Inherent Vice’s Two Directions


by Albert Rolls

James Parker begins his review of Inherent Vice with the quip, “If Thomas Pynchon were a stand-up comedian, and Inherent Vice his newest routine, the heckling would start around page 10. ‘So Doc,’ relates a character called Denis (whose name, we are informed, is commonly pronounced to rhyme with — heh, heh — ‘penis’), ‘I’m up on Dunecrest, you know the drugstore there, and like I noticed their sign, “Drug”? “Store”? Okay? Walked past it a thousand times, never really saw it — Drug, Store! man, far out, so I went in and Smilin Steve was at the counter and I said, like, “Yes, hi, I’d like some drugs, please. . . .”’”[1] The jokes — the forced play on the name Denis and the too easily arrived at drug pun — certainly strike one as sophomoric and the latter one as clichéd, further below Pynchon’s intelligence than one would like to think he would stoop, at least in print.[2] Discounting them and moving on, or throwing the book across the room as Parker half implies we should do, however, would be to lose sight of “that high magic to low puns” (CL49, 129). Denis’s name, as well as the play on the idea of the drugstore, unites two parts of what is sometimes, both within Inherent Vice and elsewhere, accepted as a strict binary division between the straightworld and drug culture, capturing a recurring concern of the novel, the question of which side one is on, an issue that Vineland (1990) also addresses, and establishing one of the more subtle elements of the book’s textual environment.

The pun on “drugs,” in a somewhat obvious way, calls attention to and undermines the division between substances that contribute to the formation of the freak community and those prescribed by doctors, as does Pat Dubonnet’s disappointment with a career reduced to “penny-ante collars, kids under the pier dealing their moms’ downers” (47). Indeed, the name of the drugstore employee whom Denis asks for drugs, Smilin Steve, as well as Denis’s and Doc’s familiarity with him, marks him as someone more likely to be connected to a place like Tommy’s, where for an extra fifty cents one could get a joint wrapped in wax paper in one’s “cheezburger” (73).[3] The breakdown of the division, at least between the licit and the illicit use of drugs, is also worked into and undermined within Doc’s professional environment apropos of Dr. Buddy Tubeside’s “B12” clinic, from which the doctor, in order to keep things flowing smoothly in the straightworld, distributes amphetamines to a collection of melancholy housewives, actors looking for work, professional shmoozers, and tired stewardii, along with the occasional legitimate B12-deprived cases who presumably get the vitamin.

That Tubeside is distributing amphetamines complicates the issue. That drug is associated with members of the criminal underworld as opposed to hippies, a distinction the straightworld isn’t inclined to acknowledge. Doc feels obliged to explain to Lieutenant “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, for instance, that Glen Charlock and his associates have “totally the wrong drug profile” (26) for him to be counted as one of them. Bigfoot ignores the lesson, insisting on including Doc in the same category as Glen when he remarks in malicious jest that Glen’s murderer might “turn out to be one of those perpetrators who specially like to murder hippies” (29). The complication adds to the sense that the simple equation of drug use — metaphorically in Denis’ joke and literally in Tubeside’s practice — with the counterculture is losing its significance or had always been imprecise. Just as the distinction between hippies and Nazi bikers — because both groups are associated with drug use — has no significance for those charged with maintaining the straightworld’s order, the distinction between “Flatland” culture and hippie culture is not necessarily one that needs to be acknowledged. Drugs pervade both of them.

The play on the name Denis raises similar issues, demonstrating the novel’s use of what might be dubbed learned low humor. Whether it rhymes with penis or not, the name is English for the Greek Dionysios or the Latin Dionysius and is “from the Greek, [follower of or] ‘belonging to the god of wine.’”[4] Pynchon’s pronunciation joke, at the very least, calls attention to the pre-Christian significance of the name, alluding to the phallic element of the Dionysian cult and perhaps also to Phales, “the personified phallus,” as Lowell Edmunds describes that particular companion of Dionysus,[5] whose name also serves as a partial homonym of the name of the male sexual organ. Doc can then be cast in the role of Dionysus, an element of Pynchon’s characterization of him to which we will return. In the Christian era, however, the name Dionysius is associated with Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian judge whom St. Paul converted (Acts 17: 34) and who took on importance to Christian theology after a sixth-century anonymous author—the Pseudo-Dionysius or Pseudo-Denis or Denys as his name is sometime translated — attributed his work to Dionysius. The minor Biblical figure thereafter came to be associated with a major strain of medieval theology, particularly the establishment of the most influential vision of the angelic hierarchies.[6] He is, in short, not simply a figure associated with the established order but one who was counted among its architects.

