(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Zoyd Wheeler has been living a quiet life in Vineland, a fictitious town in Northern California, with his daughter Prairie. Zoyd does odd jobs for neighbors, grows marijuana, and collects a government pension for committing a crazy act every year: specifically, for throwing himself through a plate-glass window in a local restaurant in front of television cameras. Prairie works in a local health-food pizza parlor and hangs out with a rock band, Billy Barf and the Vomitones.

Things are changing at the novel’s beginning. The site of Zoyd’s annual fling is shifted without explanation, and there are rumors of a major government antidrug operation in the area. Various kinds of police and federal troops are seen in Vineland. Hector Zuñiga warns Zoyd that Prairie is in danger, probably from Brock Vond. There are rumors that Vond has lost track of Frenesi, an agent whom he controls, and that he will try to find her by using Prairie. Prairie, on her own, is anxious for more information about her mother; Zoyd and Sasha Gates, Prairie’s grandmother, have told her only that Frenesi is underground, hiding from government agents because of her activities in the 1960’s.

Prairie, warned by her father that she should leave the area, goes with the band to Southern California, where they are scheduled to play at a Mafia wedding while pretending to be an Italian band. In the powder room, Prairie accidentally draws the attention of DL Chastain, a martial-arts expert who had been close to Frenesi in the turmoil of the 1960’s. DL introduces Prairie to the Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives, whose files reveal to the young woman the activities in which her mother had been...

(The entire section is 688 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 988 words.)