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.

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.