Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Vineland, By Thomas Pynchon

Having never read Thomas Pynchon, I read a review of Vineland when it came out in 1990 and bought the hardcover, for twenty dollars plus tax. However I lost interest after I read the first chapter or two.  But for some mysterious reason, the image of the main character, Zoyd, watching T.V. in his living room, with the flickering of light from the T.V. casting shadows on the walls and ceiling stayed with me. Many years later and mysteriously unable to forget that image, it occurred to me that it was a metaphor for Plato's Cave. Perhaps Pynchon was going somewhere with this, that he might have something to say about modern life, and I thought that someday, maybe, I'd give the novel another try. After all, I paid twenty dollars plus tax for the damn book.

Scroll ahead to the fall of 2015. I just tried to read it again. In terms of the use of words, and the construction of sentences, and paragraphs, Pynchon is a master literary craftsmen. But I found the text even more mind-numbing than before, like trying to read wallpaper. I could not get past the first chapter. Giving the narrative every possible benefit of the doubt, every possible chance at redemption, I fingered and shuffled forward, hunting in various places at random, hoping to find some interesting image, character, or slice of narrative, and I came up dry. With mixed feelings of exasperation, failure, and resignation that a scrupulously honest college student might feel after bombing an important final exam, I lowered my nose and tail enough and read the Wikipedia entry on the book, trying to find out why the high-brow literary crowd thinks so much of Pynchon, or at least Vineland, or else, why I shouldn't find a new, more worthy home for this book in the recycle dumpster.

But as Wikipedia explains, the characters in Vineland are former members of California's counterculture of the 1960's, only one generation later, in the of Ronald Reagan's presidency, still living the un-established life.  But even I can see that every character in the book is dysfunctional.  And I'm sorry, if I failed to make the connection that former hippie but still hippie equals psychologically and socially dysfunctional.

Nevertheless, I kept asking myself, where is the literary value here?  And it occurred to me that, at least in the parts I read, not a single character in the book had any hint of an interior life, self awareness or self-knowledge. Each character is living largely from their lizard brain, trying to get through the day merely seeking pleasure and ease while avoiding suffering and pain, in the context of their own specific circumstances. Dear Lord, what a lot of sorry characters.  No wonder I can't relate.  No one aspires to be anything other than a biological blob.

Yet, I felt resolved that Pynchon will not defeat me. I felt determined to climb mount Vineland again--because it's there, of course, but you heard that coming didn't you? I know what to look for this time--I will be hunting for any character with an inner life or self-awareness, and hunting for any shred of a sign that a character has any meaning or purpose in their life.  And when I don't find any such thing, I can look down on Pynchon and the whole narrative, the modern life that it represents, feeling smug and self-righteous about it all.  But cheating again,  I just looked up and read the original New York Times Book Review of Vineland, from December 26, 1989. The critic couldn't make much more sense out of the novel than I.  But what he did see, and I missed, was the alleged humor, that this was supposed to be a zany book.  From Pynchon's perspective, the joke was on me, for not seeing that, but as far as I'm concerned, the character are too pathetic to be funny.

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