The Sea of Memory and Forgetfulness: Inherent Vice and the Figurations of Fossil Capital

courbet the-beach-at-trouville-at-low-tide-1865-1 (1)
Gustave Courbet, The Beach at Trouville at Low Tide (1865). 

Inherent Vice (2009) is a novel which, despite the overriding nostalgia of its setting and the hardboiled trappings of its plot, is decidedly contemporary in its dual preoccupations with globalised capital and environmental destruction. The Golden Fang, the mysterious organisation which occupies the centre of the novel’s mysteries, appears as a figuration of global networks of exchange, influence, and domination. The specifically trans-Pacific operations of the Golden Fang recall Pynchon’s early preoccupation with the sublimity of the ocean in V. and The Crying of Lot 49, but whereas those novels saw the Pacific and the Mediterranean as sites of pre-human nature, in Inherent Vice the sea is a space of transit for the forces of empire and a territory ensnared in global capital.

Throughout the novel, this global dimension is repeatedly posed against the hippie myths of Lemuria and Atlantis, which are said to have been destroyed for their transgressions against nature, and specifically for their use of fossil fuels to gain dominion over the earth. Through these myths, Pynchon expands the spatial dimensions of the novel into the deep temporalities of history, to ask not only how the global structure of capital manifests within the limited perspectives of individuals such as his protagonist, but also what fate awaits a world wracked by ruthless extraction and financial accumulation. With reference to Andreas Malm’s concept of ‘fossil capital,’ this paper aims to show the necessary link between Pynchon’s figurations of global capitalism and ecological disaster, which are entwined and expressed in the novel’s recurrent conspiratorial themes of international exchange, financial speculation, and imperial expansion.

I. The Golden Fang

To recap the novel’s plot, Inherent Vice follows Larry “Doc” Sportello, private investigator and washed-up hippie, circa 1970, after he is tasked by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth with locating her missing boyfriend, the real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann. Hazily and indirectly, Doc is drawn into the machinations of LA’s underworld, from the Black Guerrilla Family and the Aryan Brotherhood prison gangs to the trails of money left by Wolfmann, from the housing developments on Channel View Estates to the cultish Chryskylodon alysum, a trail which stretches all the way to the secret collaborations of big business, organised crime, and the LAPD in drug running, assassination, and the silencing of witnesses. As things develop, Doc discovers that thanks to the influence of Shasta, Wolfmann had undergone a change of heart, electing to spend his fortune building a city out in the Californian desert where all the souls he had previously dispossessed may live freely. The name of the settlement was to be Arrepentimiento: “Sorry about that.”[1] Naturally this couldn’t come to pass, and an Aryan Brotherhood hit on one Wolfmann’s bodyguards served as the pretext to abduct and imprison the tycoon in his own asylum, where Doc finds him relearning his old habits of greed and avarice.

At the centre of the novel’s plot stands a mysterious figure; one of Pynchon’s infamous proper names without a clear referent, that stands alongside V. and Tristero as a cypher for some larger inexpressible presence within the minutiae of his plot. The name of this figure is the Golden Fang, which is firstly present in the narrative as a boat, secondly as an international criminal organisation apparently centred around the operations of said boat, and additionally as an oddly shaped building, a method of execution, and as Wolfmann’s own asylum (the name Chryskylodon being Greek for “gold tooth”).

The various instantiations of the Golden Fang relate to one another by slippages of metonymy and metaphor, as the name shifts from a proper noun into a description of one object or another, all of which are golden fangs in some sense, and all unified in their connection and reference to one another. It is unclear which is the original Golden Fang to which the others refer, although the most substantial of the series is the boat, described early in the novel as “a big schooner” involved in secret shipments in and out of the country.[2] Of all the objects that share its name, this Golden Fang is the only one given a detailed history, which gives some indication of the nexus of meanings that cross through it and the other Golden Fangs.   

