Reimagining the Noir Detective in Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge
When Michum Huehls states in his review of Bleeding Edge that “there is not a major Pynchon and a minor Pynchon, a literary Pynchon and a genre-fiction Pynchon” and that “there’s not an early, postmodern Pynchon and a later, postpostmodern Pynchon” but instead “just Pynchon, standing astride the past fifty years of U.S. fiction” (862–63), he captures at the macro level what I hope to illustrate here at the micro: that Pynchon’s two most recent novels, though “genre fiction” in the sense that they draw on the long tradition of noir detective stories, depart substantially from that genre and work to refine the same issues and themes Pynchon has addressed throughout his career. In this way, we can see noir as a substantive part of both texts rather than as simply an example of pastiche or spoof or a kind of wrangling device for an otherwise unruly plot.1 In particular, I argue that Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge feature a reworking of noir’s central figure—the hard-boiled detective—and that in this reassessment of the noir detective, Pynchon presents a challenge to the rigid, confining masculinity on which the genre rests.
Presenting Doc Sportello and Maxine Tarnow as significant revisions to the hard-boiled identity requires first some agreement on—or at least clarification of—the basic elements of that identity. In his analysis of “the nation’s most self-consciously masculine fiction” (2), Leonard Cassuto calls Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade “the classic exemplar of the hard-boiled attitude” (152), noting that “Sam Spade is famously self interested” and “sexually adventurous, even sleeping with his own partner’s wife,” and that he “trusts no one fully, and most people not at all” (153). “The detectives of the originary generation of hard-boiled fiction” are, furthermore, “isolated” and “laconic” and characterized by “emotional austerity” (154, 98).2 According to Sean McCann in Gumshoe America, “The heroes of the hard-boiled genre are notoriously far from communally minded” (45); “they are agents with ends in mind, and they pursue those ends by setting out to deceive, beguile, manipulate, and confuse other people,” all while maintaining “chaste, professional autonomy” (112, 117). Stephen F. Soitos describes the hard-boiled detective as “fatalistic, violent, and chauvinistic toward women” and as “a man of the streets, a professional” who speaks and acts “with American vernacular crudeness” (8–9).
To interpret the gendered elements of these broad qualities, I look to Christopher Breu’s Hard-Boiled Masculinities, which draws on a range of texts from the pulp magazines of the 1920s to the works of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Chester Himes, among others, to argue that noir fiction was “one of the dominant ways in which masculinity was fantasized in the interwar years” (1). According to Breu, the affectless and violent hard-boiled protagonist at the heart of noir is best viewed as a “resolutely negative cultural fantasy,” created in response to fears surrounding corporate capitalism, race, and the growth of the female workforce. The masculinity embodied in the noir detective is then both “a social and a literary phenomenon, one that theorizes the subjective and the socioeconomical with equal attentiveness” (24).3 In Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge, Pynchon takes up these same concerns, using the noir form to comment on the connections between gendered “cultural fantasy” and the socioeconomic conditions of contemporary American culture. In both texts, this critique comes by way of manipulations of generic conventions, specifically through changes to the hard-boiled persona and to the detective’s relationships. Pynchon’s reassessment of these noir elements ultimately broadens the genre’s narrow notion of toughness and provides much needed interiority and agency to female characters.
This is not to say that noir tropes are always used to advance some larger commentary or that Pynchon always makes significant changes to these tropes. Like Scott Macleod, I want to suggest that “Pynchon’s narrative strategies […] strike a delicate balance between instilling readerly familiarity while introducing elements of genre subversion” (117). Noir’s secondary plot structures, gritty settings, and laconic narrative voice make appearances in both Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge.4 And while Pynchon ultimately privileges what I call the “over easy” over the “hard boiled” in his detectives, both Doc and Maxine do retain a number of hard-boiled qualities: both characters work primarily alone in a position outside the official police system; they get caught up in the messy muddle of their cases; they work primarily on instinct—though in typically comedic Pynchonian fashion, instead of relying on the gut for these instincts, Doc experiences “Doper’s ESP” (215), something called “extrasensory chops” (129), a runny nose (202), and “dick feelings” (313), while Maxine’s instincts are dependent on her “antennae” (146), an ability to “scan for spiritual malware” (72), and the “gotta go alarm” of her bladder (84).
The humor with which Pynchon approaches changes to the hard boiled is worth noting; over the course of Inherent Vice, Doc Sportello’s ability to simultaneously be and not be hard boiled is unmistakably funny, and I think we can read this comedy as one way in which Pynchon challenges the masculinist fantasy surrounding the traditional noir detective persona. Doc’s character is a play on the iconic hard-boiled gumshoe, whose “masculinity is embodied as both a physical quantity, one that can be measured in terms of active performance and embodied hardness, and a controlling, affectless personality” (Breu 68).5
From early in the novel, it is clear that Doc is frequently in less than total control of his functions. When he is confronted by Bigfoot Bjornsen outside Channel View Estates after being knocked out by an unknown assailant, the narrator tells us, “Doc went through the wearisome chore of getting vertical again, followed by details to be worked out such as remaining that way, trying to walk, so forth” (23). And it is only very rarely that Doc can be said to physically embody “hardness” or “active performance”—for example, “[i]t took only a step or two” of following Xandra into Dr. Blatnoyd’s office at Golden Fang Enterprises “for him to dig that she’d logged more dojo hours in the year previous than he’d spent in front of the tube in his whole life” (168). Nor does it take long for the reader to realize that any “affectless” quality Doc possesses is likely a result of his near continuous enjoyment of recreational drugs. In refusing Doc these standard hard-boiled traits, Pynchon is having fun with a typically controlled, famously efficacious character. Making light of the genre’s primary indicators of masculine toughness undermines their importance; it takes noir’s male detective decisively out of the space of cultural fantasy and pushes him into the tenuous, fragile realities of everyday human life.