Denis’s name thereby points toward a Dionysian register and an Apollonian register, making Denis, metaphorically speaking, a site of sixties’ conflict, much as a drunken Jack Kerouac made himself, no doubt obliviously, during an appearance on William Buckley’s Firing Line in 1968. Kerouac observed of the hippie movement — while discussing the relationship between the Beats and the hippies and the part he played in influencing the latter — “apparently it’s some kind of Dionysian movement in late civilization, and which I did not intend anymore than I suppose Dionysius did, or whatever his name was.” Kerouac went on to say, “Although I’m not Dionysius the Areopagite, I should have been,” befuddling Buckley, perhaps with good reason. From the context, one is unsure whether Kerouac is confusing the Christian figure with a Greek follower of the wine god or playing off Buckley’s description of him as one who “fought his way out of the Beat generation and is now thought exactly orthodox,” a characterization Kerouac offers support for when he shows a thumbs down at the mention of Allen Ginsberg, who was in the audience; belittles leftists or communists, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in particular, placing them in an associative chain that includes “hoodlums” — just as Bigfoot lumps hippies in with Nazi bikers — all of whom Kerouac complains jumped on his back, apparently in the sense of standing on the shoulders of one’s predecessors; and reveals that he, as well as his family, had always voted Republican.[7]

Denis, it is true, seems to represent a pure Dionysian figure and not simply because of his drug use. Intoxication, after all, is only one aspect of the Dionysian spirit. Denis, like those imbued with such a spirit, “feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of māyā had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.”[8] The sixties’ manifestation of such a feeling is dissipating — though it may have been confined to mere moments and Denis, in any case, isn’t prepared to accept the change — not simply in the post-Manson-murder culture of 1970 but in the transformation of the members of the freak community into individual consumers. The problem, including Denis’s lack of awareness, is made particularly evident as Japonica’s car passes “Wallach’s Music City, where each of a long row of audition booths inside had its own lighted window,” behind each of which “appeared a hippie freak or small party of hippie freaks, each listening on headphones to a different rock ’n’ roll album and moving around at a different rhythm” (176). The experience is contrasted with free outdoor concerts “where thousands of people congregated . . . [and] blended together into a single public self, because everybody was having the same experience” (176). Denis, in short, finds himself within a larger variation of the dissipation of Vineland’s People’s Republic of Rock and Rolls (PR3) the night Weed Atman is shot:

Something was going on up on campus[. . . .] There had been no posters or announcements or indeed anyplace left for communication to come from, only the gathering, in falling dark and confusion without limit, around the fountain in the Plaza where PR3ers in their youth had frolicked stoned and nude. Now, with the black rearing silhouette of the Nixon Monument against the sunset, [. . .] suddenly no one recognized anyone’s face, and each was isolated in a sea of strangers. A common feeling, reported in interviews later, was of a clear break just ahead with everything they’d known. Some said “end,” others “transition.” (244)

Denis doesn’t see the contrast or willfully ignores it. Intent on digging the moment, he waves, yells, and flashes peace signs in an attempt to forge a connection with each of the booth dwellers, but he goes unnoticed, a reaction to his advances that he tries to disregard with the aid of a pun, the magic of which fails to transform the moment: “Far out. Maybe they’re all stoned. Hey! That must be why they call those things headphones! . . . Think about that, man! Like, headphones, right?” (176). The employment of the pun here is an attempt to will the audience to ignore his isolation from the freaks in Wallach’s as well as their isolation from each other. That intention is undermined within the context, for offering intoxication as an excuse for their secluded state, as well as his own, undoes the power of the analogy between intoxication and the Dionysian spirit by suggesting that drugs can undermine the sense of community at the heart of hippie culture and generate the “principium individuationis,”[9] the principle of Apollo. Denis, in fact, has glorified that principle and demonstrated, if unwittingly, that taking drugs is not necessarily, as Karen M. Staller explains doing so was thought to be in the sixties, “a communal experience that bond[s] the youth community together.”[10] Indeed, the assumption that those in the record store are stoned marks the freaks as easily recognizable members of a certain demographic. They have become little more than isolated consumers with “no more primary choices . . . to make.” They are, as Pynchon writes of his generation’s relationship to the Beats, “onlookers: the parade had gone by and [they are] already getting everything secondhand” (SL, 9), a condition emphasized by the fact that the beats to which each is listening are supplied for the sake of a sale.