The schooner named Golden Fang began its journey under another name, Preserved, after its survival of the massive nitroglycerin explosion in Halifax Harbour in 1917. Doc is informed that it began its voyage as a fishing vessel and achieved some fame in the 1920s and ‘30s as a racing boat, before it was outmoded by diesel-powered competitors in the 1940s. No longer viable for either fishing or races, Preserved was bought by blacklisted actor Burke Stodger in his escape from the country (incidentally, this same Burke Stodger will return much later in the novel as an undercover “countersubversive” informant).[3] Then, somewhere on its journey from L.A. to French Polynesia, the boat mysteriously vanished, only to reappear, “as if by occult forces, relocated to the other side of the planet,” off the coast of Cuba, “refitted stem to stern, including the removal of any traces of soul. […] The owners are listed as a consortium in the Bahamas, and she’s been renamed the Golden Fang.”[4] For the following two decades, the Golden Fang would make its way around the globe, never far from the clandestine operations of American intelligence agencies:

“At the time of her reappearance in the Caribbean, for example, she was on some spy mission against Fidel Castro, who by that point was active up in the mountains of Cuba. Later, under the name of Golden Fang, she was to prove of use to anti-Communist projects in Guatemala, West Africa, Indonesia, and other places whose names were blanked out. She often took on as cargo abducted local ‘troublemakers,’ who were never seen again. The phrase ‘deep interrogation’ kept coming up. She ran CIA heroin from the Golden Triangle. She monitored radio traffic off unfriendly coastlines and forwarded it to agencies in Washington, D.C. She brought weapons in to anti-Communist guerrillas, including those at the ill-fated Bay of Pigs.”[5]

At the surface level of the text, the tale of the Golden Fang brings together many of the central themes of Pynchon’s novel as a whole and its retrospection on the lost utopian moment of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The government suppression of counterculture, the collaboration of intelligence agencies with organised crime, and the bloody stain of America’s global anti-communist crusade all figure prominently in the long history of the Golden Fang, and all return as general preoccupations of Pynchon’s portrait of the world circa 1970.   

With these associations of global capitalist exchange, accumulation, and expansion in mind, the Golden Fang has been read as a figuration of capital in the era of globalisation. James Liner, for instance, suggests that “the Golden Fang stands as a figuration for the capitalist corporation” specifically, in the way it “seems to register anxiety about both the swift severity of its corrections to economic heterodoxy […] and the ubiquity of corporate capitalism in postmodernity, its interpenetration of spaces, both social and geographical, formerly relatively autonomous from the workings of capital.”[6] In this reading Liner draws on the commentaries of Doug Haynes and Celia Wallhead, who identify in the tale of the Golden Fang a historical anxiety in its function as an interstitial figure between the era of Fordism and its neoliberal successor, and as a proleptic moment in Pynchon’s writing, calling ahead to the end of the twentieth century and the present economic situation of the novel’s publication.[7] 

Indeed, Pynchon’s choice of a seafaring vessel for Inherent Vice’s central mystery coheres with this reading of the novel as an attempt at representing the changing space of the capitalist world economy. The Golden Fang’s sudden transportations between the Pacific and the Atlantic reflects the changing focus of American imperial interests, as the boat moves from the newly regained Pacific theatre after the Second World War, to the suppression of communist movements in the Caribbean and Gulf of Guinea, and finally back to the Pacific where it serves as a relay to Southeast Asia, trading narcotics and munitions back and forth against the backdrop of America’s military incursion into the region. As Haynes notes, the Golden Fang organisation’s status as an Indochinese heroin cartel and its association with orientalist tropes mark the ambiguity of its status as a vertically-integrated corporation functioning at least partly in concert with American political interests.[8] What at first appears as a corrupt, third-world alternative to American corporate capitalism is revealed as a pivotal component of that same system, perhaps reflecting what Mark Tseng-Putterman has identified as the fears of a growing communist presence in Asia, the rhetoric of which masks the virtually uncontested hegemony of America’s “transpacific empire.”[9] 

