That was another planet

Frank Kermode

  • Vineland by Thomas Pynchon
    Secker, 385 pp, £14.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 436 39866 4

Seventeen years have passed since the publication of Pynchon’s immense Gravity’s Rainbow, during which time exegesis has continued more or less unabated. It is accompanied by tireless speculation as to what the author could be up to next, where he was, indeed who he was. Compared with Pynchon, J.D. Salinger is a publicity-hunter. One daring scholarly conjecture, that these authors are one and the same person, is a paranoid fantasy that might well have been induced by prolonged exposure to Pynchon’s oeuvre.

For he explores, more intensively, maybe, than anyone else has ever done, the relation between fictional plot and paranoid fantasy. His true ancestor is Melville, transformed by a more modern, or, if we must, post-modern, ‘magic realism’. Because he has an enormous range of expert information – for instance, about technology, history and sexual perversion – the intensity of his interest in the question as to whether arrays of facts and events are merely discrete or occultly interrelated causes him to produce great slabs and festoons of bizarre and speculative plotting, as if subjecting the world to continual enquiry on this important issue. The sign ‘V’ may somehow hold together the dispersed elements of V, or it may not. The trajectory and the history of the V2 rockets in the seven-hundred-page fantasia of Gravity’s Rainbow promote, as Richard Poirier remarked in a review, ‘the persistent paranoia of all the important characters’, which ‘invests any chance detail with the power of an omen, a clue, to which, momentarily, all other details might adhere.’

The shortest of the novels, The Crying of Lot 49, most perfectly expresses, as a kind of riddle, the question whether evidence that seems amply to support a theory of universal correspondence, secret networks of significance, covert modes of oppression, is really to be found out there in the world or only in the crazed mind of the person who discerns it. Lot 49 has survived a ruthless barrage of interpretation, some of it of high quality, and it should certainly figure in any short list of the best post-war American fiction. Genuine devotees stigmatise a preference for the novella over Rainbow as a cop-out, an admission that you can’t cope with the really big book, which seems bound, like Ulysses, to keep the professors busy for years. Nevertheless, even these fanatics will hardly deny that Lot 49 is not only more accessible but a memorable achievement, and the best guide to the world of Pynchon.

Vineland is, not surprisingly, a difficult book. It lacks, on the one hand, the beautiful ontological suspense of Lot 49, and on the other, the extended fictive virtuosity of Gravity’s Rainbow, but it is recognisably from the same workshop, funny (though never as funny as the spoof Wharfinger Jacobean play in Lot 49, obscene (though no more so than, say, the Brigadier Pudding passages in Gravity’s Rainbow), spawning plots and plotlets, full of what sounds like authentically demotic dialogue, conducted between people with extremely peculiar names, and not always fully intelligible to the unhippy, the un-Californian. (One even wonders whether hippy Californians would find it all that easy.) Since I have to say I find it a disappointing book, I need to add that this judgment may depend on a measure of incomprehension. After two readings I am still not quite sure of the story-line; and not quite sure whether it isn’t naive or wicked to want to be sure.

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