The Nation Review - John Leonard
Vineland - Reviewed by John Leonard
The Nation - February 26, 1990
Vol. 250; No. 8; Pg. 281
Vineland a multimedia semithriller, a Star Wars for the counterculture is easier to read than anything else by Thomas Pynchon except The Crying of Lot 49. Like Crying, it's a brief for the disinherited and dispossessed, the outlaws and outcasts of an underground America. Also like Crying, I suspect it's a breather between biggies. It doesn't feel like something obsessed-about and fine-tuned for the seventeen years since Gravity's Rainbow. It feels unbuttoned, as though the author-god had gone to a ballgame; another, darker, magisterial mystification is implied, maybe the rumored Mason-Dixon opus. This doesn't make Vineland a Sunday in the Park with George, but at least it can be summarized without my sounding too much like an idiot.
Where is "Vineland"?
In northern California's redwoods, "a Harbor of Refuge" since the middle of the nineteenth century "to Vessels that may have suffered on their way North from the strong headwinds that prevail along this coast." (p. 316) It's also a republic of metaphors, a theme park of sixties obsessions television, mysticism, revolution, rock and roll, Vietnam, drugs, paranoia and repression. And it refers as well to the Vinland of the old Norse sagas, what the Vikings called America. (I wasted time looking up the Vikings. How far did their dragonships get? Explain that Viking tower in Newport, Rhode Island, and those Minnesota runes. Was Quetzalcoatl actually a Viking? Is Pynchon singing some rock saga about another of his unmapped kingdoms, like Vheissu, the "dream of annihilation" at the heart of V.?) Anyway, it's symbolic: a Third World.
What happens to whom, and when, in this "Vineland"?
In Orwellian 1984, midway through the Reagan gerontocracy, refugees from the sixties are having a hard time. Zoyd Wheeler, who used to deal dope and play keyboard in a rock band, is a "gypsy roofer" trying to take care of his teenage daughter, Prairie. Prairie's in love with a heavy metal neofascist and misses the mother she hasn't seen since babyhood. This mother, the almost mythical Frenesi, belonged in the sixties to a band of guerrilla moviemakers, the Death to the Pig Nihilist Film Kollective, but she was more or less abducted by the malign federal prosecutor Brock Vond and "turned" into an "independent contractor" for F.B.I. sting operations. When Justice Department budget cuts "disappear" Frenesi from the government computer, Vond is frantic. Expecting her to show up in Vineland, he plots to frame Zoyd, kidnap Prairie and scorch every pot plantation north of "San Narcisco." (Think of Panama.)
In other words, "the State law-enforcement apparatus ... calling itself America' declares total war on the leftover flower children. It's a made-for-TV rerun. Back in the sixties Vond's feds destroyed a college-campus People's Republic of Rock and Roll and trucked the student revolutionaries off to camps for a Political Re-education Program (PREP). This is where he turned Frenesi. When Vond invades Vineland, Zoyd and Prairie are assisted in their resistance by the woman warrior DL Chastain; by the Japanese private eye Takeshi; by the D.E.A. renegade and television addict Hector Zuniga; by the Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives, a convent of Ninjettes in the karmic adjustment racket; by Vato and Blood, who steal cars and traffic with ghosts; by punk rockers, Jesus bikers, Mafia hoods and three generations of Left Coast Wobblies, including Frenesi's mother, Sasha, who may or may not be a member of the Party. Is any of this funny?
Of course it's funny. Not only does Pynchon know more than we do about almost everything communications theory, stimulus-response psychology, rocket science, Catatonic Expressionism, entropy, gauchos and stamps but what he doesn't know, he makes up. In Vineland, for instance, ping-ponging between the sixties and the eighties, he makes up TV movies: John Ritter in The Bryant Gumbel Story, Pee-wee Herman in The Robert Musil Story, Woody Allen in Young Kissinger. Not to mention a docudrama about the Boston Celtics with Paul McCartney as Kevin McHale and Sean Penn as Larry Bird. And not even to think about The Chipmunks Sing Marvin Hamlisch.
There are, besides, the Bodhi Dharma Pizza Temple, "a classic example of the California pizza concept at its most misguided:' and a controlled-environment mall called the Noir Center, with an upscale mineral-water boutique (Bubble Indemnity), a perfume and cosmetics shop (The Mall Tease Flacon) and a New York deli (The Lady n' the Lox).
