After the feral success of my posts on Inherent Vice– we’re talking about daily hits sometimes in double digits -I thought I’d do the same for Vineland because a) it’s an obvious point of comparison, in terms of setting (California), time period (the 70s and 80s) and preoccupations (the many ways that the counter culture has been, um, countered) and b) because it’s my ‘job’ to (in terms of being a doctoral student, though let’s face it, it’s a pretty strange job where you have to pay your employer for the right to work, and then still find yourself slacking off).
Anyway, my reading of Vineland is going to be based around two interests- its similarities with Inherent Vice, and how the characters in the novel use different strategies to escape/deny/avoid various mental and emotional states, with a particular emphasis on ideas of Redemption, Transcendence etc. (which is starting to sound dangerously like I might have some notion of what this PhD is about).
Given that the book doesn’t have numbered sections, I’ll just be doing it in as large a chunks as I can. And forgive me if I don’t provide much in the way of plot summaries- life, I am given to understand, is really very short. All page numbers from the Vintage UK 1990 edition.
Introduces Zoyd Wheeler, his daughter Prairie and Hector Zuniga, DEA field agent. The novel opens with Zoyd waking to hear blue jays, which reminds him of his dream where carrier pigeons have a special message for him that he can never receive. He understands this as ‘another deep nudge from forces unseen, almost surely connected with the letter that had come along with his latest mental-disability check.’
Of course, there’s no necessary connection between the real and dream birds and the letter, and Pynchon quickly undermines Zoyd’s reliability with the reveal of mental-disability. One reading of this is to satirise people’s tendency to see significance and pattern (not to say conspiracy) where there is mostly randomness. (As Sortilege says in Inherent Vice, “That’s because you think everything is connected”).
As in Inherent Vice, there is also the start of a thread about going over to the other side by becoming a snitch.
Hector had been trying over and over for years to develop him as a resource, and so far- technically -Zoyd had hung onto his virginity.
That ‘technically’ is pretty damning- and maybe also softens the realisation that ‘one day, just to have some peace, he’d say forget it, and go over.’
Zoyd watches himself on the TV (‘in Tubal form’) jumping through a window, ‘in midair with time to rotate into a number of positions he didn’t remember being in’
TV thus distorts memory, either by showing us what didn’t happen, or what did but we have forgotten. Memory is thus as rewritable a medium as any other technology.
p.19 has a bit on the commodification of violence
Isaiah’s business idea was to set up first one, eventually a chain, of violence centres, each on the scale, perhaps, of a small theme park.
“This ain’t tweakin around no more with no short-term maneuvers here, this is a real revolution, not that little fantasy hand-job you people was into, is it’s a groundswell, Zoyd, the wave of History, and you can catch it, or scratch it.”
The Right (as personified by Hector- an equivalence that will blur as the novel goes on) is here appropriating the terminology of the left- a revolution that is not Progressive, but is actually the opposite, in that it solidifies the exisiting structures of power and wealth.
p.28 In the same vein, Hector attacks 60s radicalism
I know you still believe in all that shit. All o’ you are still children inside, livin your real life back then. Still waitin for that magic payoff.
There’s a lot of talk in the novel about ‘innocence’ and other supposedly child-like states, which although is meant by Hector in a derogatory way, can be viewed in a more tolerant fashion. The retreat back into childhood, or nostalgia (the ‘real life back then’) may be the only safe haven (and it’s worth noting that at least half of the novel occurs in flashback, as a tale related). But even this innocence must be questioned
Impossible to tell with you, Zoyd. Never could figure out how innocent you thought you were.
Hector then asks a difficult question.
I won’t asks you to grow up, but just sometime, please, asks yourself, OK, ‘Who was saved?’ That’s all, rill easy, ‘Who was saved?’ “
Of course no one can be ‘saved’ (unless we buy into a non-secular world view) but the idea of personal redemption, of joining some kind of ‘elect’ or at least not being so clearly part of the preterite (yes, I have been reading Weber), is a powerful impulse, one that it is difficult to discount.
p. 29 Already Hector is becoming a deeper character:
It was the closest Hector got to feeling sorry for himself, this suggestion he liked to put out that amongst the fallen, he had fallen further than most
This notion of the Fallen recurs in Inherent Vice, and with it all the talk of karma.
p .31 Further talk from Hector of youth and innocence being a kind of distortion that needs, by implication, to be rubbed off.
“I used to worry about you, Zoyd, but I see I can rest easy now the Vaseline of youth has been cleared from your life’s lens by the mild detergent solution of time, in its passing….”
There seems like a extra level of disingenuity in this use of the language of advertising- a consequence of Hector being a TV addict. The changes wrought by time (especially in historical terms) are not usually ‘mild’.
Hector then refers to the counterculture as
“A certain kind of world that civilians up on the surface, out in the sun thinkin’ em happy thotz, got no idea it’s even there”
Rather than it being a place to escape to, for Hector it is more like a dark sercet, a Welles-ian subterranean nightmare. This seems like an inversion of how we like to think of the 60s- rather than a happy, carefree time, with a dark undercurrent (Manson, riots, Nixon, Vietnam) it is here the counterculture that is the corrosive force.
Of course, the loss of innocence (or rather the belief in one’s own innocence), and the ensuing inability to escape into nostalgia, leads to bitterness. At the end of Inherent Vice Doc talks about how hippies ‘don’t know nuthin’. And as Zoyd says to Hector on p. 31
“Nothin’ meaner than a old hippie that’s gone sour, Hector, lot of it around.”
To which Hector answers, “You pussies set yourself up for it”.
p. 33 TV equated with any other harmful substance. There’s the ‘National Endowment for Video Education and Rehabilitation’ whose acronym is ‘NEVER’. Maybe this stands for the possibility of us ever recognising and being willing to actually confront this aspect of TV.
There’s also talk of ‘Tubal abuse’ and ‘A dryin’-out place for Tubefreeks.’
Which raises the question- how much of Hector’s worldview is supposed to be attributable to watching too much TV? And isn’t it also perhaps his partial salvation, in terms of how he acts at the end of the book, when trying to make the film?