Comparing Gravity's Rainbow and Vineland

Comparing Gravity's Rainbow and Vineland

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Comparing Gravity's Rainbow and Vineland  

From the author of Gravity's Rainbow (1973), the famous apocalyptic novel of World War II, comes Vineland (1990), a trip into the California of 1984: a Reagan-era wasteland of yuppies, malls, food-preservatives and, above all, the Tube: the Cathode-Ray Tube. The opening line of Gravity's Rainbow, "A screaming comes across the sky," which describes a V-2 rocket on its lethal mission, finds a way into Pynchon's latest work, albeit transformed: "Desmond was out on the porch, hanging around his dish, which was always empty because of the blue jays who came screaming down out of the redwoods and carried off the food in it piece by piece."

One passage describes war. Another tells of birds stealing dog food. The change in scope is huge, but misleading. Some readers may scoff at first at Pynchon's subject matter-hippie holdovers running from narcs-but there is no mistaking Vineland's connection to Gravity's Rainbow. The newer work acts as a corollary to the older one.

The book begins with Zoyd Wheeler waking up one summer morning with some Froot Loops with Nestle's Quick on top. He lives in Vineland County, a foggy, fictional expanse of Northern California which makes a great refuge for wilting flower children. Zoyd is one of them-a part-time keyboard player, handyman and marijuana cultivator who acts publicly crazy (he jumps through glass windows once a year on television) to qualify for mental disability benefits. He and his teenage daughter Prairie both mourn the disappearance of Frenesi Gates, who was mother to one and wife to the other. Frenesi was a radical filmmaker during the 60's until she was seduced by Brock Vond, a federal prosecutor and overall bad-guy/nutcase who turns her from hippie radical to FBI informant. With her help he manages to destroy the People's Republic of Rock and Roll.

Fast-forward two decades. Frenesi is about to be kicked out of the Witness Protection Program because the government is tired of subsidizing her. Zoyd wants to find her, for obvious reasons. Vond, still the charismatic little psychopath, wants Frenesi back too, and decides to kidnap Prairie to get her. Prairie, the only sane and sober person in the book, also wants to meet Frenesi, the mother she never knew.

But there's more, like in any Pynchon novel: Vond is apparently the ultimate law-enforcement spoilsport and he's not done hounding guys like Zoyd.

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The plot gets tangled with flashbacks that come fast and thick. Much of the book is preposterous and very funny, a sort of gross exaggeration that manages to do a good job of extrapolating the future of current trends. There are the Thanatoids, a bunch of people who resent being alive (an improbably erudite reference to the poem Thanatopsis). There are the Kunoichi Attentives, "a sort of Esalen Institute for lady asskickers (107)." (By the way, when a disciple commits a grievous offense against the rules of the order she faces fearsome punishment, including "the Ordeal of the Thousand Broadway Show Tunes.") And so on. The best description probably comes from within the novel itself: "Nobody knows just what's goin' on, except there's a nut case leading a heavily armed strike force loose in California."

Maybe with other novelists the title of a work can be dismissed. Certainly, no one is going to look for symbolic meaning in the title Airframe. But Pynchon is an acknowledged master of prose whose intricate symbolic order is unmatched by any other writer of his generation. So, it's time to puzzle it out.

Vineland is, of course, the name of the physical setting of the book, but it's also the name given to this continent by Leif Ericsson, the Norseman who is presumed to be the New World's first European visitor. It is a name older than America and it was that of a land untouched by the hands of the ancestors of its present inhabitants.

But there is nothing untouched about 1984 California. In one of the more courageous moves he makes, Pynchon deliberately uses a shriveled language in this novel. There is none of the experimental prose that made Gravity's Rainbow such a wonder of modern literature. Even in a relatively accessible novel of his like The Crying of Lot 49 there is a plentitude of subtle pun and ribbing for those who can get it. But Vineland's prose is so flat and simple that it actually looks different on the page from a distance.

And it's perfect. As mentioned earlier, Vineland acts as a corollary to Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon certainly didn't try to top his earlier work, but Vineland is still a wholly remarkable book. Where Gravity's Rainbow was about resisting ordered systems of thought (which he sees as both dehumanizing and dangerous to human perceptions of truth), Vineland is about the aftermath that seems all too inevitable now. In that way Vineland is Pynchon's darkest book.

Over and over again in the book there is the juxtaposition of promise and reality. Pynchon celebrates the 60's but laments its aftermath. Pynchon celebrates America yet condemns what we have been doing to ourselves in recent years.

Then the meaning of the title becomes clear. Vineland is the story of ideals sacrificed, revolutions betrayed, and it's a step further down the path to hell than Gravity's Rainbow. Hippies became Yuppies. Virgin Vineland became America under the Reagan Administration. The frontier became Vineland Mall. The Wizard of Oz became the Boob Tube.

If Gravity's Rainbow was three parts apocalypse and one part hope, Vineland is nine parts suicide and one part wistful nostalgia. But even here there is a spark of hope that makes Vineland worth reading. Prairie carries a lot of emotional baggage around, but she never stops striving for what would be mawkish ideals if presented by any other writer: courage, kindness and intelligence.

Pynchon spends a lot of time establishing Prairie's redemptive nature with a Wizard of Oz fixation that shows itself several times in his works. (The quote "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore" introduces section 3 of Gravity's Rainbow.) One time he tells us that a snapshot of California "couldn't have been Kansas anymore (120)." He uses Kansas to represent the ideals America has sold away.

Like the executrix Oedipa Mass in The Crying of Lot 49 she is a good hearted person who is trying simply to make some sense out of this huge mess that she has inherited. Pynchon leaves open the possibility of renewal-but not too open. Even Prairie, this last hope, is afflicted. She can think of nothing better to do at a pivotal moment in the book than sing the Gilligan's Island theme song. (Pynchon's favorite show is reputedly The Brady Bunch. Even geniuses watch crappy television. Ironic.)

Since Gravity's Rainbow was set in World War II, Vineland is his only work dealing exclusively with our present state since 1965. He felt a need to venture back to the present, perhaps because he sees the future growing more and more like his novels. He would be right. Way back in the 50's and 60's writers such as him and Vonnegut grew wary of technology. In the 80's and 90's there is more to frighten Luddites. Pynchon had a chance to see television transform our culture and there is no question that the implications of a generation shaped by a cable network-the so-called "MTV Generation"-have not passed by him unnoticed. While he sees more humor than dire consequences, he makes his worry evident. Vineland may be dark and barren in comparison to the rest of his work to date, but it is invested with a greater urgency than any of them.

Works Cited:

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 1973.

Pynchon, Thomas. Vineland. New York: Little, Brown, 1990.
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