Pynchon’s interest in playing with the gendered fantasies of noir is particularly visible in Doc’s interactions with Shasta, who is immediately recognizable as a variation on the classic femme fatale character. However, contra Eleanor Gold’s observation that “Shasta Fay is not a regular femme fatale” (305), I want to suggest that Shasta is in many ways the regular femme fatale and that Pynchon’s choosing to figure her as such allows him to highlight the theme of cultural loss that runs through a substantial part of the novel as a whole. It is not until the end of the novel that she departs from type; for the most part, Pynchon uses key features of the standard (blatantly misogynistic) hard-boiled detective/femme fatale relationship to produce a cultural critique that is itself an extension of the kind frequently seen in traditional noir.
Doc and Shasta’s relationship mirrors that of the traditional detective and femme fatale’s in that it is primarily characterized by ambivalence—a constant tension between attraction and rejection; further, “the ambivalence evident in the hard-boiled male’s contradictory desires simultaneously to possess and repudiate the femme fatale suggests that his preoccupation with her is structured by melancholia” (Breu 71). It is exactly this kind of melancholic nostalgia that animates Doc’s initial interaction with Shasta: the contrast between the past and the present is consistently at the forefront of Doc’s descriptions of her. He tells us, “Back when, she could go weeks without anything more complicated than a pout. Now she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on him that he couldn’t read at all” (3). In Doc’s view, the Shasta of the past is simple, almost childlike in her readability; the Shasta of present, by contrast, is unknowable. Doc’s tendency to see Shasta through the lens of the past also structures the novel’s opening lines: “She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn’t seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look” (1). All of Shasta’s actions and choices here are filtered through comparison to the past, and his relaxed tone notwithstanding, Doc cannot conceal the note of anger that concludes his description; her appearance is a broken promise.
Familiarity with noir allows us to understand Doc’s reaction to Shasta in this scene as conveying more than personal heartbreak or disappointment in Shasta herself. Because the femme fatale is “the gendered figure through which the hard-boiled male narrates a larger sense of cultural loss and betrayal” (Breu 71), Shasta’s movement from the hippie innocence of sandals and beachwear to the “flatland gear” of short skirts and hair stands in for the end of an era. Doc projects his negative emotions about the changing world onto Shasta’s changed style; instead of seeing her as a person with agency and a will of her own, he turns her into a repository for the anger, sadness, and worry he feels about the demise of the counterculture—his suspicion that “this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control” (130). She is, to borrow Doug Haynes’s language, one way in which “Inherent Vice dramatizes the shift occurring over those years, as the nation, and the world, moves from Fordism to its neoliberal successor” (4). In a time when “the declining California freak scene looks fragile as the habitat of a Pacific island” and “Doc can see the window of dissent is closing” (Haynes 4, 14), Shasta’s femme fatale becomes the bearer of that lost innocence.6
Images of loss consolidate especially clearly around Shasta’s sexuality, particularly in regard to Mickey Wolfmann, which provides further evidence that, as femme fatale, she “allegorizes all the forms of connection—economic, national, sexual, or racial—that the hard-boiled male disavows” (Breu 69). When she details her submissive position in her relationship with Mickey, Shasta articulates all of the authoritarian elements of 1970s America that Doc wishes to renounce. She explains, “He was just so powerful. Sometimes he could almost make you feel invisible. Fast, brutal, not what you’d call a considerate lover, an animal, actually, but Sloane adored that about him, and Luz—you could tell, we all did. It’s so nice to be made to feel invisible that way sometimes … ,” adding, “He might as well have been bringing me in on a leash. He kept me in these little microminidresses, never allowed me to wear anything underneath, just offering me to whoever wanted to stare. Or grab. Or sometimes he’d fix me up with his friend. And I’d have to do whatever they wanted….” (305). Shasta paints a picture here of a sexual availability inspired not by the free love values of the hippie movement but by a kind of misogynistic, controlling coercion. In doing so, Shasta incites Doc’s desire by drawing on the exact feelings inspired by the iconic femme fatale—the fraught combination of desire and repudiation that stems from a larger sense of loss. Doc is seduced by a description of the kind of man he abhors, the antithesis of his values. And, again, Shasta is the primary figure of that betrayal.
