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Philip Whalen

A Pynchon's Time

March 2, 1990

Things have been rather tidy and circumspect in the world of American fiction for well over a decade now. Novelists and short story writers have been emerging from their workshops, their seminars, their MFA degree programs with a marked penchant for craft, for sober sided psychological insight, and for meticulous, conscientious character development. From Anne Tyler to Raymond Carver, they've devoted their energies to giving a long, hard, and yet gentle look at the emotional dilemmas of ordinary men, women, and children. Taking as their model the telegraphic dialogue and elliptical character delineation of Ernest Hemingway, they've Just Said No to the wild-and-woolliness of that other demiurge of American fiction, William Faulkner. Like participants in a marathon twelve-step discussion group, they've traded back and forth their solemn and disillusioned insights into family life (their principal stock in trade) and put behind them the untoward revelries of the Faulkners, Kerouacs, and Burroughses of yesteryear. Everything has been as carefully laid out as old silverware on the dining-room table of a vacation home on Naragansett Sound. Now, most inconveniently, along comes that uncouth genius Thomas Pynchon to break his seventeen-year silence, bring his unstable crew of misfits and paranoids into the cottage, and overturn the table with a resounding clatter and crash.

The manner in which I've just characterized him might lead those unfamiliar with his novels— V, The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow, and now Vineland—to imagine that Pynchon is some kind of Charles Bukowski know-nothing, bent on celebrating his gonads and drunken escapades. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pynchon is in fact one of the most intellectually distinguished novelists America has ever produced—indeed, one of the few novelists of any nationality possessed of a certifiably learned as well as a great creative mind. As early as V, published in 1963, when Pynchon was only 26 years old, he already was exhibiting a deep erudition in matters pertaining to history and anthropology, aesthetics, religion, electronics, and medicine, (e.g., rhinoplasty). Into the infinitely strange warp and woof of the gargantuan Gravity's Rainbow, he wove filaments of insight into such disciplines as physics, chemistry, behavioral psychology, Calvinist theology, and rocket technology.

Throughout all his books he displays a profound understanding of—indeed, a highly disquieting preoccupation with—information and communications theory (disquieting because he sees the structure of information as being indistinguishable from the structure of tyranny). Neither Hemingway nor Fauklner, to take the most obvious points of comparison, could touch him in matters of learnedness. To find his intellectual equal among literary figures, you would have to bypass Umberto Eco (who is a scholar first and a novelist almost peripherally) and go back through Nabokov and Mann all the way to that Jesuitical polymath, James Joyce.

Of course, none of this counts for much when it comes to writing fiction that glistens, heaves, breathes, shoots gouts of flame, is excruciatingly funny and entertaining, profoundly silly; and extremely moving. Yet that is exactly the kind of fiction that Pynchon's impressive gray eminence has produced and now, in Vineland, keeps on producing.

When, in 1973, Pynchon published Gravity's Rainbow, readers, critics, and even academics hailed it as an undeniable manifestation of that chimerical leviathan, the Great American Novel. Set principally during the final months of World War II and the months succeeding VE day, in London and then in demilitarized
Europe, the book is a dizzying phantasmagoria structured, in rigorously paranoid fashion, around the search by one Tyrone Slothrop, US Army lieutenant and bland scion of a genteel Massachusetts family, for a mysterious component of the Nazi V-2 rocket. Far from writing a mere "historical novel" as the term is usually understood, however, Pynchon not only delved deep into the European and American past but in a supremely risky stroke of narrative genius journeyed into the book's future, commandeered the drug counterculture of the late '60s and early '70s, and grafted it onto his mid-'40s milieu. What you had, then, was all these twisted drug weirdos dashing about post-Potsdam Europe, running incredible shaggy-dog scams on each other while the grim lineaments of a nihilistic vision squeezed their way through the cracks of hilarity. It was an astonishingly deft and soaringly beautiful tour de force that left you feeling uncertain whether
to throw yourself out a window or hold onto the ledge for dear life while tears of laughter streamed down your face.

Seventeen years ensued during which Pynchon emerged into the light of public discourse only to publish a collection of early short fiction titled Slow Learner and to contribute blurbs and introductions to other writers' books. The readership he had galvanized with Gravity's Rainbow spent a good deal of time wondering when, and if, another novel would be forthcoming. And "wondering" was about as far as that public could get, because ever since the publication of V, Pynchon has made himself unavailable to reviewers, previewers, critics, biographers, reporters—to everybody except, presumably, a few intimates (who apparently know how to keep a secret). Throughout his entire career as one of America's greatest novelists, the man has indulged in a reclusiveness that makes J.D. Salinger look like Truman Capote: no one knows where he lives, no one has seen a photograph of him taken later than his university days, no one knows if he's married or has children; in short, no one knows much of anything at all about him. No doubt significantly, this has meant that no one could beard him in or out of his den with a lot of importunities about when he would favor the world with some new writing and what form that writing might take. One consequence of his wholesale evasion of public scrutiny has been a lot of guessing and second-guessing about his whereabouts, his mental state, and his projects.

