Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Inherent Vice, only came out Tuesday, but the reviews are already rolling in—the complete review finds 43 pre-pub reviews—and so are the comparisons to one of the film world’s great reluctant heroes, Jeffrey Lebowski (aka “The Dude”). Google “inherent vice” “big lebowski” and you’ll find around a thousand results, including a German-language review. While I haven’t read Pynchon’s novel, the comparisons between Lebowski and Vice protagonist Doc Sportello seem appropriate. Both are proud marijuana tokers, slackers, and Angelenos, and while one deliberately styles himself as a private eye and the other does not, both end up occupying the same role in the byzantine plots that eventually consume them. (In The Big Lebowski, Lebowski is shocked when a real private investigator—who had been spying on Lebowski—believes that Lebowski is also a gumshoe. And, of course, he admires the Dude’s style. However unwittingly, Lebowski has taken on the mantle of a P.I., complete with many of the role’s tropes: phone negotiations, investigating shady moguls, arranging a drop-off of a suitcase filled with cash, doubting the integrity of his employer, believing that some overarching conspiracy underlies all, etc.)
Sam Anderson, who in his review of Inherent Vice outs himself as a Pynchon hater, describes the book as a “pseudo-noir hippie-mystery,” which could just as easily describe the Coen brothers’ film, set during the beginning of the first Gulf War. He also writes that “when Doc steps out to make a few inquiries, he is immediately buried under an avalanche of subplots and superplots and crossplots”—again, a description appropriate for The Big Lebowski, a movie that, for all of its excessively quoted lines about white Russians and bowling-and-bad-sweater iconography, is actually highly plotted, made up of so many bizarre twists that it is no wonder that its own protagonist, irrespective of his constant substance intake, has little idea what is going on most of the time.
Several reviews have described Inherent Vice as something on the order of Raymond Chandler meets The Big Lebowski. But what’s being overlooked is that Lebowski has always been a marijuana-infused sunshine noir tale, deliberately styled after Chandler’s work, a fact emphasized in Rolling Stone’s multi-article appreciation of the film in September 2008, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of its release. Both Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Lebowski feature L.A. locales, wheelchair-bound millionaires sitting in rambling mansions, pornography, and vengeful heiresses. Andy Greene’s Rolling Stone piece mentions these similarities while also citing Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, another convoluted tale featuring Philip Marlowe, who, like his stoner descendent, sustains more than one blow to the head.
As for the influences of The Big Sleep, Greek tragedy has been cited, but that’s a convenient, default choice, applicable to many works. (Gather together the Greek plays, Homer, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, and various holy books and you have the foundation of the entire Western Canon.) It does, though, indicate that, however improbable, something about these characters’ nature lends them an ongoing relevance, ripe for continual renewal. In other words—and as a fan of the film, it pains me to drop this worn-out line, but it’s a cult classic for a reason—”the Dude abides.” Welcome to the fold, Sportello.