The identity between the Golden Fang organisation and its American counterparts, and indeed their mutual implication in one another and global capital as a whole, brings to the fore the common geographic space that that they inhabit—namely the Pacific Rim—and the networks of investment and exchange that tie the opposite sides of the ocean together. As a boat, the Golden Fang charts this spiderweb of capitalist relations, linking emerging and established capitalist economies; as a cartel, the Golden Fang figures the transpacific scope of multinational capitalist organisations in general, and the growing difficulty of adequately picturing these sprawling networks of supply chains, production chains, value chains, and so on. What comes out of this apparent limit to the direct representation of global capital is the figural role of the Golden Fang and the Pacific Ocean as the agent and the scene, respectively, for Pynchon’s late capitalist tale.[10]

Pynchon IV 4El Segundo oil refinery seen from Manhattan Beach, in the trailer for Inherent Vice

II. Fossil Capital from Lemuria to L.A.

Having examined the Golden Fang as a figure of globalised capitalism, let us now turn to the Pacific as the scene of capital’s last act. Crucially, the Pacific does not appear in Inherent Vice as an inviolable, natural space, but as a zone occupied, traversed, and indeed produced by humanity. When not out in Los Angeles following a lead, Doc resides in the fictional town of Gordita Beach, ostensibly modelled on the real-life Manhattan Beach in the South Bay. Visible from the beach, beyond the surf and sand, looms the El Segundo oil refinery on the one side and ocean tankers on the other: 

“Even when the wind here cooperated, Gordita was still like living on a houseboat anchored in a tar pit. Everything smelled like crude. Oil spilled from tankers washed up on the beach, black, thick, gooey. Anybody who walked on the beach got it on the bottoms of their feet.”[11]

Details such as these are brief but telling. The sticky mundanity of crude oil on the sole of the foot aptly serves as a metaphor for the pervasive yet easily forgotten presence of the fossil fuel economy in the background of Pynchon’s narrative. As much as the novel is an exercise in retrospection on the turning point from the 1960s to the ‘70s, it must not be forgotten that all the nostalgic scenes of Gordita and hippie freedom also include the stink of oil lingering somewhere just within consciousness. With the oil-slicked ocean and its swarms of tankers always just in view, it becomes apparent that capital is not the only pervasive yet unrepresentable totality at work in Pynchon’s narrative, as it is accompanied by a view of nature gradually altered by the fossil fuel economy. However, far from presenting competing backgrounds to Pynchon’s narrative, the figuration of global capital in the form of the Golden Fang converges with the figuration of the fossil economy in the space of the high seas, and so we must alter our definitions and introduce, alongside globalised capital, fossil capital specifically.    

As it is defined by Andreas Malm, fossil capital denotes the peculiar fusion of the capitalist mode of production with the technologies of fossil fuel extraction and combustion. It is not simply the dependence of one of these elements upon the other, such as a capitalist economy reliant on cheap energy inputs or a fossil fuel industry that requires the global markets of capitalism to function. Rather, fossil capital is the mutual implication of its two parts in one another, such that it is, in Malm’s words:

“[A] self-expanding value passing through the metamorphosis of fossil fuels into CO2. It is a triangular relation between capital, labour and a certain segment of extra-human nature, in which the exploitation of labour by capital is impelled by the consumption of this particular accessory. But fossil capital is also a process. It is an endless flow of successive valorisations of value, at every stage claiming a larger body of fossil energy to burn.”[12]  

Under the conditions of fossil capital this mutual implication is not only incidental, as it may have been in prior modes of production for which the burning of fossil fuels was one energy source among many, but is necessary to the capitalist system as a whole. As Malm puts it, “only in fossil capital is self-sustaining growth in general welded to the combustion of fossil fuels.[13] Such a conception of fossil capital lends itself well to the analysis of the structural changes to capitalism in the twentieth century, and the material conditions of the globalisation of capital that serves as the backdrop to Pynchon’s novel. As Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás argue, the shipping boom of the mid-twentieth century must be understood in the context of cheap oil, which was itself both the fuel and the cargo for the world’s growing fleet of tankers.[14]

