Nothing worth having ever trickles down


In his classic of the genre, The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon provided us with the perfect postmodern novel: to be committed to postmodernity is to constantly attempt to pull one's narrative up by the roots, demolishing established certainties. In this climate of endless renewal, the heroine of Lot 49 finds herself utterly adrift from notions of an independently viable history of facts, as her life skips from onepossible explanation to the next.

The postmodern pragmatist might claim that the roots of a story need not always be hacked at until one comes free (inevitably in anticipation of the next binding). Instead, any prop that doesn't yield to the first half-dozen blows can be counted on to be as much a support as an encumbrance. In this spirit, Pynchon's Vineland attempts to apply postmodern techniques to a story anchored to an inescapably real timeline. Pynchon takes us on a whirlwind tour of Reagan's United States, flitting from washed-up sixties throwback Zoyd Wheeler, through his free-spirit daughter Prairie and her goth-rock boyfriend Isaiah-Two-Four, out into Mafia parties, Weather-Underground assassins, two Phlegyas-like car-repair men and a mountainside retreat of fighting nuns, to the hidden players of Zoyd's ex-wife and her one-time lover and CIA fixer Brock Vond. In the background are the usual Lynchian flights of fantasy, irrelevant (and sometimes needlessly irreverent) plays on words, and complexities only half-hinted at in an attempt to destabilize the reader.

The demolition of one point of view after another is employed here to heighten the disillusionment that many---Pynchon probably included---felt in 1980s America, with its brash ignorance and the triumph of "surface" that it heralded. But, in the light of Lot 49, this use of the narrative trick feels more like an abuse, cheapening the many-voice premise by making it work instead towards unravelling a series of gotchas and personally received wisdoms. It doesn't help that Pynchon's voice is wildly uneven, as if he's not certain whether he's trying to skit Don Delillo, John le Carré, Jonathan Franzen, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alice Walker or Gore Vidal; he spends a few pages in the voice of one before either getting bored or letting his mind wander, at which point he takes up another's. This might be intended, once again, to demolish the preconceptions of... you get the picture, but ultimately it smacks of poor editing: a misjudged prank played on the reader, whose patience wears thinner as the story progresses.

It's a shame because there's so much to like in Vineland. Pynchon has a deep, intuitive understanding of the flowering of the media age. In his portrayal of TV as "the tube", with semimythical "Tubal" victims and the mythical-yet-real, walking-dead Thanatoids, and in the revelation of characters' understandings as strata of photographs, experiences, memories, more photographs, music and the moving picture, he deconstructs the self and its dependencies on the culture that surrounds it. This climate of instability especially favours Prairie Wheeler, as she stands admirably in for her mother's ever-absent, supposed complexity. But when the limits of the reader's patience is tried by one character setting up yet another clunking, pointless pun of which they themselves are unaware---about the occurrence of the mathematically "natural number" 2.71828... sounding "natural" to them---it's clear that the real irony is that, if Vineland read naturally, developed naturally and had a natural, classical story arc, it would actually have been a better book.