The invocation of Charles Manson immediately preceding the seduction scene reinforces the connections Pynchon is making between gender, power, and loss, albeit this time from a slightly different angle. Mickey may be associated with the villainy of the economically powerful mainstream “flatland” world that Doc disavows, but Manson is the person Doc blames most explicitly for the breakdown of his most cherished values; Manson is the person who destroyed “a certain kind of innocence” and “fucked that up for everybody” (38). His ghostly appearance in this scene echoes those earlier sentiments. Though I agree with Simon Cook’s conclusion that “Charlie is not the libidinal energy behind the novel’s sexual narratives,” Manson’s presence is, I think, more than “just a totem of extremity and control and the source of the thematic materials which grounds them in this 1970” (1146). His presence in this scene underscores the idea of loss—both by association with Shasta and by recalling Doc’s earlier statements—and, in being tied together with Mickey, clarifies the role that “extremity and control” play in that loss. Manson might be said to work as a negative image of Mickey, the threat to cultural movements that comes not from the mainstream, but from within—another example of Doc’s fears that even innocent gatherings can be infiltrated by “ancient forces of greed and fear” (129).
Pynchon not only deploys the misogynistic elements of the detective/femme fatale relationship to dramatize cultural change and Doc’s most primal, fundamental feelings of loss but also ultimately radically revises the trope by presenting Shasta as having important insight regarding Doc’s own subconscious. Of all the myriad characters Doc interacts with over the course of the novel, Shasta has the clearest understanding of his psychology; Shasta identifies Doc’s sublimated fantasies of control and makes explicit the fears he projects onto her. During a conversation about her background with Coy Harlingen, Shasta tells Doc, “far as I can see, you and Coy, you’re peas in a pod. […] Both of you, cops who never wanted to be cops. […] You guys must’ve thought you’d be chasing criminals, and instead here you’re both working for them” (313–14). By calling out Doc’s cop identity, Shasta draws attention to his unwitting participation in the workings of the establishment, most clearly represented in the novel by Bigfoot Bjornsen. The savvy reader will recall the narrator’s earlier observation that “[t]ime was when Doc used to actually worry about turning into Bigfoot Bjornsen, ending up just one more diligent cop, going only where the leads pointed him, opaque to the light which seemed to be finding everybody else walking around in this regional dream of enlightenment” (207). Of course, Doc’s repressed worry about becoming Bigfoot goes beyond “ending up just one more diligent cop,” extending into the ways in which he has already been participating in the over-arching systems of authority and control that the hippie worldview attempts to resist.
In the typical hard-boiled model, the detective situates himself between the poles of criminal and member of the justice system but sublimates his similarity to the criminal element. Indeed, “the reading of the criminal as a projection of the unacceptable or disavowed parts of the detective’s personality is, of course, one of the central tenets of psychoanalytic accounts of the detective story” (Breu 80). In Inherent Vice, however—and really throughout Pynchon’s novels—the most dangerous criminals are not the “virtual children, driven by undisciplined desires and incapable of adapting themselves to the demands of a routinized world” frequently seen in traditional noir (McCann 126) but rather the representatives of that routinized world. Rob Wilson describes Pynchon’s career-long interrogation of privilege and power when he suggests that Pynchon “tracks this centuries-long battle for the soul of America between what he calls the non-flatland Preterite (surfers, dopers, fun seekers, rockers, hippie riffraff, drifters, seekers, Indians, the poor multitudes, restless homemakers in little bars) versus the ‘straight world’ Elect (land developers, bankers, tax-dodging dentists, big shots, police within police, loan sharks, or worse)” (217–18). Following this logic, the most threatening figures in the novel are not those operating outside of outwardly respectable professions and institutions but those working within them or with their approval—the “little private militia the LAPD uses whenever they don’t want to look bad in the papers” (195), Crocker Fenway and the Golden Fang operatives “cleverly disguised […] as a wholesome blond California family” (349). For Pynchon, then, the most dangerous kind of violence is obscured behind the veneer of respectability. In this world, it is not a kinship with the disruptive force of the outsider criminal that the detective must repress, but the authority of the elect—the mainstream, the powerful and enfranchized. Thus when Shasta identifies Doc’s repressed desire to wield the power of the elect, she forces him to reevaluate his most basic sense of self. The modification to noir that Pynchon makes by shifting the detective’s repressed identity functions as a critique of powerful social institutions, locating violence within the state apparatus in particular, while the change he makes by giving this insight to the femme fatale augments her autonomy and interiority, making sure that she is not simply a stand-in for the detective’s own anxieties.
Shasta’s narrative importance is reinforced by Doc’s response; instead of lashing out defensively or continuing to repress his fears, Doc immediately wonders, “Could that be true?” (314), and shortly thereafter, he realizes she’s right. Pynchon’s description of this moment calls attention to its significance: “Doc followed the prints of her bare feet already collapsing into rain and shadow, as if in a fool’s attempt to find his way back into a past that despite them both had gone on into the future it did. The surf, only now and then visible, was hammering at his spirit, knocking things loose, some to fall into the dark and be lost forever, some to edge into the fitful light of his attention whether he wanted to see them or not. Shasta had nailed it. Forget who—what was he working for anymore?” (314, emphasis in the original). Again, Doc references the past in relation to Shasta as he trails along after her on the beach, trying and failing to step into the footprints she leaves behind. This time, however, he sees the impossibility of recovery. Whether “he wanted to see them or not,” Shasta has made visible the parts of his life that have resisted analysis. In forcing Doc to confront his subconscious, Shasta simultaneously frees him from the grip of the past and herself from the role of femme fatale. When she explains him to himself, Shasta is no longer a reflection of Doc’s character; she is a character in her own right.
