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That was another planetFrank Kermode
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Vol. 12 No. 3 · 8 February 1990

That was another planet

Frank Kermode

2494 words
Vineland 
by Thomas Pynchon.
Secker, 385 pp., £14.95, February 1990, 0 436 39866 4
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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.

It will be remembered that the paranoia of the earlier books always sought sign-systems, not only interesting in their extraordinary complexity and extent but also menacing, in that behind them there was an implacably hostile force: America, or what man has made of America, and more specifically, what the US government and its agencies have made of it. Its civilisation is represented as having declined into a condition to which paranoia is the only sane response, the only way, that is, of making sense of its world. Some of one’s disappointment with this new book is due to the re-emergence of these themes in a manner even more bitter but also less guarded by irony, less cogent.

The happy hippy antinomians of the Sixties who met the truncheons of the Police and the plots of the CIA with flowers, joints and cheerful obscenities are now observed from the vantage-point of the Eighties. A young girl named Prairie, presumably as a contribution to this pastoral myth, discovers by various means the career of her mother, Frenesi, an ex-hippy cameraperson recruited by the forces of oppression, and sexually the slave of the monstrous Federal Prosecutor, Brock Vond (named, one supposes, in allusion to some variety of SF), who is likewise obsessed by her and by Prairie. This good, tough girl has a climactic confrontation with Vond, who descends fiercely upon her from one of Reagan’s crop-busting helicopters; she is saved, though without being quite sure she wanted to be.

Among the cast is a group of people called the Thanatoids, with such names as Ortho Bob Dulang, and this time I give up, though I took to the minor character named by his peace-loving hippy parents Isaiah Two Four (‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruninghooks’). The Thanatoids exist in a condition described as ‘like death, only different’, and, it appears, may actually be dead visitors from elsewhere – at any rate one of them, a mathematician named Weed, having been beyond all question murdered, shows up again in the closing pages.

The Thanatoids, and not only they, are victims of karmic imbalance, largely induced by television. Addicts can be treated in a Tubal-detox hospital, but not all are dried-out – one character keeps a TV set in the back of his car, which, as he drives along, he watches through the rear-view mirror. Nearly everybody loves the many old movies shown on the box, and there is a running joke about their dates and titles, some of them genuine, some made up. The serious point is that television has continued or accelerated the ruin of America, being a drug that a film-star President in particular would know how to exploit – not that his predecessors were very much better, only, in this respect, less effective.

It would be pointless to offer more elaborate accounts of the story, which involves the intervention on Earth of a monstrous, 100-metre-high, saurian; a sort of night-club airliner which is boarded in mid-air by hostile forces; twins possessed of idiolalia; a lot of oriental religious magic, including a technique by which a touch at the right point of the body can ensure the death of the person so touched exactly a year later; and so forth. There are large marijuana crops, and a problem about when to harvest them: too early and the product is inferior, too late and the forces of Vond and CAMP will move in with helicopters, armoured-cars, flame-throwers.

There is a sequence in Tokyo, but the action takes place mostly in California, where you can find Violence Centres, Tibetan pizza parlours, strange card-games (one played by extremely tiny figures in the nostrils of a sleeping man), horny and sinister dentists, weirdly-named pop and rock groups (Barf and the Vomitones) who furnish unnecessary excuses for more of those terrible pop-song lyrics Pynchon has always enjoyed inserting into his narratives, often with a disarming comment to the effect that they are terrible. These Californians have ways of talking so far laid-back as to be virtually unintelligible anywhere else, even if you can work out all the acronyms (CAMP, RICO, DMV) and look up the learned or exotic words Pynchon likes to drop into their linguistic cesspool: for example, ‘yakuza’ ‘kouxinaphobia’, ‘xanthrocroid’, ‘mopery’ – this last is in American dictionaries and means, apparently, ‘a violation of an imaginary law or rule’; Pynchon is understandably fond of it, and it can also be found in Gravity’s Rainbow. Then we have ‘octogenarihexation’, which can be worked out, and ‘a fecoventilatory collision’, which alone of the words I have cited seems to be more or less self-explanatory, unless you know Greek, Japanese and the presumably upmarket slang to which the dictionary refers in defining ‘mopery’.

This lexical work is not the only trial of the reader’s education or ingenuity. One has also to guess what it means, for instance, to be ‘86d from every tux outlet’, or what ‘a 1000-watt Mickey Mole spot’ might be. There are thousands of such small problems, though some of them will seem easy enough for American readers – for instance, there is a joke about ‘Midol America’ which may be obvious to millions of Americans, since it seems to refer to a drug for the alleviation of period pains, but it remains a shade obscure to me. In fact, I strongly felt the need for a glossary, not even knowing what, for example, ‘ninjitsu’ means, or whether there are such things as ninjette retreats – places where, if discipline is absolutely observed, you can learn that Fatal Touch, and where, in cases where the circumstances warrant, its effect may be annulled.

