Pynchon’s Prayer

From the Chicago Reader (March 9, 1990). — J.R.

The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. . . . The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. –Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845-46)

A good many newspapers and magazines have accompanied their reviews of Vineland, Thomas Pynchon’s fourth novel, with the same 37-year-old photograph of the author grinning goofily from his high school yearbook. Given Pynchon’s refusal to be photographed or interviewed, there are touches of both desperation and petty vindictiveness in this compulsion to objectify and visualize, however inadequately, a novelist who chooses to be identified only through his writing.

As Edward Mendelson, the most consistently interesting of Pynchon’s critics, has suggested, Pynchon’s determination to avoid the celebrity game has a political motivation that’s wholly consistent with his fiction, and commentators who persist in treating his reticence as a form of eccentric caprice aren’t really paying much heed to the work itself. The standard lines on Pynchon’s media shyness—calling him reclusive, comparing him to J.D. Salinger, and sometimes even questioning whether he exists—seem founded on the myopic fallacy of defining the reality of something exclusively through its relationship to the media. Vineland, which is predicated on something close to the reverse of the principle that reality is what you see on TV, is devoted to excavating those portions of our shared history that TV has either buried or obfuscated beyond recognition.

In fact, the broad social span of Pynchon’s fiction is hardly compatible with the identification of the author as a recluse; and as far as the comparison with Salinger goes, Pynchon’s direct address to his contemporaries and Salinger’s decision since 1965 to publish only posthumously point to radically different notions of a writer’s social function. It’s worth adding that Pynchon’s silence between his last two novels has not been total; apart from continuing to offer generous endorsements to other novelists (usually relative unknowns, and most recently Howard A. Rodman, the author of Destiny Express), he has published four essays–a 1983 memoir about Richard Fariña, a highly revealing autobiographical autocritique that introduces his 1984 story collection Slow Learner, a speculative New York Times Book Review piece entitled “Is It Okay to Be a Luddite?” published the same year, and a rapturous 1988 Times review of Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. And while it’s true that most of the major characters in Vineland are seen living and traveling incognito, the reasons for their secrecy, though not necessarily identical to Pynchon’s, are close enough to suggest a populist context that’s light-years away from the aristocratic and elitist barriers—including media stardom and snobbery—that isolate Salinger’s precocious Glass family.

One of the most attractive alternatives to the media is word of mouth, and most Pynchon fans have their own grapevines to listen to. Mine says that for many of the 17 years since Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), he has been working on not one but two pieces of fiction, Vineland and another novel that has already entailed extensive research into such topics as the Russian revolution and the Mason-Dixon line. For the time being we have a book on a more modest scale than any of Pynchon’s three previous novels, slotted into a narrower time frame (although it still takes in most of this century), easier to follow, and appreciably more down-to-earth. It also shows signs of being hastier in execution and more urgent in its address—a novel pitched precisely at the present moment, as current as Bush’s invasion of Panama.

The fact that it’s both more political and in some ways more hopeful than V. (1963) or The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) or Gravity’s Rainbow may be what’s most unexpected and most off-putting about Vineland, as it raises the question of whether the Old Hipster’s mind is getting soft. There’s no doubt that he’s gotten older; whether this means wiser or mellower or sappier or dottier won’t be the same for every reader, but it seems reasonable enough to say that all four adjectives apply in spots. If memory serves, this is the first of his novels in which Pig Bodine—a raucous naval mischief-maker who might be described as a John Belushi/John Candy type avant la lettre—doesn’t make even a cameo appearance, and his absence is complemented by some evidence of a dawning feminist awareness, an overall sense that women are the final arbiters and custodians of their own lives, minds, and bodies that is quite new to Pynchon’s work. It is also the first Pynchon novel in which families matter a lot (the book is dedicated to his parents). And, though each of his previous novels involved a quest for origins, this is the first in which the quest becomes explicitly and unambiguously sociopolitical in nature and doesn’t end in failure.

