Near its end the novel defines inherent vice as, “what you can’t avoid, stuff marine policies don’t like to cover. Usually applies to cargo¾like eggs break¾but sometimes it’s also the vessel carrying it. Like why bilges have to be pumped out.” As I understand it, then, inherent vice refers to that which is inevitable: the bilge pump gets rid of water that inexorably enters the ship and that must be pumped out in order to keep the boat from sinking! The water is going to come in and so the bilge pump has to pump it out! Louis Menand in his review of Pynchon’s novel refers as well to the novel’s definition of inherent vice. Menand says that “The title is a term in maritime law (a specialty of one of the minor characters). It refers to the quality of things that makes them difficult to insure: if you have eggs in your cargo, a normal policy will not cover their breaking.” Inherent vice in this case refers to the quality of things and experience to break and fall apart. Of course, insurance companies prefer to bet on less risk and so in the above case the insurance company will not cover eggs not breaking as they are transported on sea (or even on land?) from place to place.
But Wikipedia adds something interesting to me to this definition. They write that the phrase ‘inherent vice’ refers to a “hidden defect (or the very nature) of a physical object that causes it to deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of its components. In the legal sense, inherent vice may make an item an unacceptable risk to a carrier or insurer. If the characteristic or defect is not visible, and if the carrier or the insurer has not been warned of it, neither of them may be liable for any claim arising solely out of the inherent vice." What a perfect metaphor for existence: in its basic structure contains an inherent flaw, an instability that leads to the eventual diminishment of the whole. (I remember an early experience with Pynchon and this idea in his short story “Entropy”). And wasn’t the Sixties, 1970 is the year in which the book is set, a perfect exemplar of this phenomenon of inherent vice; wasn’t the Tate murder and the Manson gang (to which the novel makes repeated reference) emblematic of society’s hidden defect or the very structural vulnerability of society in general. For Pynchon that defect is revealed in part by the Manson murders; for me the events at Altamont come immediately to mind. But in the novel there exist numerous ‘flaws’ that reflect the instability of the social order that would lead to its collapse: the police, the racial and social tensions, the war in Vietnam. I do not doubt that the front pages of our newspapers today regularly reflect on the inherent vice of societies and the resultant deterioration of order and civility.
Inherent Vice is at least partly about the end of the Sixties: “[A]nd here was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, all be lost, taken back into darkness . . . how a certain hand might reach out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good” (255). I loved the idea of the 1960s. I was there, even though Wavy Gravy suggested that if I remember the 60s then I wasn’t! But I was. And Inherent Vice suggests to me what might have happened by someone who I believe found value in that brief interval. This blog piece is not meant to be a paean to that era. But the book immersed me in the sense of the times and I felt in good company again. Like Doc at the book’s end, I wait hopefully, “For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time. somehow, to be there instead.”