Thursday, August 02, 2018


I often include Thomas Pynchon in my list of favorite authors, but I'm not sure if that's actually accurate. The Crying of Lot 49 is definitely in my personal top-five, but beyond that... I remember absolutely loving V. and Gravity's Rainbow when I first read them, but today I couldn't really tell you the plot of either book or recall much specific detail. His recent novels have been a lot of fun but haven't awed me to the same degree as his earlier books. Still, Pynchon kind of personifies my favorite type of book: intricate, clever, funny, thought-provoking, books that both reward prior knowledge and offer something new.

One possible sign that Pynchon actually isn't one of my favorite authors is the fact that I haven't yet felt compelled to read everything he's written. I've been facing two major entries: Vineland and Mason & Dixon, two tomes from the interregnum between his earlier iconic work and his more relaxed modern entries. Neither has acquired the number of accolades of his masterpieces, while retaining their sheer length, making me shy away from them. Until now!

From my prior experience, I knew that I would need some focused time to devote to my trek through Vineland. Fortunately, I had the tail end of a vacation to devote to the start, and since returning I've taken advantage of the late summer days to read for several hours in a beautiful park near work, holding the sprawling plot and cast of characters in my head as the sun shines down.

This ended up feeling like a very apt way to read this book. Like several of Pynchon's other books, Vineland is set on the west coast: this one in particular is mostly set in a fictional Napa Valley-esque region. Much like how TCoL49's San Narciso existed alongside San Francisco, Vineland is accessible by 101 and within a short drive of the East Bay, San Mateo county, and numerous other recognizable real-world locales.

Vineland was published in 1990 and set in the early 1980s, an era that I hadn't experienced out here but one that's very recognizable. The plot background and foreground deal with the rightward shift in the country, turning its back on the wild freedom of the 1960s and 70s as a newer regime sets in. Many of the protagonists are former hippies, revolutionary filmmakers, counter-cultural musicians, and others who feel increasingly adrift in the world, staring at the burgeoning War On Drugs, supremacy of the Tube entertainment, increasing militarization of domestic operations. They aren't really fighting back against it. This isn't some epochal left-versus-right or forward-versus-back struggle. Everyone has gotten a little older, a bit less idealistic, and are trying to make good decisions one day at a time.


This is all especially interesting given Pynchon's real-life longevity, and the gradual shifts underway in this book feel like they form a natural arc from, say, TCoL49 to The Bleeding Edge. It's neat to see not only some big-picture thematic continuity, but also a handful of familiar names pop up. A big one that jumped out at me here was "Mucho" Maas: he's just briefly referenced, but we hear about his "remarkably genial" divorce, which in turn set off my own personal whirlwind of speculation and longing for closure to Oedipa's saga.

Overall, this novel feels like it follows Pynchon's normal form, while showing a more laid-back style. We still have the vast cast and freewheeling associations, with narrative detours and asides. The structure is pretty interesting: someone in the present will start describing earlier events to someone else, and will recall a story that they were told earlier, which in turn includes a story from yet another person. All of these are delivered in the same voice, and there's an appealing fluidity to the text as you shift between decades and protagonists and attitudes and perspectives. All this may unwind gradually or suddenly, bringing you blinking back to the redwood-shaded grounds of the present as people digest the lore they have unearthed.

It can take a lot of focus and persistence to make it through one of these books, but the journey is significantly eased by the great humor and inventiveness throughout. Pynchon continues writing demented lyrics for songs, expanding his rock-focused repertoire with ukelele riffs and Latin big-bands. We meet the People's Republic of Rock and Roll, get the long and gripping saga of the Marquis de Sod, puns that would ordinarily infuriate me but delight me with their artistry. And who can forget meeting someone whose "haircut had been performed by someone who must have been trying to give up smoking"?

While the two authors don't have a whole lot in common, Pynchon and Neal Stephenson both have a boyish enthusiasm for the English language and become visibly giddy when writing; you get the sense it's primarily to amuse themselves, but we benefit in the process. Here's a single sentence from late in the novel:

To the great delight of Sid Liftoff, who'd known her since their days as regulars at Musso and Frank's, and a senior gaffer who'd worked with Hub, Sasha had come wheeling into the valet parking at the Vineland Palace in a Cadillac the size of a Winnebago and painted some vivid fingernail-polish color, alighting and sweeping into the lobby a step and a half ahead of her companion, Derek, considerably younger and paler, with a buzz cut that nearly matched the car, an English accent, and a guitar case he was never seen to open, picked up on the highway between here and the Grand Canyon, where she'd parted from her current romantic interest, Tex Wiener, after an epic screaming exchange right at the edge, and on impulse decided to attend that year's Traverse-Becker get-together up in Vineland, leaving Tex on foot among the still-bouncing echoes of their encounter, which had brought tourist helicopters nudging in for a closer look, distracted ordinarily surefooted mules on the trail below into quick shuffle-ball-changes along the rim of Eternity, proceeded through a sunset that was the closest we get to seeing God's own jaundiced and bloodshot eyeball, looking back at us without much enthusiasm, then on into the night arena of a parking lot so dangerously tilted that even with your hand brake set and your wheels chocked, your short could still end up a mile straight down, its trade-in value seriously diminished.

