V. is for Vice



Inherent Vice

by Thomas Pynchon

Penguin Press, 2009



by Thomas Pynchon

Harper Perennial, 1963; 1999


By now we’ve all read that Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s most recent novel, is an accessible and fun mix of detective noir plot twists indebted to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep; a hippie character study in the tone of the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski; and a battery of classic Pynchonian motifs, including paranoia, conspiracy, and countercultural desire. Instead of merely seeking out exemplars of elements of or cultural references in Inherent Vice, however, we should also inquire into or seek deeper meaning of “inherent vice” itself. This is necessary because, perhaps more than any other contemporary writer, Pynchon’s work is ultimately and dazzlingly (and also dizzyingly) self-referential. Each novel is a universe unto itself—attempting to cash out this universe by providing a laundry list of allusions or references only perpetuates (much more vulgarly) the twin Pynchonian techniques of authorial digression and readerly (self-)distantiation, effectively obscuring the possibility of gaining insight into the whole.1

“Inherent vice” refers to a notion drawn from maritime law that relieves an insurer of liability for damages sustained to cargo during transit, when such damage occurs as a consequence of some internal or innate cause, i.e. as “the result of inherent vice or the nature of the subject-matter of the insurance.”2 The notion has prompted legal theorists to: a) introduce a distinction between internal or “inherent” causes of defect, on the one hand, and external or “fortuitous” causes of defect, on the other; and b) posit a kind of frontier of potential defectibility or self-destructibility that unfurls inherently from the subject-matter, and from neither its accidents, nor function, nor circumstance. That is to say, when pushed far enough, the attempt at devising a standardized or generalized insurability results in positing an instance of extreme uninsurability that is fundamental, or, we might conjecture, essential.


But essential to whom or to what? Related to but opposite the notion of force majeure (or “act of God,” whereby the insurer’s relief from liability results from “any and all” external or fortuitous causes “beyond” the control of the contractor3),  the notion of inherent vice marks an attempt to insure, if you will, a certain zone of uninsurability innately unknowable, or at least undecidable. The notion of inherent vice  functions within legal discourse as itself an instance of inherent vice: i.e., just as the notion defines and thus neutralizes an innate kernel of uninsurability in order to render consistent its outer, theoretical husk (i.e., the insurance adjustor’s dream of a general insurability), so too the letter of this obscure and oft-overlooked notion functions as a tacit but necessary admission of the impotence or internal limitation of Law itself, which is taken to be economic, bureaucratic and political inflections of the dream of a total insurability.


So we have two theoretical limits or endpoints: the possibility of unavoidable, creatorly destruction on one side, and the possibility of unavoidable creaturely defection on the other. They are posited in order to achieve the dream of a general or total insurability—a domain of pure exchangeability, where the resolutions to all conflicts are determined in advance as so many tits for tats, where all damages are redressed, and all reparations awarded. The dream is economic in nature, more or less one of capitalistic empowerment, but the double gesture of accepting infinite creatorly caprice and all-too-finite creaturely imperfection is a political reality with religious origins. This field, where reality, economics, politics and dream (along with other such oppositions like mathematical science and religion, animate and inanimate, and many more) converge, where they attain indistinction, is the universe of Thomas Pynchon.


This universe can be surveyed via a meditation on the relation between Pynchon’s first novel, V., and his most recent, Inherent Vice. This selection fitfully maps onto Pynchon’s two distinct styles: there is the encyclopedic, sprawling, vertiginous style that characterizes V. as well asGravity’s Rainbow (1973), Mason & Dixon (1997), and Against the Day (2006); and the more accessible, less sinister, farcical style of his “California Cycle,” consisting of first The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), then Vineland (1990), and now Inherent Vice. In the former set of works, Pynchon develops his characteristically epic, imbricating narratives that dramatize the intellect’s shock, stifling and subsequent recoil from the modern age. Drawing from the psychoanalytic doctrine that all knowledge is sought defensively in order to control a threatening nature, these works stage a secular and scientific passion for the modern reader. In the latter set of works, Pynchon trains his efforts on realizing a species of counterculture as irreducibly double-sided: both as the blissful, tuned-out withdrawal from or disavowal of hegemonic cultural forms; and as a loose collectivity of always-merely-potentially subversive elements whose capacities for revolt are, and perhaps must be, unknown to those who would deploy them.4 The driving question behind V., “Who or what is V.?”, formally resembles but only faintly echoes the utterly superfluous, “What is inherent vice?” The former is a question necessary for comprehending V. that hangs over the duration of its reading; the latter matters little to the reader of Inherent Vice, but precisely its superfluity signals the need for interpretation.