Of all the funny names Weed Atman, Ditzah and Zipi Pisk, Ortho Bob, Mirage my favorite is Isaiah Two Four, Prairie's heavy metal boyfriend, named by his parents for the swords-into-plowshares, spears-into-pruning-hooks passage from the Bible. No wonder Isaiah wants to start a chain of Violence Centers, each to include "automatic weapon firing ranges, paramilitary fantasy adventures ... and video game rooms for the kids." These centers would presumably compete with the "fantasy marathons" of the Kunoichi Sisterhood that feature "group rates on Kiddie Ninja weekends:' I also laughed at a Sisterhood self-criticism session devoted to scullery duty as a decoding of individual patterns of not-eating." And of the many songs Pynchon's written for his various musicians, the funniest is "Just a floo-zy with-an U-u-zi."
Can we count on the usual entropy, paranoia and Manicheism?
Yes, as well as some terrific rhapsodies on water, cars and parrots. And the paranoids are right. They (narcs, RICOS, yuppies, television anchorfaces, earth-rapers, treekillers, random urine-sniffers, sex-hating deathloving Wasteland thought police) are out to get us (whomever: civil liberties, due process, readers of Pynchon and The Nation). And they use us against us. At PREP,
- Brock Vond's genius was to have seen in the activities of the sixties left not threats to order but unacknowledged desires for it. While the Tube was proclaiming youth revolution against parents of all kinds and most viewers were accepting this story, Brock saw the deep if he'd allowed himself to feel it, the sometimes touching need to stay children forever, safe inside some extended national Family. [...] They'd only been listening to the wrong music, breathing the wrong smoke, admiring the wrong personalities. They needed some reconditioning. (p. 269) [...] the long-haired bodies, men who had grown feminine, women who had become small children, flurries of long naked limbs, little girls naked under boyfriends' fringe jackets, eyes turned down, away, never meeting those of their questioners, boys with hair over their shoulders, hair that kept getting in their eyes ... the sort of mild herd creatures who belonged, who'd feel, let's face it, much more comfortable, behind fences. Children longing for discipline.
Only this time we win. You have to understand entropy not just as the heat-death of a culture but as equilibrium. As Pynchon clued us in his first famous short story ("Entropy"), with nods to Henry Adams, so he clues us here by quoting another American crazy, Emerson, from William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience: " Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice. It is impossible to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar. Settles forever more the ponderous equator to its line, and man and mote, and star and sun, must range to it, or be pulverized by the recoil:'
For Pynchon, this is remarkably cheerful. But how are we, a bunch of dopers in the California redwoods, to prevail against the Geeks: Virgins vs. Dynamos? See below. Will we care any more about these characters than we did about, say, Benny Profane and Tyrone Slothrop?
Probably not, except for DL. Like a Buddhist or a Hume, Pynchon doesn't really believe in a self:' He's more interested in states of being and becoming. Zoyd attitudinizes, Frenesi is a computer dream of patterns, Takeshi is inscrutable, Hector is a clown and Sasha is one of Tolstoy's super-goody, clean old peasants. Even Vond, "like any of the sleek raptors that decorate fascist architecture," adds up to little more than an upwardly mobile social-control freak with a flashy line of psychic yardgoods. But as Vond talks to other men through the holes in women's bodies, so Pynchon talks to his readers through the holes in his cartoon zanies. And what he wants to talk about is "official" reality (a media fabrication) versus "unofficial" alternatives (see below).
Frenesi is Pynchon's excuse to make fun of film. According to her Kollective: A camera is a gun. An image taken is a death performed. Images put together are the substructure of an afterlife and a Judgment. We will be architects of a just Hell for the fascist pig. Death to everything that oinks! " Vond tells her, " Can't you see, the two separate worlds one always includes a camera somewhere, and the other always includes a gun, one is make-believe, one is real? What if this is some branch point in your life, where you'll have to choose between worlds?" Frenesi brought a gun and a camera to the People's Republic of Rock and Roll on the night of its destruction, not to mention fast-film 7242 and a Norwood Binary light meter, for the helicopters and the troops in blackface and "the high-ticket production of their dreams." This is "Reality Time" versus "all that art-of-the-cinema hand job:' She'll emerge from hiding and go to Vineland only because Hector promises to star her in his movie.
Hector is an excuse to talk about television. Although almost everything happens in Vineland in "sullen Tubeflicker," not always "prime time"; and odd birds sit in palm fronds to sing back at the commercials; and Zoyd, dropping acid, hopes Prairie will be there "to help him through those times when the Klingons are closing"; and Takeshi believes that television "mediates death"; and even Frenesi feels "that the rays coming out of the TV screen would act as a broom to sweep the room clear of all spirits"; and all over Vineland rival cable-television riggers exchange gunfire, "eager to claim souls for their distant principals, fighting it out house by house," only Hector is addicted, a Brady Buncher. When his wife kills their TV set with a frozen pot roast, Hector arrests her. He'll escape from a "Tubaldetox" program. Television is the white noise of the garrison state, the elevator Muzak of repression going down.