The final image of the novel may seem on its surface to revert back to traditional noir formula, in which the hard-boiled detective ultimately rejects the femme fatale, moving alone into the future; as Doc drives off alone on the fog-covered highway, imagining a “restless blonde in a Stingray” (369), he appears to uphold the “fantasies of autonomy and individualist opposition to the dominant order” that result from “the ritual repudiation of the femme fatale” (Breu 70).7 However, Pynchon does demonstrate positive movement on Doc’s part, past the sense of loss that he maps onto Shasta. Earlier in the novel, Doc confesses his ex-old-lady woes to Hope Harlingen, and she gently admonishes him, saying, “As one who’s been down that particular exit ramp […] you can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you’ve got to get back up onto the freeway again” (40). I want to suggest that the novel’s ending is, in part, a specific reference to Shasta—if cruising the boulevards of regret stands in for Doc’s attachment to Shasta (locating her firmly in the tradition of the femme fatale as a figure of melancholy and nostalgia), then moving finally onto the freeway suggests Doc’s movement beyond that limited vision of Shasta as a type rather than as a fully formed person.
Further, the novel’s closing scene hinges on an image of community—of people coming together in loose organization, “a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog”: “He was in a convoy of unknown size, each car keeping the one ahead in taillight range, like a caravan in a desert of perception, gathered awhile for safety in getting across a patch of blindness. It was one of the few things he’d ever seen anybody in this town, except hippies, do for free” (368). Even Doc’s fantasies at the end of the novel are explicitly of community. He thinks: “Maybe then it would stay this way for days, maybe he’d have to just keep driving, down past Long Beach, down through Orange County, and San Diego, and across a border where nobody could tell anymore in the fog who was Mexican, who was Anglo, who was anybody” (369). Doc may be alone, but he does not idealize autonomy. He no longer is subject to the specific fantasies of the hard boiled and imagines instead a kind of openness and assumes a more optimistic view of human connection and possibility. The movement from the closed system of regret and nostalgia to the more open network of the drivers on the freeway is indicative of a growth beyond the hard boiled and is suggestive of a mode of resistance—that in the face of larger systems of control, our best means of navigation is each other.
Ultimately, in Inherent Vice Pynchon undoes the noir genre in a way that allows him to use its critical powers while also breaking down some of its more problematic ideas about masculinity and sexuality. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Doc retains only traces of the hard-boiled persona within him, as he confronts his own fraught subconscious as projected onto Shasta, acknowledges fears of his own potential for sadism and the failure of the cultural ideals of the sixties, and turns toward a new openness to human connection. The end result is a different masculine subjectivity—one that is liminal and critical like that of the traditional noir detective but without the latter’s misogyny or anxiety.
In many ways, Bleeding Edge’s Maxine Tarnow is more recognizably hard boiled than Doc—she has the cynical, knowing tone of a person unsurprised by illegal or immoral behavior; Maxine runs “Tail ’em and Nail ’em” Fraud Investigations (4), observing that “[s]omedays it seems like every lowlife in town has Tail ’em and Nail ’em in their grease-stained Rolodex” (5). As a “defrocked” fraud investigator, she arguably inhabits an even more dubious space than Doc in between the criminal and the officer of the law, with her current status imparting a “halo of faded morality, a reliable readiness to step outside the law and share the trade secrets of auditors and tax men” (17). Indeed, the narrator tells us that “[s]ince going rogue, Maxine has acquired a number of software kits courtesy of certain less reputable clients” (172). And Maxine herself rejects the suggestion that she is a friend of the law when she tells a friend, “I’m not a cop lover Felix, that’s Nancy Drew, actually not too flattering a comparison; you need to work on that” (309). She has a hard-boiled love for the gritty environments of New York City as well as a facility with and enjoyment of firearms (51, 275, 473). Her estranged husband and sometimes lover, Horst, suggests that she sees herself in traditionally hard-boiled terms: “You always had me figured for some kind of idiot savant, you were the one with the street smarts, the wised-up practical one, and I was just some stiff with a gift, who didn’t deserve to be so lucky” (320). In terms of a general persona, Maxine fits the mold of the directed, capable, and no-nonsense detective. In giving a female protagonist these qualities, Pynchon is asserting that such qualities are not gender specific, breaking down the association between masculinity and physical efficacy and mental toughness.
At the same time, Maxine’s brand of self-aware fearlessness is frequently explicitly linked to gender in a way that suggests her experiences as a woman provide important context for her actions. Maxine pursues potentially dangerous leads, but not blindly. We get a sense of her daring during her exploration of Gabriel Ice’s “ill-gotten summer retreat” in Montauk, when a “shadowy, almost invisible door over in one corner” catches her attention, and she can’t resist looking further (191, 192): “But now as she steps through the door, the interesting question arises, Maxine, are you out of your fucking mind? For centuries they’ve been trying to indoctrinate girls with stories about Bluebeard’s Castle and here she is once more, ignoring all that sound advice. Somewhere ahead lies a confidential space, unaccounted for, resisting analysis, a fatality for wandering into which is what got her kicked out of the profession to begin with and will maybe someday get her dead” (192).
