That was another planet
- 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.
Vol. 12 No. 5 · 8 March 1990
Frank Kermodes honest account of his uncertain response to Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (LRB, 8 February) goes some way to explaining the general critical denunciation of the new book. (I make the current ratio about three-to-one against.) A clue to the source of the disappointment seems to lie in Kermode’s desire for a glossary which will explain all of the text’s undecidables. It is odd that Pynchon’s most user-friendly novel should provoke such a desire for lucidity, and this is doubly strange when the book is also criticised for being lucidly familiar. It seems as if reviewers have wanted both more of the same and something entirely different. In the confusion they have failed to find something they can immediately categorise.
The voices of disappointment and dismissal have tended to resort to the simple observation that Vineland does not match up to the scale of Gravity’s Rainbow (or, in Kermode’s case, the perfect ‘riddle’ of The Crying of Lot 49), and have refused to take the novel on its own terms. This nostalgia for the intricacies of the original trilogy (V1, V2, and Lot 49 as the ‘excluded middle’) seems oblivious to the irony – given Vineland’s terms of revision and reassessment – of its own longing retrospection, its own yearning for the good old tricksy novels of the Sixties and early Seventies. The easy conclusion for the critics seems to have been that Pynchon has gone a bit soft in the head. This analysis fails to take into account two points: first, the entropic pull of mindlessness which is forever present in Pynchon’s writing (Mindless Pleasures being the original title for Gravity’s Rainbow), and which always threatens the baroque plotting; and second, the reason why a fourth novel, if it appeared at all, had to be a different kind of book from the original trilogy.
The nature of Vineland ought to have come as no surprise since we were warned of the author’s state of despondency 17 years ago. Towards the end of Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon not only dissolved Tyrone Slothrop, having set him up as the book’s archetypal quest-figure and holy fool: he gestured towards his own disillusionment with the whole novelistic project.
There is also the story about Tyrone Slothrop … and there ought to be a punchline to it, but there isn’t. The plan went wrong. He is being broken down instead, and scattered. His cards have been laid down, Celtic style, in the order suggested by Mr A.E. White, laid out and read, but they are the cards of a tanker and feeb; they point only to a long and scuffling future, to mediocrity (not only in his life but also, heh, heh, in his chroniclers too, yes yes nothing like getting the 3 of Pentacles upside down covering the significator on the second try to send you to the tube to watch a seventh rerun of the Takeshi and Ichizo Show, light a cigarette and try to forget the whole thing) – to no clear happiness or redeeming cataclysm.
Pynchon’s Tarot predicted a future of couch-potatoship, not revelation. Vineland is the fruit of this tubal immersion. Whereas the first three novels tested the world to see if it could be interpreted like a text, Vineland tries to replay the world like a videotape or a reel of film. The novel is constructed out of the spectral remains of a televisual reality which doggedly, and perhaps meaninglessly, persist to form the pantheon of our modern spirit world (Captain Kirk, the Bionic Woman, Steve McGarrett etc). Pynchon confronts the world of a generation that has always lived with and through television. He sees reality, not just through the eyes of Sixties casualties, Zoyd and Frenesi, but, more to the point, through those of their daughter, Prairie. It is with Prairie that his real sympathies lie – a girl for whom the legacy of the Sixties is mere celluloid. The ‘happy hippy antinomians’ Kermode mentions are deliberately anachronistic and the ‘consolations of paranoia’, which Kermode sees (I think erroneously) as Pynchon’s ultimate offering in Vineland, are equally part of the past.
It might have seemed to many (Pynchon included) that nothing could have followed the terminality of Gravity’s Rainbow. Its encyclopedic examination of ‘structures favouring death’ in Western society concluded with the descent on the last page of the final Exterminating Angel in the form of a nuclear warhead. What makes the appearance of Vineland so distressing to many of those still thinking in terms of a Cold War sense of an ending is that the situation in which this novel emerges (and which the novel is largely about) is of an entirely different order: no redeeming cataclysm, only endless TV repeats. In Vineland, Pynchon is acknowledging that end-thinking has itself come to an end. In a sense, the end is already over. Whereas Pynchon’s first three novels traced the logic of quest, knowledge and apocalyptic revelation, Vineland is post-apocalyptic. It seems odd that Kermode, of all people, should have overlooked this.
