Who Told It Best: Inherent Vice

Though he has been writing for over half a century, Thomas Pynchon has written few, yet memorable pieces of literature. His work ranges from short and non-fiction stories, to essays and even technical writing for the Boeing corporation. What stays consistent, however, is his style: often classified as postmodernist, Pynchon’s writing just flies off the page, taking many risks by switching up the rhythm of the prose. He can go from spending 10 pages between two characters talking to one another at a caffée, to using just two paragraphs to detail a long and grueling search where the protagonist goes to four different locations.

It is indeed quite jarring, but in a way that forces the reader to simply sit down and let the words wash over them. While it may sound like a cop-out, Pynchon’s writing is indeed an experience more than anything else, and that is brilliantly exemplified in his 2009 novel, Inherent Vice. On the surface, it looks like a bog-standard noir story: set in 1970s Los Angeles, it follows private eye and joint smoker Doc Sportello, hired by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay to investigate the disappearance of her new beau. A simple missing person case quickly becomes something much bigger than Doc (and the readers) could ever imagine.

Early on in the novel, it would be understandable if someone wanted to write down a character chart to keep track of who everyone is and what is happening, for every chapter manages to introduce three or four new characters, and barely any of them will make another appearance further down the line. Confusing at first, this style ends up becoming intoxicating, effectively putting readers in the shoes of Sportello: high out of their mind, unsure of what is going on, yet constantly managing to stumble upon the right people to move the case forward. It is exhilarating, and the slow pacing makes for a long yet memorable read.

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson took it upon himself to transpose Inherent Vice into a film script whilst working on 2012’s The Master. This was done as an exercise more than anything since he had not done a proper adaptation beforehand (There Will Be Blood barely qualifies as an adaptation of 1927’s Oil! by Upton Sinclair. What started as a divertissement ended up becoming a true obsession for PTA, who wound up rewriting the script many times over, removing characters, moving scenes around, and changing a core relationship that reshapes the ultimate meaning of Pynchon’s work.

The film Inherent Vice is everything but a neutered-down version of the novel: having watched it when it came out, the experience was just as disorienting and oddly captivating as when experiencing the book. The cast is magnificent, with everyone bringing the characters to life: Joaquin Phoenix is transfixing as the ever-stoned Doc, Josh Brolin is hilarious as the hardened cop “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, Katherine Waterston is unforgettable as the sensual Shasta Fay, and Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, the late Michael Kenneth Williams, Owen Wilson, and Martin Short all have outstanding and memorable appearances.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s skill has always been that of bringing the worlds of his films to life, and he has now proven that ‘70s LA is his comfort place, since he recreated it before for 1997’s Boogie Nights and after for 2021’s Licorice Pizza. The decision to have the whole narrative take place in the City of Angels, removing the Vegas section of the book completely, was inspired, as it helps the story feel more like a tale of transition: the Manson family murders shocked the country and drug culture was changing. Everyone is seemingly moving on, for better or worse, except for Doc.

It is impressive how both Pynchon and Anderson managed to take a character like Doc, high out of his mind and never really changing from beginning to end, and make him a compelling lead. Many of the rapid-fire clever dialogues of the book stayed intact in the film, with some of the writing being used as the omnipresent narration of Sortilège (a minor character in the novel). Phoenix is thoroughly watchable as he fumbles around the city, interviewing suspects and getting in increasingly zanier and more dangerous situations.

However, what elevates the film of Inherent Vice from its source is transforming the atypical detective novel into a love story: book Doc is still feeling something for Shasta, but at the end of the day he is still aimlessly roaming through life, having different relationships with women who cross his path. On the other hand, film Doc takes the assignment because, deep down, he still loves the woman who left him, and when she herself ends up disappearing early on, his quest becomes just as much about finding her as it is about reigniting their romance. A flashback that he has, where he and Shasta ran through the rain looking for a dope dealer, only to end up at an empty lot, is one of the most romantic and tender scenes in PTA’s career (courtesy also of The Cascades’ “Rhythm of the Rain” playing over it).

Inherent Vice is not only one of the finest and most clever books to be released in the past 20 years, but it is also the most underrated film in Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography and a fine piece of dark comedy with noir undertones. Both of these are experiences well worth having, as it is increasingly rare to find contemporary works of art that take such high risks with form, structure, and character work. Intellectuals are likely to prefer the novel, while romantics are bound to connect to the lyrical beauty of the film.

Have you read the book or watched its adaptation? Let us know in the comments below what you think, and we will see you soon for another round of “Who Told It Best”.

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