Yale Review - "State and Vine"
State and Vine
by Richard Powers
From Yale Review, Vol. 79, No. 4, Summer, 1990, pp. 690-8.
A Corporate State, as the quickest study among slow learners long ago pointed out, knows how to turn even innocence to its many uses. Childhood, vulnerability, every fairy tale that ever soothed us to sleep will, along with the rest of individual experience, be exploited, interrogated, made to turn a profit, put to efficacious and pacifying work by the controlling powers. Such a nightmarish historical motion pervades Gravity's Rainbow, one of the most astonishing and urgent American novels ever written. Politics, that exhaustive, eschatological proverb for paranoids sez, advances inexorably on the moment when the State will achieve its program, when government will at last seal off and package innocence, gaining a legislative stranglehold on pleasure. Pynchon's first novel in the seventeen years since Gravity's Rainbow suggests that this moment has already arrived, is here, in the United States of the eighties, a sad, hilarious, self-parodic, sprawling, terminally straightjacketed, desperate, co-opted, but somehow still kicking and innocent place: Vineland, Vineland the Good.
It says something about how very different this new book is for Pynchon that a plot synopsis is at least possible, if only just. And especially for a book that revels in invention and event, plot is the only map into the heart of the matter. At the center of the story, yet disturbingly elusive, is this world's Chief Innocent, Frenesi Gates. She is, by turns and depending upon the observer, "a little kid alone at a dangerous time of day, not yet aware of her mom's absence," and a "third-generation lefty who'd likely've bombed the Statue of Liberty if she could." Born into California labor-movement lineage just after World War II, named for an Artie Shaw tune, and brought up during the 1950s in Hollywood, where her parents suffered political persecution, Frenesi comes of age at Berkeley and joins the radical, high-sixties film cooperative, 24fps. Celluloid is this group's Semtex:
- They particularly believed in the ability of close-ups to reveal and devastate. When power corrupts, it keeps a log of its progress, written into that most sensitive memory device, the human face. Who could withstand the light? What viewer could believe in the war, the system, the countless lies about American freedom, looking into these mug shots of the bought and sold?
Frenesi's foil and physical intimate in the film collective is Darryl Louise (DL) Chastain, an Eastern mystic and martial-arts adept, aggressive and pragmatic where Frenesi is idealistic and ethereal. The group travels to the tiny Southern Californian College of the Surf, which has just declared itself the People's Republic of Rock and Roll, "the one constant they knew they could count on never to die." Filming the formation of this fledgling, few-acre sovereign state, Frenesi becomes the lover of the activist leader Weed Atman and, at the same time, of the federal prosecutor villain, Brock Vond, who has been sent in to subvert the ingenuous uprising.
Prosecutor Vond, a thoroughly sadistic control freak, exercises hypnotic sexual power over Frenesi, who has inherited her mother's obsession with uniforms:
- [Frenesi's mother] on her own had arrived at, and been obliged to face, the dismal possibility that all her oppositions, however just and good, to forms of power were really acts of denying that dangerous swoon that came creeping at the edges of her optic lobes every time the troops came marching by, that wetness of attention and perhaps ancestral curse.
Frenesi's swoon, her involvement with Vond, deepens until she is supplying him with film, then information, then assistance. As her ultimate act of servility, she discredits the activist Weed and then facilitates his murder. Weed's death precipitates the collapse of the People's Republic, and Vond's forces ice the demise with a massacre midway between Kent State and Tiananmen Square. Frenesi is rounded up, along with others from the collapsed revolution, and taken to a detention camp, part of Vond's pet Political Re-Education Program (PREP) to turn civil detainees into government snitches. Her friend DL, loyal despite the evidence, springs the at-best-ambivalent Frenesi from the camp. But when Frenesi confesses everything, the two women split in mutual recrimination, the film cooperative dissolves, and the sixties come to an inglorious end, much as they did in the wider world.
The seventies, too, play out true to the big picture: a more or less lost decade for this lot. DL is conscripted into a Mob effort to eighty-six Vond, now her sworn enemy. She attempts to hit him with the Vibrating Palm, or Ninja Death Touch, a delayed-action lethal technique picked up from her years at that "Esalen Institute for lady ass-kickers," the Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives. By mistake, she instead zaps a Japanese speed-chomping investigator named Takeshi Fumimota. As an antidote and act of contrition, she becomes Takeshi's assistant, and the two of them set up business in Karmic Adjustments. Their principal clients are the Thanatoids, a community of damaged souls who have given up all worldly interests except watching the Tube and concentrating on "emotions helpful in setting right whatever was keeping them from advancing further into the condition of death."