Pynchon loves very long sentences, of which this, though not the longest available, is a sample:

By the time she [Frenesi] began to see that she might, none the less, have gone through with it [bringing up her child], Brock Vond had re-entered 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 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, the swooping monsters and alien projectiles of each game she would come, year by year, to stand before, once again out long after curfew, calls home forgotten, supply of coins dwindling, leaning over the bright display among the back aisles of a forbidden arcade, rows of other players silent, unnoticed, closing time never announced, playing for nothing except the score itself, the row of numbers, a chance of entering her initials among those of other strangers for a brief time, no longer the time the world observed but game time, underground time, time that could take her nowhere outside its own tight and falsely deathless perimeter.

This is typical in that it shrinks the girl’s world, and the world of the book she is in, to the screen and the time-scale of an electronic game, and ‘falsely deathless’ is a comment on a central theme of the book, the illusions of the hippy generation now plainly descried as such. But the almost sentimental rhetoric is equally typical; through these long sentences there runs a tide of sophisticated melancholia, of an isolation reinforced by the company of others, intent on their own pointless falsifying games, and by the severance of normal human ties. In the meantime the money that buys the illusions is running out, and square citizens are at home in bed, observing the curfew.

This, for all the high jinks of plot and language, is the prevailing mood of Vineland. There is no disparagement, though there may be a false estimation of Pynchon’s ambivalences, in saying that underneath the webbed and glittering surface there is a fairly simple nostalgia, or rather a rage for the lost innocence of America. There is a moment in the book when somebody says he would do anything, even die, for certain deprived persons, and they ask him, not to die, but to give them his beloved Porsche; mourning, he hands over the keys, and they begin to quarrel about which of them should drive it away. The reluctant donor is a survivor from the days when there existed ‘an army of loving friends’, before ‘the Nixonian reaction’ when ‘betrayal became routine’ and money from the CIA and the FBI circulated everywhere, leaving the merciless spores of paranoia wherever it flowed, fungoid reminders of its passage. These people had known their children after all, perfectly.’ The children can be deceived, that is, into attending a fake new college, a mere front for property development; or, worse, they can be corrupted, tempted onto the inexhaustible payroll, enlisted as agents or informers. And so times change: gone are the days when ‘it was still unthinkable that any North American agency would kill its own civilians and then lie about it.’ Zoyd, Prairie’s father, is dispossessed of his house when Brock’s agents plant a lot of marijuana in it. How, he asks a lawyer who specialises in ‘abuses of power’, can he get his house back? Well, to do that, answers the lawyer, he would have to prove his innocence.

  ‘What about “innocent until proven guilty”?’

  ‘That was another planet, think they used to call it America ...’

The only way for Zoyd is ‘to get lucky with the right judge’, so his case is like going to Vegas. ‘That’s because life is Vegas,’ says the lawyer.

  ‘Oboy,’ Zoyd groaned. ‘I’ve got worse trouble here than I’ve ever had, and I’m hearing “Life is Vegas”?’

   Elmhurst’s eyes moistened, and his lips began to tremble. ‘Y – You mean ... life isn’t Vegas?’

And still to come was ‘the whole Reagan program ... dismantle the New Deal, reverse the effects of World War Two, restore fascism at home and round the world.’ In the new Reaganite order, somebody predicts, they’ll ‘be coming after everything, not just drugs, but beer, cigarettes, sugar, salt, fat, you name it, anything that could remotely please any of your senses because they need to control all that’ – with Fat Police, Perfume Police, Tube Police, Music Police, Good Healthy Shit Police.

Well, up to a point; in the circumstances paranoia is reasonable up to a point, no doubt. Before THEY doped the good and the simple with the Tube, busted pot-smokers, corrupted rock and roll, turned into ‘a scabland garrison state the green free America of their childhoods’, their innocent victims, we’re told, had supposed they would never die. But this was after all something they had to learn anyway. It is more themselves they mourn for than for the America which so unleaved Vietnam. Or it is for that childhood of pastoral innocence so often celebrated by this author, a time remembered as a genuine part of their life-cycle by many Americans who are now, like Pynchon, around fifty. These are the people he is really writing about, vividly sorrowful, fertile in disgust; and it is to them in particular that he offers those consolations of paranoia that may not be quite the prescription needed by the rest of us.

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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.

Christopher Walker
London W11

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.

Gerald Murnane
Macleod, Victoria

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.

Imre Salusinszky
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?

Philip McDonald
London E5

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