The further I ventured into Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Vineland, the more pressingly I found myself wondering: For whom is this intended? What sort of sensibility would, on turning page 200, say, of this nearly four-hundred-page book, find itself cheerfully hoping to be introduced to yet another character who boasts both a funny name and a taste for folksy facetiousness? For this is what, like as not, one will get at any given juncture. (On page 200, incidentally, one reads about Zipi Pisk, Frenesi, Darryl Louise Chastain, and Krishna.) Pynchon introduces by name a cast of well over a hundred, including Scott Oof, Moonpie, Isaiah Two Four, Willis Chunko, Morning, Chef Ti Bruce, 187, Meathook, Cleveland (“Blood”) Bonnifoy, Baba Havabananda, Ortho Bob Dulang, Dr. Elasmo, Chickeeta, and Sid Liftoff. Needless to say, the result can be confusing, and prospective readers might find useful my eventual realization that the names of pets and cars (for cars, too, are christened) tend to be less outlandish—marginally—than those of the people associated with them. Hence, “Bruno” will be the car and “Rex Snuvvle” its owner, “Desmond” the dog and “Prairie” its master, and so forth.
Lest all of these details sound disastrously coy and cloying, I hasten to note that Vineland—although it tries one’s patience at nearly every turn—is far from a disaster. It is manifestly the work of a man of quick intelligence and quirky invention. Many of its episodes flicker with an appealingly far-flung humor. And Pynchon displays throughout Vineland what might be called an internal loyalty: he keeps the faith with the generally feckless and almost invariably inarticulate misfits he assembles, tracking their looping thoughts and indecisive actions with a patience that seems grounded in affection. He is true to his creation until the finish; the book’s closing pages strike a moving note of sweet inconclusion, of curiosity grading not into enlightenment but into wonder. Nonetheless, such virtues having been tallied, one must note that in view of our expectations the book is a disappointment.
One’s sense of letdown derives in part from a condition extrinsic to the book itself: seventeen years have elapsed since Pynchon last released a novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, and hopes naturally run high, perhaps unreasonably so. But in the end Vineland falters in a convincing variety of ways—perhaps chiefly through its failure in any significant degree to extend or improve upon what the author has done before. In its style and diction, in its satirical targets, in the techniques of its plot unfoldings and outreachings toward illumination—in practically everything—Vineland marks a return to what was weakest in his patchy novella, The Crying of Lot 49, published in 1966. But whereas the earlier book offers the virtue of compression—and, with it, the thrill of watching, at the book’s denouement, as the pent-up becomes the pell-mell—Vineland is a loosely packed grab bag of a book. And there is no pleasure in Vineland to compare with the one great delight of Lot 49—its madman-in-a-library’s hunger for arcana, as the century-long development of the postal service is pursued with a diligence worthy of a superhuman mailman.
Vineland opens to opening eyes—those of Zoyd Wheeler, a largely unemployed, pot-smoking, fortyish Californian who wakes up one morning in the summer of 1984 to the realization that he must perform “something publicly crazy,” preferably before a television camera, if he is to protect his “mental-disability” stipend. He resolves to secure his money, as in years past, by leaping through an enormous plateglass window, a scene to be rendered visually all the more striking by his first having got himself up as a woman.
Although he passes through the window unscathed, Zoyd is, we gradually discern, a wounded man. He has never recovered from the disappearance, many years before, of his wife, Frenesi, who abandoned him for a federal prosecutor named Brock Vond. When the reader meets up with Frenesi, he discovers that she, like Zoyd, is on the public payroll, though not in any humorous, harmless way. A student revolutionary in the Sixties, she has since become an FBI, informer and lackey, shuttling from place to place at the behest of her increasingly ruthless and indifferent employers.
Zoyd and Frenesi have a teen-aged daughter, Prairie, who lives with her father and dreams of being reunited with her mother, whom she has not seen since she was a little girl. Her quest is, in fact, one of the book’s main themes, for at one point or another most of the principal characters seem to be on the trail of a missing woman. Another theme is the centrality in our culture of television, which is generally referred to as the Tube (capital “T”) and which inspires meditations on Tubal abuse and Tubaldetox and Tubeflicker. Whatever the disparities in their outlooks, Pynchon’s characters are united in having television serve as their communal well of learning, from which they draw their humor, morality, locutions, analogies. No one reads; everybody watches; and what binds us, soul to soul, is Wheel of Fortune, The Flintstones, Phil Donahue, Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Mod Squad, and (a special favorite) Gilligan’s Island.
At the book’s heart—the one theme without which Vineland wouldn’t be Vineland—is political paranoia. The novel asks us to entertain the notion that, beginning with Nixon and culminating with Reagan, our government came to regard its subclass of easy-doping layabouts—its Zoyd Wheelers—as meriting not merely contempt but brutal repression and, perhaps, extermination. Deep in the hills of northern California, in the imaginary county of Vineland from which the book draws its title, a military installation has gone up for the evident purpose of sowing domestic terror.
