Mapping Inherent Vice

Reading Suggestions: The Sixties

“…and here was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find his way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness…how a certain hand might reach out of the darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.”

Inherent Vice is partly about a man still clinging to the dream of the sixties even as it crumbles around him. The dangerous criminal machinations that Doc the “doper” stumbles into as a detective are in some way a manifestation of the death of sixties culture; both the case and changing culture are, for Doc, the ultimate “bummer.”

The books listed here are suggestions for readers who enjoyed Inherent Vice‘s late-1960s/early-1970s California setting and its exploration of ’60s culture. The hyperlinks will take you to the book’s Amazon page. (In addition to the books below, don’t forget about Pynchon’s own The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland, both of which also deal with the sixties in California; the three novels can be considered an informal trilogy of sorts.)

Drop City by T.C. Boyle

This historical novel centers on a California hippie commune in 1970, the same year in which Inherent Vice is set. Like Pynchon, Boyle uses the broad strokes of humor and satire without sacrificing complexity in his storytelling, characters and themes. Both novels cast a somewhat ironic and critical yet affectionate eye on the counterculture of the era.

The White Album by Joan Didion

Didion’s essay collection concerns California in the sixties and the seventies; like Pynchon, her work is infused with a strong sense of paranoia. It is easy to imagine Doc Sportello from Inherent Vice wandering around the cultural landscape Didion describes here.

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me by Richard Fariña

A classic counterculture novel, written in 1966, with zany humor and irreverence similar to Pynchon’s. Indeed, Fariña and Pynchon were close friends (they attended Cornell University together in the ’50s) and influenced each other’s work. Though it will seem “dated” to some readers, this is a must-read for those interested in the cultural history of the sixties.

Sway by Zachary Lazar

This historical novel of the sixties focuses on three real-life figures: underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, Manson family associate Bobby Beausoleil, and the members of the Rolling Stones. Inherent Vice makes numerous important references to the Manson family, and the two novels share a willingness to explore the dark side of the “free love” era.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

This nonfiction work, a journalistic account of Ken Kesey’s traveling band of “merry pranksters,” is an essential document of the hippie experience. Its offbeat characters are similar to those of Inherent Vice and it provides first-hand cultural context for Pynchon’s recreation of the era.

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