On Jews, Aryan Bikers, and a Stoner Schlemiel Detective in Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice”


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…..

4 thoughts on “On Jews, Aryan Bikers, and a Stoner Schlemiel Detective in Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice”

  1. I am a little confused about your question wether it’s anti-semitic or not. The focus I first laid on watching the movie was another line of thought, that prevails the whole plot. It’s the crazed out take on conspiracion-theories – Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerilla Family, LAPD, informants, drugs, the cult, etc – which has had a long tradition. (perhaps culminating in the sixties, with R.Shea and R.Wilson, William Burroughs, etc). It continues this line of making conspiracy-theories so big and so overconnected with everything (the credo of all conspiracy theories therefore: “everything connects”) – that it seems as if hippies have gone haywire. But it’s also important to understand, that conspiracy theories have a definitive ästhetics, as PT Anderson brilliantly shows. The whispering between characters, especially Owen Wilson (Hint: Everday Rebellion) So Conspiracy Theories is not only a way of thinking, as most people suggest, but a mode of reception, a specific “Signatur der Wahrnehmung”, as Walter Benjamin would say in “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit”. And this “signature/raster of ästhetic perception” applies itself to mere quotes, pieces, parts, which the constructor wants to build togethere, apply cohesion etc. Watching Conspiracy-Talk, you can watch how a certain Ideologie also starts to appear, or to emerge: which topics are interesting, why exactly this topic etc. In Discussing Ideologie and it’s production in late capitalism(cinema as key function), Erik Vogt takes it to this point, which he formulates with Zizek: “Zizek legt also nahe, dass Verschwörungstheorien manchmal die Welt komplexer gestalten können, indem sie sich auf verborgene und widersprüchliche Logiken konzentrieren und alternative Begriffsmittel vorschlagen. Darin stimmt er mit Jodi Deans Argument überein, demzufolge Verschwörungstheorien uns dabei helfen können, >>global zu denken<>about<< something, or someone, thus creating effects of power, or at least the tendency to act upon someone, even if it is just a speech act. Here in Austria for example there were a lot of such informal speech acts about foreigners, which were discussed in the crudest way, slowly emerging from somewhere „unknown“, until it is again normal to talk about sending „them“ away, to a camp, and politicians mocking about foreigners, just as if Holocaust or Colonization never happened. A genius documentary about Umberto Eco, chief in charge for conspiracy theories („Das Foucaultsche Pendel, f.example), came out after his death, where he talks about the book "Protokolle der Weisen von Zion" – which he also wrote his last book on I think (Friedhof in Prag) – a classic antisemitic pamphlet which he said also had it's very own influence on all the believes about the "Weltjudentum", jews in finance and so on. On the other hand, stereotypes on Jews also where used in fictional storys (as is Inherent Vice) to test the boundary of absurd thoughts, which all Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories are, closer examined. So it‘s never clear to say that there is "antisemitic" content, or, in the end, only a Schlemiel-adaption of that content, because it depends on its use. For example: the biggest contradiction I stumpled upon were all the conspiracy theories on (mostly black) music stars (Beyonce for example), who are called Illuminatic Satanist, but if you watch the youtube-movies and articles regarding this topic, it's mostly white &or christian people who praise the lord (whatever existence that is). And, as a counteract, lot's of people use conspirative elements to counteract, in a way it get's so strange it might just be called Schlemiel. (Zebra Katz, Beyonce) – Although I am not the expert on Schlemiel 🙂 I think we have here a intersection between Pop-Theory and Cultural-Studies, where Inherent Vice paradoxically plays it to it's elaborate climax, repeats stereotypes and clichees, but also twists them to a limit, where one just has to laugh, or is plain racist. It's probably post-modern, but in the precise, hence good, way. It's a conspiracy of quotes…

    • No need to be confused. I said I would address it in later blog posts. For now, I’m pointing out that he is working with an anti-Semitic trope. Many artists do. His read on Jews isn’t anti-Semitic but it is a very interesting handling of Jewishness. From V to this book (and also in his short stories) there is a thread. If you want to acknowledge it exists. If not, I suggest you take a look. Its there. I am a Jew and am intelligent enough not to take to “conspiracy theories” but – yes- this book and movie are filled with some interesting sites of collusion. Thanks for your comment. We can help each other to read better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s