I get the impression that Thomas Pynchon is one of those authors who are famous for writing big, wise books that nobody actually reads, like a drugged-up, American Cervantes, or Thackery, or Joyce. Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason and Dixon, Against the Day; these are less novels than they are building materials. I always remember the scene in the Whitby Witches (by the brilliant Robin Jarvis, responsible for all the best childhood terrors and a lingering suspicion that rodents are up to something shifty) when someone is murdered with a Dickens novel. You could take out an elephant with the Pynchon back catalogue.
So when I was slinking around the library and felt like seeing what the Pynchon fuss was all about, I turned to the only one of his books on the shelf that I could pick up with one hand: Vineland. I gather that this is generally considered a minor work, but it has its fans, and it had some pretty glowing quotations on the back, including one from Salman Rushdie, so I thought it was worth a shot.
For the first sixty pages or so, I thought I'd found a new writer to worship. It’s a brilliant opening, a freewheeling, madcap, comic introduction to the life of Zoyd Wheeler, semi-retired pothead, professional mental health benefit fraud, and more-or-less devoted father. He’s a ridiculous but strangely charming figure, and the first chapters chart his annual lunatic impersonation, delve into his sarcastic but mutually loving relationship with his daughter, Prairie, and introduce her punk boyfriend (guitarist in Billy Barf and the Vomitones) and a television-addict narcotics cop, Hector Zuniga, who can’t quite decide whether he’s the bewildered Zoyd's best pal or deadliest foe.
This stuff is ace, and with its ageing hippies and underlying familial concerns, soon had me hoping for a panoramic Wonder Boys. The descriptions bounce around extravagantly, there are endless elaborate pop culture references, and you have no idea what’s going to pop up next, but the loopiness is underpinned by the dysfunctional but trenchant bond between Zoyd and Prairie. With all plot signs pointing towards a zany (and that's not a word anyone should use lightly) road trip across America pursued by mysterious governmental forces, I was raring to go.
Then it all went to pieces.
Having set up this touching father-daughter relationship, assembled a fine supporting cast of kooks, and hinted at the Big Themes, Pynchon descends into a maze of convoluted backstory about a series of decreasingly interesting characters. There are some great set pieces (the mob wedding, the big jolly breakfast scene near the end), but every sign of greatness is left to wither by the novel’s lack of focus. I’m normally quite in favour of hurling ideas at the page (I loved Nick Harkaway’s The Gone Away World, and I can’t get enough of Neal Stephenson), but here I longed for less mucking about with Godzilla references, fewer dreary, obscure karmic discussions with the thanatoids (ghosts, basically, but not quite), less ‘hey, ninjas are cool, right?’ (thus the otherwise inappropriate comparisons to The Gone Away World and Neal Stephenson), and more of what should have been at the heart of the book: Zoyd, his daughter, and Frenesi Gates, his ex-wife, whom he could never help loving.
Frenesi is the nominal focus of much of the narrative, and for a while the book is happy to follow her tale of love, sex and betrayal in ‘60s counterculture, as she, the textbook revolutionary filmmaker, accidentally finds herself working for the man, and surprisingly willingly, too. The man in question here is Brock Vond, the obsessive villain, who spends most of the book trying to make life hell for Zoyd and Co, for reasonably predictable reasons. The 1960s sections are also strong, although sometimes the cartoonishness let down the book’s effort to make big (if also easy and predictable) social points about how the US government was so, like, rilly bad, man, and how pot was totally groovy.
Again, then, signs of promise, even with Zoyd way off-page, as Prairie begins a quest to find her mother. However, by the time they’re reunited any emotion has been drained away by a barrage of one-scene side characters and wanton silliness, primarily instituted by the deeping irritating good-natured gangster Takeshi Fumimota and his ninjette bodyguard DL. These two are responsible for all the faffing about with ninjas, ghosts and similarly bonkers stuff which is sometimes quite cool and good for a few laughs, but overall is too frivolous and long-winded to work. This lets down the efforts of the rest of the book to build emotional bonds with the characters. The wild-eyed, easily distracted narrative means that I was never sure what I was supposed to be concentrating on or caring about, and this led to genuinely important scenes slipping past unnoticed amid the aimless chortling riffs. Oh, and Takeshi’s dialogue really grates:
“You’d be – real interested in this!” Takeshi began, “maybe even – tell me what you think I should do – because frankly, I’m at my wit’s end!”
Takeshi’s insistent exclamations and pauses are part of a general collection of faintly irritating tics that start out as quaint and amusing (‘rilly’ for ‘really’, ‘the Tube’ for ‘television’) but grow tiring after the hundreth repetition.
Yet for every bum note, and every rambling, irrelevant vignette about cookery at the ninjette retreat or a minor character’s lectures on how to steal lingerie, or someone's misadventures during a student revolution, there is a magnificent description that was almost enough to bring me back on board. Sometimes, often at the end of the chapter, something really wonderful happens:
“So the bad ninjamobile swept along on the great Ventura, among... flirters, deserters, wimps and pimps, speeding like bullets, grinning like chimps, above the heads of TV watchers, lovers under the overpasses, services at malls letting out, bright gas-station oases in pure flourescent spill, canopied beneath the palm trees, soon wrapped, down the corridors of the surface streets, in nocturnal smog, the adobe air, the smell of distant direworks, the spilled, the broken world.”
“... there the Polaroid lay, safe, till it was rescued by a Las Vegas showgirl with a hard glaze but a liquid center whom Prairie reminded of a younger sister, and who returned it to Frenesi when she came around the next day, her heart pounding, her skin aching for it still to be there, to find it again and claim it.”
When he puts his mind to it, Pynchon can write with rhythm and style, and put together sentences the length of a page in which every word feels right. He showboats, flexes his muscles, grins outrageously and puts together a vast string of words that by rights shouldn’t work, but which somehow leave you smiling wistfully at the page.
Then he’ll throw in some stupid jokes about bad movies, switch the narrative to another character you hadn’t previously cared about, and make you wish there were fewer pages. This frustrating oscillation between beauty and self-indulgence plagues the book, leaving it certainly not terrible, but equally certainly not brilliant. Mostly, it’s simply frustrating. Like the lost sixties it conjures up in its finer passages, Vineland promised so much and sometimes even managed to deliver, but in the end fizzled out, with its pupils dilated and its hair in disarray, no longer quite worth caring about.