One of these topics of speculation came to an end when Vineland hit the bookstores. A glance at the fly­leaf synopsis or at the first several pages of Chapter 1, however, is almost certain to give any reader who has been eagerly awaiting the return of this inexplicable literary comet a letdown. A burnt-out hippie named Zoyd Wheeler, living in the Northern California logging town of Vineland, meets up with an old nemesis from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration; intimations concerning the fate of Zoyd's long-estranged wife, Frenesi Gates, a hippie belle turned federal snitch, begin to seep out. One is frankly appalled at this point, thinking that Pynchon appears to be off on nothing more than an ironic post-counterculture lark in the smug, disposable vein of Tom Robbins.

Those who admire Pynchon only for his considerable erudition will indeed continue to be disappointed. As they proceed deeper into the book, they will be treated to all too few excursions into richly detailed and dread-tinged realms of history and science a la Gravity's Rainbow or V. In Vineland, Pynchon ranges no further afield historically than to spend a couple of dozen pages tracing Frenesi's grandparents' and parents' careers as Wobblies and McCarthy-era leftists, respectively. He otherwise hews pretty closely to the comparatively circumscribed geographical and temporal peregrinations of his main characters—old hippies, their mall-rat progeny, a sadistic federal prosecutor, an ineffectual gangster, a female refugee from a kung fu film, a male refugee from a Godzilla outtake, et al. Nothing, it would seem, could save all this from the aforementioned Robbinesque smugness—nothing except the gifts that stand Pynchon in far better stead than mere learnedness.

Pynchon flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about how to compose an emotionally persuasive story, first of all, by writing with his spine. (Viz. Nabokov's dictum that great books should be read—by extension, we may infer that they should also be written—not with the brain but with the spine; when it tingles, quoth the old lepidopterist, you know the author is doing his job.) He does not painstakingly set out to limn his characters, to map out their neuroses, to get inside their skins, to render them sympathetic, heroic, or even quirky; instead, he plucks them out of thin air, plops them down on the page, and allows them to go to it. No one can deny that they are nothing more than cartoon characters—the fumbling, aged longhair; the blustering, shade-wearing Latino narc; the faded flower-child femme fatale. They begin their lives in the reader's mind as generic and rather obvious. Meanwhile, Pynchon uses his spine—his central nervous system—to propel them from page to page, situation to situation, and his fundamental, preexisting sympathy finally imbues them with life and personality far more vivid than you're used to finding in the pages of a book these days.

Pynchon confutes the conventional wisdom, second of all (and after this I will cease to count the ways), by trusting his writerly wild hairs. Novelists these days, under the influence of workshops and programs and grant-funding procedures and quasi-official peer review setups, have entered into a state of self-abnegation in terms of indulging their sense of fun. They offer abundant testimony, via interviews and essays, about the rigors to which they submit themselves in order to depersonalize their writings, excising private fantasies and predilections, renouncing everything in the interests of universal, conscientiously observed human drama. Not Pynchon. He allows his impulses to carry him and his characters whithersoever they will; he invents utterly implausible, terribly complex and altogether tenuous circumstances not just in the middle of paragraphs or sentences but in the middle of subordinate clauses, obviously just for the hell of it, then uses those seemingly idle figments as solid fuel to carry the whole ramshackle apparatus even further into the stratosphere.

For instance: apparently in a quandary about how to end a conversation Zoyd is having with Hector the narc, Pynchon spontaneously fabricates a sudden invasion of the bowling alley where the conversation is taking place by minions of a mental-health organization dedicated to saving TV addicts from themselves. He further predicates that Hector is an escapee from this organization's in-patient program. A couple of hundred pages later, he picks up this throwaway fillip and spins from it a lengthy passage concerning Hector's in-patient experience—beautifully turned, laugh-out-loud stuff that thoroughly penetrates the subject of video paranoia and fits into the surrounding story like a corncob into its husk.

