Dazzling Symmetries

the redemptive tragicomedy of Pynchon’s Vineland

Thinking back to Gravity’s Rainbow, one of the things that sticks out most is not from the book, but from a review of it, the New York Times review by Richard Locke. Locke celebrates Pynchon’s “brilliant set pieces and episodes that play exquisite variations on earlier scenes,” citing a harmonica flushed down a toilet in New York in 1938 reappearing in a mountain stream in savage continent Europe seven years later. First an elusive macguffin in a surreal, comic sequence, the harmonica returns as a cold, hard fact during a moment when Slothrop is most adrift, bringing him, and perhaps Locke, to tears. “Such symmetry is dazzling,” he writes.

Maybe it was because I missed the importance of the harmonica the first time around and because I still believed in the authority of a review, especially one so fit to print, but the idea of dazzling symmetry stuck with me, exerting a powerful influence on how I would read Pynchon from there on. I became attuned to what I felt to be a particular kind of causality in his work, one that bleeds together with correlation, producing coincidences, synchronicities, and other glitches in the fictional matrix that are often more trustworthy than mundane reality. Events in Pynchon’s work will be linked by more traditional calls and responses, like the sad, ironic reversal of the harmonica, but a reader hunting too fervently for muted posthorns will be led on a wild goose chase for thinking so literally. Instead he asks that readers embrace the invisible or extrasensory, whether it’s Slothrop’s paranoia; the olfactory detection of the “freelance professional Nose”; Doc Sportello’s “Doper’s Intuition”; or astrology, ESP, and other new age divinations to suss out the strange truth. These might seem like gags or digressions, and they are, but the humor belies a subversive necessity. In a world glutted with disinformation, we can’t trust the salient, graphic, and official meaning, but must rely on secondary faculties and registers to feel out the intentions of clandestine forces behind the psyop, whether these be the tendriled apparatuses of the deep state or yet murkier agencies at play.

These forces brought me to Vineland at the end of 2022. After mentioning how much I liked Denis Johnson’s Already Dead, a friend recommended I finally commit to Vineland, not just his favorite Pynchon but his favorite novel. We were taking a break on a lazy bike tour of the East Bay, which ended at a pub in my neighborhood, where it turned out the barmaid’s favorite book was also Vineland. If this wasn’t enough to set off my sensors, the next day I found a used copy for sale at Half-Priced Books in Berkeley, historical locus of such high weirdness in the Pynchonverse and beyond. Flipping the book open, I land on a passage describing a house “south of San Francisco, with a view of the Bay, the San Mateo bridge, and Alameda County through the smog on certain days, though this was not one of them. The house, dating from the 1920s, was in Mediterranean Revival style…of white stucco, with round-topped windows and red tile roofs.” Though Pynchon presents a comic exaggeration of such a house’s size and luxury, it still bears an uncanny resemblance to the house I grew up in. He may as well have been writing from my memory to pause and smell the “pale plantations of jasmine, spilling like bridal lace, which would keep telling nose-tales of paradise all night, long after the last guests had been driven home.” That, or the conspiracy goes deeper than even I could imagine.

Being the much-delayed follow-up to Gravity’s Rainbow, Vineland was always going to be subject to prejudices, zealous and contrarian and every flavor between. From the reviews I’ve read and the reputation absorbed, the book fulfills its promise of being a lesser work, not as polyphonic and ambitious as its predecessor, nor as tight and rollicking as The Crying of Lot 49, though funny as anything Pynchon has written if softer in its sensibility, edges blunted by plenty of sungrown sinsemilia. It’s an assessment that would be flipped into a virtue to celebrate Inherent Vice two decades later, the marketing machine applauding Pynchon’s maturation, but in 1990 Vineland was a predictable disappointment and recent reclamation essays in The Guardian and The Boston Review haven’t been able to refurbish the book’s funky dilapidation. If there is something to love about Vineland, we’re led to believe, it is a humanistic depth that is allowed to shine without all the postmodern pyrotechnics upstaging it. Characters are given quieter moments of contemplation, more realistic emotional registers, often surprisingly sad ones to balance out the goofy jokes. I share this sentiment, that the book possesses a generous humanism, one that charms and moves me even as it veers into sentimentality as the troops rally for the final set piece. Before that though, towards the end of the book’s long middle, when trajectories are their most tangled, the forces of evil the most in control, a poignancy develops not in spite of the book’s cartoonish humor and postmodern play, but thanks to it, and to the dazzling symmetry between these seeming opposites.