Zoyd is an excuse to talk about music, which he's given up, from rock in general to heavy metal ("nuke-happy cyberdeath:' "Septic Tank and Fascist Toejam") to New Age ("audio treacle," "mindbarf") and even Bach ("the best tunes ever to come out of Europe"). And everybody's freaked by computers. Prairie wonders "how literal computers could be even the spaces between characters mattered. She wondered if ghosts were only literal in the same way. Could a ghost think for herself or was she responsive totally to the needs of the still-living, needs like keystrokes entered into her world, lines of sorrow, loss, justice denied? " Frenesi, the absentee mother, is also metaphysical:
- It would all be done with keys on alphanumeric keyboards that stood for weightless, invisible chains of electronic presence or absence [...] We are all digits in God's computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to a sort of standard gospel tune, And the only thing we're good for, to be dead or to be living, is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God. (p. 90)
Whereas Sasha is Pynchon's excuse to talk about one of the alternatives to media reality the lost history of radical politics in the American West, long before Pacifica or Savio or People's Park; the organizing of loggers, miners and canneries; the strikes against San Joaquin cotton, Ventura sugar beets, Venice lettuce; Tom Mooney, Culbert Olson, Hollywood craft unions and fifties blacklists. This repressed progressive history and its media denial seem at first the subtext of Vineland. These people did more for the revolution than sing about it or dope themselves stupid. Nor did they surf.
But this is to reckon without the alternative (and competing) unofficial realities of the Indians and the dolphins and DL Chastain, the kick-ass woman warrior. In every Pynchon novel, there's a woman we love Rachel Owlglass in V., Oedipa Maas in Crying, Katje or Greta in Gravity's Rainbow because in the satiric muddle she seems to point north to a magnetic pole of decencies. DL is the one we care about here. Though trained in a variety of martial arts strategies, from the Vibrating Palm and the Kasumi Mist to "the Enraged Sparrow, the Hidden Foot, the Nosepicking of Death and the truly unspeakable Gojira no Chimpira:' equally at home among the Kunoichi Sisters and the Yakmaf, she is nevertheless Frenesi's loyal friend and Prairie's resourceful protector and Takeshi's eventual lover. Like her comrades on a rescue mission into "the Cold War dream" of PREP, we believe in DLs "proprietary whammies" "the same way in those days it was possible to believe in acid, or the imminence of revolution, or the disciplines, passive and active, of the East." She's also Pynchon's door to the Orient, into which, it seems to me, he disappears.
Now I can sound like an idiot.
I haven't mentioned the Thanatoids, nor their Vineland suburb of Shade Creek. You reach Shade Creek by water and darkness, often with the help of Vato and Blood, those strippers of cars and souls. It's a ghost town, except the ghosts aren't dead yet. They are an "unseen insomniac population"' refugees from history, residues of memory, victims of "karmic imbalances unanswered blows, unredeemed suffering, escapes by the guilty anything that frustrated their daily expeditions on into the interior of Death, with Shade Creek a psychic jumping-off town-behind it, unrolling, regions unmapped, dwelt in by those transient souls in constant turnover."
Think of them as the un-grateful semi-dead.
Thanatoids, instead of rock and roll, sing songs like " Who's Sorry Now? "; "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues"; "Don't Get Around Much Anymore"; As Time Goes By." They watch television, although they learned long ago "to limit themselves, as they always did in other areas, only to emotions helpful in setting right whatever was keeping them from advancing further into the condition of death. Among these the most common by far was resentment, constrained as Thanatoids were by history and by rules of imbalance and restoration to feel little else beyond their needs for revenge:'
Weed Atman, the Timothy Leary-like mathematics professor who rose implausibly to become guru of the People's Republic of Rock and Roll before Frenesi betrayed him, is a Thanatoid. So are many Vietnam veterans, like Ortho Bob. Ortho Bob explains to Takeshi that "in traditional karmic adjustment ... Death was the driving pulse everything had moved as slowly as the cycles of birth and death, but this proved to be too slow for enough people to begin, eventually, to provide a market niche. There arose a system of deferment, of borrowing against karmic futures. Death, in Modern Karmic Adjustment, got removed from the process." Takeshi, like the Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives, sees the moneymaking possibilities of a "Karmology hustle:' So, apparently, do Vato and Blood, Charons on the Shade Creek Styx. When Vond comes looking for Frenesi, he'll meet Vato and Blood instead, while the leftover flower children are at a picnic with the leftover Wobblies and a Russian punk rocker who wandered into the redwoods.
