much on existence. And perhaps that gives him the blurry feel that we bear witness to not only in the book but throughout the movie. His constant pot-smoking and odd hours of sleeping make all things hard to see and hear (for the reader and viewer). But it also serves as a motif because he has momentary instances of clarity when things – all of a sudden – come together.
But things aren’t so blurry in terms of the plot: the read on Wolfmann – as the main Jewish villain who pays the bills – is quite clear. Pynchon plays on the motif of the Self-Hating and powerful Jew who wants to situate himself amongst the Aryan Brotherhood, a biker gang that protects him. Doc is on the outside of this. He’s just trying to help Shasta out by finding Wolfmann. In truth, Doc is really just the small guy who stumbles upon clues and somehow puts things other. The Jewish character is – on the other hand – the symbol of power, greeed, and corruption. He leaves his Jewishness behind for evil and power. (An anti-Semitic theme, no doubt. And there is much to discuss here about the drive for assimilation and the desire to become the other. I will discuss these in future posts.)
What leads Doc to Wolfmann is heroin, which, in this book, is associated with rotting teeth and what I would call eroding one’s bite on life. Doc smokes pot, while all of Wolfmann’s clients and people (including Shasta, before she visits Doc) shoots dope. Wolfmann is the peddler of dope and he gets everyone under his power. Doc wants nothing to do with power. Wolfmann takes their teeth away from them and gives them a fake bite. Doc has all his teeth. His bite is real. But he only eats on the go.
To be continued…..