Let’s begin by dealing with the Inevitable Dumb Question. This is, as everybody is supposed to have heard, the first novel in 17 years by the Howard Hughes of American letters, the elusive Thomas Pynchon, whose last novel, “Gravity’s Rainbow,” is thought by many (including your reviewer) to be the most stunning American fiction of at least this century. For those who like occult resemblances (and Pynchon certainly does), 17 years also is the interval between Joyce’s “Ulysses” (1922) and his “Finnegans Wake” (1939). So, as I said, arises the IDQ: Is “Vineland” as great as “Gravity’s Rainbow”?
The answer, of course, is that if you can really ask something like that, you are probably also the sort who tries to decide which of Fred Astaire’s numbers are better than which others.
“Vineland” is, quite simply, one of those books that will make the world-- our world, our daily chemical-preservative, plastic-wrapped bread--a little more tolerable, a little more human. Kafka says somewhere that the books we need are the books that are ice axes to break up the frozen sea within ourselves; and Pynchon, here as he always has, makes the cut.
Like Astaire, and like two of his other spiritual comrades, Thelonious Monk and Walt Whitman, Pynchon has grown by remaining the same. The voice--absolutely unmistakable and absolutely inimitable--has not changed since “V” (1963) and “The Crying of Lot 49" (1966). By very fast turns vulgar, stand-up comic, elegiac, bright-kid silly (do you know what a “fecoventilatory collision” might be?), plangent, and heartbreakingly, theologically serious, it is a complex and perfectly articulated instrument. It is--OK, I’ll say it-- the American voice of the late 20th Century, the seismograph and the horoscope--amid a debasing popular culture, a manic technology, and a progressively sclerotic politics--of our search for--what? Well, you know, for salvation.
This isn’t to say that Pynchon is both a political and a religious writer as much as to say that, at his level of giftedness, those two terms either work together or don’t work at all. He has, from the beginning, had One Big Story to tell, a story that--like Faulkner, like Joyce--he keeps repeating, fine-tuning, and (lucky for us) rediscovering. It is the Story of the Unwilling Cyborg. A character, quite by accident, discovers that he/she is a victim, may even a central target, of a massive conspiracy--called, in “V,” “The Plot Which Has No Name"--which involves the whole baroque tapestry of modern history and whose final goal is the economically desirable obliteration of free will from Planet Earth. And having made this discovery, the Pynchon hero spends the rest of the book exploring the intricacies of the omnivorous Plot and seeking a way out of its forking paths, a way back home.
How simplistic, how paranoid, you might say: how very ‘60s. The Establishment as the Big Bad Wolf versus the Free Spirit as Goldilocks (though this time around maybe without the divine intervention of the Kindly Woodsman). And yes, it is a kind of fairy tale (Pynchon’s own allegorical bent virtually forces you to write about his concepts using Capital Letters), and yes, it is simple. But it is also a brilliant reexamination of what has remained, from Jefferson and Emerson through Williams S. Burroughs and Norman Mailer, the only real American theme: the proposition that if, with these principles and this continent, we cannot bring about a truly kind and gentle community (not the wimpish, “kinder, gentler” thing)--then we are, of all men, the most to be pitied.
Hence the title. “Vineland” is a mythic town in far northern California, where the book’s frenetic action begins and ends. But it is also, of course, Vinland--as in the Norse Vinland saga. It is the aboriginally discovered New World, the great good place as it was before Columbus and Ferdinand and their inheritors Jay Gould and Donald Trump converted it into a shopping mall. Part of “Vineland’s” astonishing power, by the way, is that while Pynchon never stoops to make these connections, they become, by the halfway mark, unavoidable.