The quest for origins in V. carried out by Herbert Stencil, one of the novel’s two heroes, is ultimately a search for the identity of his long-lost mother. The questing heroine of The Crying of Lot 49 is Oedipa Maas; as Mendelson has pointed out, her quest for a secret, centuries-old communications network is oedipal in the Sophoclean rather than the Freudian sense—that is, it is embarked upon not as a search for personal origins but as an objective investigation. Tyrone Slothrop, the leading character in Gravity’s Rainbow, is searching for information about how he was programmed in early childhood to have erections that would anticipate the fall of V-2 rockets in London during the blitz. The notion of entropy, of energy running down, hangs over the metaphysical underpinnings of all three of these novels and eventually helps to ensure that the quests are never completed: Stencil becomes lost himself in his own researches, The Crying of Lot 49 ends just before Maas expects to reach enlightenment about whether the object of her search is real or a paranoid delusion, and Slothrop abandons his search and literally disappears from Gravity’s Rainbow long before the novel is over. In all three novels, it could be argued that the heroes wind up becoming secondary to the historical processes that overwhelm them, although in The Crying of Lot 49, at least, it is implied that Oedipa Maas’s search has existential implications for the reader.

The quest of Prairie Wheeler, a 14-year-old who gradually emerges as the heroine of Vineland, is a good deal less metaphysical and more realizable, at least on the surface. She seeks to find out what she can about—and hopefully meet—her mother, Frenesi Gates. Frenesi, a radical documentary filmmaker, abandoned Prairie and her hippie-musician father Zoyd to run off with a federal prosecutor named Brock Vond after conspiring with him against her own radical collective and helping to bring about the murder of a student leader. (The abandonment occurred when Prairie was still a baby, and the political betrayal took place a year before she was born, raising the question—which the book never definitively answers—of whether Brock and not Zoyd is her biological father.) In the process of learning about Frenesi in 1984, Prairie is in fact inquiring into a mystery that haunts the novel as a whole—what became of the counterculture of the 60s during the 14 years of Prairie’s life—and part of Pynchon’s achievement is posing that question in the foreshortened terms of a character born in 1970 rather than from the more familiar vantage point of Zoyd, Frenesi, and their contemporaries. That is, Pynchon’s latest novel is every bit as historically oriented as its predecessors, but the historical period that is focused on is, relatively speaking, only the day before yesterday.

A novel that begins and ends with literal awakenings (of Zoyd and Prairie, respectively), Vineland structures its vinelike meanderings through an ingenious system of flashbacks and a few key images. (The exposition is arranged so that even the most fugitive vines in the narrative tangle eventually prove to be linked: Zoyd and Prairie’s house, for instance, which figures in the opening pages, is only described in some detail toward the novel’s end, and its bric-à-brac construction resembles Pynchon’s own building methods.) The flashbacks are mainly a matter of shared memories, and the incidents in 1984 that occasion them are not always the settings that the reader returns to when they’re over. Although computer files and film footage tell Prairie part of the story, an equally significant part is recounted by various witnesses, and the fact that one can resume where another leaves off suggests a kind of grapevine, word-of-mouth narration—a story-telling model that is explicitly contrasted with the corruptions and disassociations of various TV shows. Implicit throughout is the notion that thanks to the dominance, ideology, and druglike powers of the Tube (as Pynchon calls it), disseminating what Marx and Engels describe as “the ruling ideas of the epoch,” the recovery of even recent history has to be carried out through willful and sustained archaeological research into buried documents and testimonies; it is not automatically self-evident and available to everyone.

Most of the novel’s optimism rests on the historical continuity in leftist protest—from the turn of the century to the 30s to the 60s to the (implied) 90s—in spite of the intervening periods of amnesia. The continuity is mainly preserved in the novel by women, through the medium of family ties, and whether or not one perceives this linkage as sentimental or reactionary in relation to the book’s progressive agenda depends on how literally one chooses to take it. Whatever else this Ma Joad sensibility may reflect, it is certainly American to the core in its emphasis on the local over the universal. (The book’s title refers to Vinland, the name given to North America by Leif Eriksson when he sailed here from Greenland around the eleventh century AD.) And it raises the question of whether Pynchon is stacking the deck: how come only the book’s good guys have strong family bonds?

The key images that organize the narration are mainly emotional and associative rather than strictly analytical, which means they often carry a great deal of ambiguity. Chief among these is Frenesi’s blue eyes, which are mentioned at least a dozen times over the novel’s 385 pages; the fact that Prairie has blue eyes as well only adds to our uncertainty about what blue eyes and the color blue can suggest, from predatory cops to the clearest of skies. Other linked images are birds and airborne predators like drug-bust helicopters that remind us of Brock Vond; a Japanese gumshoe, Takeshi Fumimota, and a female ninja named DL Chastain who was once Frenesi’s best friend and is now Prairie’s chief guru—characters whose romance and movements often seem to parallel Vond’s and Frenesi’s (with an implied rhyme scheme involving trajectories up and down California and Japan and across the Pacific in both directions); at least five electrical storms that shake up the atmosphere with apocalyptic portent; and various other totems ranging from figs and cucumbers to TV screens and shopping malls.