Meanwhile, Frenesi wanders directly from her break with DL and 24fps into marriage with Zoyd Wheeler, a druggie piano player with the Corvairs (also known, in an attempt to catch a meager wave, as the Surfadelics). The match is more for cover than for love. Equally rapidly, she has a baby girl, Prairie. But redemption and family are not enough. When Vond suddenly reenters her life—pulling her over on the highway, spreading her legs, and frisking her—Frenesi abandons husband and infant to pursue the old obsession with uniforms and power.
Vond uses a DEA narc named Hector Zuniga, whose calling it is to torment eternally Frenesi's ex-husband, to set Zoyd up. Then Vond cuts a deal with Zoyd: take the infant Prairie, and regular government checks, and never let Frenesi near her daughter again. Zoyd chooses these terms over life in prison, and he brings Prairie up the California coast to Vineland, a last redwooded stand of American wilderness. There, in order to continue receiving the checks, officially for mental disability, Zoyd must perform some suitably insane act annually. He specializes in transfenestration—plunging through windows.
Frenesi, too, must accept terms from Vond. When the decisive year 1984 arrives, she is living a dismal, transient existence as a member of that very species her whole upbringing and conscience have taught her to detest: a government snitch, sting specialist, independent operator. She is remarried, to another low-level government snitch—again not for love—with whom she's had a son. They are being sheltered by the government in a witness-protection program. But "independent operator" is a euphemism for "instantly deniable," and it is this denial—Frenesi's removal from the files and abandonment to Reaganomic cutbacks—that launches the last chapter of these interlocked lives.
Narc Hector returns to plague Zoyd, telling him that Frenesi, long underground, has been flushed from the government computers and forced back to the surface. Hector seeks Zoyd's help in finding Frenesi, whom Hector wants to star in his government-backed feature film on the horrors of drug ingestion. But the DEA man now has a substance-abuse problem of his own: he has escaped from a Tubaldetox clinic, where treatment strategies for Tube addiction range from the homeopathic ("a retinal diet of scientifically calculated short video clips of what in full dosage would, according to theory, have destroyed his sanity") to the New Age cure of Transcendence Through Saturation. Hector, a real cop, has delusions that he is a TV one.
At the same time, Zoyd's house is seized by a military strike force under civil RICO. Zoyd goes into hiding, and his daughter Prairie, now a very mature fourteen, takes off with her punk-rocker boyfriend Isaiah Two Four, whose band, Billy Barland and the Vomitones, metamorphoses into Gino Baglione and the Paisans in order to play a Mafia wedding. ("Mr. Wayvone says he was hoping he wouldn't have to go into too many details with you, but that he was thinking more along the lines of 'C'e la Luna.' 'Way Marie'—you know, sing-along stuff.") At the wedding, a transmitter business card that Zoyd once received from Takeshi for saving his life and that Zoyd has passed on to his daughter brings Prairie to the attention of her mother's old friend DL, who is there as the guest of the man who once hired her to kill Brock Vond. (As in other Pynchoniana, everyone connects to everyone else, and nobody knows anyone.) DL takes Prairie under her wing and, through computer files and old 24fps footage, introduces Prairie to the mother she never knew.
All paths converge, in the end, up in Vineland. Frenesi and her new family, on the run, are lured there by Hector and his insane movie scheme. Vond and his army pursue hotly in Huey gunships. DL and Takeshi are summoned north by the Thanatoids, who have been awakened to life and memory ("What was a Thanatoid, at the end of the long dread day, but memory?") by countless Tokkata & Fuji microchips programmed to erupt simultaneously in Bach's "Wachet Auf!" Frenesi, her parents, Prairie, and Zoyd all descend on their extended family's annual reunion. Denouement comes at night, when Vond, too, descends on a helicopter umbilical cable to try to kidnap Prairie, sleeping alone under the stars. He tells the girl he is her father, a claim Prairie rejects. At that moment, as if in a fairy-tale snap, Vond's authorization for rampage (a Reagan evacuation exercise called REX 84) is withdrawn and he is winched back to heaven. He tries to return alone but winds up delivered to the Yurok land of death, where Indian spirits remove his bones. Yet the story ends darkly, with Prairie in the night forest whispering her own ancestral cop fantasies to the empty sky, telling Vond that he can come back, take her anywhere he wants. She wakes to a morning evocation of nature, Vineland, as if there were still a tiny sliver of land indifferent to politics, psychology, the pathology of civilization.
Not, perhaps, your average story. At the same time, Vineland clearly represents a return, for Pynchon, to a more traditional novel. As the synopsis reveals, there is still a great deal of tragical-comical-historical-pastoral mode-mixing here, but what's new this time around is that these stances are by and large subordinated to the central thrust of the story, however much that story is a setup for the old Manichaean struggle. Once again, he do the police in many voices, and he do a dozen of the police-victim dialects as well. Only now, rather than letting those voices and moods and genres proliferate polyphonically into an immense symphony of possible worlds (ultimate tonality always withheld), the grand master of the postmodern returns to an older trade, that of writing a character-driven commentary, without sardonic deflation, about what we can know of this world, however fragmented and fantastically extended. If Frenesi herself remains a deliberate center-stage cipher, other people in Vineland are more multidimensionally flesh and blood than anyone I can remember from Pynchon's previous books.