Just as global capital is figured in Pynchon’s novel by the mysterious history of the Golden Fang, fossil capital is given its own figurative narrative in the form of a mythic history of the earth. As Doc’s friend and spiritual guide Sortilège tells it, the depths of the Pacific Ocean hold the secrets of the lost continent of Lemuria, the fate of which is a mirror of our own civilisation’s coming fall:

“‘They’re destroying the planet,’ she [Sortilège] agreed. ‘The good news is that like any living creature, Earth has an immune system too, and sooner or later she’s going to start rejecting agents of disease like the oil industry. And hopefully before we end up like Atlantis and Lemuria.’ It was the belief of her teacher Vehi Fairfield that both empires had sunk into the sea because Earth couldn’t accept the levels of toxicity they’d reached.”[15]

This tale is expanded in the pages after Sortilège’s telling, when an intoxicated Doc experiences a vision that functions all at once as a figuration of his personal situation, the state of California, and of the capitalist world as a whole. In the course of his hallucination, Doc finds himself “in the vividly lit ruin of an ancient city that was, and also wasn’t, everyday Greater L.A.,” inhabited by people he recognises as his neighbours from the beach, who “were and were not refugees from the disaster which had submerged Lemuria thousands of years ago.”[16] The vision opens from there into a vast historical narrative of the United States, caught between the oceans of Atlantis and Lemuria, trapped within the terms of their ancient rivalry and “imagining itself to be fighting in Southeast Asia out of free will but in fact repeating a karmic loop as old as the geography of those oceans.”[17]  

Although communicated in the form of a myth, the tale of Atlantis and Lemuria extends throughout the novel and serves, to borrow a term from Elizabeth DeLoughrey, as an allegory for the Anthropocene; that is, as a multivalent tale caught up in the task of figuring the totality of environmental change on a global scale.[18] Indeed, an allegorical reading of this passage is almost demanded by the way it presents overlapping scales, frames of reference, and thematic codes, shifting from the everyday to the mystical, from the local to the global, and from the political to the mythical.[19] What this allegorical mode confronts, therefore, are the multiple registers of environmental disaster on a global scale, which, in Pynchon’s hands, becomes representable by way of the mediation of a mythic double of today’s world.

Far from displacing the culpability for climate change onto some mythic, primordial past, the references to Lemuria scattered throughout Inherent Vice serve as indictments and warnings for the present state of America’s global capitalist hegemony. The mythic framework of the narrative allows the long history of capitalist expropriation to become legible in its transposition from the present onto the past: the fate of Lemuria is also the fate of America, because the model for this Lemurian civilisation is, anachronistically, the American one. While the Golden Fang maps the expansion of capitalist economic relations throughout the world in the details of its global journeys, the Lemurian theme adds to that narrative an environmental dimension, allegorising the material preconditions of global capitalist expansion via the voracious and unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels—and, Pynchon suggests, the conditions of capitalism’s demise in a world destroyed by its endless thirst.

III. Finance and Forgetting

Despite its mythic simplicity, the allegorical relation between Lemuria and America presents no straightforward moral lesson. Certainly, there is the foreboding sense that an end is coming, but this prophecy of disaster is only a matter of course: the doom of a continent has happened before, many times over, so its repetition is no surprise. As Sortilège’s tale darkly suggests, it is only a matter of the earth doing away with an irritation and setting itself back on the path to equilibrium. More pertinent to Pynchon’s tale are the ways by which Americans avoid their doom, perpetually delaying the inevitable, or at least putting it out of mind. Late in the novel, on his way to settle the last of the karmic debts accrued on his journey, Doc’s thoughts drift from the clouds of smog smothering the city to the matter of historical memory:

“He thought about Sortilège’s sunken continent, returning, surfacing this way in the lost heart of L.A., and wondered who’d notice it if it did. People in this town saw only what they’d all agreed to see, they believed what was on the tube or in the morning papers half of them read while they were driving to work on the freeway, and it was all their dream about being wised up, about the truth setting them free. What good would Lemuria do them? Especially when it turned out to be a place they’d been exiled from too long ago to remember.”[20] 

The moral of the tale is lost because its moment of recognition has been missed, for even the latter day Lemurians of America are unable to remember a fate to which they have already succumbed. What good can Lemuria do for its forgetful inheritors? To answer this question, the novel’s themes of time and memory must be brought into focus.

