Vineland Review, Time Magazine
The Spores of Paranoia
by Paul Gray
Time, Jan 15, 1990
It is one of the better-known opening lines in American literature: "A screaming comes across the sky." Thus begins Gravity's Rainbow (1973), the mammoth and, to many, impenetrable novel that established Thomas Pynchon as the most important and mysterious writer of his generation. While his cult exfoliated, the author mostly remained silent; Slow Learner, a collection of five previously published stories, appeared in 1984. Now, at last, comes Vineland, Pynchon's first novel in nearly 17 years, and the faithful can again begin the quest for runic meanings, preferably hidden. And right up at the top of the second page of text, something interesting glimmers: "Desmond was out on the porch, hanging around his dish, which was always empty because of the blue jays who came screaming down out of the redwoods and carried off the food in it piece by piece."
From the sound of a V-2 rocket descending on London in the earlier novel to the cries of birds pilfering dog food in Vineland: um, as a Pynchon character might say, there seems to have been a little downscaling going on around here. The perception is accurate but also, as things develop, a trifle misleading. True, this time out Pynchon has not tried to top the apocalypse of Gravity's Rainbow. He has chosen a subject that may even cause some groaning (Oh, come on, man, grow up) among reviewers and fans: the attempts of some aging hippies to steer clear of the narcs.
Patience at this point is advisable, because it will be rewarded. The year is 1984, although flashbacks soon come thick and fast. The setting is Vineland County, a fictional, fog-shrouded expanse of Northern California where, as one character remarks, "half the interior hasn't even been surveyed."
The spot is a perfect refuge for a remnant of wilting flower children, including Zoyd Wheeler, a part-time keyboard player, handyman and marijuana farmer. Along with his teenage daughter Prairie, Zoyd still mourns the departure and later disappearance of his ex-wife Frenesi, a onetime '60s radical who was seduced into becoming a Government informer by a notoriously malevolent federal prosecutor named Brock Vond. He has apparently not finished hounding the Wheelers and others. As one observer notes, "Nobody knows just what's goin' on, except there's a nut case leading a heavily armed strike force loose in California."
These details establish the absolutely typical Pynchon plot. An evil, well- organized and immensely powerful enemy sows "the merciless spores of paranoia" among a shaggy, lost group of drifting souls who find the real world threatening under the best of circumstances. The intended victims, not all of whom think too clearly anymore, have other problems as well, including the task of making sense out of what is happening to them while knowing that sense, strictly defined, is a weapon of the other side. Caught between these opposing, mismatched factions is a child, Prairie, who would dearly love to find, and love, her mother.
But the novel is only marginally about dopers and spoilsport law-enforcement types. The showdown looming in Vineland County serves as the melody for a series of dazzling riffs on the 1970s and early '80s. It comes as a surprise to realize that these generations are the lost ones in Pynchon's fiction. V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) anticipated but arrived just before the triumphant effulgence of television and youth culture in American life; Gravity's Rainbow was chiefly set during World War II. So Vineland amounts to Pynchon's first words on the way we have been living during the past two decades.
Wretchedly funny excess seems the point of the exercise, not to mention the hallmark of the years portrayed. Pynchon's technique is to turn up the volume on contemporary reality, fiddle with the contrast and horizontal hold, in order to produce scenes that are both distorted and recognizable, and a pretty good indication of where all the current trends may be heading.
The people in Vineland have been steeped in TV long enough to become pickled. Some of them are Tubefreeks, whose habits of Tubal abuse alert the vigilant authorities at NEVER (National Endowment for Video Education and Rehabilitation). No one, however ascetic, seems immune to this electronic rescrambling of brain cells. A member of the Thanatoids, a Northern California cult enamored of death and resentful at still being alive, notes that his people look at TV religiously: "There'll never be a Thanatoid sitcom, 'cause all they could show'd be scenes of Thanatoids watchin' the Tube!"
The tide of pop culture even swamps the high mountain ridge where sits the Retreat of the Kunoichi Attentives, a commune of women militantly opposed to male militarism. The library there contains hundreds of audiotapes, including The Chipmunks Sing Marvin Hamlisch. When a disciple commits a grievous offense against the rules of the order, she faces fearsome punishment, including "the Ordeal of the Thousand Broadway Show Tunes." As a rule, though, piped-in images are perceived as comforting. During her irregular childhood with Zoyd, Prairie sometimes wishes that she could be a member of "some family in a car, with no problems that couldn't be solved in half an hour of wisecracks and commercials." Near the end of the novel, when Prairie gets to meet her mother, nothing will do but that the child sing the theme song from Gilligan's Island.
Pynchon's devotion to electronic allusions has been criticized before, and Vineland will no doubt increase the number of protests. It is, admittedly, disquieting to find a major author drawing cultural sustenance from The Brady Bunch and I Love Lucy instead of The Odyssey and the Bible. But to condemn Pynchon for this strategy is to confuse the author with his characters. He is a gifted man with anti-elitist sympathies. Like some fairly big names in innovative fiction, including Flaubert, Joyce and Faulkner, Pynchon writes about people who would not be able to read the books in which they appear. As a contemporary bonus, Pynchon's folks would not even be interested in trying. That is part of the sadness and the hilarity of this exhilarating novel.