On Virtuosity

Written at the age of 25, V. recounts the non-adventures of Benny Profane, a schlemihl of the highest rank,5 whose journeys, though detouring through one-sided love affairs, Manhattan subway lines, sewer tunnels and dentist offices, are ultimately journeys nowhere, journeys that begin and end in mediocrity—nevertheless, it is a rare breed of mediocrity bereft of suffering. He is one of the non-elect, but this bothers him little. Against these too-profane vignettes, these illustrations of the all-too-finite Profane yo-yoing back and from, below and above the Street, Pynchon juxtaposes the world-historical literary imagination of Stencil and a proxy for the author. Stencil, less a character than a merely adumbrated (double) literary function,  is both the locus of desire, seeking to establish the identity of the enigmatic V. (he re-stencils his father’s quest, culled from journals, for a figure known only as “V.”, who is possibly implicated in the father’s death). The author’s proxy, however, re-writes stylized histories of encounters, possible and missed, between political dissidents and defectors, aristocrats and assassins, that each double as stylized histories of historiography itself.


At some point, Stencil’s imaginary storyline converges with Profane’s narrative (giving the novel’s plot a V-shaped structure), and, ultimately, it is revealed (though only in epilogue, and thus not to Stencil) that Stencil’s father was killed by an inexplicable waterspout (whose V-shaped figure integrates it finally6 into the novel’s greater constellation of V-objects: V as vacuum, V as void) off the coast of Malta. Oh, and there are like a billion other characters.


While the Profane storyline is set almost entirely in present-day Manhattan and describes varied but ultimately mundane events (e.g. Profane’s jobs as alligator hunter or security guard, conflicts between warring street gangs, an extended procedural account of a rhinoplasty), the Stencil storyline quintessentially represents an authorial immersion into the historical imaginary, in order to construct a jagged, discontinuous, and conflict-centered history of history itself. While these episodes feature some recurring characters, they are united more precisely by their common obsession over the identity of an enigmatic entity named “V.” Presumably, Stencil draws from documentation of actual espionage and intrigue from his dead father’s journals, but his re-imaginings are driven ultimately by a creative dissociation and obsessive fixation; he is less a psychologically-human character than an algorithm programmed to replicate (indefinitely) some pitiable psychological pathology7 (each Stencil episode is centered around violence of an often political nature); he is the V-like convergence of readerly desire and authorial manipulation; he “is” searching, insofar as he “is” searching, but he is unable to motivate a search for actual certainty (since that would mean accepting finality, death) and so frames his search as one for ephemerality, impersonality, historical contingency and probability.8 Orphaned and unable to say “I,” Stencil diffuses his subjectivity into all the names of history, and says instead “V.”


V.’s temporal selection is crucial: the novel’s present is the years 1955-56, that is, during a grand coming to terms with post-war consciousness. The death of Stencil’s father takes place in 1919 (the same year that Freud publishes “The Uncanny,” a meditation on the uses in literature of horrific and unsettling scenery predicated on blurring the boundary between interior, subjective fantasy and external, objective reality); Stencil’s quest for meaning begins in 1945 (though the commencement of WWII is never mentioned in the novel); the Stencilized historical imaginary primarily stages the period between the 1880s up to 1914, including the Fashoda affair and the Herero genocide, both instances of conflict among colonizers at the expense of the colonized, and the onset of the first world war. V. thus figures history as a dual-sided phenomenon fusing two perspectives (again, a V): the individual Benny Profane perspective constitutes a series of non-adventures in schlemihlhood (of ultimately questionable significance, illustrating the Calvinist notion of preterition); the historical Stencil perspective constitutes an impersonal, delirious, but ultimately defensive re-telling of so many discontinuous parts manipulated obsessively, forced into making sense. If V. stood for anything, it stood for virtuosity.



The Necessity of Fantasy

Inherent Vice tells the story of Larry “Doc” Sportello (whom one cannot but read in the voice of the Coen Brothers’ Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski), a hippie private investigator living in the fictional Gordita Beach, presumably located in Los Angeles’ South Bay. The year is 1970, and the counterculture is realizing, slowly and soberingly, the loss of its halcyon days. The bliss of an emancipatory dream seems but a long, strange trip; sunshine is still for sale, but sunset has given way to a night of diffidence, confusion and paranoia.9 Whatever remains of countercultural desire has been redirected away from theorizing and organizing politically utopian communities, and instead invested in culture-specific forms of escapism of varying degree, from free lovin’, pot smoking and sartorial extravagance to full-on “tuning out,” whether through mild but notable memory loss, full-on psychosis, or waxing conspiratorial over threads supposedly connecting the Manson family, the Viet Cong and “Charlie” the Star-Kist Tuna mascot.