In the context of Pynchon’s body of work, passages such as these are reminiscent of earlier comments on time and the deferral of atonement for historic crimes, such as the remarks made in Mason & Dixon, when Mason reflects on the sight of a colonial massacre ground: “In Time, these People are able to forget ev’rything. […] In America, as I apprehend, Time is the true River that runs ‘round Hell.”[21] In both novels, time is the medium for forgetting as much as it is for memory, allowing those borne in its currents to sink from redemption into melancholy.[22] As Doc’s lawyer Sauncho Smilax eulogises to the Golden Fang:

“There is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable […] May we trust that this blessed ship is bound for some better shore, some undrowned Lemuria, risen and redeemed, where the American fate, mercifully, failed to transpire…”[23] 

Here the sea of time is both a site of memory and forgetfulness, of the past borne afloat on its waves or else smothered in its depths. In this doubleness of the ocean, the roles of Lemuria and America are strangely reversed. The fate of America is counterposed to a hypothetically saved Lemuria, such that the latter’s mythical doom is transposed onto the former. In this manner, Sauncho’s eulogy reverses the temporal order of Sortilège’s tale, making the inevitability of the present moment the model for a preventable past.[24] Unlike the “inviolate” Pacific of The Crying of Lot 49, which resides beyond the interference of historical acts and human hands, the sea of time in Inherent Vice (and its estuary river of time in Mason & Dixon) is all too polluted with the global designs of empire and industry.[25] As much as the Pacific is the site of the fulness of time in the form of a redeemed, undrowned Lemuria, it is just as much the site of the misappropriation of that promise in the spread of American fossil capital across the sea.

The nexus of temporal metaphors that Pynchon develops around the Golden Fang, Lemuria, and the Pacific Ocean leads back to the central problematic of representing capital in one key respect: mixing his metaphors, Pynchon describes time not only as the redemptive sea, but also as a currency. In the voice of Puck Beaverton, one of Mickey Wolfmann’s former bodyguards now in the employ of Adrian Prussia, the LAPD’s covert killer-for-hire and implied domestic gladio operative, we are told that “what people were buying, when they paid interest, was time,” and for enforcers like Beaverton and Prussia the only way to deal with the noncompliant was “to take their own personal time away from them again, a currency much more precious, up to and including the time they had left to live. Severe injury was more than just pain, it was taking away their time.”[26] Whereas for the counter-cultural voices of Pynchon’s novel—for those in contact with the redeeming time of a Lemurian age—time is the medium upon which memory is borne aloft, for the “countersubversive” characters time is simply another form of money, if not the one true form of money that retains its value when all other currencies have exhausted their usefulness.

Naturally, the notion of time as a form of money could not be further from Sauncho’s image of the sea of time. The analogy between time and the ocean brings with it a whole host of apocalyptic imagery; apocalyptic in both the senses of catastrophe and revelation, gesturing toward an antediluvian era condemned for its exploitation of the earth and toward a Lemuria saved in memory as the lesson that America has yet to learn. The equation of time with money, however, is presented as the defusal of this revelation, and the perpetuation of an America that cannot admit to its place in the world.[27]  

Finance recurs throughout the novel as the means by which Americans forget themselves and dissolve the truth of their history. A few examples stand out in particular: early in the novel there is Tariq Khalil’s account of the redevelopment of black neighbourhoods to transform spaces occupied by living communities into speculative investments—in Tariq’s words, “the long sad history of L.A. land use;” there is the minor plot regarding financial warfare in Vietnam involving the mass printing of fraudulent notes emblazoned with Nixon’s face, and the blowback when a shipment of this “funnymoney” winds up back in California; during Doc’s excursion to Las Vegas he discovers an experiment by the casinos to produce their own private currencies, backed by nothing but speculation, and of no use to anyone except the gambler; and most memorable of all is the tragic scene of a Marxist economist on a visit from the Soviet Union to Las Vegas, where he encounters an impossible city, constructed from thin air by the illusion of wealth, and desperately cries out:

