Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 988
Vineland is Pynchon’s most accessible novel, the one in which he makes his most direct statements about politics and repression in the United States, and the one in which the “good guys” and “bad guys” are most clearly distinguished. It is also, paradoxically, the one in which he makes use of the most indirect narrative methods.
There has always been an element of indirection in Pynchon’s fiction, a technique related to sleight-of-hand in which the author seems to be pointing in one direction, only to shift to something unforeseen. There have also been elements of surprise in the depiction of many of Pynchon’s characters. In Vineland, however, indirection becomes a basic technique. For example, an important chapter that will lead Prairie Wheeler, the central figure, to essential information about her mother begins with an extended depiction of a mobster, Ralph Wayvone, Sr.
At the outset, Vineland centers on a former hippie named Zoyd Wheeler. He lives in Northern California with his daughter, Prairie, a teenager who works in a “New Age” pizza parlor. Zoyd has a small business and receives a government allotment for engaging in one crazy act a year, usually leaping through a plate-glass window in a local restaurant. He is harried by drug enforcement agents and, early in the novel, by a federal prosecutor who is trying to find Zoyd’s ex-wife, Frenesi. It seems clear that Zoyd will be the central character in the novel.
The fact is, however, that Zoyd virtually disappears from the action for a long period once Prairie leaves with her boyfriend and his punk band, Billy Barf and the Vomitones.
The real quest in the novel is Prairie’s search for her mother, Frenesi Gates, and for the truth about Frenesi. Her father and grandmother, Frenesi’s radical mother, have always told her that Frenesi offended the establishment and was forced to go underground. Through a series of improbable coincidences (another common element in Pynchon’s fiction), Prairie meets DL Chastain, a woman martial arts expert who was a close friend of Frenesi when both were involved with radical politics during the Vietnam War era. DL takes Prairie to a women’s colony, the Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives, where women learn Ninja, and where she finds records that begin to reveal the truth about Frenesi.
What Prairie learns, over a period of time, is that her mother had been part of a radical film collective which had, at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War in the late 1960’s, been filming a student uprising on a college campus in Southern California. Her friends did not realize that Frenesi had been seduced by Brock Vond, the federal prosecutor and the blackest of all Pynchon’s villains. Just as the troops and police were about to move in to break up the students’ rebellion, Frenesi betrayed her friends by acting as the agent for the murder of a professor, the leader of the student movement (and incidentally one of Frenesi’s lovers). When the troops moved in, Frenesi was taken to a detention center, from which DL Chastain rescued her. She then married Zoyd and gave birth to Prairie before Brock reclaimed her. Since then she has lived as a protected government informer, with a fellow informer named Flash and their son, Justin.
As the novel nears its end, the characters gather in Vineland, a fictional town and county in Northern California. Zoyd, Frenesi, Prairie, DL, her partner Takeshi, and some others attend a reunion of the large extended family of Sasha, Frenesi’s mother. Brock Vond is on hand as the leader of what is supposed to be a huge government operation aimed at the marijuana crop but which is, in fact, intended to be more generally repressive; on a personal level, it is his opportunity to kidnap Frenesi and Prairie, whom he believes is his daughter. Hector Zuniga, a drug enforcement agent, is trying to arrange a motion picture based on Frenesi’s life.
It is clear in Vineland that Pynchon’s sympathies are with anyone and anything that represents resistance to what he regards as an increasingly repressive government. The use of drugs such as marijuana, LSD, and even cocaine is seen as part of such resistance; any harm they might do is harm only to the user, while a character such as Vond, in his lust for power, harms everyone he touches. Government installations built in recent years to house potential resisters in a time of national emergency are used by Pynchon to suggest the lengths to which the government is prepared to go in stamping out resistance to its policies. Raids on marijuana growers are seen as exertions of power aimed at controlling everyone.
Despite the power wielded by Vond and his agents, the ending of Vineland is more hopeful than that of any of Pynchon’s other novels. At the very moment when Vond is about to abduct Prairie, her sharpness and a sudden cutting off of his funding by Ronald Reagan-era reductions in government spending frustrate him; he is then carted off and destroyed. Prairie, although she has felt the power and attraction that seduced and nearly destroyed her mother, is safe. In the final lines, her dog, Desmond, who had disappeared when Zoyd’s house was occupied by government agents, reappears. At least for a time, she has escaped from danger.
Vineland includes elements of fantasy, most important among them the creatures called “Thanatoids,” who are spirits of the unquiet dead, and there are plenty of coincidences and improbabilities. For the most part, however, this novel attempts to depict what Pynchon sees as the important realities in the world of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Paranoia is clearly present, but the emphasis on entropy has largely disappeared, replaced by concern about the effect on individual freedoms of these recent developments. Pynchon finds these frightening, but not yet clearly triumphant.