Vineland Review, New York Times
Still Crazy After All These Years
Date: January 14, 1990, Sunday, Late Edition
Final Section 7; Page 1, Column 1; Book Review Desk
Byline: By SALMAN RUSHDIE; Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses and other novels, is completing a new work of fiction.
VINELAND, By Thomas Pynchon
385 pp. Boston: Little, Brown & Company. $19.95.
So, he's back, and the question that occurs to you on finishing Vineland is, what took him so long? Because this doesn't feel like a book written to break a block; it isn't congested or stop-start or stiff; matter of fact, it's free-flowing and light and funny and maybe the most readily accessible piece of writing the old Invisible Man ever came up with. It is also not the book we thought Thomas Pynchon was writing.
We heard he was doing something about Lewis and Clark? Mason and Dixon? A Japanese science-fiction novel? And one spring in London a magazine announced the publication of a 900-page Pynchon megabook about the American Civil War, published in true Pynchonian style by a small press nobody ever heard of, and I was halfway to the door before I remembered what date it was, April 1, ho ho ho. What happened to those spectral books? Did they never exist? Are we about to get a great rush of Pynchon novels? The answer is blowin' in the wind.
Because one thing that has not changed about Mr. P. is his love of mystification. The secrecy surrounding the publication of this book - his first novel since Gravity's Rainbow in 1973 - has been, let's face it, ridiculous. I mean, rilly. So he wants a private life and no photographs and nobody to know his home address. I can dig it, I can relate to that (but, like, he should try it when it's compulsory instead of a free-choice option). But for his publisher to withhold reviewers' copies and give critics maybe a week to deal with what took him almost two decades, now that's truly weird, bad craziness, give it up.
Other things, too, have remained constant in the Pynchonian universe, where these are days of miracle and wonder, like Doonesbury written by Duke instead of Garry Trudeau, and the paranoia runs high because behind the heavy scenes and bad trips and Karmic Adjustments move the shadowy invisible forces, the true Masters of the Universe, the unrelenting forces that leaned ever after . . . into Time's wind, impassive in pursuit, usually gaining, the faceless predators . . . [who] had simply persisted, stone-humorless, beyond cause and effect, rejecting all attempts to bargain or accommodate, following through pools of night where nothing else moved wrongs forgotten by all but the direly possessed, continuing as a body to refuse to be bought off for any but the full price, which they had never named.
That's what we're up against, folks, and what Mr. Pynchon used to set against it in the old days was entropy, seen as a slow, debauched, never-ending party, a perpetual coming-down, shapeless and meaningless and therefore unshaped and uncontrolled: freedom is chaos, he told us, but so is destruction, and that's the high wire, walk it if you can. And now here we are in Vineland, and the entropy's still flowing, but there's something new to report, some faint possibility of redemption, some fleeting hints of happiness and grace. Thomas Pynchon, like Paul Simon's girl in New York City, who calls herself the Human Trampoline, is bouncing into Graceland.
It's 1984 in Vineland County, in northern California. Dates really matter in this book. Even the movies come with dates attached: Return of the Jedi (1983), Friday the 13th (1980) (Everybody was Jason that year), Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956). We're talking mass culture here, and mall culture, too, because this is a 1984 flowing with designer seltzer by Alaia and Blass and Yves, and the malls have names like Noir Center (as in film noir) and the mall rats have names like Che. And, in this 1984 that Orwell could never have imagined, the skies contain marauders who can remove people from commercial airliners in midair, and a research lab belonging to a shadowy world conglomerate named Chipco can be stomped into Totality, flattened beneath a gigantic and inexplicable animal footprint, size 20,000 or thereabouts. This 1984 is also Ronald Reagan's re-election year, and that, for all the leftover hippies and 60's activists and survivors and casualties, could mean it's time for the last roundup.
Listen closely now: Zoyd Wheeler, father of beautiful teen-age Prairie, whose mother, Frenesi Gates, went off with the arch-baddie Brock Vond, Federal prosecutor and psychopath, collects mental disability checks from the state by jumping through plate-glass windows once a year. The novel begins with such a jump, and thereafter fragments into myriad different narrative shards (but, at the end, the pieces all leap off the floor and fit miraculously together, as if a film were being run backward). Prairie is obsessed with her vanished mother, and so is everyone else in the novel: so is Zoyd, so is Brock Vond, who was her lover and who turned her from a radical film maker, the child of a blacklisted and Wobbly family, into an F.B.I. sting specialist, and turned her toward her own dark side. Frenesi, meanwhile, is out of sight, having been axed by Reaganomics from the slashed F.B.I. budget, so that at the center of this novel by the master of vanishing acts is a largely invisible woman, whom we learn about through the eyes of others.
Now then: Vond appears to be after Prairie, maybe to use her against Frenesi, so Zoyd, as he dives for cover, sends her into hiding as well. Prairie's odyssey takes her closer and closer to Frenesi, by way of a band called Billy Barf and the Vomitones, whom she follows to a mob wedding where she meets her mother's old friend, the Ninjette Darryl Louise (DL) Chastain, who was once obliged, by the mob boss Ralph Wayvone, to try to assassinate Brock Vond by using, during the sexual act, the Ninja Death Touch, also known as the Vibrating Palm, which the victim never feels and which kills him a year later, while you're having lunch with the police chief - except that Vond, skilled in eluding death (He's the Roadrunner, says Wayvone, admiringly), manages to send along in his place the Japanese private eye Takeshi Fumimota, who gets the Vibrating Palm by mistake; and, as if that weren't enough trouble for Takeshi, he's also being chased by the same malign forces that arranged for the Chipco stomping, which he investigated.