“It sits out here in middle of desert, produces no tangible goods, money flows in, money flows out, nothing is produced. This place should not, according to theory, even exist, let alone prosper as it does. I feel my whole life has been based on illusory premises. I have lost reality. Can you tell me, please, where is reality?”[28]  

Money appears here not only as the universal equivalent that dissolves all qualitative difference into exchangeable quantitative values, nor only as the enchantment of Mammon that proliferates illusions in the place of reality, but also as the mechanism by which people are separated from and made to forget the world they have left behind. For these people, Lemuria will not suffice to save them; the sea of time cannot be drained, but it can be forgotten, as new forms of time—the time of capital, the time of money—cut short the historical consciousness that would allow them to see and recognise the shapes that bubble just below the surface. 

IV. “Into the blue again, after the money’s gone”

Although Pynchon’s narrative largely operates by way of figuration, metaphor, and mythopoeisis, there are at least two moments when the novel borders on polemic, when Pynchon’s characters declare in boast and in reverie what seems to be the core message of the book, if ever there was one. One of these moments comes in the novel’s denouement, when Doc meets with one of Wolfmann’s upper-crust associates to clean up loose ends and is told the truth of the situation: “It’s about being in place. […] We’ve been in place forever. Look around. Real estate, water rights, oil, cheap labor—all of that’s ours, it’s always been ours. […] We will never run out of you people. The supply is inexhaustible.”[29] Same as it ever was, the edifice of capital is built on the dual exploitation of labour and land.[30] Settled in place, the rich are made richer not by the self-moving powers of capital but by their access to a world that presents ever new opportunities for expropriation, and ever wealthier reservoirs of value when the last have been sucked dry.

But every day the ocean rises, and the repetition of Lemuria’s fate grows ever closer. Even in this dreamworld of America the current of time flows toward the future; a future of atonement or a future of judgement, it remains to be seen. Much earlier in the novel, Doc recalls a happy memory with Shasta, and his mind drifts into an apocalyptic daydream, in which all the thematic elements of the novel are summoned to envisage the long-awaited day of judgment and renewal:   

“The rain beat down on the car roof, lightning and thunder from time to time interrupting thoughts of the old namesake river that had once run through this town, long canalized and tapped dry, and crippled into a public and anonymous confession of the deadly sin of greed… He imagined it filling again, up to its concrete rim, and then over, all the water that had not been allowed to flow here for all these years now in unrelenting return, soon beginning to occupy the arroyos and cover the flats, all the swimming pools in the backyards filling up and overflowing and flooding the lots and streets, all this karmic waterscape connecting together, as the rain went on falling and the land vanished, into a sizable inland sea that would presently become an extension of the Pacific.”[31] 

Golden Fang, Lemuria, the Pacific, time, money: these figures and themes work in concert throughout Inherent Vice to give legible form to the unrepresentable totality of a globalised fossil capital that haunts the gaps in Pynchon’s narrative. To this end, these themes overlap and invert in contact with one another, allowing the evaluation of each to shift as its narrative role changes. The Golden Fang is at once a figure of capitalist-imperialist dominion and a sign of the innocence lost (or un-Preserved, to recall the boat’s original name) to that system; Lemuria functions both as the damned precursor to America’s global hegemony, and as the utopian world that is preserved in memory and may one day re-emerge to redeem its cursed progeny; the Pacific, likewise, appears as the reservoir of historical memory, the forgotten depths of a history disavowed, and as the avenging force of history itself that will wash away the falsity of this world. 

Pynchon IV 1


[1] Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (London: Vintage, 2010), 48.

[2] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 87.

[3] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 308. My thanks to Paul Razzell at Inherent Vice Diagrammed for helping keep these threads together:

[4] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 93.

[5] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 95.

