My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I came across this book when listening to the WTF podcast where Marc Maron interview Paul Thomas Anderson about his film adaptation. I’ve been trying to expand my reading horizons so I jumped in.
Pynchon uses the Private Investigator genre to explore the culture changes as the 1960s merged into the 1970s. This was when the Tate LaBianca murders by the Manson family rocked the peace, love, and trust ethos of the free love movement. Change was in the air: “…life in psychedeic-sixites L.A. offered more cautionary arguments than you could wave a joint at against too much trust, and the seventies were looking no more promising.” [p 70]
Los Angeles in the 60s were all about drugs, sex, and rock and roll. Doc Sportello, Pynchon’s protagonist, is a hip (hippie?) Private I, into all of the above as he investigates the disappearance of his ex girlfriend and her current boyfriend, a real estate mogul.
The further Doc gets into the investigation the more corruption he finds in law enforcement, politics and the establishment as they pushback against the love and drug culture. The establishment uses bullies and thugs to reestablish its power; Doc realizes “If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the s***work, who’d make it happen.” [p 129]
I like the interplay between Doc and Bigfoot – his adversary/helpmate(?) in the police department. There is plenty of ambiguity and potential double crossing to keep the reader turning the pages. One section toward the end gets a little gory but thankfully it didn’t go on too long.
Pynchon revels in the feeling of the time, channeling Hunter S Thompson: “On certain days, driving into Santa Monica was like having hallucinations without going to all the trouble of acquiring and then taking a particular drug, although some days, for sure, any drug was preferable to driving into Santa Monica.” [p 50].
I’m not a big reader of the Private Investigator genre so I can’t rate the novel on how well it adheres to those conventions. That being said, it seems to contain many of the common elements: a broke PI with a shabby office working the underground and collaborating with the police when necessary. I especially like look back at the 60s through the lens of the 21st century; it elevates the novel from a simple read and toss detective novel to a more nuanced piece of work.
Personally, I liked reading this take on L.A. in the 60s given that I was a high school kid looking into the city with awe and wonder from the Antelope Valley, just the other side of the San Gabriel mountains.
My biggest quibble is with the use of the beginning of the internet (Arpanet) that one of the characters uses to help Doc. It seems too much of deux ex machina to get information to move the story along.