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Antonio Di Vilio

Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice: surveillance, civil rights and the end of the sixties in Los Angeles.

Doctoral Programme in Studi Linguistici e Letterari, Università di Trieste e Università di Udine.

What is Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice about? Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2009) is a detective story set between the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s in Los Angeles, one of the United States’ counterculture epicenters, where Pynchon spent his youth. The novel follows hippie detective Doc Sportello’s investigations, behind which lie abuses of power, corruption, social segregation, inequality, racial violence and land exploitation: in short, issues that from the start have been at the core of Los Angeles-based noir storytelling. What are the themes explored in the novel? Drawing on the hardboiled style of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain and adopting the post-noir aesthetics of the movies of Robert Altman – The Long Goodbye (1973) – and the Coen brothers – The Big Lebowski (1998) --, Pynchon delves into the relationship that in Los Angeles connects capitalist development, the re-configuration of the urban space and the communities that in response to these forces have created various forms of social organization. In particular, Inherent Vice chronicles the end of the counterculture utopia in the aftermath of the Manson murders which, as Joan Didion wrote in the essay The White Album (1979), signaled the abrupt end of the 60s. Pynchon shows how the decline of utopia was engineered by the impellent need to turn Los Angeles into a perfect city, a Paradise on earth: in the process, the city’s police force, together with urban developers, played a major role, surveilling the population and implementing structural changes that led not only to the destruction of the environment but also to the segregation and displacement of entire communities, from African Americans to Chicanos. Indeed, Inherent Vice evokes a number of crucial events in the history of American civil rights, ranging from the battle of Chavez Ravine to the Watts Riots of August 1965 (which Pynchon had already covered in a famous article published in the New York Times); the narrator uncovers the strategies, based on spying, corruption, and violence, that federal and police authorities employed to quell counterculture fervor and grass-roots political organizations – from anti-Vietnam War groups to the Black Panther movement. By recreating the widespread chaos and paranoia of the 60s, after the assassination of J. F. Kennedy, Pynchon analyzes the moment when the city of Los Angeles, the quintessential postmodern metropolis, became what philosopher Gilles Deleuze has called a “society of control”.

What is the link between the America of the 60s and its present-day counterpart? Racial concerns, political polarization and land speculation continue to be very relevant issues, as demonstrated by the recent events on Capitol Hill, the murder of George Floyd, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the numerous civil rights demonstrations that have been held in recent years; similarly, the terms chosen by the mass media and by individuals to refer to these phenomena reveal important ideological concerns. For example, the difference between “riots” and “protests” is of crucial importance, today as in the 60s, for a truthful account of these socio-historical developments and it is no coincidence that the characters of Inherent Vice voice this very concern in the course of the story. In addition, it is well to remember that this novel was published in 2009, after the end of the George W. Bush presidency, characterized by ultra conservative policies and torn by the war in Iraq: it is precisely through the lens of the 2000 decade – and a backward glance at the aftermath of the Rodney King arrest in 1992 – that Pynchon revisits the narrative of Los Angeles at the end of the 60s, during the years of Nixon, Reagan (when the latter served as the Governor of California), and the Vietnam War. What is the purpose of this research project? Using Pynchon’s novel as its starting point, this research project intends to analyze the effects of late-capitalist ideas during the battle for civil rights in Los Angeles and to reflect on the ways in which the author, roughly 40 years after the facts, re-configurates the chaotic reality of the 60s, the very years in which his previous novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) marked a radical turning point in detective fiction and in the American postmodern era. From a postmodern perspective, this project, following the example set by Inherent Vice, engages in an exploration of the 60s as a crossroads in American history, that is to say a moment when the entire nation was forced, yet again, to confront its own ideological and cultural choices.

Authors and affiliations

Antonio Di Vilio1
1Dottorato in Studi Linguistici e Letterari, Università di Trieste e Università di Udine, Sede amministrativa Dipartimento di Lingue e Letterature, Comunicazione, Formazione e Società (DILL) - Via Mantica, 3 - UDINE


Antonio Di Vilio, email:


Antonio Di Vilio
Security and Surveillance: Los Angeles Police and Land Abuses in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice
Journal #5 2021. (Forthcoming).

Informazioni aggiornate al: 25.6.2021 alle ore 17:29