Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Thomas Pynchon: Vineland (1990)

Edition: Voyager, 2000

On opening Vineland, it is almost immediately clear that this is going to be a riotous novel. By the third chapter, the reader has been introduced to a man who makes his living by annually throwing himself through a plate glass window wearing a dress to qualify for mental illness disability benefit, a punk band named Billy Barf and the Vomitones, hired unheard to play at a traditional Mafia wedding by pretending to be Italian, and an FBI agent who may also be an escaped lunatic.

There is a bit of a dip in quality in the middle, once the flashbacks to the early seventies begin to take over, and from that point on Vineland is less funny. I don't think this is just due to my inability to conentrate, though I was extremely tired while reading this section of the novel.

The theme of Vineland is the hippy dream turning sour, and in particular the effects of the US government's attempts to extinguish the counter-culture. The main narrative is set in the mid-eighties, during Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign, and it is clear that Pynchon wants to make two points: first, that the repercussions of this crackdown affected lives both on the hippy side and in the law enforcement agencies right through the next fifteen years; and, second, that it was worth warning his readership about parallels between Nixon and Reagan.

"Vinland" is of course the name used by the Vikings to (almost certainly) mean the American continent, so implies that this is a novel about all of America - in other words, Pynchon intends to write what has been described as "the great American novel". However, reading it suggests that actually he wanted to subvert and satirise the idea of the great American novel. By making Vineland in the book a small (fictional) town in northern California, he is perhaps making a dig at the limited horizons of eighties American culture, and this is doubled by concentrating on hippy culture, never involving anything other than a small minority of US citizens.

Gravity's Rainbow and V. might have a bigger literary reputation, but of the Pynchon novels I have read - not all of them by any means - this is the most accessible, and the funniest. Each chapter in the first half made me laugh out loud at some point, even on re-reading. It has an easier plot to follow than Gravity's Rainbow in particular, which also helps make it an easier read.

I would rate Vineland at 7/10.

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