Hope and Coy Harlingen’s plotline partakes of a parallel dynamic, serving as a microcosmic, heroin-inspired variation of the cultural change Denis’s experience illustrates. Hope and Coy connect in a toilet stall. Having just smuggled heroin into California from Mexico in balloons they had swallowed, they accidently come together to discharge their load, Hope with her “finger already down [her] throat, and there Coy sat, gringo digestion, about to take a gigantic shit. [They] both let go at about the same time, barf and shit all over the place . . . and to complicate things of course he had this hardon” (37–38). They had become, to appropriate a formula from a different context, “abjected anarchistic, formless and fluid Dionysian bod[ies],”[11] that is, they embody in that moment the abject, as Julia Kristeva describes it — encompassed as they are by excrement and vomit — but not to demarcate the boundaries separating their selves from that which is other. Rather, they return, metaphorically speaking, to the gap between infancy and subjecthood, where such boundaries are not yet fully established, and prepare to fuse, something suggested through the complication raised by Coy’s erection. It, in fact, demonstrates his lacking a feeling of loathing despite being covered in vomit — which Jacques “Derrida once, in fact, explicitly privileged . . . as the disgustingly unassimilable ‘other’ of the beautiful and the moral, serving philosophy therefore as ‘an elixir, even in the very quintessence of bad taste’”[12] — and signals his desire “to reintegrate [with his other half] . . ., to make two into one, and to bridge the gulf between one human being and another,” as Plato’s Aristophanes explains love’s function in the Symposium[13] when he tells the myth of the Androgynes, those originary creatures in whom man and woman were unified.

Hope and Coy’s subsequent marriage, “less than two weeks later” (39), supplements—with all the ambiguity Derrida brings to that term—the moment. Marrying “on the interesting theory that two can score as cheaply as one” (39), they follow a drug inspired variation of the biblical notion that “the two shall become one flesh” in marriage (Matthew 19:5), transforming the spirituality of the act into a reiteration of the material achievement they accomplished in the stall, a site to which their need to score had brought them. Their heroin addiction, however, undermines their oneness, particularly after Amethyst, their daughter, is born, leading them to understand that they were “dragging each other down” and needed to “come up with something” (192) to escape the “cycle,” to appropriate Hope’s description of middle-class life, “of choices that are no choices at all” (38) that they have become trapped within, a trap Hope herself links to middle-class life when she makes an analogy between shooting up and drinking cocktails. Their understanding that their mutual addiction is a drag on their aspirations, or perhaps their chance of having any beyond “a world of hassle reduced to the one simple issue of scoring” (38), seems to reveal that a middle-class mindset had always been an element of their sensibilities and had merely been manifesting itself in a form not immediately recognizable as such. Their existence, like Denis’s name, points in two directions.

Drugs — heroin and amphetamines if not necessarily LSD and marijuana, the latter of which Pynchon described as “that useful substance” (SL 8.) as late as 1984 — are linked in the novel to the same kind of consumption that lulls those in the middle class into their contentment and also to an inability to find or sustain the type of unity Coy and Hope stumble upon in the bathroom stall. Certain drugs, in fact, are presented as analogues of television, the new opiate of the people, an idea Pynchon readers’ should be familiar with from Dr. Deeply’s tubaldetox organization, the “National Endowment for Video Education and Rehabilitation” (NEVER), (33) in Vineland. In Inherent Vice, the idea that drugs and television share commonalities is hinted at, with regard to amphetamines, in Dr. Tubeside’s name but is more pointedly brought to the fore when Denis sets up, as if it were a television, the twenty kilos of heroin that Doc had hidden in a box that originally contained a twenty-five-inch color TV: “And dig it, Doc, if you watch long enough . . . see how it begins to sort of . . . change?” (339). Doc and, soon after, Jade/Ashley acquiesce to the observation, and they all — Denis, Doc, and Jade/Ashley — gather like “some wholesome family [. . .] to gaze tubeward” (22), or heroinward I suppose, and gobble their snacks just as Bigfoot imagines some family doing “on a future homesite” (22) in Channel View Estates.

