Inherent Vice

Chandler in flares

In this take on the private-eye thriller, Thomas Pynchon has his shamus Doc Sportello bumbling around stoned in the "post-Mansonical nerves" of southern California in 1969. Doc's ex-girlfriend has gone missing, along with her current lover, a property magnate of dubious, perhaps reformed, morality. As the mystery deepens, all paths seem to lead to the Golden Fang, which may be the kind of shadowy, murderous cartel familiar to readers of Pynchon's previous books, or just a tax dodge set up by a group of affluent dentists. "Bye-bye Black Dahlia," Pynchon writes, in a sentiment that may be entirely unironical, ". . . we've seen the last of those good old-time LA murder mysteries, I'm afraid."

When Pynchon's first novel, V, was originally published in 1963, it seemed to point a way to the future. V was a caper and a quest, colliding past and present; Benny Profane's wanderings through contemporary urban life and urban myths were intercut with Herbert Stencil's obsessive pursuit of "V", whose incarnations included the English Victorian traveller Victoria Wren, the Maltese city of Valletta, and a disturbingly sexy sewer rat named Veronica. But more important than any kind of plot were the digressions - into German colonial history, plastic surgery, the Argentinian hero-outlaw Martín Fierro, alligators in the New York sewers, contemporary bohemian life and fin de siècle ballet. The Pynchon manner was established: erudition and knockabout comedy, sex and science and songs, and his long, shaggily beautiful sentences describing a world that almost made sense, where revelation was just a dream or one final unpicking of a paranoid plot away.

Before The Crying of Lot 49 was published in 1966, Pynchon had let it be known privately that he was struggling to write three novels at once, and this new one was a "short story, but with gland trouble". Again, there are paranoid plots (involving an underground postal service and a corporate conspiracy that uses the bones of American GIs for cigarette filters), sex and songs, the masterly prose style, and a central character with a silly name. The travails of Oedipa Maas were smartly Pynchonesque enough, but thinking of it now, the book feels as if it was marking time for something bigger.

The big thing followed in 1973. Maybe Gravity's Rainbow was the three novels in one. Set in London and across Europe during the Second World War, the book, whose original, author-preferred title had been Mindless Pleasures, has at its disintegrating centre an American GI named Tyrone Slothrop, who has a particular, erotic relationship with German rockets. Gravity's Rainbow is a triumph of literary style, scientific knowledge, and digressive and transgressive storytelling, propelled by characters whose names (such as "Tantivy" Mucker-Maffick, Emil "Säure" Bummer, and the lovers Jessica Swanlake and Roger Mexico) make them sound as if they were the bastard children of Ronald Firbank sired from Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters.

The novel still spellbinds with its prose, its compendiousness, along with the jokes, the songs, the maths, the digressions (the tale of Byron the immortal light bulb is very close to most Pynchon readers' hearts) and set pieces, such as Slothrop's ordeal of eating antique English sweets, which is one of the funniest in all literature. The reader is made to feel most of the readerly emotions available, including disgust and bafflement, but also wonder and tenderness. Gravity's Rainbow makes the Second World War into the exemplary modern moment. And it is the exemplary Pynchon book, even if it embarrassed the Pulitzer Prize advisory board into not awarding a prize for fiction that year, condemning Pynchon's work for being "unreadable . . . turgid . . . overwritten . . . obscene". Never a promoter of his own work, and always camera-shy, Pynchon sent a comedian who specialised in vaudeville double-talk to receive on his behalf the National Book Award that he did win. After that came silence.
Eleven years later, there was a brief interruption when the author republished a selection of his early short stories. The volume was called Slow Learner, and it was prefaced by a charmingly modest introduction from Pynchon himself, in which he warned readers against these "pretentious, goofy and ill-considered stories", which thought they were "sophisticating the Beat spirit with second-hand science".

I remember the lurch I felt when I read those phrases. I had been a devotee of Pynchon since reading Gravity's Rainbow as an impressionable and corruptible adolescent. I already had the stories "Entropy" and "The Small Rain" and the others, in pamphlet form. His introduction read as if he needed to remind us that he was human, like us. He might even have been warning us not to expect too much.

This was before the internet. Nowadays you can find Pynchon sites that provide commentaries to every page of his writing, footnotes to every allusion; photographs of men who were once mistakenly thought to be Pynchon; extended refutations of the theory that he wrote crank letters to north Californian newspapers in the 1980s under the name Wanda Tinasky; YouTube links to the episodes of The Simpsons in which Pynchon "appeared", wearing a brown paper bag over his head. But, in 1984, we had to be content with the author's own words. There were rumours he was writing a book about the 18th-century cartographers Mason and Dixon, but it seemed that, like J D Salinger, he had opted for a creative silence that would be perpetual. And then, in 1990, Pynchon published Vineland, a hippie caper set in the recent Californian past.

Aficionados tried to like it, but many found it, remembering his Slow Learner warnings, kind of goofy and maybe even ill-considered. The hippie stoner humour wore thin. Reading it felt like walking into the wrong party. Then, in almost incontinently quick order, by Pynchon's standards at least, came the long-rumoured Mason & Dixon (1997), followed in 2006 by Against the Day. And now we have Inherent Vice.

Mason & Dixon is a magnificent pastiche of 18th-century diction ("Eager Applause, as into the Lanthorn-Light comes a hooded, Scythe-bearing Figure in Skeleton's Disguise, - tho' the Instant it begins to speak, all sinister Impression is compromis'd") that defies its readers not to love it, with a huge cast of characters that includes, as well as the eponymous explorers ("Melancholick" Mason and cheery-hearted Dixon), Benjamin Franklin and a talking dog. Yet it also defied its readers actually to finish it. Against the Day is a gargantuan fireside yarn, a balloon trip across pre-First World War Europe, scientists and chancers and boy adventurers, that has the Pynchon brio and scope - but something had happened since V and Gravity's Rainbow: the future had moved away, and Pynchon's astonishing worlds now seemed fixed in readings of the past.

The title of Inherent Vice comes from a legal definition of spoiled cargo, its tendency to deterioration, which is a version of the theme of entropy that has been in Pynchon's work since those early short stories. Its likeable hero is located in the tradition of soiled Californian knights-errant that began with Dashiell Hammett: "[Doc] understood for a second and a half that he belonged to a single and ancient martial tradition in which resisting authority, subduing handguns, defending an old lady's honour all amounted to the same thing."

The tropes of the hard-boiled genre are here: a detective with a half-mended heart and a propensity to be beaten unconscious at crime scenes; a quest to track the missing; a rich folks' nuthouse; the corrupt LAPD. But whereas Chandler once admitted that whenever he didn't know how to advance his plot, he'd have a man walk through a doorway holding a gun, Pynchon just has his detective fire up another joint. It is in the moments away from the stoned haze of plot that this book is at its best. The sentences have their stately beauty, and Pynchon is poignantly good on the heartsick detective, his "lovelorn rectogenital throb". There are the tremendously pacy comic set pieces, such as a wild car ride through LA, driven by Japonica the crazed heiress, and a nostalgic delight in 1960s types - acid visionaries, sneery post-moptop British rock stars, and the mystic surfer St Flip of Lauderdale, whose revelation in the banal reminds us of the "catatonic expressionist" painter Slab from V, with his cheese Danish series: "Monet spent his declining years at his home in Giverny . . . He painted all kinds of water lilies. He liked water lilies. These are my declining years. I like cheese Danishes . . ."

David Flusfeder's most recent novel is "The Pagan House" (Fourth Estate, £7.99)