According to Takeshi, if none of this other stuff works, "we can always go for the reincarnation option!' Takeshi is into the Bardo Thodol, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, with souls in transition, denying death, unable to distinguish between "the weirdness of life and the weirdness of death!' So, of course, are the Thanatoids. But in a way, everybody in Vineland is a Thanatoid, a deadhead, full of bad faith; equally guilty, resentful and nostalgic; under(ghost)cover, in motion through varying thicknesses of memory and light toward a reckoning. Zoyd's sixties surfer band, the Corvairs, found "strange affinities" with the subculture of "beer riders of the valleys": both rode a "technowave ... Surfers rode God's ocean, beer riders rode the momentum through the years of the auto industry's will." (p. 37) DL, in her Ninjamobile, has an L.A. freeway vision of screaming black motorcades, cruisers, huge double and triple trailer rigs, flirters, deserters, wimps and pimps, speeding like bullets, grinning like chimps, above the heads of TV watchers, lovers under the overpasses, movies at malls letting out, bright gasstation oases in pure fluorescent spill, canopied beneath the palm trees, soon wrapped, down the corridors of the surface streets, in nocturnal smog, the adobe air, the smell of distant fireworks, the spilled, the broken world.
Frenesi dreams of a "Gentle Flood"' of standing
- just above the surf, looking toward a horizon she couldn't see, as if into a wind that might really be her own passage, destination unknown, and heard a voice, singing across the Flood, this wonderful song [...] telling of the divers, who would come not now but soon, and descend into the Flood and bring back up for us "whatever has been taken," the voice promised, "whatever has been lost." (p. 256)
But there were ghosts before the sixties the Yurok Indians. Early Russian and Spanish visitors to Vineland felt some "invisible boundary" the Indians "might have known about but did not share ... black tips of seamounts emerging from gray sea fringed in bruteinnocent white breakings, basalt cliffs like castle ruins, the massed and breathing redwoods, alive forever ... the call to attend to territories of the spirit:' And there were ghosts even before there were Indians. Past the lights of Vineland, "the river took back its oldest form, became what for the Yuroks it had always been, a river of ghosts" with spirits called woge, "creatures who had been living here when the first humans came" who went away, eastward, over the mountains or "nestled all together in giant redwood boats, singing unison chants of dispossession and exile." Trails without warning "would begin to descend into the earth, toward Tsoerek, the worlds of the dead." Eco-freaky hippies tell Vato and Blood that
- this watershed, was sacred and magical, and that the woge were really the porpoises, who had left their world to the humans, whose hands had the same five-finger bone structure as their flippers [...] and gone beneath the ocean, right off Patrick's Point in Humboldt, to wait and see how humans did with their world. And if we started fucking up too bad [...] they would come back, teach us how to live the right way, save us. (p. 186-187)
What's going on? If we put together Shade Creek, flood dreams, technowaves, William James, porpoises and woge with Vheissu in V and the Trystero underground in Crying (clairvoyants, paranoids, outcasts and squatters swinging in "a web of telephone wires, living in the very copper rigging and secular miracle of communication, untroubled by the dumb voltages flickering their miles") and the "Deathkingdoms" and "death-colonies" Blicero apostrophizes in Gravity's Rainbow ("waste regions, Kalaharis, lakes so misty they could not see the other side' " original sin, modern analysis), we end up with something that looks a lot like if not a comic-book Thodol, then maybe that nonviolent Buddhist "global novel" Maxine Hong Kingston has been going on about recently in the pages of Mother Jones and on-gasp! the Tube. For that matter, Zoyd, Prairie, Takeshi, DL and the Wobblies look a lot like the 108 bandit-heroes of Water Margin, the Chinese Robin Hood that Kingston has so much fun with in Tripmaster Monkey.
According to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, dying takes time. We experience the supreme void as pure light and hope it takes us straightaway to Amitabha, which is for Buddhists what "one big union" was for Wobblies. If the pure light won't take us, we must wrestle with our past, our karma. Only after apparitions both beautiful and monstrous are done with our "conscious principle, will we be reborn-the "reincarnation option"as something else, somewhere other, on the great wheel, Pynchon calls this place, in the last word of Vineland, "home." Wouldn't it be sweet to think so?