If Three Should Be Five
I first read “Vineland”
some time in the 90’s. Based on an imperfect recollection of it, I rated it three stars when I joined GoodReads. I’ve raised my rating to five stars, partly because of how much fun I had reading it a second time.
I can’t think of a better novel to read between now and when we emerge safely into the Post-Trump era. Reprise and Foreshadow“Vineland”
reprises the longing and quest for an absent woman that was at the heart of
(in this case, the daughter of left-wing activist parents, a “third generation lefty”,
student radical, film-maker and the novel’s heroine, Frenesi Gates); it features Kommandant Karl Bopp, former Nazi Luftwaffe officer and subsequently useful American citizen (who could have emigrated from
while it foreshadows the focus on the underground and anarchism that was so fundamental to
“Against the Day”.
More realist than Pynchon’s previous three novels, its description of the American landscape is as detailed and expressive, usually as humorous and sometimes as sentimental as it would later be in
“Mason & Dixon”:
“The shape of the brief but legendary Trasero County coast, where the waves were so high you could lie on the beach and watch the sun through them, repeated on its own scale the greater curve between San Diego and Terminal Island, including a military reservation which, like Camp Pendleton in the world at large, extended from the ocean up into a desert hinterland…”
"They were in a penthouse suite high over Amarillo, up in the eternal wind, with the sun just set into otherworld transparencies of yellow and ultraviolet, and other neon-sign colours coming on across the boundless twilit high plain…(381)"
“A lightning storm had appeared far out at sea and now, behind them out the window, was advancing on the city, taking brightly crazed shots all along the horizon. Somewhere in here a stereo began to play a stack of albums from the fifties, all in that sweet intense mainstream wherein the tenor drowns of love, or, as it is known elsewhere, male adolescence.”
“Zoyd, who was driving, came at last upon a long forest-lined grade and cresting saw the trees fold away, as there below, swung dizzily into view, came Vineland, all the geometry of the bay neutrally filtered under pre-storm clouds, the crystalline openwork arcs of pale bridges, a tall power plant stack whose plume blew straight north, meaning rain on the way, a jet in the sky ascending from Vineland International south of town, the Corps of Engineers marina, with salmon boats, power cruisers, and day sailers all docked together, and spilling uphill from the shoreline a couple of square miles crowded with wood Victorian houses, Quonset sheds, postwar prefab ranch and split-level units, little trailer parks, lumber-baron floridity, New Deal earnestness. And the federal building, jaggedly faceted, obsidian black, standing apart, inside a vast parking lot whose fences were topped with concertina wire. ‘Don’t know, it just landed one night, sitting there in the morning when everybody woke up, folks seem to be gettin’ used to it.’ (317)”
This sounds like somewhere that is really there and that you’re in the passenger’s seat of the car that Zoyd is driving and you can see it, too. Whilst laughing.Reaganomic Drug Hysteria
Published in 1990, the novel is set partly in 1969 (in cinematic flashback), but primarily in 1984, the year in which Ronald Reagan won a second term as President. It was also a time when Reagan’s economic policies (dubbed “Reaganomics”)
and his “War on Drugs”
(which initiates what Pynchon calls “national drug hysteria”)
were in full flight. Perhaps presciently for Trump, it’s worth noting that the assassination attempt on Reagan was made just 69 days into his first term in 1981. People must have known what they were going to get.
Ironically (or maybe not), the ultimate source of the drugs was the CIA:“Verily I say that wheresoever the CIA putteth its meathooks upon the world, there also are to be found those substances which God may have created but the US Code hath decided to control. Get me?...Notice how cheap coke has been since ‘81?”Leaning Across the Counter-culture
It’s well known that Pynchon has always had counter-cultural sympathies. Here, they’re front and centre, as is the associated politics. Frenesi conceives of her life working in the seventies underground documentary film industry this way:“When the sixties were over, when the hemlines came down and the colours of the clothes went murky and everybody wore makeup that was supposed to look like you had no makeup on, when tatters and patches had had their day and the outlines of the Nixonian Repression were clear enough even for the most gaga of hippie optimists to see, it was then, facing into the deep autumnal wind of what was coming, that she thought, Here, finally - here’s my Woodstock, my golden age of rock and roll, my acid adventures, my Revolution. Come into my own at last...Here was a world of simplicity and certainty no acidhead, no revolutionary anarchist would ever find, a world based on the one and zero of life and death. Minimal, beautiful. The patterns of lives and deaths…”Student Film Collective
Frenesi belongs to a student film collective called 24fps, whose motto is:“A camera is a gun. An image taken is a death performed. Images put together are the substructure of an afterlife and a Judgment. We will be architects of a just Hell for the fascist pig. Death to everything that oinks!”I Love a Man in Uniform
Paradoxically, Frenesi has inherited a “uniform fetish”
from her mother, “as if some Cosmic Fascist had spliced in a DNA sequence requiring this form of seduction and initiation into the dark joys of social control.”
She enjoys a privileged personal and financial position, because after the death of agent Weed Atman at the College of the Surf protest, she’d been compromised by FBI agent, Brock Vond (“a rebel cop, with his own deeply personal agenda, only following the orders of a repressive regime based on death”)
into supplying information and film footage about other activists for a fee (in his eyes, she had good “snitch potential”):“He figures he won his war against the lefties, now he sees his future in the war against drugs.”
