Pynchon on shuffle

Music is backbeat for novelist’s twisting tales

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / September 20, 2009

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Music hasn’t really mattered much in American fiction. There are exceptions, of course. Eudora Welty’s bravura short story “Powerhouse’’ reimagines Fats Waller. Don DeLillo’s “Great Jones Street’’ lampoons rock so shrewdly it could be called “Negatively 4th Street.’’ John Updike’s most famous hero, Harry Angstrom, prefers Perry Como to Frank Sinatra and marvels over the Bee Gees being “white men who have done this wonderful thing of making themselves sound like black women.’’ And so on.

Yet those are anomalous instances. There is one American writer, however, whose fiction is the literary equivalent of a vast box set: a blissful, bizarro anthology of rock, jazz, pop, blues, country, show tunes, novelty numbers, you name it. Thomas Pynchon’s novels are like a giant jukebox just waiting to happen. Some of the songs are real, some are imaginary. All of them Pynchon makes his own. No other American writer has put so much music into his fiction.

McClintic Sphere, in “V.,’’ bears a marked resemblance to Ornette Coleman. The Paranoids (a name not lightly bestowed by Pynchon) sing their way through “The Crying of Lot 49.’’ “Gravity’s Rainbow’’ has so many songs in it, both actual and made up, it’s practically a libretto disguised as a novel. The parents of Frenesi Gates, the heroine of “Vineland,’’ named her after their favorite Artie Shaw recording. “Against the Day’’ takes its epigraph from Thelonious Monk.

Above all, there’s the way Pynchon’s characters frequently break into song. Are his novels simply an excuse to get his lyrics before the public? It’s hard to resist something like Meatball Flag’s “Soul Gidget,’’ which Pynchon describes as “one of the few known attempts at black surf music.’’

Who’s that strollin’ down the street,

Hi-heel flip-flops on her feet,

Always got a great big smile,

Never gets popped by Juv-o-nile _

Who is it? [Minor-seventh guitar fill]

Soul Gidget!

If ever a song cried out for Casey Kasem to recount its back story, it’s “Soul Gidget.’’ (Miss Sandra Dee? Miss Sally Field? Please meet Ms. Pam Grier.)

“Soul Gidget’’ wafts out of a car radio in Pynchon’s latest novel, “Inherent Vice.’’ The novel also provides readers with the putative lyrics to the theme song of the TV western “The Big Valley,’’ a “semi-bossa nova’’ called “Just the Lasagna’’ (sung by Carmine and the Cal-Zones), and a country swing tune called “Full Moon in Pisces.’’ Some novels have a table of contents. “Inherent Vice’’ should have a playlist. In fact, Pynchon provided one for feature.html?ie=UTF8&doc Id=1000413861.

Set in certain highly countercultural environs of Southern California in the spring of 1970, “Inherent Vice’’ has almost as much music in it as there is marijuana - which is saying a lot. The novel’s hero, Doc Sportello, is a stoner private eye who lives by the beach south of Venice and gets involved in a case so complicated he practically needs a roach clip to tease out its strands.

A prime suspect, Coy Harlingen, plays tenor sax with a surf music band named the Boards. Doc overhears him playing a version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado’’ and later encounters him at the area’s most famous jazz club, the Lighthouse, in Hermosa Beach, where Coy has gone to listen to Bud Shank.

Having made it big, the Boards live in a Topanga Canyon mansion they share with a visiting British band called Spotted Dick. If the Boards are a Day-Glo version of the Ventures, then Spotted Dick is King Crimson with their Mellotron stuck on pause.

Both bands are inventions, as are Meatball Flag, Carmine and the Cal-Zones, and bluesman Droolin’ Floyd Womack. Sometimes Pynchon mixes and matches real and fictive. Jonathan Frid, the star of the then-popular vampire soap opera “Dark Shadows’’ supposedly has a Vegas lounge act. “Everybody in the business loves him - Frank, Dean, Sammy - at least one of them’s in the audience every night,’’ a friend tells Doc.

Mostly, though, the musical references are time-machine verifiable. A jukebox plays Del Shannon’s “Runaway.’’ Another plays the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar.’’ The Rolling Stones’ “Something Happened to Me Yesterday’’ comes on the car radio, as does Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Space.’’ Surf-guitar god Dick Dale merits several mentions, as do the Beach Boys, the Bonzo Dog Band, and, ahem, Ethel Merman.

Pynchon is nothing if not eclectic. A character praises the Greek singer Roza Eskenazi, comparing her “pure soul’’ to Bessie Smith’s. Another character confesses to an obsession with Lawrence Welk’s “Champagne Lady,’’ Norma Zimmer. In a nod to Verdi, a very bad seafood restaurant serves Eel Trovatore. Even less to Doc’s taste is “the drawling brass and subhip syncopation’’ of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

This was, after all, a time of great (and sometimes awful) musical ferment. Although rock clearly dominated popular music, it had yet to run the table. Billboard’s top 10 best-selling singles of 1970 included B.J. Thomas’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,’’ the Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You,’’ and the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You.’’ Doc might want to give Herb Alpert another listen.

The novel’s loveliest musical moment comes with Doc driving at night on the Santa Monica Freeway. He’s singing along to the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High’’ on the radio. He keeps singing even after the signal gets lost inside a tunnel. “When they emerged and the sound came back,’’ Pynchon writes, “he was no more than a half bar off.’’

None of Pynchon’s references feel forced. They’re part of the texture and flavor of the novel, just as the music was so much a part of the texture and flavor of the time. In an iPod, download world, listeners get sealed off, happily lost in their own shuffle. There is much to recommend that. Listeners become their own A&R men. Selectivity and eclecticism are now, at least in theory, the musical order of the day. But also there’s something lost: a quality of shared aural experience and musical mutuality in a world where, as Pynchon writes, “everybody’s radios [are] lasing on the same couple of AM stations.’’

And if the radio’s not enough, just reach for another LP. “Like a record on a turntable,’’ a cop tells Doc, “all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be into a whole ’nother song.’’

Pynchon’s famously dark vision of the world as vast conspiracy - paranoia strikes deep? no, it rules - has a sunny corollary: The fell knittedness of conspiracy is mirrored in, and (sometimes) defeated by, the knittedness of human community. The clearest manifestation of that community in “Inherent Vice’’ is musical. Unlike the nation at large, which has just one anthem, this community has a whole bunch of them - heard on a car radio, coming out of a hi-fi system, being whistled on the sidewalk - and the best part? Most of them you can dance to.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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