Two weeks ago I posted about the color scheme of pink and green in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2009). So I completed that novel last week and was struck with no epiphanies. I guess that lack of an “ah-ha!” moment when I finished reading the final page should have come as no surprise. Good reading of good novels doesn’t work that way. It’s all about rereading. I wrote in that post about how contemporary fiction, at least for the last 100 years, is about puzzles composed of words and symbols by writers for readers. If that is true for writers like Nabokov, Joyce, Proust, and others, then the initial reading, no matter how careful or thorough, will not suffice to notice, much less solve, the problems that arise upon a first reading. If you want to get it, you’ve got to look again.
Does Pynchon agree with me? Maybe not. Just as every strong artist reacts against the established Masters of the preceding era, so too might Pynchon be writing in a way that casts doubt on the whole “novel-as-a-puzzle” enterprise. If Nabokov’s Pale Fire is THE masterpiece literary puzzle (it is), then Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 might be the greatest reaction to it, wherein every avenue to truth leads into shadows of doubt. And is Inherent Vice in that vein of agnosticism? Or is it begging to be reread for reasons other than because it has amusing scenes and killer sentences? The law of diminishing returns says, when applied to less than superior novels, that future readings will provide ever-decreasing amounts of pleasure. In this way, the “less-than-genius” work will always carry with it an expiration date, for each person (one or two readings is enough) and for each generation.
So how about Inherent Vice? Is it a literary puzzle or fine stoner pulp? Maybe now is a good time to reconsider that eyeball at the beginning of the novel:
The sign on his door read LSD INVESTIGATIONS, LSD, as he explained when people asked, which was not often, standing for ‘Location, Surveillance, Detection.’ Beneath this was a rendering of a giant bloodshot eyeball in the psychedelic favorites of green and magenta, the detailing of whose literally thousands of frenzied capillaries had been subcontracted out to a commune of speed freaks who had long since migrated up to Sonoma. Potential clients had been known to spend hours at the ocular mazework, often forgetting what they’d come here for.
Maybe pink and green are put into scenes sporadically in order to signal to the reader that stoner associations have been given the green light to flow freely, but they are all leading nowhere? Kind of like the author saying, “Be my guest, look around, snoop and follow your nose, but you’re not going to find any singular Meaning.” Isn’t that what the etched eyeball represents? Incredible, captivating detail, and yet people come and lose themselves in it and forget their normal business. Applied to literature, Pynchon’s metaphor is clear: ‘Readers come to my novels (or movies like The Shining) and start connecting the dots so obsessively, with such tunnel vision, that they lose sight of what they’d come to find.’ What do we come to novels to find? No answer. This is quintessential Pynchon, a trick he pulls off time and time again in The Crying of Lot 49. In fact, it just might BE the strongest interpretation of that great novella: We, the readers, are lured into a search for meaning that will ever elude, and ever entice, us.