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 …
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