What can one say about Thomas Pynchon? “Vineland” (1990) is the follow up to his 1973 novel “Gravity’s Rainbow”, giving his rabid fan base a good 17 years between novels. In all that time, he certainly had a lot he could write about and he returned to the scene with this biting satire of America in the 1960s and the Reagan years of the 1980s. It has all the things one expects from Pynchon: the intricate, puzzle-like plot, the obscure references, the humor, the zaniness, the multi-layered text, and not to mention his amazing writing. In “Vineland” he seems to pull out all the stops, coming up with something that is truly hard to define but the overall effect is nothing short of amazing.
The plot of “Vineland” is too complicated to sum up in this short amount of space but essentially the story is about an aging hippie named Zoyd Wheeler and his daughter Prairie, living in the hinterlands of northern California, 1984, where many ex-hippies still live, all struggling with the consequences of their radical past. News reaches him that his old nemesis, Federal Agent Brock Vond has come to Vineland county, along with his Justice Department strike force and Zoyd immediately goes underground. What Vond is looking for is Zoyd’s ex-wife, who had been in a witness protection program and has now disappeared. Zoyd’s daughter Prairie begins to learn of her mother’s past and consequently, her own. What follows is nothing short of amazing and this genre defying novel has everything thrown into the mix: spy thrillers, ninja potboilers, soap operas, sci-fi fantasies, and numerous pop cultural references (both known and obscure), all coming together in one crazed and manic stew.
The interesting thing to me about this novel is its symbolism and it seeming commentary on American culture from the 1960s to the 1980s and how much things had changed during that time. For instance, Prairie’s mother, Frenesi, seems to symbolize American culture (or the Baby Boom generation in particular, if you ask me) and how it went from being “hippies” to eventually supporting Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The characters of The Thanatoids, who are described as “like death, only different” recalls zombie-like beings, which to me seems to either symbolize “Reaganites” or American culture as a whole, obsessed with television and sort of walking through life oblivious to what is going on around them. But there is much more, like in all Pynchon stories but the over all effect of this novel is its devastating critique of an American era and how it went from radical idealism to complacency. You will have to read this to get all of it and I’m not even sure if one reading alone will reveal all that is lying beneath the surface. It’s a complicated read but a fun and humorous one as well and like the other Pynchon novels I have read thus far, this one comes highly recommended as well.