Haddon Heights, NJ, where I grew up, had a non-ironic thing for the ’70s. A dry town; Schlitz in the park. Cheerleaders in letterman jackets hanging out the windows of Camaros on the way to all-night diners. Cops and kids knew each other by their first names and called each other by their last names. High-school teachers had regimes, oppressing multiple generations. (I remember a faint achtung smile from my ninth grade history teacher, followed by the words, “Ah, you’re another McClernan”—my mother’s maiden clan). Little Stevie Spielberg grew up nearby, and that aw-shucks, all-in-good-fun suburbia that imprinted itself so deeply on his cinematic style hadn’t faded much in my day. Of course, there was an underbelly: the transsexual psychotic (Leslie—née Glen—Nelson, whom I’ve mentioned before), the heroin coming out of Camden (so pure that everyone snorted it rather than muck around with needles), the crippling small-town small-mindedness, and—in general—all the things that constitute suburbia’s tragic third dimension.
I write this because a certain innocence—if not quite the prelapsarian Eisenhower stupor that Pynchon grew up in—is necessary to appreciate Pynchon’s work. These days, the façade of the world has worn rather thin. It is not an exceptional or even interesting moment in a young adult’s life when they learn that the world is asymmetrically divided between good and evil, with the lion’s share going to evil. The revelations of sexuality and power come all too early. Your average thirteen-year-old now understands what Foucault once postulated as revolutionary: your life is not your own, especially not your body, doubly so when you think it is.
The Manichean world of Gravity’s Rainbow, beneath Pynchon’s bewildering syntax and mind-bending scope, is a distillation of the ’70s, hippie-philosophy post-Altamont, stunningly simple, a little chauvinistic, and deeply depressing: against the witches and demons, sadomasochistic Nazis and power-mad bureaucrats, there are only a few ordinary dudes, who can—at best—‘keep cool, but care.’ That’s us, the good guys, the ‘Counterforce’; we’re Paul Newman, with our nothing hand, and they’re the Florida penal system, and they’re always going to win. (Gravity’s Rainbow, at least, offers us something other than the narrative aporia of V., which suggests that we’re all either Herbert Stencil, who knows of the worldwide conspiracy but cannot piece together the whole picture and is thus doomed to obsessive paranoia, or Benny Profane—my namesake, in many ways—who ignores the sacred task of knowing in favor of il sfacimento, the decadence of our apocalyptic age: drinking, eating, and fucking.)
Gravity’s Rainbow is stunning and heart-breaking (in the Nietzche-Herzog vein, not the Safran-Froer sense). But its most impressive achievement was promoting Pynchon as something like the Protestant God of his famed ancestors: detached, omniscient, and omnipotent. Rather without judgment, Gravity’s Rainbow is the world. This is the Pynchon of the public imagination, by and large.
But then there’s Vineland.
In Vineland, Brock Vond is the next in a long line of Pynchon bad guys and his modus operandi doesn’t much buck the trend: fascistic, sexually deviant, and working for the vilest game in town (which in Pynchon’s 1984 was—ostensibly—Ronald Reagan’s police-state). Towards the end of novel, as Vond and his forces hunt down the last few scattered radicals of the 1960s, Pynchon offers us a climactic moment: Vond descends from a DEA helicopter (“Death From Slightly Above”) towards Prairie, the young heroine, to deliver the horrendous pun-threat-revelation: “I’m your father.” Even if Pynchon can hardly shake his comical addiction to Star Wars (the B-Movie mode of ’80s anti-Imperial rebellion), the moment has some real, if cinematic, menace. COINTELPRO, the historical acronym which provides the fear response (for those in the know) to Brock’s fictional federal outfit, did in fact kill people. Happily for our heroine, Brock’s funding is cut and he is whisked away.
Shortly thereafter, Vond is kidnapped by Vato and Blood, two Thanatoids (karmic ghosts, by Pynchon’s account), posing, and working, as the wrecker crew of a Vineland auto-shop. They drive him into the Earth itself, into the ancient underground of the Yurok, the aboriginal inhabitants of Northern California. Standing in for Illa’a (the boatman for the Yurok Styx), they surreptitiously absquatulate Vond to “Tsorrek, the land of the dead.”
Now, if you’re not shrooming right now, that might be a bit much to take in all at once.
But, after a few passes over the end of Vineland, at least one thing becomes clear: Pynchon isn’t a god, he’s a hippie. Oh, he makes quite a show of hiding it—along with his penchant for romance, and his soft spot for Northern California potheads—but it’s there. And, if you grew up in a town like mine, then you likely have this memory: lying in a field on a hot summer night, you and a half-dozen friends, stoned and drunk, staring up at the sky, quietly wondering how long it’s been since you’ve spoken (a minute? an hour?), and then someone says, with complete earnestness, “Do you think the Earth is, like, alive?”
Gaia Theory has a way of spontaneously and independently appearing in potheads and—once you realize that Pynchon, too, spent quite some time on his back, stoned into cosmic reverie—you suddenly see it all over Pynchon’s work. In V.’s closing lines—the summation and apex of Pynchon’s early style—Stencil meets his end at the hands of the Earth:
Draw a line from Malta to Lampedusa. Call it a radius. Somewhere in that circle, on the evening of the tenth, a waterspout appeared and lasted for fifteen minutes. Long enough to lift the xebec fifty feet, whirling, and creaking, Astarte’s throat naked to the cloudless weather, and slam it down again into a piece of the Mediterranean whose subsequent surface phenomena—whitecaps, kelp islands, any of a million flatnesses which should catch thereafter part of the brute sun’s spectrum-showed nothing at all of what came to lie beneath, that quiet June day.
And, near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop (that’s ‘Entropy or Sloth,’ anagrammatically, a blend of Stencil and Profane) meets a similar end to the force of nature, disintegrated when he is struck by “a stout rainbow cock driven down out of pubic clouds…his chest fills and he stands crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural.”
Of course, in Vineland, as elsewhere in Pynchon, everything is wrapped in irony—the classic defense, the endless meta-bluff of the modern author who won’t commit to anything—but it’s frankly not enough. Pynchon simply can’t hide his enthusiasm for the idea that there are forces that “[L]eft their world to the humans…to wait and see how humans did with the world. And if we started fucking up too bad…they would come back, teach us how to live the right way, save us…”
Pynchon never again overplayed his hand like this (although he edges near it in Inherent Vice, which we’re all hoping makes a great fucking P.T. Anderson film). Still, for some, even the megalithic poker face of Mason and Dixon or the schizoid carnivalesque of Against the Day can’t rescue the God-like Pynchon of Gravity’s Rainbow from that awful cult of the author. Demoted from literary deity to quotidian dude, Pynchon loses some of his shine. Like savant children who have finished a puzzle, many simply put Thomas Pynchon away after Vineland, turning their attention to the newer toys: Murakami, Wallace, Amis. These authors had fewer illusions—and they were sharper about politics, about sex and power, and they didn’t (or, perhaps, couldn’t) retreat to the cold comfort of us vs. them. They had to be better, smarter, darker, and deeper. In large part, because of Pynchon.
So for me, a guy who grew up with Kierkegaard on my bookshelf and Kansas on my stereo, with Sunday Matinees and Sadomasochism, Pynchon’s still an alright guy: weak for a pun or a pretty girl, not too cool to admit a fondness of Ewoks, and always on our side, even when our side is nowhere to be found. Vineland is not Pynchon’s best, or even his most interesting, but it’s my favorite.