Certainly, in the conflict between her headstrong “fatality for wandering into” and the part of herself that questions her choices, Maxine demonstrates an emotional complexity that sets her apart from the traditional hard-boiled figure. But more interesting still is the satiric filtering of the moment through a folk tale that emphasizes the potentially fatal effects of feminine curiosity. For a female detective, pushing into unknown territory means more than a willingness to confront danger; it also means refusing to be indoctrinated by “centuries” of culture that relied on fear to keep women obedient. Remaining ignorant, “ignoring all that sound advice,” may well keep her alive, and Maxine is aware enough to recognize her own pattern of potentially destructive behavior, but she steps through the door regardless.
This fearlessness combined with an awareness of her gendered subject position becomes a useful detection strategy, which we see her deploy, for instance, during her brief foray into exotic dancing at the Joie de Beavre. Kitted out in “platform heels in neon aqua, plus matching sequined thong leotard and thigh-high stocking” (220), Maxine devises a plan “to improvise a MILF-night routine while scanning faces and hoping for a match with Eric’s license photo” (221). Maxine uses objectification to suit her own purposes, and Pynchon is careful to highlight her agency and awareness by again drawing on the traditionally sardonic tone associated with hard-boiled fiction: “Maxine’s never had what you’d call Big Tits, although the connoisseurs here don’t seem to mind as long as they’re Bare Tits. The one body part they won’t be staring at much is her eyes. This Male Gaze she’s been hearing about since high school is not about to intersect its female counterpart anytime soon” (221). Pynchon puts the hard boiled up against the feminist here in typically cheeky style; in simultaneously wielding both tough-guy talk and feminist theory, Maxine might even be said to embody both discourses. And, in the same punny vein, we see emphasis again on the ways in which Maxine’s dexterity—now both physical and psychological—is a fundamental part of her work as a detective.
Maxine is not without internal struggle, however. Much like Doc before her, Maxine’s subconscious concerns play out in connection with a romantic partner whom she finds simultaneously attractive and repellent. While he may not initially appear to fit the paradigm, I want to suggest that Nicholas Windust functions as Bleeding Edge’s version of the femme fatale. He does not saunter into Maxine’s office, pulling her into the vagaries of an urban underworld; Windust’s connection to the trope lies in the psychologic response he elicits from Maxine. The first indicator of Windust’s role is his immediate and peculiar effect on Maxine’s psyche; indeed, Pynchon continually comes back to the idea of Maxine’s subconscious in relation to Windust, first via dream sequences and later by emphasizing a gap in her ability to reflect on their relationship. After their brief initial meeting, Maxine dreams about Windust twice. In the first instance,
she has a vivid, all-but-lucid dream about him, in which they are not exactly fucking, but fucking around, definitely. The details ooze away as dawn light and the sounds of garbage trucks and jackhammers grow in the room, till she’s left with a single image unwilling to fade, this federal penis, fierce red, predatory, and Maxine alone its prey. She has sought to escape but not sincerely enough for the penis, which is wearing some strange headgear, possibly a Harvard football helmet. It can read her thoughts. “Look at me, Maxine, Don’t look away. Look at me.” A talking penis. That same jive-ass radio-announcer voice. (106)
And in the second dream, Maxine is caught up in “[a] somehow desperate flight by antiquated bus through jungles to escape a threat, a volcano possibly. At the same time, this is also a tour bus full of Upper West Side Anglos, and the tour director is Windust, lecturing in that wise-ass radio voice, something about the nature of volcanoes. The volcano behind the bus, which hasn’t gone away, grows more ominous” (170). Windust’s “jive-ass,” “wise-ass radio voice” is a telling through line between these separate dream world events; the exaggerated, performative quality of his voice points to an underlying inauthenticity or untrustworthiness that nags at Maxine’s subconscious. Reading the images of a “federal” phallus and an “ominous” volcano alongside Maxine’s explicit fear that she is “prey,” brings Windust together with governmental authority and imminent danger, and the Harvardian helmet serves as a maroon marker of the elect. Yet despite this predominantly negative imagery, the first dream is characterized as an “all-but-lucid” sexual fantasy. Just like the traditional femme fatale, Windust evokes a complex and multilayered psychological response in the detective.
Pynchon elaborates on Maxine’s dream logic by extending it into the waking world; consciously, Maxine does recognize Windust to be a primarily destructive force. She observes: “Windust does not after all seem to be FBI. Something worse, if possible. If there is a brother—or God forbid sisterhood of neoliberal terrorists, Windust has been in there from the jump” (108). It is her desire for Windust that remains so uninterrogated as to be almost unacknowledged. Their one brief sexual encounter is positively dripping with such ambivalence. The description preceding what Maxine ends up dismissively calling “a quickie” is overwhelmingly negative, suggestive of her dreamworld intimations of imminent danger: “desolate corridors, unswept and underlit,” lead her through a building where “walls glisten unhealthily in creepy yellows and grime-inflected greens, colors of medical waste … Open to all sorts of penetration” (258). Yet she finds herself responding to his advances despite herself, thinking, “Shouldn’t she be saying, ‘You know what, fuck yourself, you’ll have more fun,’ and walking out? No, instead, instant docility—she slides to her knees. Quickly, without further discussion, not that some bed would have been a better choice, she has joined months of unvacuumed debris on the rug, face on the floor, ass in the air, skirt pushed up” (259). She is unwittingly drawn to Windust even afterward, arguing with herself on the way home:
What, she is just able to mentally inquire of herself, was I, the fuck, thinking? And the worst, or does she mean the best, part of it is that even right now it will take very little, yes, all pivoting here on FDR’S silvery small cheekbone in fact, to lean forward, interrupt the call-in hatefest on the cabbie’s radio, and in a voice sure to be trembling ask to be brought back to the homicidal bagman in his dark savage squat, for more of the same. (260–61)
It is no coincidence that Maxine questions her behavior with Windust in the same language she uses when stepping into Gabriel Ice’s hidden room in Montauk—the syntactic directness of her earlier query “are you out of your fucking mind?” devolves now into the garbled, disassociative “What, she is just able to mentally inquire of herself, was I, the fuck, thinking?” Maxine’s powerful but ultimately ambivalent interest in Windust is thus unmistakably linked to her investigation of Ice’s corporate secrets. Just like Bluebeard’s Castle in the earlier scene, the decision to sleep with Windust is both a “confidential space, unaccounted for, resisting analysis” and indicative of a “fatality for wandering into” that “will maybe someday get her dead.” Maxine’s desire for Windust may then be best read as an example of her tendency toward self-destructive behavior, the urge to put herself in dangerous situations despite the potential consequences. In true noir form, desire for the femme fatale is once again rooted in repressed aspects of the detective’s subconscious and bound up with the detective’s most fervently disavowed forms of economic connection.