Likewise, the entire central portion of the book is nothing more than a series of creaky improvisations—flashbacks within flashbacks, hearsay layered on hearsay—somewhat carelessly and transparently designed to convey the reader from the narrative here-and-now (the mid-'80s) back to the period of the mid-to late '60s, when Zoyd and Frenesi and the other characters were laying the idealistic groundwork for their own excruciating downfalls. Zoyd and Frenesi's teenage daughter, Prairie, has implausibly met up with an old friend of her mother's, the kung fu woman, who takes the girl in tow through a set of reminiscences, enlisting the aid of other fortuitously appearing characters and even a guerrilla-film library. If the reclusive Pynchon had ever gone to a writers' workshop under an assumed name and presented these chapters for his "peers' " evaluation, it's almost certain he would have gotten short shrift for his trouble. The whole construct is entirely beyond the pale—stagy, opportunistic, facetious, obtrusive. But the actual product of all this formal silliness is something else again—a lyrical, airborne stretch of narrative poetry that takes the reader past the brink of laughter and fear into the very heart of tragedy.

Pynchon's formal and philosophical stock in trade is paranoia. The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow are not merely hooks in which unseen malevolent forces lure and pursue the main characters to a terrible doom; their very narrative structures are founded on paranoid dynamics, a wholly unaffected device which has served Pynchon and his readers well. It is the quintessential late­20th-century means of organizing a long piece of fiction: the characters, consciously motivated by equal portions of fear and curiosity and unconsciously by impulses that scarcely bear examination, while attempting to plumb the depths of those malevolent forces meet one unnerving revelation after another and wind up gazing with ragged breath (if not falling outright) into The Pit. Their initial hunch that far more is going on behind the façade of the world than meets the eye proves all too true, and they learn that the effort to penetrate that façade only serves the murderous designs of an invulnerable enemy. Thinking themselves pursuers, they finally know themselves to have been heartlessly, maliciously pursued.

One intellectual theme Pynchon employed in Gravity's Rainbow to echo and buttress this narrative procedure was behavioral psychology, with special attention to operant conditioning—Pavlov's and Watson's experiments with controlled response in animals (and guess what humans are). He saw the work of these two sinister practitioners as being no more than a surface metaphor for a spiritual and even physical principle at the core of the human universe, as expressed in Calvinist doctrine: we are, before birth, sorted into the saved and the damned; no virtue or sin of ours can alter our assignment to one group or the other; consequently we find ourselves careening through life to a preordained and extremely unenviable destination. When the bell rings, we will perform whatever task—no matter how loathsome—The Doctor decided long ago it should be our lot to perform.

Vineland, for all its wild merriment, is a book about betrayal. Frenesi gives her dearest comrades up to the forces of federal repression (Pynchon's view is that the youth rebellion of the '60s didn't just run out of steam—another piece of wisdom that is not only conventional but almost universally subscribed to—but was actively and successfully subverted by Nixon and his clandestine police network). She betrays them, and they blindly permit themselves to be betrayed, because the existential malevolence for which the Nixon administration is but a mask has all the behavioral cards stacked in its favor: Frenesi and her friends carry within them an irresistible need to be disciplined by the very forces they detest. Now Prairie, gazing through intervening layers of film image and word of mouth, watches the primal Edenic scene unravel into a nightmare of imprisonment and death. Meantime, in the narrative present, her cuckolded father scurries through Vineland's hillside streets like a harried rat in an experimental maze, relying far more on his ancient doper's instincts than on anything like native intelligence to evade the clutches of the man who not only cuckolded him but is responsible for the earlier expulsion from paradise. It is an undeniably jerryrigged but emotionally compelling narrative continuum from whose gyrating funhouse tunnel the characters' hearts come fluttering into the reader's mind like wounded birds into the hand.

Evidence exists within the book, however, that Pynchon does not feel so bound as he once did to stand aside while his characters plummet into darkness. In The Crying of Lot 49, he grimly allowed his heroine, Oedipa Maas, to enter the locked chamber of her ineluctable doom; in Gravity's Rainbow, as though unable to coordinate Tyrone Slothrop's terrible fate with his ingenuous
good nature, he merely rendered Slothrop's personality down into a bag of deconstructed behavioral shells, littered across Europe like rumors of a war still to come. In Vineland, he has somehow found the emotional wherewithal to let Zoyd, Frenesi, and Prairie become at least partially reconciled to themselves, each other, and the darkness at the edge of town. The cosmic outlook is grim indeed, he seems to say, but the spark that burns at the center of even a highly disjointed family's collective life will warm anyone who draws near—at least until the bell is struck again.

Philosophically and emotionally, the reader is left with a sufficiency. Aesthetically, the reader is left with far more—a fervent and funny product of genuine literary inspiration, a modem tragedy that leaves open the possibility that tomorrow will bring hope as well as despair. Around midpoint in the book, Pynchon describes a conversation between several minor characters in this way: "some of it was war stories, some just happy horseshit, and some was the stunned headlong certainty that precedes talking in tongues..." He might well have been describing this book.

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