As a veteran of the Gravity’s Rainbow and Against the Day Deathmarches, I wouldn’t say that I’ve suffered at Thomas Pynchon’s hands, necessarily, but I’ve certainly paid my dues. So it is with no small amount of caution that I approach a Pynchon book, and I did not undertake Vineland (1990) lightly. I’ve been pleasantly surprised: This book exhibits all of his features (wild creativity, clever references to culture high and low, and jaw-dropping flights of prose virtuosity) and none of his bugs (extreme difficulty and incomprehensibility).
Which is not to say that Vineland is an easy read, but it is a pleasurable one — I find myself actually looking forward to picking up the book, in contrast to GR and AtD, which sometimes inspired dread. I still need to be careful, though, because like Hunter Thompson and David Foster Wallace, Tommy the Pynch (as I like to call him) has a prose style that gets under your skin. After reading him for awhile you find yourself trying to write like him — producing sentences that go on and on, with all kinds of dependent clauses, and saying to yourself, “Well, why shouldn’t I just cram it all in there…what could possibly be the harm?” and the next thing you know you’ve got yourself out on a ledge in the middle of some torrential hailstorm of words that you don’t know how to stop — and you have to take a deep breath and remind yourself that Pynchon is after all a genius, some say our greatest living writer, and that mere mortals should think twice before attempting this sort of thing.
You see what happens? It’s not pretty. Here’s how a professional does it:
Mucho went to the stereo and put on The Best of Sam Cooke, volumes 1 and 2, and then they sat together and listened, both of them this time, to the sermon, one they knew and felt their hearts comforted by, though outside spread the lampless wastes, the unseen paybacks, the heartless power of the scabland garrison state the green free America of their childhoods even then was turning into.
And while we’re at it, here’s another one, from later on the same page:
When the busful of northbound hippies first caught sight of it,* just at sundown as the fog was pouring in, the towers and cables ascending into pale gold otherworldly billows, you heard a lot of “Wow,” and “beautiful,” though Zoyd only found it beautiful the way a firearm is, because of the bad dream unreleased inside it, in this case the brute simplicity of height, the finality of what swept below relentlessly out to sea.
And, what the hell, one more quick one:
Zoyd caught up with Van Meter in Eureka, at the corner of 4th and H, as, suddenly disoriented, he observed his ’64 Dodge Dart, unmistakably his own short, with the LSD paint job, Day-Glo hubcaps with the eyes on them, nude-with-streamlined-tits hood ornament, and at the wheel a standard-issue Hippie Freak who looked just like him.
As this last example illustrates, Vineland has the additional virtue of being set in my own backyard, the foggy-in-many-ways land behind Northern California’s Redwood Curtain. I am told that Tommy the Pynch lives somewhere up here, though he is famously reclusive…I enjoy thinking that any septuagenarian I see up here could be him, for instance this bearded specimen with a cane who just walked into the cafe. I wonder if I would know him if I ran into him. He has not been photographed for many years, though those protruding front teeth are pretty distinctive, unless he’s had them fixed in the interim.
Perhaps I will just go hang around at the corner of 4th and H for a while, and see what I can see….
*The Golden Gate Bridge