This is not to say that he's spun a conventional tale here—not by any stretch of the imagination. Stretched imagination itself sends this book into a place all its own. The outrageous plot—impossible but meticulously justified, close enough to surreal to be our own, mundane daytime soap—the page-after-page mordents and flourishes of syntax, the manic wordplay (Check's in the mayo, Midol America, Marquis de Sod lawn care), the endless invention (reified worms playing pinochle up a man's snout, suicide fantasy packages, Sister Vince and the Harleyite order, a male biker gang posing as a convent for tax purposes), the raw specificity of detail, all trademarks of Pynchon's unique version of Brechtian epic theater, are here put to another working purpose (the same, as Vineland folks are constantly saying, only different): not Verfremdung, but a police dossier of the bizarrely, banally familiar. The book is a riot of genres and genre parodies—California gumshoe, comic book, Japanese sci-fi, kung fu, prime-time sitcom. Half its sentences perch somewhere between high and low burlesque. But his characters are too engaging, the landscape—the "thousand bloody arroyos in the hinterlands of time that stretched somberly inland from the honky-tonk coast of Now"—too close to the calcium and limestone for us to deny or fail to recognize vast tracts of it.
It would be a mistake, I think, to find in Vineland only a diminished Gravity's Rainbow or V., although the book does ask, of late-in-the-year America, what to do with a diminished thing. Nor is it simply a more mature Crying of Lot 49, which it superficially most resembles (it even features a walk-on by Mucho Maas, disk jockey now turned music industry biggie). It cannot be called realist; nor does it belong to any antithetical category. Rather, it is a deliberate departure, deploying existing motifs in a new variation, a strange hybrid of what would until now have seemed inimical ways of narrating. Dementedly and dryly funny, one of those entertaining, accessible novels that grows harder, richer, more problematic on second reading, it will nevertheless surely send ripples of shock and surprise through the raging pseudo-debate between the Pre- and Post-folks. If scope and scale are somewhat reduced, by Pynchon's standards, the concerns are not.
There is a large dose of Pynchonesque grassy-knollism in this book. References abound to resettlement camps for ensuring the domestic tranquillity come the impending confrontation (and there is some precedent for these, after all). But by and large, Pynchon's previous conspiracies of megamachine death are replaced here by more overt, visible enemies. At the rolling family reunion that ends the book, voices are "heard arguing the perennial question of whether the United States still lingered in a prefascist twilight, or whether that darkness had fallen long stupefied years ago, and the light they thought they saw was coming only from millions of Tubes all showing the same bright-colored shadows."
Here is the core argument of the book itself: the Vineland it hurts to read about is our own heartbreaking, magnificent mess of a nation-state, a self-proscribing society fervently proclaiming its freedom, plunged in a great constitutional debate over whether to jail cloth-burners, celebrating the blow for order, the flex of enforcement that allows it to nab at least certain Capital offenders without armed invasion. In Vineland, Brock Vond's forces do in fact storm "up and down the dirt lanes in formation chanting 'War-on-Drugs! War-on-Drugs!' strip-searching folks in public … as if they had invaded some helpless land far away." Drug-taking (which Pynchon admits in a few deft characterizations is not exactly yer best long-term liberator of individual potential) must be read as just one of a comprehensive range of individual pleasures under siege, the front-line target of a broader, more sadistic social regimentation: "Perfume Police. Tube Police. Music Police. Good Healthy Shit Police. Best to renounce everything now, get a head start."
The book would be far less interesting if it went no further than dopers and narcs, hedonism versus the Boys in Blue. But alongside Hector's hapless hippie-hounding and Vond's strike force thrashing about in the name of national security, there is a more insidious threat to freedom afoot, an abuse of private innocence even more fascistically comprehensive than law enforcement: the corporate in Corporate State. Everyone must be kept on the treadmill of diversion—brand names, tunes, shows—amusing themselves to death (in Postman's phrase). The deadly satellite-computer combo, the Information Age tools that make Vond and his sort invincible head-on, are supplemented by a far more deadly weapons combination: Cap'n Crunch. Film Noir Shopping Malls piping "a sprightly oboe-and-string rendition of Chuck Berry's 'Maybellene.'" Pee-wee Herman in The Robert Musil Story. A docudrama of the NBA '83-'84 championship, aired a few months after the "event." In order to keep the pump sumping, we are to accept lifestyle in place of life, to sit still and wait until the portal of retail and broadcast anesthesia pulls tight over our last lucid thoughts. Vineland, as Robert Hughes might say, has become not so much a place as a Ride. Thinking, moving, living are overwhelmed by "the ever-dwindling attention span of an ever more infantilized population."