Inherent Vice is no simple piece of nostalgia, as some critics complained upon its release, but an examination of a problem—that is, the consumerist tendencies — at the heart of the ’60s counterculture, a problem Pynchon recognized at least by the mid-1970s. In a 1974 letter to David Shetzline and Mary (M. F.) Beal, Pynchon discusses an upcoming rally for the impeachment of Richard Nixon, satirizing its purpose by suggesting that it will be more of a social event for the fashionably leftist than a politically engaged expression of outrage: “Maybe I am wrong not to show up, after all think of all that great neurotic pussy that always shows up at things like — oh, aww, gee Mary, I’m sorry! I meant ‘vagina,’ of course!—like that, and all the biggies who’ll be there. . . .”[14] Correcting himself by writing that he meant “vagina” does not change the tenor of the comment, but Pynchon may be doing something besides being a boorish man. In the context, replacing the offensive “pussy” with the PC “vagina” seems analogous to changing the nightclub scene with the political-rally scene, at least if going to a rally is done simply for the purpose of meeting women and seeing celebrities. The hippies, as Pynchon suggests here, were — perhaps were always already — in the process of being absorbed into the world they oppose, becoming just another subset of the larger community, not necessarily as Shasta Fay seems to have become, “all in flatland gear [straight-chick uniform] . . . looking just like she swore she’d never look” (1) but in hippie gear, a uniform that identifies the market to which they belong. They might wear the clothes, listen to the music, take the drugs, and attend the political rallies, but they do so in a spirit that subverts the hope hippie culture represented for those of a certain disposition, Pynchon apparently one of them. They are, as Brock Vond puts it in Vineland, “amateurs, consumers, short attention spans, out there for the thrills, pick up a chick, score some dope, nothing political” (270).

Pynchon’s letter to Shetzline and Beal and Inherent Vice are also concerned with the problem of deciding what to do in the face of what Pynchon calls in Bleeding Edge the “stupefied consensus about what life is to be” (BE, 51), a consensus that is regaining its strength as “the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light” (IV, 254) comes to a close. In the letter, claiming he is “[h]aving what the CIA calls a ‘mid-life crisis,’” — a phrase taken, according to the footnote, from “Ellsberg’s dossier,” that is, the Pentagon Papers — Pynchon muses about finding “another hustle . . . [I] cannot dig to live a ‘literary’ life no more, maybe will try to learn putting cane seats in chairs, something clear and useful like that anyway, shit, you must know what I mean.” The alternative to the life he had been living that he imagines here is similar in its significance (at least as he presents it in the letter) to “a lump of hash,” which — he writes — he had made inquiries about while travelling around the West coast on Greyhound buses in the fall of 1973. “I lost [it] someplace,” he continues, “in Humboldt County 3 years ago and am still brooding about [it] . . . yes, SYMBOLIC! all right, that occurred to me too: that lump of hash was my good times all right, besides being real, secular Good Shit.” His learning a manual skill and finding a lump of hash three-years gone are not, of course, ideas to be taken at face value. Rather, his thinking about them is a symptom of his brooding over an apparent lack of possibilities. They are notions that point toward a past and a future that contain value in contrast to a present devoid of any clear plans beyond those afforded by aimless travel, something Pynchon, if what he tells Shetzline and Beal is to be believed, had been pursuing for two years or so. Pynchon suggests he is going to curtail such travel, as he is “keying [his] plans on Geraldine [his then-girlfriend], part of general resolution not to impose shit on her.”

