Friday, September 9, 2011

414. Vineland – Thomas Pynchon

History: This book was published in 1990, Vineland, the central locale of the novel, is a fictional small town in California's Anderson Valley (perhaps based upon Boonville). Vineland may be a play on the word "Hollywood", a reference to the first Viking settlement in North America, Vinland, or a reference to Andrey Vinelander, a character in Vladimir Nabokov's Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. Still others contend that the title refers to Vineland, New Jersey or a "Vinland the Good" mentioned in a Frank O'Hara poem. However, the most obvious explanation is that the title is a reference to the area in which the novel is set, which is near California's grapevine-filled Wine Country.
Plot: The story is set in California, United States, in 1984, the year of Ronald Reagan's re-election. Through flashbacks by its characters, who have lived the sixties in their youth, the story accounts for the free spirit of rebellion of that decade, and describes the traits of the fascist Nixonian repression and its War on drugs that clashed with it; and it articulates the slide and transformation that occurred in the traits of American culture between the two 1960s to the 1980s. It is a tale of cultural tumult, social upheaval, rock music and drug use.
Zoyd Wheeler, father of beautiful teen-age Prairie, whose mother, Frenesi Gates, went off with the arch-baddie Brock Vond, Federal prosecutor and psychopath, collects mental disability checks from the state by jumping through plate-glass windows once a year. The novel begins with such a jump, and thereafter fragments into myriad different narrative shards (but, at the end, the pieces all leap off the floor and fit miraculously together, as if a film were being run backward). Prairie is obsessed with her vanished mother, and so is everyone else in the novel: so is Zoyd, so is Brock Vond, who was her lover and who turned her from a radical film maker, the child of a blacklisted and Wobbly family, into an F.B.I. sting specialist, and turned her toward her own dark side. Frenesi, meanwhile, is out of sight, having been axed by Reaganomics from the slashed F.B.I. budget, so that at the center of this novel by the master of vanishing acts is a largely invisible woman, whom we learn about through the eyes of others.
Vond appears to be after Prairie, maybe to use her against Frenesi, so Zoyd, as he dives for cover, sends her into hiding as well. Prairie's odyssey takes her closer and closer to Frenesi, by way of a band called Billy Barf and the Vomitones, whom she follows to a mob wedding where she meets her mother's old friend, the Ninjette Darryl Louise (DL) Chastain, who was once obliged, by the mob boss Ralph Wayvone, to try to assassinate Brock Vond by using, during the sexual act, the Ninja Death Touch, also known as the Vibrating Palm, which the victim never feels and which kills him a year later, while you're having lunch with the police chief - except that Vond, skilled in eluding death (''He's the Roadrunner,'' says Wayvone, admiringly), manages to send along in his place the Japanese private eye Takeshi Fumimota, who gets the Vibrating Palm by mistake; and, as if that weren't enough trouble for Takeshi, he's also being chased by the same malign forces that arranged for the Chipco stomping, which he investigated.
And anyhow, through DL and Takeshi, Prairie gets to find the doors to her mother's past, on computer records and in film archives and in the memory of Frenesi's old friends, and we reach the story's dark heart, namely the events that took place in the 1960's at Trasero County's College of the Surf, which renamed itself, after the fashion of those loon-panted days, the People's Republic of Rock and Roll. And we hear, as Prairie hears it, how her mother betrayed the leader of this little revolution, who rejoiced in the name of Weed Atman, and who now, after death, still roams the forests of northern California as a Thanatoid, a member of the undead, unable to find peace. And eventually Prairie's search for Frenesi, and Brock's search for Prairie and Frenesi (which takes him, along with a huge strike force, to Vineland) come to a climax, complete with helicopters and Thanatoids and family reunions and an old woman and an old man who can remove your bones and leave the rest of you alive. You get the picture.
Review: So, he's back, and the question that occurs to you on finishing ''Vineland'' is, what took him so long? Because this doesn't feel like a book written to break a block; it isn't congested or stop-start or stiff; matter of fact, it's free-flowing and light and funny and maybe the most readily accessible piece of writing the old Invisible Man ever came up with.
It's 1984 in Vineland County, in northern California. We're talking mass culture here, and mall culture, too, because this is a 1984 flowing with designer seltzer ''by Alaia and Blass and Yves,'' and the malls have names like Noir Center (as in film noir) and the mall rats have names like Che. And, in this 1984 that Orwell could never have imagined, the skies contain marauders who can remove people from commercial airliners in midair, and a research lab belonging to a ''shadowy world conglomerate'' named Chipco can be stomped into Totality, flattened beneath a gigantic and inexplicable animal footprint, size 20,000 or thereabouts. This 1984 is also Ronald Reagan's re-election year, and that, for all the leftover hippies and 60's activists and survivors and casualties, could mean it's time for the ''last roundup.''
Opening Line: “Later than usual one summer morning in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler drifted awake in sunlight through a creeping fig that hung in the window, with a squadron of blue jays stomping around on the roof.”
Closing Line: “It was Desmond, none other, the spit and image of his grandmother Chloe, roughened by the miles, face full of blue-jay feathers, smiling out of his eyes, wagging his tail, thinking he must be home.”
Quotes: . . . but at the distance she, Flash, and Justin had now been brought to, it would all be done with keys on alphanumeric keyboards that stood for weightless, invisible chains of electronic presence or absence. If patterns of ones and zeroes were "like" patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by a long strings of ones and zeroes, then what kind of creature could be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be up one level, at least -- an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being's name -- its complete dossier might take up a considerable piece of history of the world. We are digits in God's computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to sort of a standard gospel tune, And the only thing we're good for, to be dead or to be living, is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God.
Rating: Excellent

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