There is also the significance of Prairie and Zoyd’s dog, Desmond, and the crucial way he links up with some of these other images. After an epigram from one Johnny Copeland (“Every dog has its day, / and a good dog / just might have two days”), the novel opens with Zoyd being woken up in his home in the fictional northern California town of Vineland—a haven and retreat for lost hippie tribes—”by a squadron of blue jays stomping around on the roof”–blue jays that are scavengers, stealing all the food from Desmond’s dish. At the book’s end, some 380 pages later, after Brock and his federal scavengers have confiscated the Wheeler home in the midst of a Bush-style drug raid, sending both Zoyd and Prairie into hiding, Prairie, who has returned to Vineland for a family reunion and slept that night in the woods, is woken by the tongue of Desmond, whose face is “full of blue jay feathers.”

Desmond’s “second day,” in other words, suggests both a fresh beginning and a renewed continuity; the closest Pynchon comes to giving this a metaphysical dimension is in a passage from Emerson quoted by Prairie’s great-grandfather at a climactic family reunion: “Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice. It is impossible to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar. Settles forever more the ponderous equator to its line, and man and mote, and star and sun, must range to it, or be pulverized by the recoil.” Whether Desmond’s secret retribution against the blue jays is individually willed or part of some larger process is a moot point, but it is implied, at least, that Prairie, unlike Pynchon’s earlier searchers, has arrived at a place where she can act. The movement between the blue jays as predators and the blue jays as victims is the distance she has traveled in her own education.

Between these two points, the blue eyes of Frenesi and Prairie are repeatedly evoked by other items and images: Brock’s “hard, blued body” and his “sky-blue suit”; “pale blue” drug-bust planes, Prairie’s blue overalls, Superman, blue haze, TV screens, contact lenses, spaces, shadows, and dwelling units; a lake, a river, the Pacific, and even such things as baby blues, an automotive bluebook, and a 12-bar blues. Beautiful and impenetrable, Frenesi’s blue eyes are not so much a mystery that can finally be solved as a site to be considered and contemplated.

For readers who have been looking forward to another Pynchon blockbuster with the historical complexity, intellectual breadth, and stylistic range of Gravity’s Rainbow, Vineland is bound to disappoint, in spite of all the pleasure and recognition it provides. Pynchon’s last novel—set in Europe in the early 40s, when Pynchon was still in grammar school in Long Island—with its dense evocations of London in that period, is a remarkable triumph of historical imagination. Although the narrative is anachronistically overlaid by a thoroughly 60s sensibility evident in much of the style, tone, and detail, this bifocal vision permits an understanding of the past in relation to the present that’s staggering in its implications.

Vineland, too, is predicated on a 20-year leap, from the 60s to the 80s, but this time both decades are more fully present; and there’s a big difference between viewing the 40s through a 60s sensibility and using an updated 60s sensibility to show the 80s rediscovering the 60s. For one thing, in Vineland the 60s are paradoxically made to seem more remote than the 40s were in the earlier book; and Pynchon’s understanding of the 60s, while balanced and often astute, is not exactly staggering—there are even places where it seems unduly simplistic, too much a clear-cut case of cowboys (feds) and Indians (hippies and leftists).

Perhaps this is part of the point. Vineland aims at being more accessible and politically useful than its predecessor; it seems to have no interest in achieving the academic canonization and the resulting intellectual and ideological colonization of Gravity’s Rainbow (although it may inadvertently achieve these anyway). But even if one readily grants this difference in scale and ambition, there are places where one wishes that Vineland consolidated its effects and forces a bit more purposefully. Some English reviewers have rightly noted an apparent discrepancy between the book’s (persuasive) view of the Tube as the principal propaganda tool of the right-wing establishment and the satirical depiction of a clinic for Tubal abuse that is almost equally authoritarian and mainstream. Unsettling fantasy elements periodically slither into the narrative—mysterious invaders casually glimpsed aboard a sleazy airborne Hawaiian cocktail lounge, Godzilla’s paw print discovered in Japan, miniature pinochle players inside a character’s snout—but their thematic relevance occasionally seems either oblique or absent. (More functional is Vineland’s community of Thanatoids, literally walking-dead denizens of northern California—including the murder victim of Frenesi’s political betrayal—who commune with the Tube and receive karmic adjustment from DL and Takeshi.) While the novel’s sense of pain and loss is genuine enough, there are times when Pynchon’s rage at the Nixon-Reagan-Bush-Vond bluing of America seems less nuanced and controlled than the ethical positions of his earlier books. (One might sympathize, for instance, with his distaste for New Age music while wondering if four separate allusions to it are really necessary.)