Pynchon portrays himself as someone caught on a threshold, the one at the exit of the psychedelic parenthesis, unable to go back and unsure about how to go forward. That is the dilemma faced by the characters in Inherent Vice, whether they are aware of it or not. Indeed, the double, contradictory significance of Denis’s name and Coy and Hope’s existence represent their being caught within a point of paralysis, something Doc draws attention to while musing about the involvement of the Golden Fang — an organization that serves as a sort of negative version of the Tristero system Pynchon created for the Crying of Lot 49[15] — in the heroin trade and the rehabilitation industry: “Get them coming and going, twice as much revenue and no worries about new customers — as long as American life was something to be escaped from, the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers” (192). At the moment in which this thought occurs to Doc, he presents himself as a figure who may be capable of finding a way out of the impasse the Golden Fang seems capable of manipulating for its own advantage, telling Coy, “if I did just run a fast check and happened to find some angle you maybe haven’t thought of — ” (192). Doc has already proved capable of facilitating such an escape, though on a smaller scale, saving himself, Denis, and Jade from the group of zombies pursuing them at the Boards’ residence, which has, Coy’s presence seems to reveal, some association with the Golden Fang.[16] The episode, in fact, establishes a connection between the threshold in which Inherent Vice’s world is situated and the underworld, one that is both Classical and criminal.[17]

It is as a facilitator of escape that Doc assumes the role of Dionysus, one of the few figures in Greek mythology to successfully return someone — his mother, Semele — from the underworld.[18] Indeed, the very nature of Doc’s profession, at least as he pursues it, is Dionysian, accounting for his ability to participate “in the same business” as Bigfoot (26) and the FBI (74) and separate himself, as much as possible, from its negative elements, despite the doubts about his doing so that Shasta is able to raise near the novel’s end.[19] The most obvious instance of Doc’s serving as a Dionysian PI is in his willingness to look into Coy’s situation and his ability to enable Coy’s return to Hope. Hope, however, isn’t there for everyone. “Glen Charlock is still dead” (258). Mickey Wolfmann’s return is brought about through the offices of the Feds and the Golden Fang, and he reassumes the role he had played before he set out to undermine the workings of the straightworld and provide free real estate. Shasta meanwhile is back at the beach looking as if she had never left: she is neither saved nor damned, the reader, like Doc, being left unsure what to think.


[1] Parker.

[2] In his personal life, Phyllis Gebauer reveals and people are apparently amused to discover, Pynchon enjoys the corniest of humor: She recalled, for example, “He’s a great charades player. He’s great at puns. They’re awful.” See Kellogg.

[3] That Denis seems not to have addressed Smilin Steve by name in the drugstore is a marker of Denis’s felt exclusion from the environment.

[4] Standard Dictionary of Facts, 811.

[5] Edmunds, 6.

[6] See Arthur.

[7] Buckley. I’d like to thank Roy Benjamin for drawing my attention to this interview.

[8] Nietzsche, 37.

[9] Nietzsche, 36

[10] Staller, 80.

[11] See Vagelis Siropoulos, cited in Yebra,192.

[12] Jay, 239.

[13] Plato, 191d.

[14] Letter to David Shetzline and M. F. Beal. I discuss this aspect of the letter in my “A Note for Pynchon Readers.” The joke twice turns up in Pynchon’s fiction in Vineland and Against the Day. In both cases, replacing the word pussy with vagina serves as a superficial correction meant to appease a listener’s sensibility.

[15] The Crying of Lot 49 is a parallel work in Pynchon’s fictional oeuvre; Oedipa is the counterpart to Doc, finding herself on the threshold at the entrance to the parenthesis.

[16] The Golden Fang’s connection to Coy’s situation also implies an association between it and the countersubversive community, Vigilant California in particular, just as its connection to Mickey’s disappearance implies an association between it and the Feds, one that may or may not be undermined by the seizure of the schooner Golden Fang at the novel’s close. No one is arrested in any case.

[17] The criminal connotations of this underworld, and Doc’s ability to facilitate escape from it, are implied because it is during this episode that the reader learns Jade’s real name, Ashley, and finds out something substantial about her. She thereby develops into something more than a simple low-level stock figure of the LA underworld.  She has a back story and a real name just like a real person.

[18] See Otto, 67.

[19] The culture of law enforcement, in fact, is not devoid of a Dionysian element, as Doc recognizes: “The bond between partners was nearly the only thing that Doc hand ever found to admire about the LAPD” (66).


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Jay, Martin. (1994). “Abjection Overruled,” Salmagundi, 103: 235–251.

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——. (2009). Inherent Vice. New York: Penguin Press.

——. (2006). Against the Day. New York: Penguin Press.

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——. (1984). Slow Learner. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

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——. (1966). The Crying of Lot 49. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company.

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About the Author:

Albert Rolls is an independent writer, scholar and researcher. He is also Editor-in-Chief at AMS Press.