Windust is not, however, associated with the kind of nostalgia that typically surrounds the femme fatale, which suggests that his function in the text is not, like Shasta’s, to dramatize the detective’s sense of loss. Instead, Windust’s power over what Maxine sees as her better judgment, his association with the novel’s corporate villain, and perhaps most importantly, his position as an agent of “neoliberal terrorism” (108) allow us to read Windust as a stand-in for paternalistic systems as a whole. In this way, Pynchon has transformed the femme fatale from displaced projection to metonym. Where Shasta is (initially) the receptacle for Doc’s concerns about negative cultural change—her submission to Mickey and his ilk representative of a broader betrayal—Windust is himself an agent of that change. As such, he poses a direct threat in a way that Shasta does not—a fact that finds expression in Maxine’s dream imagery and in the description of Windust’s home. The fear and dread conjured in these scenes indicate that Maxine’s subconscious is not wrestling with a lost past but rather picking up on the present dangers of millennial New York—especially those associated with the violent and repressive power of the elect.8 Despite the differences in their construction as femme fatale figures, both Shasta and Windust help reveal the detective’s deepest, most uninterrogated fears. For Doc, it is becoming an agent of the law; for Maxine, it is becoming a victim.
Maxine may worry about the simultaneously seductive and destructive qualities of power, but these fears do not ultimately negatively affect her life as a whole or limit her connection to others. Where traditional hard-boiled detectives (and even, to a large degree, Doc) are “solitary figures in the romantic tradition of individual alienation from normal social roles like marriage, religion, and community” (Soitos 12), Maxine is comfortably positioned at the borders of these institutions. Or rather, she’s created her own priorities in regard to these traditional forms of social connection. The idea of family is central to Maxine, as she is close with and quite involved in the lives of both her parents and her sons. At the same time, she expresses no particular investment in the idea of traditional marriage, nor does she limit her caretaking to a nuclear family unit; Maxine is separated from, but still occasionally sexually involved with, her “sort of ex”- husband, Horst, and she opens her home to both Driscoll and Eric after they are displaced following the 9/11 terrorist attacks (114, 367). Similarly, Maxine’s Judaism is presented as a part of her personal identity, but apart from brief mentions—such as her explanation for why she abstains from pork and a reference to past seders at her parents’ house—it is rarely described as practice (103, 250). And while she isn’t as zealous when it comes to community action as, say, March Kelleher is, her participation in neighborhood Halloween celebrations, familiarity with local firefighters, and relationships with other parents at the Otto Kugelblitz School demonstrate her ties to the people around her in New York (365, 379, 2). Through these varied social connections, Pynchon suggests that the “hard-boiled” detective no longer need be male or particularly hardened.
Thus, where Doc’s detective practice prevents him from participating often in community-related activities and from regularly attending familial gatherings—Inherent Vice’s narrative describing only brief meetings and phone calls with friends and relatives, focusing instead on case-related activities—Maxine balances the capable, individual work of the hard-boiled detective with the successful maintenance of her position as a loving and involved parent. For instance, when she goes to investigate hashslingrz’s shady internet front, hwgaahwgh.com, Maxine quickly realizes that the visit is going to require a shift in demeanor: “As soon as she catches sight of it, her heart, if it does not sink exactly, at least cringes more tightly into the one-person submarine necessary for cruising the sinister and labyrinthine sewers of greed that run beneath all real-estate dealings in this town” (42). She is able to cruise sinister environments as an isolated individual while a few moments later “[t]oggling […] immediately into Anxious Mom mode” (48). Similarly, the “working-mom blues” may keep her from switching to Zimartinis with Driscoll as they discuss hashslingrz at Fabian’s Bit Bucket, but they do not, as we have seen, keep her from stripping “undercover” at the Joie de Beavre or “blasting away” at the Sensibility gun range (48, 220, 275). Maxine shifts as necessary between the hard-boiled mode and the maternal.
