Friday, April 20, 2012

Books: Vineland

Vineland is a bit of a mess of a book, but I really enjoyed it.
SPOILER ALERT for this post, if you're concerned.

Pynchon's world is a mix of the realistic, the exaggerated and the fantastical.  Some feels like genuine people's history, buried histories of strike-breaking and radicalism.  The extraordinary powers available to the villain Brock Vondt, as he sets up camp in California with a small army including helicopter gunships, are an exaggeration, although it's hard to know just how much of an exaggeration.  The fantastical comes from the ninja death-touch used by one of the characters, or the skyjacking of passenger planes that don't pay the protection money. 

Pynchon has been described as "zany", but that's a horrible description.  It is a style deployed for amusement, but also with more serious purpose.  The loose grasp of structure and reality that the book has fits its subject matter.  That's not to say that the people in it are deluded, but many have some weird ideas.  Pynchon probably doesn't want you to believe a lot of the stuff in the book, but if you accept it temporarily, it makes you more sympathetic to the protagonists, more likely to accept other ideas, that may not be wrong just because they're far-out.

What I find particularly interesting about the book is its look at the failure of the 1970s counter-culture and the fall-out from that.  Maybe it's my own ignorance, but it's a subject that does not seem to get discussed a lot.  Everyone knows a bit about the hippies, tends to regard their ideas as too naive, failing when confronted with reality.  It's less common to pick up the people and ideas and trace what happened to them over the next decades.  Adam Curtis does it quite a lot (particularly in AWOBMOLG).  Pynchon sets this is in a  longer context of resistance to corporate and government, back to the union-busting of the 1930s and 50s.

I like the descriptions of people and communities living out unusual and marginal lives in the heart of a first-world state.  Whether growing marijuana or forming a community of those caught between death and life.  There is potential implicit in the idea that you can do this, under the noses, so to speak, of the authorities.  Vineland doesn't present a rosy picture though.  The power of the US government is exaggerated, but the violence and calculated repression used on the hippy movement, from COINTELPRO to the National Guard, was real.  The power of the state is always looming, sometimes approaching, sometimes receding, but always unaccountable.

In Foucault's Discipline and Punish, the purpose of prison is not so much to prevent crime but to create a class of people useful to the powerful.  In Vineland the war on drugs has a very similar role.  It is just as much a means as an end, creating endless opportunities to threaten people, influence them, turn them into informants, attack marginal communities and so-on.  A block of cannabis too large to even fit through the door is 'found' in the house of one of the main characters, Zoyd, giving the authorities the power to take away his house, his daughter and his liberty - unless he can convince a judge that he is more trustworthy than the upstanding US marshalls who discovered the drugs.  The plan of Brock Vondt is to use the war on drugs as a way of relocating large numbers of people to a secret camp (itself a leftover from Kennedy-era nuclear worries) where they can be indoctrinated into model citizens.  In the end, this dream is dashed when the government finds that people are moving there voluntarily, finding their way from Vietnam, Central America, Mexico and so-on.

Another tool of social control, "the tube" plays an important role in the book, but I'm not sure quite what.  One character remarks that the trouble with the generation of the 60s/70s is that they had no resistance to it.  Maybe the volume of stories available on TV overwhelmed those told by people.  The images that Frenesi's film collective take great risks to record are overwhelmed by a torrent of TV.  However that seems to be reading too much in to what the book actually says.

Despite everything that has come before, the novel has a surprisingly warm conclusion.  Any sense of defeat by the protagonists is mollified by the memories of others, a long-term and continuing struggle passed down from generations.  They are reconciled at a family gathering.  A sprawling, not particularly conventional family, but still a surprisingly traditional group in which to find a radical heart and refuge.

My biggest issue with the book was one of the central characters, Frenesi Gates.  She starts off as a radical film-maker, but becomes an informant and, in events at a campus that has declared itself to be the independent People's Republic of Rock & Roll, is involved in bringing about the murder of its key figure.  After this, she briefly settles and has a child with the hippy Zoyd Walker, before returning to the federal fold for a life of undercover informant work in a witness protection program.  As I was reading I was thinking "my opinion of this book will strongly hinge on how plausibly her motivations are explained."  I was disappointed.  She seems to be driven by little more than lust towards the villain, Brock, and maybe early on a desire to redeem him (though this is barely mentioned).  Is it symbolic of people's need to have authority figures?  Except for a last-minute urge in Frenesi's daughter, none of the other characters seem to have this drive. 

Perhaps even worse than this is the glossing over of sexual violence and threat.  It crops up occasionally, and there are regular mentions of officers taking opportunities to cop a feel of students during round-ups.  This never builds above harassment to a sense of menace though.  The main relationship between power and sex is of women's desire for (or willing submission to) powerful men.  Maybe there is a certain gentleness in the whole of the book though; violence is more threatened than actually experienced by the characters.

Although I enjoyed it, I did find Vineland unusually hard to follow.  It's not just the narrative jumping between years without making the chronology very clear, or the fact that at one point I had to check back to make sure that a character who was talking really had been killed some years earlier, or even the idioms and speech patterns used by the characters.  I often found it hard to follow what was going on, from paragraph to paragraph, and I don't really know why that was.  There were also bits that I simply didn't get.  What was going on in the minor subplot around Takeshi's loss adjusting work passed me by completely.  I see now that the Thanatoids, with their 'karmic imbalance', are people who can't move on because of hangovers from their past - just like the main characters.  Even if I'd grasped that straight-off, I think they'd still have puzzled me.

Sooner or later I'll probably pick up some more Pychon, probably either Gravity's Rainbow or Mason & Dixon.  I can see myself re-reading Vineland at some point in the future, too.

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