To say anything briefly about Thomas Pynchon is silly. He was born in 1937, is still alive and, so far as I know, still writing. Few pictures of him exist; he prefers not to be involved with the media, or to live the life of a celebrity: which earns him the label “recluse.” Since he apparently lives in New York city, that seems unlikely. Influenced by the Beats and the counterculture of the Sixties, he’s a political-historical novelist of great breadth and complexity. I’ve always been sympathetic to his writing, though I’ve never been quite caught up in it —- his imagination is too distant from my own, there’s a little too much ‘science-fiction’ in it. But I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve read of him, including Vineland, though it wasn’t as well regarded as some of his other novels when it came out.
VINELAND, by Thomas Pynchon, Little, Brown, $23.95.
Vineland, in the history books, is the name given to Leif Eriicsson’s landfall on the east coast of North America, but like everything else in Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, it has bean transformed and tansported – to California, naturally. Here, in a little enclave that looks even further west, to Japan, Pynchon has assembled a strange cast of characters who have built a New World that even the wildest Viking would have a tough time imagining.
It’s a mad world, of course. UFO’s are almost routine, Godzilia puts in an appearance, and the characters on Hawaii Five-O are as real as anyone else. Yet it’s a world of remarkable internal consistency, and it even boasts a wacky sociological accuracy. For all of these characters are refugees from the Sixties, the counterculture. They’re old hippies and radicals, dopers and bikers who’ve had a couple of kids but are still living in communes, burt-out narcs dreaming of that last great bust, Flower Children who’ve just kept smoking the stuff: people who’ve lived their whole lives in “T-shirts featuring skulls, snakes and dangerous transportation.” Breakfast? Fruit Loops dusted with Qwik. Money? Well, they live on the margins of the welfare state, and do odd jobs for people like the famous landscape architect, the Marquis de Sod. “Crabgrass won’t behave? No problem. ‘E’II whip your lawn into shepp!”
And of course such people exist. In fact, quite a number live just up the Valley. Having turned on and dropped out, they now keep on.a-truckin’, reading science fiction, believing in crystals, and, on television, watching the Whealwright’s Shop. Yet they’re also right up to date, hip to computers: minds blown on acid probably take to hexadecimal arithmetic naturally. Observing them – and his powers of observation are acute – Pynchon misses few opportunities for satire, and this is a very funny book indeed. But his eye is essentially loving. He believes in these people. Above all, he believes in the historical project they represent, and which holds Vineland together, both as a community and a novel. For Pynchon sees these aging potheads as genuine revolutionaries. They’re trying to escape the past, make a completely new present for themselves, and thereby, obligatorily, fashion a future whose consciousness will be unlike any the world has known. Transcendence, and transformation, lie at the heart of his tale. Virtually every character in the book either (a) doesn’t know, literally, who he or she is and (b) is pretending to be, or trying to be, somebody else.
So this is a political novel, and the crisis that drives the action is historical. Pynchon explicitly ties his characters to the American radical tradition (the Wobblies, of course) and gives them their great moment in the Sixties. But than they fell on hard times. “When the sixties were over, when the hemlines came down and the colors of the clothes want murky and everybody wore makeup that was supposed to look like you had no makeup on, when tatters and patches had had their day and the outlines of the Nixonian repression were clear enough even for the most gaga of hippie optimists to see” these people went underground. Somae just hid out, survived. Others subscribed to Psychology Todayand ‘got into’ herbal therapy. A few ‘made it.’ Others played both sides of the street, and have ended up in Witness Protections Programs. But now the times may be changing again. In the world of Vineland, things are starting to move, and move they do: across America to Japan, into Outer Space and through old episodes of Gilligan’ Island, as Ninja Nuns find themselves pursued by superannuated narcs who are themselves being chased by even more bizarre police.
How seriously should we take this? Given a brief review, I trust you won’t think me chicken if I dodge the question. The point is, Pynchon takes it very seriously indeed. He understands full well that these people can’t think a revolution – they can’t think their way out of a wet paper bag. And their capacity for effective action is just about zero – indeed, they do well to get their faces washed in the morning. But, I suspect he’d argue, their very existence is significant; they’ve enacted, in their own lives, a radically new kind of meaning.
We’ll see. Meantime, you can get where they’re heading before everyone else by reading Mr. Pynchon’s new novel. It’s an astounding performance, written with passion, wild imagination, and vast intelligence. Of course, it’s difficult; as with Catch-22, you sometimes feel that it’s hidden purpose is to drive you nuts. But even if you don’t get through all of it, try a little. This is the finest piece of fiction – and the most advanced thought – to come out of the United States in years.