Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Vineland at 20

Rereading Pynchon--

""""In 1993, when I first read Vineland, Thomas Pynchon's great novel about washed-up 60s radicals, I was living in northern California with two middle-aged hippies. A certain bohemianism and lawlessness still lingered in their creaking house in Berkeley. The cable TV service was siphoned off from a neighbouring property. One housemate drank rank-smelling wheatgrass for her breakfast. The other disappeared at weekends on unspecified operations against the logging companies in the redwood forests up near the Oregon border. When she was home, she almost never left her basement room. She emphatically instructed me to deny her existence if anyone called.

I was an inquisitive male postgraduate in my early 20s: a classic potential Pynchon reader. One day after the winter had set in, with its low skies and week-long rains, I went down to one of the bookshops on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where some of the legendary 60s student demonstrations had taken place, and bought Vineland.

The book had come out three years earlier, to approving but subtly disappointed reviews. Pynchon's previous novel, the seemingly all-encompassing second world war adventure and postmodern box of tricks Gravity's Rainbow, had been published in 1973; during the 17-year wait for a follow-up, all sorts of rumours had spread about what the famously brainy and reclusive American prodigy, only 35 in 1973, would produce next. "We heard he was doing something about Lewis and Clark," Salman Rushdie wrote in the New York Times in 1990. "Mason and Dixon? A Japanese science-fiction novel? . . . A 900-page Pynchon megabook about the American civil war?"

In fact, Vineland was less than 400 pages long, largely American rather than international in its settings, realistic in style for long stretches, and relatively earnest, even sentimental, compared with what Pynchon had previously written. In a typical response in Time magazine, Paul Gray compared an early, lovingly drawn scene of greedy birds stealing food from a dog bowl left outside by the absent-minded main character, Zoyd Wheeler, with the dazzling opening panorama in Gravity's Rainbow of a V-2 rocket descending on London ("A screaming comes across the sky . . ."). Gray concluded: "There seems to have been a little downscaling going on." In the Nation, John Leonard suggested an explanation: Vineland was "a breather between biggies", a John the Baptist of a novel preparing the ground for "another, darker, [more] magisterial" Pynchon production.""""

Vineland, as beautiful as any macro-entropy, like mushroom clouds over an atoll.


CharleyCarp said...

I should read it again.

J said...

Hey Mr Carp.

It's all about...Kalifornia. TP seems to predict the coming of Schwarzenegger and his mafia cronies in a sense. Tho' many Pynchonheads at the time insisted "it's not Gravity's Rainbow", I beg to differ: the writing in Vineland seems tighter than GR-- not as mad, phantastic or day-glo-ish. A bit..cartoony at times, but ...sad, even macabre tho' still humorous. Dystopian comedy.

Pynchon's a bit too complex and cynical for Consumerland, really.

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