It begins “Later than usual one summer morning in 1984,” a date that, thanks to George Orwell, is now virtually a metaphor for phony-benevolent totalitarianism and also the year of Ronald Reagan’s second election to the presidency. Zoyd Wheeler (if you’re new to Pynchon, don’t worry about the weird names, he just likes doing this)--Zoyd Wheeler, a former ’60’s doper and rock musician living in Vineland with his teen-age daughter, Prairie, discovers that his federally stipended position as a certified mental defective (he crashes, once a year for the TV cameras, through a Vineland store window) is being canceled. He concludes that he is being hunted down by Brock Vond, a federal drug prosecutor who is also the lover of his ex-wife Frenesi, and who is pathologically obsessed with destroying or possessing--to some males it’s the same thing--Prairie.
So Zoyd leaves his house, Prairie takes off with her musician boyfriend for a Mafia wedding gig in Southern California, and they--and we--embark upon a search for Prairie’s lost and faithless mother. Really--or “rilly,” as his characters, Californian to the last chromosome, say--we are embarked upon another exploration of the Plot Which Has No Name, but this time brought all the way home, this time without the comforting historical filter of Pynchon’s earlier books, this time about this time, that is, about the moral necrosis that began with Nixon and culminated with Reagan and his successor.
It is truly scary to think about how many ways this novel could have gone wrong. Another Let’s-Trash-California book? Another Gee,-Wasn’t-Woodstock-Great book? Those we don’t need. “Vineland,” miraculously, we do. Pynchon has a reputation, thanks mainly to people calling themselves professors of English, for being difficult to read. Not so: If you can’t follow a Pynchon story, I’d say, then you’d best stay from any films made after, like, 1917, and very far from writers like Raymond Chandler.
As the story develops, it becomes Prairie’s search for her mother, and for her mother’s past, which is also yours and mine. A revolutionary and the child of revolutionaries, Frenesi had, in the early ‘70s, been seduced by Vond, anti-drug czar and master manipulator, had become sexually addicted to his aura of power and control, and--after a brief escape into marriage and motherhood--returned to his orbit. And Vond, enraged like the ogre in any fairy tale at the discovery of the existence of Prairie, has vowed to banish her and her father, Zoyd, from his kingdom (read: U.S.A.), to the community of lowers, the left-over keepers of faith with what America was once all about: in a word, to Vineland.
As Pynchon might say himself--dig this. Fourteen-year-old Prairie, trying to understand and rediscover her faithless mom, is also Reaganized America, the generation raised on the sacraments of MTV and Nintendo, trying, maybe, to understand and maybe, even-- wouldn’t it be nice?--to forgive the students who marched on the Pentagon for growing up to be the parents who, God help us all, drive Volvos. Nothing, in all of Pynchon’s fiction, is crueler than his insistence, in “Vineland,” that Frenesi wanted to be seduced by the abominable, the authoritarian Brock Vond. Pynchon’s point here is exactly that “the Movement"--remember when we all called it that?--was dead at the starting-gate, and was dead just because, secretly, it lusted after the same glittering prizes, the same gold cards, that the Establishment held. Socialism may not be shared poverty, but neither is true revolution simply reversed dominance.
Oh, yes--how does it all turn out? Well, you see, this is a sort of fairy tale, so of course everybody--including a lot of groovy people I haven’t even told you about--winds up back in Vineland, and Vond is punished, and Prairie and Zoyd and Frenesi get together again . . . sort of.
And that’s the point, too. No one writing now understands better than does Thomas Pynchon the potential for waste and disaster lurking in the corporate heart of America. And no one, I believe, hopes more hopelessly for The Happy Ending, the right end to the fable, where the generations embrace and the land blossoms. So that the last paragraph of “Vineland"--I really can’t describe it for you--makes the whole of it either the saddest or the most optimistic story I know. If no one else in our centers of power, then at least this one strange and lovely man continues to keep faith with the noisy and disruptive and underground idea of the republic.
And the morning the UPS man delivered my review copy of “Vineland” was the morning George Bush announced his invasion, for the most drug-free and ethically hygienic reasons, of Panama.