This “toggling” toward community and connection is perhaps Pynchon’s most crucial change to the persona of the traditional noir detective in that it renders the detective capable of upholding multiple identities. In contrast, “[t]he hard-boiled male, as relatively positive and stable site of reader identification, becomes celebrated for his rugged individualism and his opposition to all forms of collectivity, whether existing or imaginary. It is this epistemological limit that we encounter again and again in hard-boiled novels” (Breu 176). Maxine’s acceptance of and interest in collectivity erases this “epistemological limit,” but she still retains an autonomy that allows her to function independently in the world.
This new “stable site of reader identification” provides, then, a broader set of possibilities and ways of being in the world. Francisco Collado-Rodríguez points to the potentially ethical dimensions of this new hard-boiled figure in his analysis of the novel’s climactic scene: “It is when his protagonist comes back to meatspace to help March’s daughter that Pynchon suggests the way to overcome structural trauma and its trap of commodified victimization. Maxine’s resilient reaction at the time results from an ethical recognition of the human other, followed by an explicit confrontation with the face of evil” (239). It is, I would argue, the new hard-boiled detective we see in action here; it is Maxine’s particular combination of toughness and humanity that makes her capable of challenging evil in the world.
If Inherent Vice confronts, among other things, our collective repressed urge to control, Bleeding Edge counters with the ability to resist that urge. When Doc acknowledges the phantasmatic appeal of sadism and his own disavowed interest in exercising power over others, he begins a process of change that effectively frees his literary descendent from repeating the pattern. At the end of Inherent Vice, Doc fantasizes about the possibility of a new kind of autonomous community; at the end of Bleeding Edge, Maxine puts those values into action. Upon returning home after that frightening final confrontation with Gabriel Ice, Maxine readies herself for the routine of escorting her sons to school, ignoring the suggestion that they are fine on their own. Just as she moves to join them, however, she changes her mind: “But she waits in the door-way as they go on down the hall. Neither looks back. She can watch them into the elevator at least” (477). While Maxine certainly struggles with her own subconscious as it relates to vulnerability in the world, this closing scene serves as evidence that she realizes the vulnerable are not always prey—and that intimate relationships do not have to lead to paternalistic, controlling behavior. In supporting the autonomy of her children as they walk out alone into the rough ideological country of post-9/11 New York, Maxine creates space for the kind of fluid, independent yet connected community that Doc envisioned but did not see realized.
As Christopher Breu notes in his conclusion to Hard-Boiled Masculinities, “[T]he legacy of hard-boiled masculinity is still very much with us”: “The image of unemotive violent masculinity thus persists, suggesting that if we are to imagine real change in the material and discursive construction of gender in the United States and around the globe, we must imagine ways of producing phantasmatic change as well. [… ] [S]uch change is possible only by working through the very logic of popular fantasy itself, unmooring its productively critical and libidinally charged negativity from the forms of racial and gendered violence to which it has for too long been bound. Only by working through this logic can a subject’s affective relationship to his or her culture be altered” (188). It is this “working through the very logic of popular fantasy itself” that I think we see, broadly, in all of Pynchon’s work, but specifically regarding noir in the most recent novels, as taken together, they reformulate the gendered dynamics of the hard-boiled figure. Beyond their functions as variations on the hard boiled, Doc and Maxine embody a new kind of detective hero, one described by Bleeding Edge’s March Kelleher. In a post-9/11 blog entry, March describes her fears about a “new enemy, unnamable, locatable on no organization chart or budget line,” conceding that they may be “unbeatable” but offering this possibility: “What it may require is a dedicated cadre of warriors willing to sacrifice time, income, personal safety, a brother/sisterhood consecrated to an uncertain struggle that may extend over generations and, despite all, end in total defeat” (399). Doc and Maxine may not a “cadre of warriors” make, but given that they successfully break down the inherently gendered violence of the hard boiled to make such a group possible, there is no better embodiment of March’s imagined heroes than the cross-generational “brother/sisterhood” formed by Pynchon’s two over-easy detectives.
1. These kinds of descriptors have appeared primarily in reviews of the novels: Rob Sheffield declares, “A master of pastiche, Pynchon is working this time in the mode of the hard-boiled detective novel à la Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett” (38). Inherent Vice is dubbed “half detective story spoof, half bittersweet love letter to the sixties” (par. 1) and a “slightly spoofy take on hardboiled crime fiction” (par. 2) in reviews by Robert McLaughlin and Louis Menand, respectively. And of Bleeding Edge, Tim Martin suggests that “a kind of laconic murder mystery sustains the narrative for a while; but this, as ever, is only there to impart vague direction to the jazzy eddies of dreams, songs and jokey backchat through which Pynchon transmits a large part of his novels” (par. 5).
2. Cassuto’s larger argument covers more than this first generation of writers; he suggests, in fact, that the term “hard boiled” can really only be applied to the “originary generation of detectives” and that “postwar crimefighters become passionate and involved defenders of home and hearth” who are better understood as “sentimental action heroes.” According to Cassuto, “sentimental action heroes display their active and emotional commitment to the community. This departure from the emotional austerity of the earliest hard-boiled fiction attacks the disinterested profession ideal (which is represented in an almost perfunctory way compared to prewar hard-boiled fiction)” (98).
3. Breu’s Marxist, psychoanalytic approach provides a cohesive theory that most clearly elucidates the dynamics at work in Pynchon’s reassessment of the hard-boiled detective; for this reason, I draw on other accounts of noir for broad context but almost exclusively rely on Breu’s model to orient my close readings of the novels.