Pynchon’s previous books always pointed to a future that was yet to reveal itself. In Vineland, which largely consists of flashbacks within flashbacks, there is a sense that everything is behind us, everything is played out. The motivating force behind the plot is a maverick act of vengeance left over from the Sixties. Now this does not signal, as has been suggested by many critics as well as Kermode, Pynchon’s nostalgia for a bygone era. Pynchon’s attitude towards the Sixties is clearly complex and double-edged. (In the character of Frenesi, the spirit of the Sixties is cynically revealed as the secret desire for discipline and the infantile denial of death.) It is rather the continuation of his theme of the running down of culture (initiated in his 1960 short story ‘Entropy’) beyond the point of culture’s expiry. Our condition now is to be constantly looking back to an earlier age for signs of life (this is why Pynchon dates all the film references in the book as if stringing together a ghost history). Vineland is a post-mortem, not a nostalgia trip.
Pynchon has always asked questions about the survival of forms of life after death. ‘What afterlife have the Firm found, this side of V-E Day?’ he asks in Gravity’s Rainbow. The suggestion in Vineland is that we may all now be inhabiting a kind of afterlife, as if we have all, like the character of Takeshi, had the Ninja Vibrating Palm Death Touch. Vineland is consequently populated by zombies of unspecified but growing number, unaware of their undead status. Pynchon’s Thanatoids (which leave Kermode perplexed) are people who, though hardly alive, cannot completely die, because death itself has been infiltrated by television: ‘We are assured by the Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, that the soul newly in transition often doesn’t like to admit – indeed will deny quite vehemently – that it’s really dead, having slipped so effortlessly into the new dispensation that it finds no difference between the weirdness of life and the weirdness of death, an enhancing factor in Takeshi’s opinion being television, which with its history of picking away at the topic with doctor shows, war shows, cop shows, murder shows, had trivialised the Big D itself. If mediated lives, he figured, why not mediated deaths?’ Like Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Pynchon’s novel is a supreme comic investigation of the meaning of death and of our human (or should it be non-human?) condition in a world totally mediated by artificial realities. As Frenesi’s father, Hub, says to her: ‘Take care of your dead, or they’ll take care of you.’ With Vineland, Pynchon is trying to do exactly that.
When Kermode complains of the re-emergence of the earlier themes in a ‘less cogent’ form, he fails to notice that a kind of exhumation and re-burial is taking place. As so many reviewers have half-heartedly told us, Vineland is about the Eighties coming to terms with the Sixties. What this actually means is that Pynchon is divesting himself of that nexus of ideas with which he is most frequently associated – namely, the linkage of plot, quest, knowledge and apocalypse. With Vineland, Pynchon is working his way out of his quest trilogy: old scores are settled, the lost and disaffected are found, underground characters rejoin mainstream life. The conspiratorial Sixties as embodied in Federal Prosecutor Brock Vond are literally carried off to the Land of the Dead. Pynchon is systematically disposing of his earlier themes. He is disrobing himself, Prospero-style, of his art.
Significantly, Vineland is Pynchon’s first novel to reach a resolution. Rather than balancing opposites along a path to deferred revelation, Vineland is a brilliantly crafted, deliberately centreless comedy in which Pynchon reconciles himself with his own history through the mature form of Romance. The ending is Californian late-Shakespeare. Mother, daughter and family are finally reunited, and the book’s (almost unqualified) last word is perhaps the end of all quests: ‘home’. In Vineland, Dorothy and Toto (alias Prairie and Desmond the dog) come back from over the Rainbow.
Vol. 12 No. 6 · 22 March 1990
Frank Kermode quotes what he calls a very long sentence from Thomas Pynchon (LRB, 8 February). The passage quoted is not a sentence. The passage consists of a sentence of 66 words followed by a comma and then by a sequence of clauses and phrases that is neither a part of the sentence preceding it nor a sentence in itself.
Frank Kermode writes that ‘Pynchon loves very long sentences’ and provides a 29-line ‘sample’. Whatever the very long things that Pynchon loves are, they are certainly not sentences. There are, in fact, three sentences in the quoted sample, although they are not punctuated as such.
University of Newcastle,
I was distressed to learn that Frank Kermode had to ‘look up the learned or exotic’ word ‘yakuza’, whilst reviewing Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland. I wonder if he shouldn’t be reading a little more widely?