Many Pynchonheads read their novelist-idol for the dizzying conspiracy adventures, others for the lyrical run-ons. Some love the crazy-ass dialogue, some the scientific speculation, some the scattershot narratives. One or two, I’m sure, grow mystic or misty-eyed over alternative universes and imagined histories. I can dig all facets, but I’m most cool with the (frequently disparaged) puerile humour and insouciant tone.
That tone was crucially fractured beyond even a postmodernist’s effective complex structure in V., Pynchon’s first novel. Hijinks flipped with solemn death traps, and the shocking switches in tonal approaches didn’t highlight either polarity to good formal effect and control. Formal control? In Pynchon? Well, the novel here ain’t your realist Zola castigation, but it shur-as-shootin’ ain’t mix highlights from Thomas Hardy to Dave Barry, either.
In Vineland, Pynchon’s various storylines, still and always shaggy and out-of-bounds, inform each other even when main characters are absent for two-hundred-or-so pages. Actually, that’s a funny choice of words, “inform [on] each other”, since the darkness in Vineland – hippies as snitches in a new, opportunistic field, as offshoots of the FBI – brilliantly prefigures many elements in the West’s wire-tapping, computer-mapping, surveillance-sapping modern world, as well as looking behind to the Soviet Union of the twenties and East Germany of the sixties. That said, it’s a terrific victory for Pynchon in that he’s lighter, more convincingly so, in this 1990 look at 1984 (Reagan’s re-election, not Orwell’s vision, though those comparisons are unavoidable, as well). And the frequent humour scores on another level, as well, as all good humour should – the faint optimistic vibe throughout, even after the shit has hit the whirling fan, is maintained because many of those ineffectual layabouts have a personality, a skewed, unbureaucratic imagination that can’t be crushed by federal Brock Vond decrees.
And that’s my biggest arguement against some of the thumbs-down reviewers/readers of Vineland. Billy Barf and the Vomitones may have a sympathetic audience, and the Tube detox may be thriving (oh wait, it’s not an issue in 2014? maybe those layabouts at least knew about one big problem) in Pynchon’s alternate history, but the novel pays tribute to an idealism grown from the 50s (not the 60s, as is so often misunderstood), an idealism understandably naive and vulnerable. We have no such excuse for a lack of knowledge now. Unfortunately and ironically, in the saturated info age, we’re almost as clueless as ever.