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.
In short, his aim is off. What could be a more rewarding adversary than television, provided you actually had something novel to say about the ways in which it alternately stupefies and imbrutes us? But what Pynchon offers has already been said better in Cheever, in Updike’s Rabbit novels, even in Kosinski’s Being There—and, daily, in the parodies that television unselfconsciously makes of itself. And with his icon of governmental coercion, Brock Vond, he creates somebody who, even by cartoon standards, looks insubstantial. Cartoons operate in two dimensions, anyway, whereas Vond is strictly one-dimensional. Trousers perpetually askew with the upthrust of his desire, he is a sort of ambulatory erection, who reduces poor Frenesi to a love slave:
Brock Vond had reentered the picture, at the head of a small motorcade of unmarked Buicks, forcing her over near Pico and Fairfax, ordering her up against her car, kicking apart her legs and frisking her himself, and before she knew it there they were in another motel room, after a while her visits to Sasha [her mother] dropped off and when she made them she came in reeking with Vond sweat, Vond semen—couldn’t Sasha smell what was going on?—and his erect penis had become the joystick with which, hurtling into the future, she would keep trying to steer among the hazards and obstacles….
As satire, Vineland, is a case not of “too little, too late,” but of too much, too late. Given the book’s length, there is simply not enough originality to sustain it. Most of it, particularly the sending-up of California, feels a little stale. One is left with a troubling image of an author supplying what he thinks his audience wants, based upon what it embraced in the past. Do his readers like to meet rock bands with unpalatable names like the Paranoids of The Crying of Lot 49? This time around he’ll give us Billy Barf and the Vomitones. Have we shown a liking for portentous aphorisms? Okay, then how about “Life is Vegas”? In the end, it’s hard to quell a suspicion that Pynchon is—either deliberately or through a sort of unguarded psychological seduction—playing down to his audience.
Although Vineland tilts at grand issues, the book is actually at its best in little, unforced moments in which Pynchon puts a spinning zap on his language:
Why, the man had me scared spitless.
They arrived at the mouth of an oversize freight elevator, scrambled inside, and began to plunge earpoppingly hellward.
Dangerous men with coarsened attitudes, especially toward death, were perched around lightly on designer barstools, sipping kiwi mimosas.
Pynchon’s style everywhere courts ungainliness. He pursues dissonance over euphony, roughness over smoothness, and, often, confusion over lucidity. For one thing, he adopts into his own expository prose some of the awkward contractions employed by his characters: “to’ve,” “might’ve,” etc. For another, his almost exclusive reliance on the comma, and his penchant for breaking phrases unidiomatically, leads to a prose of jumpy, tumbling disclosures:
He didn’t get to the Cuke quite in time to miss Ralph Wayvone, Jr., in a glossy green suit accented with sequins, who was cracking jokes into the mike to warm this crowd, who in Ralph’s opinion needed it, up.
Not long before this her period, a major obsession by then, had arrived at last, plus lately she, felt washed under by these long, sometimes daylong, waves of inattention, everybody looking at her weirdly, especially boys.
This is writing with a lot of clangor, a lot of racket, in it—as in these thumping repetitions of “out” and “out of”;
Somewhere down the hill hammers and saws were busy and country music was playing out of somebody’s truck radio. Zoyd was out of smokes. On the table in the kitchen, next to the Count Chocula box, which turned out to be empty, he found a note from Prairie.
This sort of discordancy can hardly be attributed to oversight, since it is drawn from the novel’s first page and since each succeeding page turns up similar effects. No, Pynchon deliberately hits the ear harshly; reading him is like listening to a song on the radio with the volume cranked up to the point where, now and then, static crackles.
Among contemporary writers Pynchon is, of course, hardly unique in cultivating disharmony. J. D. Salinger and Flannery O’Connor owe many of their most winning effects to an ear attuned to the preposterous ways in which words get mangled around them and to a tongue prepared to go the manglers one better. But both of them reserve such effects until something truly choice happens by. For all the malformations of speech that Pynchon records in Vineland (all the phrases like “actin’ like a li’l fuckin’ army o’ occupation”) none is so felicitous as when Meeks, in The Violent Bear It Away, with a misguided stab at formality, declares, “You figure he might have got aholt to some misinformation”; nothing is so inspiredly garbled as this moment in Salinger’s “Just Before the War with the Eskimos”;
He inserted the nail of his uninjured index finger into the crevice between two front teeth and, removing a food particle, turned to Ginnie. “Jeat jet?” he asked.
“Jeat lunch yet?”
Ginnie shook her head. “I’ll eat when I get home,” she said. “My mother always has lunch ready for me when I get home.”
“I got a half chicken sandwich in my room. Ya want it? I didn’t touch it or anything.”
Why is a surreal, madcap novel like O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away so much more satisfying than a surreal, madcap novel like Vineland? In part because O’Connor’s careful clumsinesses are always bumping up against something graceful, or Graceful: human fumbling is set off against divine agency. By contrast, there is little “behind” all the clatter in Vineland, nothing transcendently spiritual or beautiful or numinous—or even overarchingly malignant, unless one is prepared to take seriously its (surely satirical?) suggestion that Reagan and his cronies were only a step or two removed from committing Ceauçescu-like pogroms against their own people. Vineland lacks the huge, desolating disillusion of, say, Beckett; the abyss that it contemplates is, simply, not very deep.