Doc’s investigative ventures are less skillful exercise than labor of love. And well, he is a stoner, prone to ineptitude. More than once he has fallen asleep mid-surveillance, meaning that though he has slept through intrusions, struggles, and even murder, Doc’s nevertheless been found conspicuously at the scene and swept up into the loving arms of the law, represented by one Los Angeles Police Lieutenant, Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen. Bigfoot has known Doc awhile, has never actually considered the hippie dangerous, but seldom misses an opportunity to chide the private eye for his entire culture’s optimism and naiveté. Bigfoot has the honor of delivering lines like, “Yes, this time it appears you have finally managed to stumble into something too real and deep to hallucinate your worthless hippie ass out of.”


Perhaps, after a first read of the situation, we might identify Doc’s inherent vice as merely ill-timed (sure, pot-enhanced) narcolepsy, but I would advocate a stronger take, based on taking seriously Bigfoot’s quoted admonishing sneer. We ought to read this not simply as a statement made by a lawman, but as the sentence of Law itself. This is to make at least two points simultaneously: first, that Law, out of (the delusion of its) benevolent paternalism, univocally and unilaterally arrogates for itself the privilege (though it is often framed as a burden) of coding, managing and manipulating reality—thus that reality is only reality to the degree that it is lawful, or more specifically to the degree that law is instituted unilaterally, which is to say policed; second, alternative modes of sense-making (exemplified by the communitarian / cooperative tactics and rogue status of the private investigator) are disqualified as both insufficient and fantasy.


This theme subtly grounds this deceptively accessible, plot-driven Raymond Carver homage, but is crucial:10 it posits reality during this era as something necessarily threatening, or as something whose threat gradually is made manifest, in order to indicate a fundamental form of defense—withdrawal from reality. The countercultural identity is reactive and ultimately manufactured (but not, for these reasons, less authentic), whose power lies in defying the legitimacy of policed, top-down institutions of social identities. This is not to say that Inherent Vice constitutes Pynchon’s 350-page indictment of the counterculture, or of its particularly tragic optimism. Rather it illustrates, with deft and subtlety, an all-too-human tendency (not exclusive to the counterculture) to masochistically link political shortcomings with the failure of political optimism, and this latter with a deep, wounding sense of private shame. And this is why Pynchon’s work takes on the value of genius: deploying a jagged style marked by irregular phrasing, eschewing realism’s demands to produce only psychologically “convincing,” well-rounded characters, instead deploying characters that are merely mathematical functions (down to their notoriously silly, nonsensical names),11 Pynchon insists on using the bluntest and least humanistic instruments to accomplish the extraordinary feat of extracting man’s inherent vice: the radical innocence of fantasy and obsession, the necessity of fantasy.



Pynchon's Paradox

The dominant aesthetic from V. on through Inherent Vice fashioned and thematically situated the postwar sublime within neither the everyday (à lamost realism), the vulgar (à la Bukowski), the gothic (à la McCarthy), nor the grotesque (à la Houellebecq), but within the category of the preterite. Recall that according to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, those not of the elect were subject to either reprobation, meaning their earthly lives were riddled with misery and suffering, or the somewhat more perverse fate of preterition, meaning that they were passed over by the divine, seemingly unworthy of the least divine attention. The motif of preterition functioned most explicitly in Gravity’s Rainbow to indicate a sense of divine abandonment (the rockets have always already been launched) and to define an identity characterized by an alternative, emphatically non-divine temporality: Pynchon’s characters are exempt from History, and seem to exist only within the text, during the time of reading, as so many flickers of the reader’s imagination. They live in a strangely suspended virtual frame of what may be called illusory estrangement.12