And anyhow, through DL and Takeshi, Prairie gets to find the doors to her mother's past, on computer records and in film archives and in the memory of Frenesi's old friends, and we reach the story's dark heart, namely the events that took place in the 1960's at Trasero County's College of the Surf, which renamed itself, after the fashion of those loon-panted days, the People's Republic of Rock and Roll. And we hear, as Prairie hears it, how her mother betrayed the leader of this little revolution, who rejoiced in the name of Weed Atman, and who now, after death, still roams the forests of northern California as a Thanatoid, a member of the undead, unable to find peace. And eventually Prairie's search for Frenesi, and Brock's search for Prairie and Frenesi (which takes him, along with a huge strike force, to Vineland) come to a climax, complete with helicopters and Thanatoids and family reunions and an old woman and an old man who can remove your bones and leave the rest of you alive. You get the picture.
It either grabs you or it doesn't, I guess. It grabbed me. I laughed, many times, out loud, often at Mr. Pynchon's absurdly brilliant way with names (a manufacturer of microchip musical gimmickry is called Tokkata & Fuji, which to my mind is as funny as the German town in Gravity's Rainbow named Bad Karma) and at the little songs with which I'm happy to report he's still littering his texts, high points of this particular set being the Desi Arnaz-style croon, Es posible, and Billy Barf's three-note blues called I'm a Cop, with lyrics that are, unfortunately, unprintable here.
There is enough in Vineland to obsess the true, mainlining Pynchomane for a goodly time. One could consider, for example, the significance of the letter V in Mr. Pynchon's oeuvre. His novel V. was actually V-shaped, two narratives zeroing in on a point, and Gravity's Rainbow was the flight path of a V-2 rocket, a deadly parabola that could also be described as an inverted V. And here's the letter again - what does it mean? - with all the death imagery in this novel, with its use of old Amerindian death myths. Are we being told that America in 1984 is in fact the land of the dead, V-land, the universe beyond the zero? One could do a number of further riffs on the more allegorical of the names: Weed - marijuana, and Atman - soul; and, hey, Frenesi turns out to be an anagram of free and sin, the two sides of her nature, light and dark, just as the hero of Gravity's Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop, could be made to reveal his essence anagrammatically, turning into sloth or entropy. Sure, it's still working, that ole anagrammar.
But what is perhaps most interesting, finally, about Mr. Pynchon's new novel is what is different about it. What is interesting is the willingness with which he addresses, directly, the political development of the United States, and the slow (but not total) steamrollering of a radical tradition many generations and decades older than flower power. There is a marvelously telling moment when Brock Vond's brainchild, his school for subversion in which lefties are re-educated and turned into tools of the state, is closed down because in Reagan's America the young think like that to begin with, they don't need re-education.
What is interesting is to have before us, at the end of the Greed Decade, that rarest of birds: a major political novel about what America has been doing to itself, to its children, all these many years. And as Thomas Pynchon turns his attention to the nightmares of the present rather than the past, his touch becomes lighter, funnier, more deadly. And most interesting of all this is that aforementioned hint of redemption, because this time entropy is not the only counterweight to power; community, it is suggested, might be another, and individuality, and family. These are the values the Nixon-Reagan era stole from the 60's and warped, aiming them back at America as weapons of control. They are values that Vineland seeks to recapture, by remembering what they meant before the dirt got thrown all over them, by recalling the beauty of Frenesi Gates before she turned.
Thomas Pynchon is no sentimentalist, however, and the balance between light and dark is expertly held throughout this novel, so that we remain uncertain until the final pages as to which will prevail, hippie heaven or Federal nemesis. And we are left, at the last, with an image of such shockingly apt moral ambiguity that it would be quite wrong to reveal it here.
Vineland, Mr. Pynchon's mythical piece of northern California, is, of course, also Vinland, the country discovered by the Viking Leif Ericsson long before Columbus. It is Vineland the Good; that is to say, this crazed patch of California stands for America itself. And it is here, to Vineland, that one of America's great writers has, after long wanderings down his uncharted roads, come triumphantly home.
INCHES FROM THE EDGE
Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge represents a transition, in the metaphysics of the region, there to be felt even by travelers unwary as Zoyd. When the busful of northbound hippies first caught sight of it, just at sundown as the fog was pouring in, the towers and cables ascending into pale gold otherworldly billows, you heard a lot of Wow, and Beautiful, though Zoyd only found it beautiful the way a firearm is, because of the bad dream unreleased inside it, in this case the brute simplicity of height, the finality of what swept below relentlessly out to sea. They rose into the strange gold smothering, visibility down to half a car length. . . .
Trees. Zoyd must have dozed off. He woke to rain coming down in sheets, the smell of redwood trees in the rain through the open bus windows, tunnels of unbelievably tall straight red trees whose tops could not be seen pressing in to either side.... The storm lashed the night, dead trees on slow log trucks reared up in the high-beams shaggy and glistening, the highway was interrupted by flooding creeks and minor slides that often obliged the bus to creep around inches from the edge of Totality. Aislemates struck up conversations, joints appeared and were lit, guitars came down from overhead racks and harmonicas out of fringe bags, and soon there was a concert that went on all night, a retrospective of the times they'd come through more or less as a generation, the singing of rock and roll, folk, Motown, fifties oldies, and at last, for about an hour just before the watery green sunrise, one guitar and one harmonica, playing the blues.