Monday, September 07, 2009


New rule: you are NOT allowed to refer to this novel as "lesser Pynchon" just because it came out seventeen years after Gravity's Rainbow and everyone was expecting something more along the lines of 2 Gravity 2 Rainbow. I'm putting my foot down on this one. This idea--that there's some sort of platonic ideal of Pynchonosity from which any deviation is a step down--is absurd. Is Vineland his best work? Maybe; maybe not. But the point is, it's not a rhetorical question. You could make a darn good case for it.

Now, I do have one biggish criticism of Vineland, and one smallish criticism. The biggish criticism is this: Frenesi's redemption at the end comes WAY too easily, and seemingly with no particular effort on her part. I'm all about redemption in a general sense, but her great betrayal is central to the novel, and to just sort of wave it away at the end doesn't feel very satisfying. The smallish criticism is this: there are several (as far as I can tell) totally unresolved plot threads; i.e., the Godzilla business and the airplane hijacking thing. The *extremely* brief mention of these issues at the end really isn't even enough to qualify as desultory. These are narrative slip-ups; there are no two ways about it.

That said, I still think Vineland is pretty fantastic from start to finish. This is the first book of what I think of as Pynchon Mk2, in which the characters are as important as the concepts. In the introduction to Slow Learner, P expresses his undying hatred of "Entropy," partially because, in his view, he put the cart before the horse: he had a concept and forced the characters to adhere to it rather than the other way round. While this is less the case in his early novels (in my devotion to which I bow to no one), you still sort of see a bit of that going on. Not so in Vineland: the ideas are important, but the characters are perfectly integrated. The two parts are neatly balanced.

And what characters! Zoyd is surely the most purely likable character that Pynchon had written to date, and Prairie--well, who would have imagined from his previous work that he could so effectively write a young teenage girl? Nobody, that's who! Then there are DL and Takeshi, whose relationship is one of the greatest pleasures of ANY Pynchon novel. And what can one say of Brock Vond, his best-ever villain? Given this concentration of great characters, it's hard to say how the novel can be described as lesser anything.

It's not just the characters, though; the postmodern setting, though obviously more limited in scope than Gravity's Rainbow, is if anything more effectively realized. I hate to break this to you, but: ninjas are more folklore than actual fact, and the martial-arts-movie kind of ninjitsu that DL practices is, I think we can safely say, made up from whole cloth. And yet, here she is! Because we're dealing with a simulated world, in which these pop culture images ARE reality. There's no Godzilla in the so-called "real world" either, unless I have been badly misinformed. And let's not forget about the Thanatoids, either. They're not really there, you know. And yet--there they are! Prairie even becomes friends with one! Who else could do something so simultaneously inexplicable, funny, and haunting and make it work?

Look at the series of increasingly surreal biopic titles, culminating in my favorite, "Peewee Herman in The Robert Musil Story." We're well and truly through the looking glass, people! Everything is mediated through the screen. The way the flashback story is told--through a complex series of stories and stories-within-stories viewed by Prairie through old film footage. We are dealing with a virtuoso here, folks.

And all of this on top of a genuine, old-school utopia--"Vineland the Good." That's what really makes it, in my opinion. In spite of the surreal, postmodern atmosphere, the novel remains firmly grounded in--well, not "reality," exactly, but in something authentic. Although the simulated world is clearly part of what did in People's Republic of Rock'n'Roll, that doesn't mean that it's all bad or that there's nothing worth fighting for. Look: there may only be ninjas because this is a media-saturated environment, but the fact remains that DL's ninja skillz come in awfully handy. It's a tradeoff, but the point is, the world isn't nothing but a barren, desolate hellscape.

Some people criticize the ending as overly Hollywood-ish. The fools! On the one hand, yes, obviously, part of the reason it ends this way is because that's how a movie would end. But on the other, it is quite apparent that Pynchon is really very fond of these characters, and that doesn't prevents him from despairing, somehow. Look at Against the Day's ending--same thing. In the midst of all this suffering and oppression and artificiality, somehow, always, there is a light that never goes out. That could be his credo.


Blogger :-| pontificated to the effect that...

...thanks for that fine essay. Pynchon never ceases to amaze.

9:56 PM  

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