For some readers, such shortcomings will scarcely matter. Vineland by mere virtue of its arrival qualifies as a phenomenon—one that releases, in some quarters, an almost irresistible impulse to announce a masterpiece. How else explain why a highly intelligent critic like Sven Birkerts, reviewing the book for USA Today, would liken it to the Divine Comedy? Or why Salman Rushdie, in The New York Times Book Review, would proclaim it “a major political novel about what America has been doing to itself, to its children, all these many years”? Pynchon inspires cultists, and a cult that has waited nearly two decades for word from its leader will naturally feel uncontainable pressures to declare the wait worthwhile. (Just how powerful this impulse can be was crystallized for me when I discussed Vineland with an academic friend. When I complained that most of the book’s jokes fall flat, he readily agreed—but added that Pynchon surely had trafficked to such length in leaden humor for some aesthetically sound, if as yet undetermined, reason.)
The cult is fueled, naturally, by Pynchon’s celebrated, and greatly refreshing, anonymity. In an era in which the writing of books begins to seem, for many prominent writers, an adjunct to the business of promotion—talk shows, readings, signings, “appearances”—he somehow contrives to make even Salinger look like a party animal. No one appears to know where he lives and how he spends his time; what may be his most recent available photograph dates to his 1953 high school yearbook. The blankness that enfolds him allows each of us to make of him what we will—to convert him into a species of ideal artist or secret friend. In addition, by setting so much of Vineland in a Sixties’ dope haze, he taps into what for many people remains an era of indestructible nostalgia. How delightful it is as one’s joint-passing youth is now revealed to be no mere idyll but—wow! neat!—the stuff of great art.
The common tendency to overrate Pynchon reflects as well his admirable fascination with the ways in which science and technology daily refigure our lives—a subject of curiously little urgency for many American writers, whether traditional or avant-garde. This has been a preoccupation of his from the outset; one of his earliest stories, written when he was little more than twenty, was a meditative piece entitled “Entropy.” In Vineland he muses repeatedly upon the nature of the computer. But if we look outside America to a writer like Stanislaw Lem, we see just the sort of sparks that can fly when a first-rate creative temperament truly immerses itself in scientific issues. In his native Poland in the Fifties—a milieu in which computers were but a distant rumor—he discovered in cybernetics “a new era not just for technological progress but also for the whole of civilization.” Time and again, he has demonstrated a genius for focusing on new or potential technological breathroughs and teasing from them one implication after another, each more striking than its predecessor. After the dizzying meditations on theology and artificial intelligence in a book like The Cyberiad, Vineland can look embarrassing:
We are digits in God’s computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to a sort of standard gospel tune, And the only thing we’re good for, to be dead or to be living, is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God.
Over the years, Pynchon has clearly established himself as our foremost “experimental” writer—but isn’t it equally clear that our country in recent decades has not produced anyone who can compare to Borges, Calvino, García Márquez? Many wonderful things have emerged from those American writers who are regularly grouped, in both age and aims, with Pynchon. Donald Barthelme, for instance, brought to the short story a distinctively oddball humor—his “The King of Jazz” is a gem—but does anyone sincerely wish to hold up one of his collections beside Borges’s Ficciones? John Barth can be marvelous—particularly in The Floating Opera and some of his short stories—but who would set his oeuvre beside Calvino’s? Where are the recent American novels that one would want to stack up against García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude? Or Lem’s Solaris? Or Kobo Abe’s Woman in the Dunes? Or Halldor Laxness’s The Atom Station? Or Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo? (Ironically, some of the best antirealist American fiction in our time belongs to writers who are generally classified as naturalists. Who would have supposed that Cheever, often dismissed as a chronicler of suburban quandaries, would write some of the best American ghost stories since Henry James?) These are the books against which Vineland must be matched; we do no favor to Pynchon when we allow him to flourish in a critical vacuum.
If I concentrate on Vineland’s shortcomings, and underplay its considerable charms (and how unlikeable can a book be in which one character’s haircut was apparently “performed by someone who must have been trying to give up smoking”?), I may do so in an attempt to counterbalance its idolaters. For all its dark moments, the book is closer to farce than tragedy, and to herald it as some sort of weighty masterwork is to place a king’s crown on the head of a jester. And although I have no more idea than anybody else about how Pynchon spends his days, I have trouble believing that during the last seventeen years he has devoted himself exclusively to Vineland. My guess—and my hope—is that time will reveal this book to have been a lighthearted interlude, one completed while its author was intent on a more substantial, if not necessarily more voluminous, work. Peering hard at that high school yearbook photograph—its pair of earnest probing eyes, its appealing buckteeth—one longs to be able to say, as Prairie says in the last spoken words of the novel, “You can come back…. Come on, come in…. Take me anyplace you want.”
March 15, 1990