[6] James Liner, “Utopia and Debt in Postmodernity; or, Time Management in Inherent Vice,” Orbit: A Journal of American Literature 4, no. 1 (2016): 30-1.

[7] Liner, “Utopia and Debt,” 31. See also: Doug Haynes, “Under the Beach, the Paving-Stones! The Fate of Fordism in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 55, no. 1 (2014): 1-16; and Celia Wallhead, “The Unavoidable Flaws in Hippiedom and Fascism in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice,” in Thomas Pynchon and the (De)vices of Global (Post)modernity, ed. Zofia Kolbuszewska (Lublin: Wydanictwo KUL, 2012), 69-86.

[8] Haynes, “Under the Beach,” 4-6.

[9] Mark Tseng-Putterman, “China and the American Lake,” Monthly Review 73, no. 3 (July-August 2021): 90.

[10] On the Pacific as the contemporary site of capital investment, as the United States enters its financial phase of capitalism hegemony and seeks out new sources of accumulation in Asia, see Giovanni Arrighi’s  “Postscript to the Second Edition” in The Long Twenieth Century (London: Verso, 2010); and Adam Smith in Beijing (London: Verso, 2007). As we’ll see in section III, finance appears in Pynchon’s novel is a marker of unreality, while the real heart of capital lies somewhere over the sea—if not in the interstitial space of the ocean itself.

[11] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 104.

[12] Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital (London: Verso, 2016), 290.

[13] Malm, Fossil Capital, 292.

[14] Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás, Capitalism and the Sea (London: Verso, 2021), 244-5. Similarly, Timothy Mitchell has identified in the transition from domestically-sourced coal to internationally-imported oil a fundamental shift in the conditions of bargaining over labour in the United States and Europe, effectively removing questions of national energy security from the negotiating table with trade unions and in part paving the way for the demise of Fordism and the rise of neoliberalism. See: Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy (London: Verso, 2011), 38.

[15] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 105.

[16] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 108.

[17] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 109.

[18] Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Allegories of the Anthropocene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 12-7.

[19] That is, the allegorical reading allows for the coexistence of the multiple interpretative modes, traditionally identified as the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical meanings of a text. See: Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (London: Routledge, 1983), 14-7.

[20] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 315.

[21] Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (London: Vintage, 1998), 346.

[22] On this topic of time and forgetting in Mason and Dixon, see my earlier paper “Outside of Time: Sloth and Melancholy in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon” (

[23] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 341.

[24] This is, following the Hegelian and Freudian line of thought, the function of retroactivity in general: the past is changeable in memory, while the present is subject to a fate that cannot be known until it too has passed. 

[25] Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (London: Vintage, 1996), 37.

[26] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 320.

[27] Liner, “Utopia and Debt,” 27: “As such, fog pertains not only to the thematic field of visibility (day as light) but also to that of temporality (day as time), where it joins the commodification of time in the guise of interest as capitalism’s two crucial ideological uses of time and temporality. However, capitalism does not have a monopoly on time. As well as an object of capitalist exchange and the postmodern waning of historicity, time is also a site of contestation and radical struggle.”

[28] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 17; 117; 240; 232.

[29] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 347.

[30] Karl Marx, Capital Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), 637-8.

[31] Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 166.

1 thought on “The Sea of Memory and Forgetfulness: Inherent Vice and the Figurations of Fossil Capital”

  1. […] The first work of fiction I read this year was Maggie Seibert’s short horror collection Bonding, which not only delivers shocks, but grasps the unsettling, ugly feelings that pervade the everyday of social alienation and dead-end labour—an everyday which is not merely disrupted but enlivened by the grotesque. I read volumes 6 and 7 of Kentaro Miura’s Berserk Deluxe Edition, which span up to the end of the Conviction arc and include some of the most stunning and horrifying of Miura’s artwork yet. I also re-read Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, my first Pynchon re-read since finishing my thesis. A deceptively straightforward (by Pynchon’s standards) hardboiled tale harbouring preoccupations with land theft, deep state machinations, and the rumbling of sunken continents—you can read my paper on it here. […]


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