Preterite is a double contradiction, a paradox that undoes both temporal and spatial / corporeal regularity: temporally, the preterite represents the sense that the present is merely a lacuna, digression, or fancy—a flicker in the night of an essential past, the time of the reverie; corporeally, the preterite names the horrific recognition of oneself as superfluous—as excess, remainder. One is able neither to live one’s birth nor bear one’s life; one is essentially isolated, and only accidentally or secondarily social. Exterior relations are always linked with ephemerality and disappointment, while interiority becomes intense but labyrinthine, riddled by uncertainty.13 While Pynchonian characters never experience Joycean epiphanies per se, they are brought to face grave existential truths about their own reality, and forced to recognize the identity between themselves and that excess. But the paradoxical turn of the preterite sense results from the recognition of that waste in the moment of its flickering, and its demand to be dignified. This merest of instants coincides with an absolute eternity: one becomes bound to the moment of one’s own birth, one’s thrownness into the world, that original dependence whose plea was, miraculously, answered by a grace one can only pledge to relive, and which redoubles one’s identity within incommensurable strata, as both parent and orphan, as both creator and creature, as both reader and character. This “coming full circle” recurs in each of Pynchon’s novels—the Mason-Dixon line extended ideally and eternally around the globe, gravity’s rainbow as a global halo, the Norse settlement of Vinland is repeated by the post-60s settlement by disenchanted burnouts of Vineland, California. Its happening takes on a sense only for an instant, but in its singularity takes on a universal value. This is that intuition one gleans from grasping the Pynchon novel all at once (the V, the rainbow… as revelation).


This capacity, sometimes obsessive and sometimes drug-induced, to hear the pleas of the inanimate and mundane, to recognize in each forsaken thing its hidden desire to be absolute, is the structure of fantasy that the preterite sense (both of time and of self) limits but also allows. Pynchon has never faulted his characters for their dreams. He has instead sought to spare them the shame of having their political reveries exposed as such by the Bigfoot Bjornsens of the world. Consider this exchange from The Crying of Lot 49: 

“I came… hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy.” … ”Cherish it!… What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by its little tentacle, don’t let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be.”14



The Message

The inherent vice of the 1960’s culture lies not merely in its tendency toward flight into fantasy, but rather in the ambivalence of this flight, and its potentially fatal trajectory on either side (and here we return to another V): one always risks losing reality, and so risks oneself. The same social and historical imagination responsible for the era’s artistic creativity and political experimentation always ran the risk of becoming too intense and too hallucinatory to effectively maintain or to concretize. The flight always risks flipping the dreamer into a state of catatonia, of producing a psychosocial withdrawal and political neutralization. Perhaps Pynchon’s ultimate political message is that we must never found our political dreams on economically-mediated modes of social interconnection, but perhaps on more organic ones. And if that sounds terribly idealistic or utopian, fine. Don’t posit them, as in don’t positivize them. Base them around the mutual recognition of the negative space between each of us; recognize our shared resistance to total domination, violation or exploitation as the basis of our commonality. Make this negative space our site of reverie, where each might join each on immediate terms, open to fates beyond us and desires beyond the economic. Create a shared recognition of our inherent vice within our preterite history—a new zone of sacredness, one needing neither transcendent legislator nor top-down law, but simply one wherein each recognizes the capacity for the other to feel shame for one’s fantasy, and simply spares the other that shame.    


Ultimately, the counterculture’s experience of defeat was intensified and co-opted by a police discourse, or rather, a socially policed value system that insidiously called into question the value (and the safety) of imaginative experimentation, and by an economic recuperation that capitalized on perpetuating (a mediated) hippie identity.15 Hippie perversions were turned in upon themselves by a law that (also perversely) interposed itself between the too-threatening reality and the dream. The hippie political reveries of the 1960s were exposed as such on the basis of policed values, only to have the “reverie” reinstated as a constellation of so many commodities through the 70s and culminating in the 80s: Reverie™ for sale. There are numerous references in Inherent Vice to the police’s or FBI’s fear of the Manson family, which all motivate the same hegemonic discursive shift: after Manson, doping up can no longer mean “tuning out”—or tuning “in,” for that matter—and enjoying an alternative world-vision; it could only mean an impending psychosis—the drug-induced hippie fantasy had been exhausted, but the drugs were not .16 Increasingly consolidated, ruthless and unseen economic interests made certain the police narrative was legitimated, and the domain of law became able to penetrate into man’s darkest recesses, to identify and mobilize man’s innermost shame—in short, to seize upon and exploit the one inherent vice Pynchon believes should be protected by our social, political and economic projects, at any cost.




1. Each of Pynchon’s novels deploys its title to, very simply, state its sense, to give an image that corresponds intuitively to the universe that unfolds therein, in all its indeterminacy and incompleteness. Gravity’s Rainbow really refers to a paradoxical metaphor so rich with reference that it literally weighs itself down, while remaining “stubbornly” ephemeral and virtual. V. really refers to an open-ended series of “V”s in single file. The Crying of Lot 49 really points to a single, indeterminate moment (“the crying”) frozen in time that bifurcates the universe according to the protagonist’s disjunctive relation to a mounting delusion—the break of her construction or perhaps her cure.

