Another in a long list of zombie book reviews revived from my old days when you could actually make a little extra money writing reviews (and learn a lot about writing on the side). This one appeared in a magazine called Books in Canada in 1990. I quite like it because I managed, despite my tender years and experience, not to be awed by the aura of greatness. For example:
His long-awaited new novel, Vineland, his first since Gravity`s Rainbow (a book about V-2 rockets and coprophilia, I think) in 1973, reads like the mutant offspring of Henry James-turned-northern-California-mall-rat and Marshall McLuhan in the paranoid grip of a bad acid trip, with a little Joseph Campbellish mytho-delirium thrown in for colour.
THOMAS PYNCHON IS a mysterious and reclusive cult figure in the United States, a kind of highbrow J. D. Salinger, a grey eminence of the American Post Mod movement, and one of the four horsemen of the New Writing of the `60s and `70s, along with John Barth, Robert Coover, and William Gass. His long-awaited new novel, Vineland, his first since Gravity`s Rainbow (a book about V-2 rockets and coprophilia, I think) in 1973, reads like the mutant offspring of Henry James-turned-northern-California-mall-rat and Marshall McLuhan in the paranoid grip of a bad acid trip, with a little Joseph Campbellish mytho-delirium thrown in for colour. Part political allegory and part metaphysical fantasy, Vineland seeks to answer those perennial questions: What happened to the `60s? Who betrayed the Woodstock nation? It`s also about TV, the trivialization of violence, and America`s loss of innocence (yes, yes, that again —America, the eternal virgin) during the Nixon-Reagan presidencies.
Pynchon puts the blame for the steamrolling of Hippiedom squarely on the Tube, the Man (DOJ, DEA, FBI, CIA), and certain dark forces — “… the unrelenting forces that leaned ever after … into Time`s wind, impassive in pursuit, usually gaining, the faceless predators… [which] had simply persisted, stone-humourless, beyond cause and effect, rejecting all attempts to bargain and 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.”
Bleak? Heck, yes. But Pynchon tempers his bleakness with a stoned sense of burnout that runs the gamut from sly literary in-jokes — e.g. a “Carpenter Gothic outhouse” — to full-scale satirical set pieces and running gags. A character named Zoyd Wheeler lives on government disability cheques he earns by jumping through plate-glass windows once a year in front of a battery of Live Action Cams and TV reporters. Zoyd`s daughter, Prairie, makes a hit as a cook at an Esalen-like martial-arts retreat serving up such yummy items as baked Spam with grape jam garnish, which she discovered on the recipe page of the local TV magazine section. Zoyd`s nemesis, Detective Hector Zuniga, is being treated for “tubal abuse” and tries to have his ex-wife charged with murder for shooting the family television set.
The plot of Vineland is a flimsy, cardboard thing (as you would expect in allegory), a frame for the jazz riffs of Pynchon`s manic-mythic reconstruction of American history. It has something to do with the obsessive, sleazoid relationship between Brock Vond, an evil Department of justice operative intent on subverting everything good in the U.S. of A. from the radical left to marginal marijuana farmers, and Frenesi Gates (blonde, blue eyes, anagram for “sin free”), Zoyd’s wife and the daughter of a couple of pinko Hollywood black listees from the McCarthy era.
At the counter-culture`s apogee, Brock “turns” Frenesi into a snitch and a stool pigeon. She betrays Weed Atman, the Christ-like leader of a rock and roll “republic” on the California coast, then sets him up to be murdered. Frenesi spends the next 14 years in the government`s Witness Protection Program, traveling from one trouble-spot to the next as a freelance traitor. Then in 1984, deficit-driven cutbacks force the WPP to drop Frenesi and her fellow stoolies from the program. She and her file disappear, and Brock goes hunting for her with an army of SWAT teams and black helicopters that pluck people from the ground in a black-comedy version of the “rapture.”
Everyone converges on Vineland, an imaginary county north of San Francisco where the hippies, rad lefties, the Thanatoids (a community of the living dead waiting for “karmic readjustment”), and Zoyd and Prairie have taken refuge from Yuppiedom. At the climactic moment, another round of cutbacks pulls the plug on Brock`s very own program. His choppers grounded, he simply dies away, or at least finds himself being led down an earthen trench to the mythic Yurok underworld where an ancient spirit couple sucks the bones from his body.
What all this seems to mean is that TV has sapped the moral fibre of what Pynchon calls “Midol America,” paving the way for the triumph of the cynical, rich, and sun-tanned retro-fascists of San Clemente and Santa Barbara. Yet, in the long run, these malign forces of modern commercial capitalism will strangle on their own deficits and the ancient Red Indian gods of the North American earth will reassert their hegemony.
This is goofy political day-dreaming and a middle-class, male, whitebread version of American history (what ever happened to women`s lib and the civil rights movement?). This is thinking big on the level of Doonesbury and Oprah Winfrey. Some of the ideas in this book are so downright trite they’re embarrassing (e.g. pistols and stick shifts are penis substitutes). And yet, and yet, beyond the run-on jokes, the jumbled mythologies, the errant orthography, and the relentless folksiness of the dialogue, there is something compelling about Vineland. It’s a book that sticks in your mind, seems increasingly hilarious in retrospect, and fairly seethes with a spooky sort of Quixotic, half-wit wisdom. There is something about the foolishness of it all that may be next door to greatness.
(Books in Canada, April, 1990)