The book opens on Zoyd Wheeler rousing himself to perform what has become an annual tradition: putting on a dress and throwing himself through the window of a local business, proof that he does, in fact, qualify for another year’s worth of mental disability checks. Everyone in town is in on the scam, offering weary attaboys if they aren’t actively aiding and abetting. Among the conspirators are the owner of the bar Zoyd will smash his way out of (“Here, let me show you the window you’ll be using.”), the production staff of the local news “waving light meters and checking sound levels” to ensure they get the shot, and the Vineland PD, standing by ready to issue the necessary paperwork. The defenestration has become such an event that it’s covered on the Tube like a sporting event, dignified with slow motion replays, color commentary, analysis by panels of talking heads, and so on. This year, Zoyd is put off by the hollowness of the impact with the glass, which turns out to be sugar, the kind used in action movies.

This fact is demonstrated by Zoyd’s nemesis, DEA agent Hector Zuñiga, chomping down on a shard of glass to Zoyd’s brief horror, though not ours. The window sequence is played entirely for laughs, flying by obvious signposts of a darker world in need of deeper commentary. Zoyd’s intended site, the Log Jam, is no longer the roadhouse bar he remembers, but has been remodeled to cater to “[d]angerous men with coarsened attitudes,” who work the “upscale machinery parked in the lot, itself newly blacktopped,” suggesting we’ll get a glimpse into the economic violence these men symbolize, if not plain-old physical violence, but no such struggle materializes. The self-conscious superficiality of Zoyd’s routine and how quickly it is converted to entertainment is not evidence against how media has colonized reality. If anything, it is an opportunity for a moment of comforting ritual between Zoyd and his daughter, Prairie, as “[t]hey sat together on the floor in front of the Tube, with a chair-high bag of Chee-tos, watching baseball highlights, commercial, and weather—no rain again—till it was time for the kissoff story.” The terms of Zoyd’s life in Vineland may be a joke, but it’s not a cruel, cosmic one setup to teach us a lesson about The American Experiment. It simply exists and exists simply, the joke made into a comforting banality.

This sympathetic portrait of the post-nuclear family, however, is immediately thrown into disarray by the appearance of Zoyd’s nemesis Hector, a harbinger for the book’s archvillain, federal agent Brock Vond, the man we’re told lured away Zoyd’s “old lady” Frenesi Gates under nefarious circumstances, but who has never been able to truly possess her, prompting his arrival in Vineland. Frenesi has been living under witness protection since she turned from radical filmmaker to snitch, but recently disappeared, sending Brock in search of her by any means necessary, including the seizure of Zoyd’s home on bogus drug charges, presumably to gain access to Prairie, a chip he might use to bring Frenesi back under his control, or, as the helicopter scene in the book’s finale suggests, as a psychosexual surrogate for her mother.

It’s a sinister plot for sure, but, safely tucked in the cartoon of the novel’s opening, it reads like the first domino in a picaresque mandala rather than the deranged abuse of power the book’s lefties would see it as. It’s only later in the novel, when we learn more about these characters’ histories and motivations that events take on an unsettling depth. By this point Frenesi has flipped to the side of the feds, influenced by more than the inexplicable charisma Brock Vond wields over women of all political allegiances. Vond has established black site for reprogramming the hippie youth into law-abiding yuppies a decade before the Reagan Era would do his job for him, putting him out of work. His obsession with Frenesi and dominating the liberation she and her bare legs represent leads him to arrange for the removal of Zoyd and the newborn Prairie via a familiar proxy, Hector Zuñiga. Again, we open on comedy, Zoyd returning home to find Hector “posed dramatically in the front room next to the biggest block of pressed marijuana Zoyd had ever seen in mysteriously, a shaggy monolithic slab reaching almost the ceiling.” Zoyd is booked and next thing he knows he is alone in an interrogation room with Brock Vond, who presents a series of unpalatable scenarios. Zoyd can do his time and if he’s good, maybe he’ll get to attend Prairie’s wedding under guard (“Even a sip of champagne at the reception, although that technically would be drug use.”). Of course Zoyd could make a deal and once he’s out Frenesi could make an escape too and they’d be a family again, but Vond would eventually hunt them down. If Zoyd and, more importantly, Prairie, are to know some kind of family, it will have to be far from Frenesi. Enter Vineland, which Zoyd caravans to with the other refugees of the culture war the Feds have already won. His mental disability checks are not benefits, but a way for Vond to keep tabs on him. The comedy of opening flips to tragedy, one made keener by the distance between the setup and gutpunch.

Such symmetry is dazzling, sure, but I think Pynchon is saying something important about the control society that was germinating around the time Zoyd was making his deal and had codified by the book’s 1984. No longer will power discipline and punish, but will work through the demonic influence of incentivizes, which often amount to little more than double or triple binds, making them yet crueler kinds of punishment, piss called rain. Vond smears plenty of unctuous charm over his sociopathy, though never enough to cover it up, more insult to injury, and it’s clear too that he is enjoying himself, getting lost in the details of the scenarios he’s constructed to coerce Zoyd, paying particular attention to the rhythms of the Wheeler family’s daily life. Power won’t just oppress, it will take pleasure in doing so, and so will you, comedy mask covering a tragic face.

