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Thomas Pynchon - Vineland Legolas Send a noteboard - 06/03/2011 05:23:44 PM
It is not without a certain amount of pride and relief that I can finally announce having succeeded in a long-standing literary challenge to myself: finishing a Thomas Pynchon book. It's not that I don't enjoy his books, far from it. I got a few hundred pages into Mason & Dixon and really liked it, and a hundred or so pages into Against the Day and liked that as well. But, as anyone who's ever tried reading a Pynchon novel can confirm, these are not books you read quickly or easily.

The key characteristics of Pynchon's novels, which have made him beloved among the critics but somewhat daunting for the casual reader, include loads of obscure vocabulary, endless sentences (though fortunately only every now and then), complicated plotlines that hop back and forth in time, slang and dialects, eccentric characters, surrealistic elements, casual references to all sorts of things both real and made up, and a certain frivolity that keeps things from becoming overly pretentious.

So when I started Vineland, after the two aborted attempts to read a Pynchon novel from front to cover mentioned above, I was warned, and prepared myself for a long but worthwhile struggle, even if this book is a good bit shorter than those other two, at less than 400 pages. Rather surprisingly, I finished it in less than a week, and once read over a hundred pages in a day, so calling it a struggle would be a stretch. But it definitely was worthwhile.

Vineland is set in the fictional town of Vineland in northern California, mostly in the time period from the late sixties until 1984, against the background of the War on Drugs and the FBI's efforts to neutralize the more radical communist or anti-establishment movements born in the sixties. It starts with Zoyd, a former hippie and single father raising his teenage daughter Prairie through a combination of mental disability checks, odd jobs here and there and a yearly stunt involving jumping through windows in drag. But when an old enemy shows up in town again, their lives and the plot rapidly become very complicated, as they and the reader discover the truth about what happened back in the sixties, and why Prairie's mother Frenesi could not stay with them. Though things are not quite so simple or neatly tied up as that makes them sound.

This is very much a political novel, with some very interesting passages and views on how the various left-wing movements and student collectives of the sixties were created and then fell apart, on their own or with FBI help. The antagonist of the novel is a federal attorney named Brock Vond, Frenesi's more-or-less-boyfriend, with a rather nasty streak and a love for intriguing, manipulation, infiltration and burning down fields of marihuana crops; and many of the characters habitually refer to the American government of the seventies and eighties as "fascist". But Pynchon wouldn't be Pynchon if he left it at that. So he throws in UFOs, male nuns on Harley Davidsons, all-female ninja gangs, some sort of Godzilla-ish mystery which is never really explained and the "Thanatoid" cult, which is. Mostly.

With so much of the book dealing with drugs and the War on Drugs, the description of the novel as being a political novel on acid is perhaps not very original, but that's probably still the best way of describing it to someone who's never read a Pynchon novel. There certainly is a plot, there is character development, there are themes, but none of it very straightforward or linear. This is not a book for people liking simple answers, or endings that neatly tie up everything. It would be a valuable read to those interested in learning more about American socio-cultural evolutions in the sixties and thereafter, the hippie movement and the backlash against it, but it certainly shouldn't be taken at face value - some things are obviously real and some obviously made-up, but at times it's not entirely clear which is which. I liked it a lot for what it was, though, and would warmly recommend it, albeit with the caveats mentioned throughout this review.
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Thomas Pynchon - Vineland - 06/03/2011 05:23:44 PM 7611 Views
I have yet to attempt one of these. - 06/03/2011 06:20:08 PM 1208 Views
That did help, yes. - 06/03/2011 08:11:15 PM 1246 Views
Thanks for this. I've wanted to pick up Pynchon for a long time. *NM* - 07/03/2011 04:05:14 AM 817 Views

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