The Thomas Pynchon Countdown: Vineland
It's hard to believe Against the Day comes out in a week. It's almost--almost--like a day I thought might not get here at all. And for what it's worth, this Thomas Pynchon countdown has me appreciating its approach even more...because I'm becomming nostalgic for these books...even though I've probably read them all over again in the past year I have the urge to start them again...go back...not so much to see what I missed but to re-immerse myself in their individual little worlds.
And nowhere is that desire more evident than with Vineland.
If you would ever, for any reason, like to illustrate the concept of "unappreciated Pynchon," this is the book you should hold up to the crowd. Vineland has been scorned (utterly unfairly) over the years by Pynchon fans who just can't get over their initial impression of the book...which was that its very appearance on shelves was an insult.
This needs some explaining, but not much. Vineland was first published in 1990. Can you remember all the way back to last week when I reported on Gravity's Rainbow (Vineland's predecessor)? If you can, you'll recall that that groundbreaking novel, which itself probably drew more fans to Pynchon than any other, was published in 1973.
That means the huge influx of Pynchonites waited seventeen years for the master himself to send another message down from the mountain...and Vineland, to them, was more like waiting seventeen years for a wad of rolled up toilet paper.
It was, flatly, an insult. Vineland was short. It was simple. It was, for the most part, traditionally plotted and structured. It was--God help us!--easy to understand. But the biggest crime Pynchon committed by writing Vineland was that it wasn't entirely doomsday cynical. He left his readers with a ray of hope.
And in 1990, after seventeen long years of waiting, this was not what his readers wanted. It is this first impression that has really kept Vineland in the shadows, which is a shame, because it may likely be my second favorite of Pynchon's books, and its homey, relatively-safe atmosphere may be an obvious contrast to his other, more imposing books...but I think it's an excellent break from form, and it also proves that Pynchon has more than one trick up his sleeve. This is a different kind of book than Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, but it's not of a different quality.
Vineland is a good gateway book for non-fans. This is one that you really can just pick up and enjoy for what it is...perhaps even moreso than The Crying of Lot 49, which will leave a few non-fans scratching their heads...Vineland is longer, but simpler. It's complex, but in a simplified way...almost the way Kurt Vonnegut's novels (his great ones, anyway) are complex beyond explanation while they convey their big ideas with language a grade-school child could understand.
The novel opens in 1984, that famous year of George Orwell's, and in many ways Vineland is a reaction to Orwell's vision. Or, to be a little more accurate, it's a reaction to where we stand in relation to Orwell's vision. But that's a topic for a term paper, and not for this essay, so let's get to the plot.
W-waitaminute there, Mister Reed. Did you say plot?
Oh yes. This novel has a definite plot. And a beginning. A middle. And an end. Maybe now you see why those high-fallutin' Pynchon fans were so upset in 1990...
Zoyd Wheeler is a sort of meandering misfit, isolated from the 1960s, the only decade in which he really felt at home. He is unemployed, officially, though he does odd-jobs and collects checks from the government so long as he can prove himself mentally unsound...a feat he achieves early in the novel by leaping through a plate-glass window in a dress.
This, essentially, is Zoyd's life. He's reeling from the loss of his decade and the loss of his wife, and when this window-jumping routine began it was an act of genuine desperatation...but now it's all show...the glass is made of sugar, the sound-effects dubbed in by news editors later in the day...it's entertainment. Because this is 1984, where Orwell's Telescreens are in full and constant use...only we call it television.
Zoyd's plot continues for a few chapters, but only a few, because Vineland's story-telling mechanism is a unique one...once a character gets talking about something that happens in the past, the reader is actually taken there. And if another character with that past starts talking about his or her own past, why, we go there as well, and further and further and further back, futher down the vine, maybe?, until the last point is made in the story furthest back and we get to climb up again and resolve the stories one by one, layer by layer, in the reverse order in which we encountered them the first time, all the way back up to the surface.
Is it confusing? Not in the slightest. It's disorienting, because it's Vineland's strategy and not a more general strategy, but once you get used to it, the layering is actually phenomenally rendered, and it's something you begin to look forward to.
By and large the embedded stories are vivid, and a lot of fun. Vineland is probably Pynchon's most laugh-out-loud book, which is down entirely to just how much joy he must have had in composing it. He lets himself run off on tangents, isn't afraid of taking five or six pages to set up a pun, and most of all isn't afraid of allowing his characters moments of happiness.
The main plot is two-fold. Prairie, Zoyd's daughter, is on a metaphorical quest to understand who her mother was as a person, and why she left. On the other end there is Brock Vond, a federal agent who is also after Prairie's mother for his own reasons.
Brock Vond is the first time Pynchon allows evil to have a face. Normally he allows his characters a great deal of paranoia, but never (never) allows them the chance to confront any symbol of their own oppression. He gave us Ned Pointsman in Gravity's Rainbow, but it was very clear that Pointsman was no more in control than any of the characters he oppressed himself.
With Vond, however, we have direct access, a perfect view of who, exactly, is doing the oppressing. Without a doubt this contributed to the backlash against the novel, but he's a well-rendered character, and I don't see anything wrong with Pynchon, for once, allowing himself to toy with the idea of having a face for the dark side after all.
Vineland seems unimposing enough, but through the course of the book you're going to encounter robots, ninjas, assassination attempts, organized crime, police brutality, an amusement park of violence, UFOs, the Vietnam war and a settlement of people known as Thanatoids who are somewhere between living and dead...the Thanatoids are one of Pynchon's greatest mysteries, and they lend a real unsettling air to the book...it's tough not to want to give more away, but of all the things there are to discover in Vineland, the Thanatoids are one of the richest and most rewarding, if only for their inherent mysteriousness.
Oh, and did I mention that Godzilla turns up at one point to stomp a Japanese microchip corporation into the ground? Cuz that's great, too.
There's also a scene in which Hector Zuniga, another federal agent who spends decades trying to "turn" Zoyd into a snitch, confronts Zoyd in prison...and their exchange, that simple page and a half or so, ellicits from Hector one of the most human moments Pynchon has ever allowed a character. It's a short breath of mercy...and it's absolutely heartbreaking in its sincerity. That scene alone would have to be at the top of my list of Greatest Pynchon Moments...
Remove the stigma of seventeen years of build-up for what turned out to be a non-threatening work and you have a work of silent beauty by an American master. When you head to the shops on November 21 to pick up a Pynchon book (as I'm sure you all will) I'd have to put Vineland high on your list. It's brilliant, it's charming, and it's remarkably funny.
Austin Ross, a friend of mine and yours, started reading this lately, and he said he saw it working excellently as a Terry Gilliam film. I had never thought about that, but I had to agree, and if that's not a good enough recommendation, I don't know what is.