Vineland and the Pynchon Canon: A Critical Appraisal

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Introduction: “The bums lost.”

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The Big Lebowski: Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, sir. The bums will always lose. Do you hear me, Lebowski?

The Dude walks out and shuts the door.

The Big Lebowski: The bums will always lose!

Brandt: How was your meeting, Mr. Lebowski?

The Dude: Okay. The old man told me to take any rug in the house.

The Big Lebowski (1998) – Los Bros. Coen

In 1990 saw the publication of Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon.  The novel concerned the exploits and misadventures of burnt-out hippies, insane DEA agents, and a monomaniacal FBI agent, taking place in the Orwellian year 1984.  It truly seemed that “the bums lost” and “would have to get a job, sir.”

After a long hiatus, following the award-winning Gravity’s Rainbow, Vineland seemed like a mere trifle, an afterthought and utterly inconsequential to the Pynchon Canon.  This will attempt to dispel the stereotypical reactions that Vineland is Pynchon’s weakest work and critically unimportant.

History is a great leveler.  Pynchon’s newest novel, Inherent Vice, requires we re-examine his Canon.  New works have a way of re-contextualizing everything that came before it.  In this case, the key to the re-contextualization is the much-maligned and misunderstood decade, the 1960s.

(Full disclosure: I have not read any Late Pynchon – Mason & Dixon, Against the Day, and Inherent Vice.  Hopefully this will not negate the value of this essay’s assertions.)

History and re-assessing the artistic work

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Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

“Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets (1944)T.S. Eliot

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

Requiem for a Nun (1951) – William Faulkner

Time marches on.  History exists as the delicate dance between interpretation and time.  With the luxury of time separating us from the events, historians can interpret what happened.  The same holds true for literature.

The publication of Gravity’s Rainbow represents a landmark in both modernist and postmodernist literatures.  A rara avis that changed the novel-writing game forever.  It stands alongside monumental experimental novels like Ulysses, Infinite Jest, and 2666.  In the words of Claude Debussy: “Works of art make rules but rules do not make works of art.”

Gravity’s Rainbow is a labyrinthine, darkly comedic epic involving Tyrone Slothrop’s relationship with V-2s.  The novel seems plotless, involves hundreds of characters, and reverberates with Nixon-era paranoia.  Not an easy read by any estimation, it also represents the form of the novel at its most terminal since Finnegans Wake, except funnier.  Expressed another way, if you showed a medieval peasant a day-glo painted SR-71 Blackbird, he would express the same reaction the reading public had to this novel in 1973.

Therefore, it was with great disappointment that Pynchon’s next work was Vineland, a novel about hippies, the FBI, and female ninjas.  After the genius of Gravity’s Rainbow, anything would be a letdown.  It had been seventeen years and anticipation can become agonizing.  The same happened between the release of The Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Phantom Menace (1999), thankfully, Vineland, for all its cartoonish aspects lacked midichlorians and the minstrelsy of Jar Jar Binks.

The latest novel from Thomas Pynchon is Inherent Vice, a short novel following his epic Against the Day. While this pattern of large novel followed by short novel is typical of Pynchon, we have to explore the subject matter and the effect of history upon the Pynchon Canon.  There are relationships and parallels running through the various novels that reflect back upon Vineland.

Triad I: The Magnum Opus, the Miniature, and the In-Between

First, some statistics:

The Magnum Opus

V. (492 pages)

Gravity’s Rainbow (760 pages)

Mason & Dixon (773 pages)

Against the Day (1085 pages)

The Miniature

Crying of Lot 49 (183 pages)

The In-Between

Vineland (385 pages)

Inherent Vice (369 pages)

Vineland and Inherent Vice exist in a peculiar category among Pynchon’s novels.  Obviously not epic works, they are also not written with tightness and efficiency like Crying of Lot 49.  Both also followed the publications of epic works, although Inherent Vice followed only a couple years after Against the Day.

Triad II: The Contemporary, the Nostalgic, and the Zeitgeist

Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

Vineland (1990)

Inherent Vice (2009)

Vineland becomes important to the Pynchon Canon when we look at the transmutations of history.  Besides Past and Present, history also contains mutations like Nostalgia and Zeitgeist, subjective transformations of the events.  As memories grow fainter, do our childhoods – those eponymous Good Old Days – get better?  Or is it another lie to keep ourselves sleeping well at night, even if existence involves defeat, compromise, humiliation, desperation, and futility?  History can be weaponized like everything else.

Let’s examine three interrelated Pynchon novels: Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, and Inherent ViceCrying of Lot 49, written in 1966, tells the story of a suburban woman and her run-in with conspiracies real and imagined.  It was written in the Sixties on the Sixties, specifically Southern California.  It was also written before the Boomers deified (or demonized, depending on who you talk to) the decade, turning the decade into an Idea, an Ideal, and a Lost Revolution every bit as resonant as the Lost Cause to the South.