2. Susan Hodges. Law of Marine Insurance (London: Cavendish Publishing Limited, 1996): 236.

3. Perhaps this structural correlation between the notions of “inherent vice” and force majeure in legal doctrine prompted numerous recent reviewers to associate Pynchon’s title notion with the Christian doctrine of original sin, a move that is both misguided and terribly reductive.

4. The Crying of Lot 49 is actually a much more difficult work to pin down, according to the terms I’ve selected, since it draws on elements of both styles. Its feel is hallucinatory, or at least one of heightened irreality. However, because of its brevity, setting and the reappearance of certain of its characters in both Vineland and Inherent Vice, it can arguably be associated with those works.

5. This Yiddish term, describing one who is unlucky in their essence, for whom nothing goes right, and who embodies “all-too-finite creaturely imperfection,” pervades V.

6. Richard Wasson, “What Stencil Knew: Structure and Certitude in Pynchon’s V.,” in Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon Richard Pearce ed. (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1981): 20-31. Wasson makes this connection at p. 31 n17.

7. Ibid. 13-9. About Stencil the author-proxy, Richard Wasson notes: “He cannot even say ‘I’ and so becomes an object even to himself.” (18) 

8. Thomas Pynchon. Slow Learner: Early Stories (New York: Back Bay Books, 1985). See p. 18: in his introduction to “Under the Rose,” a short story reworked into a chapter of V., Pynchon mentions the uncertainty inherent to narratives of historical determination: “…is history personal or statistical?”

9. To sense the swiftness of this transition, consider the following events of 1970: an accidental bomb explosion kills 3 members of The Weather Underground and blows out the front of the 11th St Greenwich Village brownstone they rented; Jeffrey MacDonald murders his family and blames the crime on drugged-addled hippie intruders, months after the Manson family murders and subsequent media circus; the Kent State shootings take place (as well as the lesser known Hard Hat Riot, involving an attack by New York union workers on student protestors voicing solidarity in the wake of Kent State); San Francisco declares the first Earth Day; and Black Sabbath invents heavy metal.

10. The novel’s very first interpersonal exchange invokes flight from reality: “[Doc:] ‘That you, Shasta?’… [Shasta:] ‘Thinks he’s hallucinating.’” It is also telling that, as in V., the desire that V. and Shasta spark, as little more than MacGuffins, is not overtly sexual but is fraught with more abstract, antihuman desires.

11. Pynchon’s style is defined by an ironic parody of, or overly intellectualized distance from realism; his reality is hysterical and his writing consciously plays with genre.

12. I associate this estrangement with the psychoanalytic conception of fantasy, based fundamentally on the Freudian theory of fetishistic disavowal.

13. However—and this is crucial—this is not to say that Pynchon’s characters have any real or realistic psychology. They seem strangely to lack interiority, and do not dwell on their suffering. For an excellent depiction of a more psychological variant of this condition, witness Laura Palmer’s descent into the most private, unspeakable and unfathomable realms of psychical withdrawal (which paradoxically holds out the possibility of her ultimate release from suffering) in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992).

14. Thomas Pynchon. The Crying Lot of 49 (New York: HarperCollins Perennial Classics, 1999): 113.

15. Samuel Thomas. Pynchon and the Political (New York: Routledge, 2007):142. Referring to a dream in Vineland: “What Isaiah’s fantasy represents is how the State is now fully capable of selling repression back to the repressed.”

16. It is crucial to note that historically, the rules of the game could only be changed once the capitalist establishment had so effectively intertwined social relations (in order both to consolidate its markets into a single consumerist America, and to sell the narrative of a resolutely unified front to the Cold War opposition) that even the privacy of alternative world-visions became mediated by the market. Effectively, there was no problem with hippies tuning out per se; rather unseen elites  wanted to sell them a less “volatile” but more addictive drug: countercultural identity-commodities through which they could silently “voice” their estrangement without actually organizing. For much more on this point, see Stefan Mattessich, Lines of Flight: Discursive Time and Countercultural Desire in the Work of Thomas Pynchon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002): 64-5: “The narcissism of its reveries, its pulverization into either mindless pleasure or micropolitics, discloses a political desire dying in two senses: dying out and incorporating... death [through the commodity form]...”



Psychology, Thomas Pynchon