“Duly sworn officers of the law, wearing uniforms, packing guns, bound to uphold the Constitution, you think men like that would lie?”From New Deal to No Deal
However, come Reagan’s autumnal wind, things started to change:“She understood that the Reaganomic axe blades were swinging everywhere, that she and Flash [her husband] were no longer exempt, might easily be abandoned already to the upper world and any unfinished business in it that might now resume...as if they'd been kept safe in some time-free zone all these years but now, at the unreadable whim of something in power, must reenter the clockwork of cause and effect. Someplace there would be a real axe, or something just as painful, Jasonic, blade-to-meat final - but at the distance she, Flash, and Justin [their son] had by now been brought to, it would all be done with keys on alphanumeric keyboards that stood for weightless, invisible chains of electronic presence or absence...We are digits in God’s computer…”
They go from “once carefree dopers”
to drug criminals sought out by paramilitary law-enforcement agencies like the crop-destroying Campaign Against Marijuana Production (CAMP), Brock Vond’s Political Re-Education Program (PREP) and the Ultra High-Speed Urban Reconnaissance Unit (UHURU)(one of many “Star Trek”
references). Pynchon paints a picture of the Reagan government as a brutal, conniving fascist regime that repealed the New Deal and replaced it with No Deal:“It’s the whole Reagan program, isn’t it - dismantle the New Deal, reverse the effects of World War II, restore fascism at home and around the world, flee into the past, can’t you feel it, all the dangerous childish stupidity - ‘I don’t like the way it came out, I want it to be my way.’”
Reagan attacks the counter-cultural underground as if it were a vicious alien virus intent on destroying the American mainstream. The residents of Vineland become victims of Rex84 (an armed exercise to test the US military's ability to detain large numbers of American citizens in case of civil unrest or national emergency.) Pynchon describes it as “big and invisible...silent, undocumented, forever deniable.”The Nature of Resistance
Reagan is resisted by a coalition of forces, including dopers, bikers, students, unionists, “die hard industry lefties”
in Hollywood, the Old Left, Wobblies, the New Left and Anarchists.
Guerillas turn skywriting and billboards that proclaim “Drug Free America”
into “Drugs Free America”.
Only, within a few years, they’re either dead or drinking Bud Light.
While I suspect that Pynchon is more sympathetic to Anarchism than I am, Frenesi comes from a family tradition that is more labour-oriented than focussed on the Identity Politics of the New Left and the Anarchist movement. Her parents have experienced HUAC inquiries, Hollywood black lists and strike-breaking. Their politics is more concerned with the plight of the working class under American capitalism than it is with more social and cultural issues. For the sake of convenience, I’ll call the former Hard Left Politics and the latter Soft Left Politics.
While the Soft Left continued its struggle into the 80’s, its effectiveness was undermined by Reagan's use of authoritarian force and the distribution of psychedelic drugs by the law enforcement agencies. Worse still, the Soft Left was placated, sedated and negated by the new drug of complacency and conformity, Television (the Tube). Pynchon seems to lament that the Soft Left became more prominent than the Hard Left. Despite his consistent identification with the counter-culture, he seems to regard its social and cultural concerns as introspective, self-obsessed and narcissistic.
To the extent that the New Left focuses on the status of the individual, it’s political program is individualistic in nature. In contrast, the Old Left focuses on the role of workers under Capitalism, and its political program is collectivist.Tubular BluesThe Broken Collectivity
Either way, Reagan severely damaged the collective of resistance, so that Pynchon refers to it as “the broken collectivity”.
Blue-eyed Frenesi's reaction was to turn blue. She suffered postnatal depression after the birth of her daughter, Prairie, who joins the quest for her mother with her father, Zoyd Wheeler, and various federal agents (not just Brock Vond) who are obsessed with her. In a way, the quest to find Frenesi after she disappears ends up being a quest for the restoration of family, and arguably family order.
This is Pynchon at his most sentimental or empathetic (what he calls a "little wave of tenderness").
However, it also suggests an additional degree of scepticism about Anarchism. This is what he has to say about Brock Vond:“Brock Vond’s genius was to have seen in the activities of the sixties left not threats to order but unacknowledged desires for it. While the Tube was proclaiming youth revolution against parents of all kinds and most viewers were accepting this story, Brock saw the deep - if he’d allowed himself to feel it, the sometimes touching - need only to stay children forever, safe inside some extended national Family…They needed some reconditioning.”
Perhaps, the State doesn’t need to be abolished. It too might just need some reconditioning. Whether this reads too much into Pynchon’s work, I still think it can be questioned whether he equates the counterculture with Anarchism. It's arguable that an alternative culture of any significance requires a social democracy (a democratic family) within which to thrive. An anarchist society would be too full of unregulated and counterproductive individualism and conflict.The Words of the Next Generation
Rightly or wrongly, Prairie's boyfriend, Isaiah Two Four, blames the Tube for what went wrong:"Whole problem ‘th you folks’ generation, nothin’ personal, is you believed in your Revolution, put your lives right out there for it - but you didn’t understand much about the Tube. Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, that whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like th’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970 dollars - it was way too cheap…"
February 26, 2017