The losers of this Lost Revolution appear in Vineland, hippies, burnouts, and other nonconformists trying to survive the predations of the Reagan Era.  Vineland is unique because Pynchon makes his political allegiances passionate and obvious.  No love is lost on Nixon and Reagan, since he sides with hippie burnout Zoyd Wheeler.  He makes his living from an annual performance of personal insanity, much to the chagrin of DEA agent Hector Zuñiga, who, it turns out, is actually insane.  Zoyd’s archnemesis is FBI agent Brock Voyd, a man who fell in love with Zoyd’s wife Ferensi Gates.  Ferensi, living as a snitch for Brock’s mobile grand jury, exists as the symbol of American idealism.  Both her parents and grandparents were active in American left-wing organizations, from the IWW to the pro-socialist production unions in Hollywood.

Nostalgia for the Sixties informs the entire work.  The reconnection with the past and Prairie, Ferensi’s daughter, reconnecting with her mother, are a major through-line in the novel.

Inherent Vice returns to the Sixties, this time as a reconstruction of the Zeitgeist.  Vineland has the Past creeping in to the Present, whereas Inherent Vice is written about the Past from the vantage point of the Present.  Even with the same subject matter (Southern California in the Sixties) the results will be different, since one can not walk through the same river twice.

Vineland links both Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice, a trio in minor key compared to the major works like Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day.  Reading Pynchon does make one hyper-aware of connections between things, events, and personalities, even if the connections do not actually exist.

Brought to you by the letter v …

V., Gravity’s Rainbow, Vineland, Inherent Vice. The letter v, like several characters, appear and reappear in several novels.  Is this evidence of some greater connection or is it all in our heads?

Conspiracies Real and Imagined

Bush Family Flow Chart

“One by one, as other voices joined in, the names began – some shouted, some accompanied by spit, the old reliable names good for hours of contention, stomach stress, and insomnia – Hitler, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Nixon, Hoover, Mafia, CIA, Reagan, Kissinger, that collection of names and their tragic interweaving that stood not constellated above in any nightwide remotenesses of light, but below, diminished to the last unfaceable American secret, to be pressed, each time deeper, again and again beneath the meanest of random soles, one blackly fermenting leaf on the forest floor that nobody wanted to turn over, because of all that lived, virulent, waiting, just beneath.”

Vineland (1990), Thomas Pynchon

In Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas works to uncover a conspiracy which may or may not exist.  In Vineland, the conspiracy is the history of the United States.  Brock Voyd and Ferensi Gates represent the two poles of that United States conspiracy, since each event and actor (“Hitler, Roosevelt, Kennedy … CIA, Reagan, Kissinger”) becomes the manifestation of Good or Evil depending where one stands in the political spectrum.

“You one of those right wing nut outfits?” inquired the diplomatic Metzger.
Fallopian twinkled. “They accuse us of being paranoids.”
“They?” inquired Metzger, twinkling also.
“Us?” asked Oedipa.

Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Thomas Pynchon

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Both Pynchon and the Church of the SubGenius realize that the political spectrum is circular with the extremists of both “sides” indistinguishable from each other.  The only differences, much like the differences between the Republican and Democratic parties, cosmetic and superficial.  If you in front line infantry, does it really matter which autocrat will shoot you in the back for retreating?  Both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR possessed penal battalions.

Today we can add more names to that litany, shout and spit and froth, and interweave them into that constellated leaf on the forest floor.  Then again, no one possesses the cajones to actually lift up that leaf.  Can’t do that, since that would disrupt the incumbent’s crusade for “bipartisanship and healing.”  How can one heal when wounds fester?

Vineland’s genius is that it explores what one finds beneath that leaf on the forest floor.  The exploration comes from the misadventures of people with funny names doing crazy things and female ninjas.  The most subversive, rebellious, and anarchic voices are the comedians and the pranksters.  Comedy offers an easier entry point for readers as opposed to a preachy treatise.  Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

Conclusion: “The Dude abides.”

The Stranger: I like your style, Dude.

The Dude: Well, I dig your style too, man. Got the whole cowboy thing goin’.

The Stranger: Thankee.

The Pynchon Canon has had its ups and downs, its haters and its fandom, but the Dude abides.  Pynchon has succeeded where few author have, writing novels on his own terms and at his own pace.  No one compels him to churn out bestsellers or to down down his complex, usually plotless, tales of outcasts and (possibly false) conspiracies.  He can write low comedy or craft beautifully poetic passages, arguably the best in the language.

What does this mean for the Pynchon Canon?  What will he come up with next?

“Obviously you’re not a golfer.” – The Dude.

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