The book’s title recalls, of course, the Norse adventure sagas and the North American expeditions they chronicled, but little is made of this connection. A tighter literary link is fixed when Pynchon evokes the white man’s discovery of Californian Vineland:
Someday this would be all part of a Eureka–Crescent City–Vineland megalopolis, but for now the primary sea coast, forest, riverbanks and bay were still not much different from what early visitors in Spanish and Russian ships had seen.
Hovering in the background here, needless to say, is Nick Carraway and his celebrated lament at the close of The Great Gatsby:
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world.
Pynchon’s passage rings a dirgelike note of corroboration. Out there at the New World’s newest New World—the coast of California—one catches an echo of hopes mislaid, a continent betrayed.
But to set the two books side by side is unavoidably to highlight one of Vineland‘s gravest deficiencies: the absence in it of natural beauty. Certainly it contains nothing even remotely as lovely as Nick’s passage by train through a Midwestern snowfall:
When we pulled out into the night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air.
Compare a kindred moment in Vineland:
Zoyd must have dozed off. He woke to rain coming down in sheets, the smell of redwood trees in the rain through the open bus windows, tunnels of unbelievably tall straight red trees whose tops could not be seen pressing in to either side.
At various points in Vineland (beginning with the marvelous photograph on its dust jacket, which depicts a hill of evergreens savagely reduced to clipped and smoking rubble) Pynchon asks us to ponder the rape and poisoning of our environment, but how are we to summon any deep consternation when Nature in these pages engages us so thinly? Pynchon characteristically renders natural detail in a tone of pop flippancy—a “golden pregnant lollapalooza of a moon,” a “sun just set into otherworld transparencies of yellow and ultraviolet, and other neon-sign colors coming on below across the boundless twilit high plain,” a “squadron of blue-jays stomping around on the roof.”
In 1982, not long before he died, John Cheever published a short book, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, that likewise treats issues of paranoia and environmental vandalism within a tale of antic folly and reversal. But one of the many lessons offered by that fine, valedictory novel was that contemporary fiction of a comic, even slapstick kind has ample room for the humbling grandeurs and outsize poetry of the natural order. When Cheever informs us that quaint Beasley’s Pond, on which the book’s New England hero likes to skate, has been poisoned by unscrupulous businessmen, the reader feels heartsick, for Cheever’s is a world where “a traverse of potable water” can represent “the bridge that spans the mysterious abyss between our spiritual and our carnal selves.” In Vineland, one could witness the dynamiting of the entire state of California, redwoods and all, and remain unaffected.
What one longs to meet in Vineland, and never does meet, is some moment when Zoyd or one of his buddies would find the stars overhead cutting so deeply into his psyche, or the waves before him breaking with so plaintive a collapse of voices, or the ground underfoot releasing so tangy a mixture of surge and decay that all wisecracks die aborning in the throat. One longs for a sweeping crack of thunder. The rain-whetted smell of toadstools. The shifting flank of a startled deer.
A feeling for the natural world may be welcome in a satirical novel, but it is hardly essential—as is demonstrated by Evelyn Waugh, who in a masterwork like A Handful of Dust can hurl the reader into the feverish Amazon jungle without ever evoking much of its infernal beauty. What is essential, however, is freshness; even if the targets that one aims at are in tatters, the darts that one tosses at them must be sharp. When Pynchon takes on laid-back California (“The little portable sign read OPEN KARMOLOGY CLINIC, WALK RIGHT IN, NO APPT. NECESSARY”) or out-doorsy chic (“He wore sunglasses with stylish frames, a Turnbull & Asser shirt in some pastel plaid, three-figure-price-tag jeans by Mme. Grés, and après-logging shoes of a subdued, but incontestably blue, shade”) or a Mafia thug (an “oversize gorilla”) or militant feminism (” ‘It was sleazy, slippery man,’ Rochelle continued, ‘who invented good and evil, where before women had been content to just be” ‘) or made-for-television movies (“Pee-wee Herman in The Robert Musil Story“) all we can give him is a weary smile. This humor has no bite; we’ve heard it all before.
He’s even less successful when he bundles off one of his heroines to Tokyo, where she is sold into white slavery by a bunch of inscrutable technocrats. Lord knows that modern Japan is ripe for satire, and perhaps in time, as the Japanese bury us economically, we may abandon our solicitous but condescending notion that they—unlike the British, the French, the Soviets—are not hardy enough to withstand our chiding. But even if one applauds Pynchon’s recognition that to lampoon the Japanese is not necessarily “Japan-bashing,” what he actually presents here is not merely bathetic and inane but (“Girl, you have never seen picky till you’ve been in one of these Jap meat shows”) ugly and offensive.