4. Stephen F. Soitos provides a comprehensive list of qualities that distinguish hard-boiled fiction from classical detective fiction in The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction. The common elements of the genre are an emphasis on “narration/language/character” as opposed to plot, a setting that is largely urban rather than a mix of urban and rural, the representation of murder as a “‘dirty’ muddle” rather than a “clean puzzle” and the perpetrator as a person who “acts as part of group or gang conspiracy” rather than alone, the pervasiveness of “physical violence in description and act” as opposed to “minimal” physical violence, a tendency to critique society “from below” rather than from above, and closure that is “often morally ambiguous” rather than black and white; common features of the hard-boiled detective are that he is “democratic/classless” rather than “aristocratic/upper-class,” a “paid professional/private eye” rather than an amateur, “inductive/instinctive” rather than “deductive/rational,” and “observer involved” rather than “observer detached” and that he relies on “gut reaction” and “coincidence” rather than “scientific investigation” and the “psychology of behavior” (13).
5. This reading departs slightly from Macleod’s, which places Doc within the cultural and historical progression of the genre: “Doc represents the counterculture descendant of the 1920s hard-boiled detective hero, which was originally created as an Americanized alternative to the popular ‘cozy’ English detective story” (129). While I agree with genre theorist Leonard Cassuto that, generally speaking, “the hard-boiled and the sentimental change with the times, and in response to shifting social and historical conditions” (2), I don’t see Doc as a natural development of this particular literary tradition so much as a playful experiment with some of its more confounding tropes.
6. Recognizing that Doc’s sense of Shasta is based on his public rather than private concerns clarifies the novel’s presentation of their dynamic. So while it is true that Doc is “wistfully nostalgic about his time with Shasta” (Cook 1157), this melancholic fascination is not evidence that the novel “succumbs to a pre-feminist sexual nostalgia trip” (Cook 1160) but rather a consistent rendering of the traditional relationship between the detective and the femme fatale. In connecting Shasta with the past, Pynchon does not indulge in nostalgia by way of Doc; instead, he emphasizes the significance of the cultural and economic shifts happening at the end of the 1960s.
7. The space for a possible reunion with Shasta is arguably left open in the novel. While the last time Doc sees her is at Skip’s apartment above the surf shop, Shasta is mentioned one more time—in a phone conversation between Doc and his mother, Elmina, who asks if he’s seen much of “that pretty Shasta Fay Hepworth” and suggests that he “could do worse.” Doc acknowledges that Shasta is living in the neighborhood again and does not entirely foreclose the possibility of reconciliation (352).
8. These fears are only exacerbated in the wake of 9/11, as we see after Maxine’s uncanny experience watching local children spontaneously age. Double-checking her surroundings, Maxine notes: “Cars were no more advanced in design, nothing beyond the usual police and military traffic was passing or hovering overhead, the low-rise holdouts hadn’t been replaced with anything taller, so it still had to be ‘the present,’ didn’t it? Something, then, must’ve happened to these kids. But next morning all was back to ‘normal.’ The kids as usual paying no attention to her. ‘What, then, the fuck, is going on?’” (336–37). Maxine’s horror here is rooted in a vision of a future dominated by the elect.
Breu, Christopher. Hard-Boiled Masculinities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Cassuto, Leonard. Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Collado-Rodríguez, Francisco. “Intratextuality, Trauma, and the Posthuman in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge.” Critique 57.3 (2016): 229–41.
Gold, Eleanor. “Beyond the Fog: Inherent Vice and Thomas Pynchon’s Noir Adjustment.” New Perspectives on Detective Fiction: Mystery Magnified. Ed. Casey A. Cothran and Mercy Cannon. New York: Routledge, 2016. 209–24.
Haynes, Doug. “Under the Beach, the Paving-Stones! The Fate of Fordism in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.” Critique 55.1 (2014): 1–16.
Huehls, Mitchum. “The Great Flattening.” Contemporary Literature 54.4 (2013): 861–71.
Macleod, Scott. “Playgrounds of Detection: The Californian Private Eye in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice.” Pynchon’s California. Ed. Scott McClintock and John Miller. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014. 113–34.
Martin, Tim. Review of Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon. Telegraph (UK), 14 Sept. 2013, www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/fictionreviews/10304078/Bleeding-Edge-by-Thomas-Pynchon-review.html. Accessed 17 Nov. 2017.
McCann, Sean. Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.
McLaughlin, Robert L. Review of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon. Review of Contemporary Fiction 29.3 (2009). www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1–214793689.html.
Menand, Louis. “Soft Boiled.” Review of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon. New Yorker, 3 Aug. 2009: 74–75, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/fictionreviews/10304078/Bleeding-Edge-by-Thomas-Pynchon-review.html. Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.
Pynchon, Thomas. Bleeding Edge. New York: Penguin Books, 2013.
———. Inherent Vice. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.
Sheffield, Rob. “The Bigger Lebowski.” Review of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon. Rolling Stone, 3 Aug. 2009: 38–39.
Soitos, Stephen F. The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.
Wilson, Rob. “On the Pacific Edge of Catastrophe; or, Redemption: California Dreaming in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.” Boundary 2 37.2 (2010): 217–25.