Part of the problem may have to do with an unresolved ambivalence about popular culture that is more pronounced in Vineland than in any of Pynchon’s previous books. TV permeates the novel as thoroughly as film permeated Gravity’s Rainbow—as a shared cultural reference point, a prime culprit in the deadening of American brain cells, and the occasion for numerous satirical gags (one character watches Woody Allen in a movie called Young Kissinger on the Tube)–but the book expresses none of the affection for that medium that it periodically dishes out to early rock singles. Prairie’s boyfriend, an amiable punk rocker, offers the following prognosis to Zoyd: “Whole problem ‘th you folks’ generation . . . nothing personal, is you believed in your Revolution, put your lives right out there for it—but you sure didn’t understand much about the Tube. Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, the whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like th’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970 dollars—it was way too cheap.” By way of partial corroboration, there’s a passage about the way that cop shows (“a genre right-wing weekly TV Guide [calls] Crime Drama”) turn “agents of government repression into sympathetic heroes” whose “routine violations of constitutional rights” have become “absorbed into the vernacular of American expectations,” and countless other passing notations about TV as our favorite everyday brand of brain poison.

Pynchon’s prose often emulates the cascading, extended phrases of bebop while numerous images, scenes, characters, and dialogue owe a great deal to comic books and movies, but the omnipresence of TV as part of the cultural landscape isn’t accompanied by any strategy for using it the way that Pynchon assimilates other popular forms (e.g., spy novels, Spike Jones numbers, Road Runner cartoons) to his story-telling methods. Given Pynchon’s populism, this creates a certain roadblock in his expressive arsenal. It’s true that all the other forms of pop culture he uses as models do figure on TV, but Pynchon’s mimicking of them seems to rely mainly on their pre-TV incarnations—which is understandable given his taste and background, but not always helpful in giving Vineland the contemporary ambience it is obviously aiming for.

Another formidable area from which Pynchon seems equally distanced is his position as grist for the academic mills, of which Clifford Mead’s Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Materials (Dalkey Archive Press), published late last year, gives ample evidence. By the same token, it offers a corresponding sense of how much Pynchon may wish to ignore his status as an ivy-covered institution—identifying, if at all, with the ivy rather than the institution and contriving to creep away from the campus and follow his own tangled progress elsewhere, into less charted territory like Vineland itself, where the ghosts of Indians and the dreams of leftists still linger along with the freaks, Thanatoids, and other forgotten relics. Apart from reprinting 13 Pynchon endorsements and 21 pages of high school juvenilia, Mead’s book catalogs, in addition to all of Pynchon’s published works in all their editions and translations, 127 theses and dissertations on him, and a whopping 84 pages of critical books, articles, and conference papers—conjuring up a nightmarish effusion of mostly unnecessary paper designed to perpetuate a bureaucratic institution rather than to foster any effective change in a culture.

It’s a nightmare that any politically serious novelist would be sane to flee from, but Pynchon’s means of escape finds him edging, ever so gently, into a blind corner all his own, rich in entanglements but bereft of fresh utopian strategies. A superb yet not entirely convincing entertainment, Vineland tries to find some rays of hope in a hopeless period by positing a fearless and resourceful but otherwise unexceptional 14-year-old and her half-buried leftist family history as our last bastion of strength against encroaching fascism. The nostalgia, laughs, and final uplift that Pynchon offers are enticing enough, and the despair that calls for them is palpable enough to taste, but Prairie’s name is suggestive not only of the pastoral setting that we find her in at the book’s close and of potential conflagrations (“One spark can start a prairie fire”), but also of prayer. And something tells me that praying isn’t enough to keep the squadron of Bush-league blue jays from landing on our roofs.

Vineland by Thomas Pynchon, Little, Brown and Company, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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