The year is 1984. Hippie survivor Zoyd Wheeler is living with his fourteen year old daughter Prairie in the Californian city of Vineland. His wife, Frenesi Gates left him (and the Hippie movement) shortly after their daughter's birth due to her relationship with prosecutor Brock Vond, becoming a FBI informant. As the novel starts, Zoyd is about to perform his annual act of insanity in order to continue to quality for his mental disability check. But his life is interrupted by Vond, who resurfaces, now nearly omnipotent with money from Reagan's war on drugs. He chases Zoyd and Praire out of their house, forcing them on the run. Now Zoyd and Praire has to figure out what has caused Vond to act, and piece together the past of their broken family.
When Vineland was first released in 1990, 17 years after Pynchon's previous novel Gravity's Rainbow, the critics were sceptical. Everyone expected a work just as grand as GR, if not more. This has lead to it having a reputation of being "Lesser Pynchon". But this reputation is wholly undeserved. Vineland is one of Pynchon's best books, perhaps even better than Gravity's Rainbow.
Vineland is like most of Pynchon's novel a humorous post-modern and absurd adventure, told in Pynchon's wonderful prose. We meet Ninjas with magical powers (one of whom is a main character), magical forests and roads, Thanatoids (people in a state like death, but different) and Kaiju monsters. But as in Against The Day, this is contrasted with characters who are painfully real and live with real issues and problems. Zoyd Wheeler is perhaps Pynchon's most sympathetic protagonist, and his quest to give his daughter a good home and upbringing and his love for his absent wife is heartbreaking. Pynchon's satire is also very close to concrete human experience: Zoyd having to perform an annual act of insanity in order to qualify for his disability check is cuttingly true as satire can get.
As in Against The Day the destructive impact of our capitalistic society on basic human behaviour and feelings like love is explored. And just like ATD, Vineland is about historical events, this time how the 60s counterculture was infiltrated and destroyed by government repression.
To illustrate, Pynchon creates a fictional student revolution at a California university. The students secede from America and form "The People's republic of Rock n' roll", led by mathematics professor Weed Atman (another of Pynchon's wonderful and deeply symbolic names). But the republic is crushed and Atman is murdered, in part due to Frenesi's betrayal.
Pynchon uses this event to expose the power structure of the USA. This power structure takes many forms, from brute police force and drug raids to the insidious cultural attack of Hollywood films and television. America emerges as a dystopia in which the establishment destroys all dissent: a "scabland garrison state". Rebels like Zoyd are dismissed as mental degenerates.
This dystopian portrayal of America is of course emphasized by the novel being set in the year 1984. In fact, one can see this as Pynchon's answer to Orwell's novel, showing a real capitalist dystopia as opposed to Orwell's early cold-war anti-communist fantasy.
Pynchon views the "War against Drugs", as not about alleviating drug abuse, but in fact a strategy by the NIxonian-Reagan establishment to combat the counter-culture and suppress dissent. But as concerned Pynchon is with the abolition of civil liberties that this has led to, this repression by brute force isn't half as dangerous as the repression through media and culture.
Television (always called The Tube) is in particular a target for Pynchon's satire and analysis. It is for Pynchon a dangerous drug, that nearly everyone is on (including Pynchon, it seems, judging by amount of TV trivia he seems to know), spreads the messages of the establishment and takes over the lives of it's users. In a truly post-modern fashion, TV becomes reality for its users, who take in reality mostly through the distorted lens of television. A significant running gag in the book is that the characters watch absurd TV bio-pics, like Woody Allen in Young Kissinger, or Pee-wee Herman in The Robert Musil Story ("It was mostly Pee-wee talking in a foreign accent or sitting around in front of some pieces of paper with some weird-looking marker pen.."), many of which are about TV personalities like Frank Gorshin, to further emphasize the point.
This way, The Tube is used by the establishment to control people, and in the end Pynchon suggests that it was The Tube which eventually killed off the Counterculture: "Minute the
Tube got hold of you folks that was it, that whole alternative America, el
deado meato, just like the’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even
in 1970 dollars — it was way too cheap..." Also: "Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it's what the Tube is for.."
Unlike Marijuana and LSD, the Tube is a drug that helps the establishment, which is why the former is illegal and the later encouraged. (this hypocrisy is underlined when we meet Hector, a former agent for the Drug enforcement Administration, who is so addicted to TV that he has to quit his job and undergo treatment)
This echoes the gigantic telescreens in Orwell's 1984, which Pynchon alludes to: "As if the Tube were suddenly to stop showing pictures and instead announce, 'From now on, I'm watching you."
But Pynchon seems to argue, contra Orwell that the government doesn't really need this surveillance. The Tube (and our culture in general) controls people perfectly well without it: in the 60s, Brock Vond starts up forced re-education camps for Hippies who are busted in drug raids, but by 1984 he doesn't need to force people into them: young people sign up for the camps voluntarily, a truly chilling image.
But Pynchon is no pessimist. Just as in Against The Day and Gravity's Rainbow he puts the forces of love and human empathy against the capitalist machinery, which in the end redeems Frenesi and reunites the broken family.
Vineland is one of Pynchon's best. It is also one of his shorter novels despite a lot more happening in the book than my write-up here hints at, and is as such a good starting point for readers that are new to his work.