The following is the final post of a three-part series on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice. Spoiler warning for those who might want to take the dive: ditto if you’ve heard about the up-coming movie from Paul Thomas Anderson starring Joaquin Phoenix.
“Whadda ya call it?” Where I come from that colloquialism means, “Help me out here. What is the word I’m momentarily unable to recall?” When it comes to the title of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, the characters are rummaging through the moment for the meaning of it all. Doc Sportello and his lawyer, Sauncho Smilax, come up with the title of the novel, totally unaware that they are fictional beings in a weird bit of beach noir. Events in the narrative have pursued their course, things have happened, until finally we readers reach the denouement overhearing Doc and Sauncho:
It was as if whatever had happened had reached some sort of limit. It was like finding the gateway to the past unguarded, unforbidden because it didn’t have to be. Built into the act of return finally was this glittering mosaic of doubt. Something like what Sauncho’s colleagues in marine insurance like to call inherent vice.
“Is that like original sin?” Doc wondered.
“It’s what you can’t avoid,” Sauncho said, “stuff marine policies don’t like to cover. Usually applies to cargo–like eggs break–but sometimes it’s also the vessel carrying it. Like why bilges have to be pumped out?”
“Like the San Andreas Fault,” it occurred to Doc. “Rats living up in the palm trees.” (p. 351)
This passage made me think about the act of the artist bestowing a title upon her work. The title of a poem, or a movie, or a novel: is it like the crown jewel on a glittering tiara? The craftsman sets it ‘just so’ to give the whole thing a greater resonance, an amplified power? Or, because the title is partially off by itself, highlighted so to speak and set off from the main, should we look to it for some special meaning, like a keyhole into a room where some shady business is being conducted?
As an exercise, put yourself in Pynchon’s shoes. You’ve finished your novel about Doc Sportello, seeker and weed smoker, included the whole menagerie of southern California beach culture, and thrown in a nefarious cabal called The Golden Fang along with off-hand mentions of a ruined, mythical (but real in some people’s minds) civilization called Lemuria, but when you reach the end you pause for a title and come up with, wait a second! Is “Inherent Vice” supposed to close the book on the novel’s unsolved mysteries or loop us into a deeper reading? If the answer to both questions is, “Either is fine”, then in response to the question, “What do you call it?”, Inherent Vice might be as good as it can get.
Look again. Doc has photographic evidence taken at the crime scene for the murder he is trying to solve. Problem is, increasing the resolution only reaches the point where the details lose focus. The sentences preceding the quote above are as follows: “There were close-ups of the gunman who’d nailed Glen, but none were readable. It could have been Art Tweedle under the Christmas-card ski mask, it could’ve been anybody. Doc got out his lens and gazed into each image till one by one they began to float apart into little blobs of color.”
What it comes to the murder mystery, the answer seems to be, Who knows? Regarding the larger question, the looming death to our society and our civilization (seen in the reflection of Lemuria), Pynchon might be saying through that dialogue of Doc and Sauncho, ‘There is something intrinsic about human beings that leads them toward total loss.’ Whatever alien designed and created this species would have a hell of a time trying to insure his creation.