I'm just in awe of that. Heck, "A sunset that was the closest we get to God's own jaundiced and bloodshot eyeball, looking back at us without much enthusiasm" is amazing on its own, and it's just a side-thought in this daisy-chaining marvel.


That sentence is also a pretty great sampling of the sorts of characters one encounters in this book. People like Sasha are strongly developed over the course of the novel, and we learn everything from her formative childhood through her formidable presence as a grandma. Then there's Tex, who appears and disappears in this one sentence, never to be mentioned again. And Derek, who will put in one more memorable appearance before going to the men's bathroom and vanishing together. But they're all part of the tapestry, each person woven into one anothers' lives.

The flip side is that we only can spend so much time with each character. It helps that the major ones are so vivid and fully developed. I have to say that my favorite character throughout the novel was DL, Frenesi's erstwhile comrade and ninjette. She's probably a little too much larger-than-life to be a protagonist, but I'd still have loved to hear more of her story.

The gradually-revealed mystery around Frenesi was really well done. We see her very early on, so we feel like we know her, but it's a very long process to truly understand her. She feels like the center of gravity, the locus around which recollections dance. I really liked how Pynchon portrays her, and related characters like Prairie and DL. They're complex and flawed and admirable, infused with charisma that puts us on their side, in spite of the bad choices they made.

Speaking of which, Brock Vond was a really well-done villain. He's also larger-than-life, and even other characters in the novel regard him with superstitious awe; but at the same time he's a very particular government agent carrying out a very particular role. The stuff with him and Prairie at the very end was kind of creepy and sad, and makes you very glad that he came to the end that he did.

And the whole Thanatoid thing was super-interesting and well done. I love how that whole world is just kind of adjacent to, butting up against our own world, the specific but incongruent details of Vato and Blood reclaiming vehicles from the highway. It was a little startling to see the bardo mentioned near the end, which immediately helped me make the connection with George Saunders' novel and see how the concepts lined up.

So, just for fun, a quick summary of the plot as I'm recalling it now (almost certainly not completely correct!)

Frenesi was a second-generation leftist. Her parents worked in Hollywood, were fellow travelers in Communist circles, and ended up getting blacklisted. She became active in the movements of the 60s, and was part of a filmmaking collective. While covering a student revolt on a college campus, she fell in love with Weed, a married man who wasn't especially political but had become the center of local activity. As it transpired, though, the whole uprising was secretly supported by federal agents: the goal was to keep potential risks in sight and under their control. This project was led up by Brock, a charismatic prosecutor. Frenesi was seduced by Brock, and gradually brought under his control, until she participated in a staged (but real) murder of Weed. She turned states' evidence and the uprising was gathered in while the rest of her collective dispersed. She eventually escaped the federals and went into hiding in Southern California, where she quickly met up with and fell in love with Zoyd, a small-time good-natured drug-user. They had a daughter together, Prairie, but Frenesi became extremely depressed post-partum and soon reconnected with Brock. Brock had become obsessive about Frenesi and wanted to completely break up her family. Brock uses another agent, Hector, to frame Zoyd on a major drug charge. Brock persuades Zoyd to take a deal: leave SoCal, make no contact with Frenesi, and remain on the government's radar with periodic humiliating naked appearances on television. So Zoyd left the sunny beach life behind and traveled to the great forests of Vineland. Meanwhile, Brock entered Frenesi into the witness-protection program, where she was partnered with a new husband and they had a new son together. Years go by, the kids grow up, nobody's all that happy but not all that sad either. Then Reagan is elected and all of the old long-running spook programs are re-examined. The money that kept Brock's elaborate schemes running starts to dry up and people begin to get restless. Brock moves over to the new War On Drugs initiatives, leading huge raids to destroy marijuana crops in the Emerald Triangle, to hop on the new money spigot. While in the area, he uses his resources to harass Zoyd and Prairie; I'm not totally clear on his motivation, but I think he might see them as loose ends to tie up so his superiors won't learn about the weird stuff he's done. Then Hector shows up again: he's now completely insane, obsessed with the television and unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality, but still with the resources of the government at his disposal. He harasses Hollywood producers until they agree to fund his anti-drug movie. Hector has always been sympathetic to Zoyd and his situation, and sees its resolution as an ideal Hollywood scenario. He arranges to bring Frenesi and her family out to Vineland where she can use her old filmmaking skills to direct his ridiculous new movie. Simultaneously, the reappearance of Brock has led Prairie to ask harder questions about her mom and own past, and she comes to understand everything that has happened. Prairie is eventually reunited with Frenesi and Sasha. Brock, enraged at his will being thwarted, seeks to use his operation to destroy the family; when the authorization is rescinded, he proceeds on his own and dies, I presume in a helicopter crash. This makes pretty much everyone happy, although he continues to exert a certain animalistic, magnetic pull. Now that he's gone, the reunited families can tentatively begin to figure out how to coexist.


Phew! That's a lot, and doesn't even touch at all on the secondary or tertiary plot lines. Still, it's relatively straightforward, and I think will be much easier for me to retain than the fractured stories of V. or GR.

So, yeah. It's a pleasure and kind of a relief to find Vineland so enjoyable. I won't be rushing out to devour Mason & Dixon soon; but, at the same time, I'm now confident that it'll be a good read once I get around to it. I was first drawn to Pynchon in large part because of his affinity for paranoia and conspiracies, and it's great to see that he can write hugely entertaining stories even without those elements.

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