"God," Zoyd laments, nostalgically recalling days of Vine and roses, old acid-dropping insights, "I knew then, I knew…." "Uh-huh, me too," Mucho Maas echoes:
- "That you were never going to die. Ha! No wonder the State panicked. How are they supposed to control a population that knows it'll never die? When that was always their last big chip…. Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it's what the Tube is for … just another way to claim our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die…." It was the way people used to talk.
Mediated lives and deaths, in all senses of the word: if there is something squirmingly uncomfortable about this encyclopedic, inexhaustibly inventive talent repeatedly invoking the Smurfs, well, that's where we live, Foax.
There is a third leg to this grand unified isosceles of corporation, state, and abused innocence. Data, assault helicopters, all the brutal machinery of law and its execution, even the saturation of broadcast jingles would all be helpless, Pynchon suggests, without some degree of willing assistance on the part of the victim. The assertion, over three generations of heroines, that every woman might secretly love a fascist (somewhat problematic in real life) is just for starters; we must also own up to the recognition that we secretly hope, all of us, to entrust our innocence to the State. Everyone in this book is co-opted, turned, bought off to some degree or another. "Everyone's a squealer," Frenesi's squealer husband whines. Or a collaborator, in this country under occupation. This 1984 is even more Animal Farm. Even the Harleyites are turned from their program of mayhem by a stint on "Donahue." There seems to be, in the heart's deep core, some tacit complicity pact between Light and Dark, between Hayley and Satanic Mills.
The pact results from the fact that the struggle between social order and private anarchy is not just cops versus criminals, but Id versus superego, Eros versus Thanatos:
- 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 revolutions 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 only to stay children forever, safe inside some extended national Family.
A theory of history is tucked away in here, plotting the progress of revolutions from the People's Republic of Rock and Roll ("this geist that could've been polter along with zeit") to the Reagan Bargain-Counter Reformation ("restore fascism at home and around the world.") The imminent expectation of revolutionaries is born in the child's hope for a "world newly formatted, even innocent," while the death wish of "the fascist monster, Central Power itself" against its own children has its source in a parental fear, like Brock Vond's, that "each child he thus produced, each birth, would only be another death for him." Vond and Frenesi's victim, Weed Atman, come back from the dead to walk the earth awhile among the Thanatoids, relates a dream where his two corpse-bodyguards debate Vond's motive for murder. "'It was all for love,' says one, and 'Bullshit,' the other replies, 'it was political.'" Yes, Vineland concludes, these two may come to the same thing.
This is a profoundly American book, oddly but squarely in the frontier tradition, where the bank jobs are pulled off by gangs of roller-skating mall rats in black T-shirts, where corrupt civilization is written out in endless digitized ones and zeros circumscribing all life and death, where the Redskins are called in to fillet the lawman alive, and where the West one might still escape into is reduced to a tiny but still unsurveyed enclave along the coast. Vineland is a pained comic cry for "the scabland garrison state the green free America of their childhoods even then was turning into," for "another planet … they used to call … America, long time ago, before the gutting of the Fourth Amendment."
A burlesque but deeply engaged fairy tale with real people setting the allegories in motion, the novel perilously straddles a dialogic rift: the stubbornly miraculous opposing the brutely real; inevitable annihilating power countered by a gust of antinomianism in a compliant time. Such a hybrid book runs the risk of disappointing the champions of experimentalism while still not behaving cleanly enough to satisfy the traditionalists. But as with all intensely imagined and closely observed worlds, this one is best lived in for the pleasure of engagement, without categories or preconceptions.
Ultimately, from the dedication ("to my mother and father") to the closing image of a girl invoking a father of impossible blood type to come back and ravish her, Vineland comes down to a story about parents and children—the stories one tells to placate, appease, mislead, control, co-opt, escape, and earn the love of the other. Its most engaging scenes, most convincing dialogue, most hilarious punch lines all involve mothers and fathers searching, seizing, and loving sons and daughters, and these sons and daughters refusing to submit while loving bewilderingly back.
All fallen and even abused children, like Frenesi, with her "shadows of her shoulder blades, like healed stumps of wings ritually amputated once long ago," will, for better or worse, never escape the need for parenting, for a bedtime story. Yes, narrative may be a form of paranoia, a frightened systems-building to counter or create conspiracies, real and imagined. But narrative can be more: in Vineland it is an interrogation of power, a flexing of imagination and observation, an urgent verbal gag straining to redeem what innocence is left us by the State. In this, its only weapon, as always, is continuous telling and retelling. Whatever other astonishments and innovations have landed him securely in American readers' imaginations, Pynchon remains above all a story-spinner, winning another few moments for the mind's eye. So tell us another one, Pop, before it gets too dark.