The victim isn’t the only one wearing this mask though, or rather, victim and victimizer are one in the same. Vond is obsessed with controlling hippie domesticity because his own lineage is a source of shame. It’s a classic story. He is a functionary obsessed with becoming a member of the blue-blooded “Real Ones” of society who would only ever see him as a hired thug, so Vond redirects his anxieties onto an underclass within his control, his only opportunity to play the master, relying on rationalizations to justify this perversion. He is an extant believer in Cesare Lombroso’s theories of criminal physiology, clearly an excuse to ogle “the guilty droop of head, the bestial turn of an ass-cheek, the spine furtively overflexed” before going about the business of seducing the owners of these attributes. Equally convenient is his interpretation of “the activities of the sixties left not [as] threats to order but unacknowledged desires for it,” Vond’s prompt to build elaborate scenarios to gently parent these eternal children back to safety of “some extended national Family.” It is a convenient theory, but sadly accurate, if only because Vond and the Real Ones he represents succeed in their cultural reprogramming, creating a pyramid scheme of subjugation, every servant needing their own servants to master in order to make their own conditions tolerable. Estranged from themselves, these characters fetishize an other they’re also programmed to hate, trapping them in an uncanny perversion, both loving and hating the self and the other.

This bind is obvious in the book’s villain, but it crops up in the morally ambiguous characters too, where its influence is more spectral, its effects sublime. Frenesi, coming from a long line of leftists, harbors a secret desire for male authority, though Frenesi’s mother, Sasha, believes this to be hereditary, experiencing her own “helpless turn towards images of authority, especially uniformed men,” and this trait seems to have been passed down to Prairie too. The novel opens with Prairie dating an enterprising “violence enthusiast” who is looking to open a family-friendly chain of theme parks where civilians can fire automatic weapons and go on “paramilitary fantasy adventures.” By the morning after Vond’s failed helivac abduction, Prairie is even more in tune with her heritage. She returns to the site of her encounter with Vond, “terrified but obliged,” to make an offering to its memory. “‘You can come back,’ she whispered, waves of cold sweeping over her, trying to gaze steadily into a night that now at any turn could prove unfaceable. ‘It’s OK, rilly. Come on, come in. I don’t care. Take me anyplace you want.’”

Prairie doesn’t get her wish. She falls asleep and wakes to her dog, Desmond, licking her face, one last symmetry, one that confirms that, like Gravity’s Rainbow, we have been following a parabola, but one that dips beneath the earth’s surface. Desmond is effectively absent from the novel outside the bookends of this ending and the second page, where he is begging for food after his breakfast has been stolen by belligerent blue jays who, after eating Desmond’s food, begin to act like dogs, the first time we see Vineland’s thesis that we are the shit we eat. Not Desmond though: “It was Desmond, none other, the spit and image of his grandmother Chloe, face full of blue-jay feathers, smiling out of his eyes, wagging his tail, thinking he must be home.”

I am reminded of Zoyd, his dopey acquiescence, which may just be the thing that allows him to break the chain. Instead of resenting his position, letting it fester into fetish, he accepts it, making as good as he can with the shit hand he’s been dealt, savoring afternoons in front of the Tube sharing junk food with his daughter. Zoyd’s simple devotion to Prairie is not just what makes the abuse of the Real Ones tolerable, but transmutes suffering into beauty, exile into home, one made stronger for its scavenged, makeshift construction. This metaphor is made literal in the Wheeler homestead, originally just “a small used trailer shaped like a canned ham,” which Zoyd and friends gradually build up until it becomes “a living thing [Zoyd] loved, whose safety he feared for.”

I think of my own family home, for which I reserve plenty of criticism but cannot deny the poetics of its spaces and the space this poetics occupies in my being. The hedges of jasmine are overly manicured, woven through the chainlink fence to separate us from our neighbors, just a few of the many decisions my parents made to become more like whomever they believed the Real Ones to be. Whenever I smell jasmine, I think of this aspiration and the histories that inform it, ones I have gone so far out of my way to resist, but to what end? I still crave status, quality, recognition, privacy, the exotic, and any other bourgeois trapping you might imagine, though now they vie clandestinely with their alleged antidotes, impossible to untangle. I smell jasmine and I am pulled between self and other, love and hate, resistance and acceptance. My complex is certainly complex, but who is it outsmarting? There is no escaping the legacies we inherit, but Pynchon wants to believe there is some redemption in acceptance. A sappy notion perhaps, the mark of a less sophisticated work, but one that lingers long after the guests have gone.

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File Under

control, counterculture, extrasensory, legacy, Northern California, perversion, postmodernism, sentimentality, the stoner, the novel, Thomas Pynchon, tragicomedy