Review: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

This particular incident happened a number of times while I was reading Vineland: someone would look at the cover of the book and say, “Oh cool, looks interesting, what is that book about?”

For anyone with any experience reading a Pynchon novel, you know that the only real response is to stare vacantly at the asker for about a minute, before beginning to list the characters you can remember until you talk yourself around to what the actual point of the book is. This isn’t just because there are a large number of plots and subplots, to the point that you can’t really pick out a main storyline, or because of the endless cast of oddball characters, even though you are constantly introduced to new ones who only appear for a couple of pages and aren’t mentioned again. The reason I find it so difficult to quickly and decisively summarise the plot of Vineland is because the key message of the book is buried so deeply you are left to infer it for yourself by bringing together the storylines, as this work is not done for you.

I will say this was not my first encounter with this book, or with Pynchon himself. A few years ago, Vineland was an assigned reading for a class I was taking, and it came at a point in the semester where I didn’t really need to finish it in order to do my assignments and exams. Because it was so dense and took so much of my mental energy to keep track of, I read the first hundred pages or so and left it. The small portion I read did pique my interest, so over time I read two of Pynchon’s shorter and slightly more straightforward novels, Inherent Vice and The Crying of Lot 49, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I had lent Vineland out to a friend, and when it was returned to me I put it at the top of my list of books to read, and I spent the first couple of weeks of January working my way through it.

This novel is set in Northern California in 1984, and at its heart is the story of teenager Prairie and her search for her long-absent mother, Frenesi. Frenesi’s story is deeply entwined with rogue federal prosecutor Brock Vond. Prairie is united with her mother’s old friend DL Chastain and her boss Takeshi, who help Prairie to piece together the real story of her mother’s life and why she disappeared. Most of the story is told through flashbacks to the 60s, and a cast of characters who encapsulate the freedom and rebellion of the decade. Through this we are given an insight into the way that US culture and politics changed between the 60s and 80s, and the misguided execution of the war on drugs. (You should know it has taken me hours of brain power to whittle this plot summary down to its core. I am exhausted.)

The thing that makes reading Pynchon’s work so enjoyable for me is not necessarily the plot, although the story is compelling and this reader was anxious to find out how all the pieces would fit together, but it is the way in which the story is told. There is an incredible sense of place in this novel; all the settings are described in tangible, accessible detail. You feel like you are seeing in your mind’s eye exactly what the characters are seeing, whether they are in a high end Tokyo brothel, a dive bar, or the California forest. Every character you’re introduced to will have a quirky, unique backstory, and even if they only pop into the story for a few pages, it is a pleasure to uncover the sheer breadth of Pynchon’s imagination. It doesn’t feel like you are reading a story about a finite cast of characters, but more like you are being introduced to a whole world that has been created, populated by thousands of unique characters going about their business, a small cross section of which you are given the opportunity to interact with.

I would highly recommend Vineland to pretty much anyone, but my recommendation does come with a disclaimer. Even though I found it to be a truly fun read, this is by no means an easy, quick, straightforward read. If that’s what you are looking for, prepare to be very swiftly frustrated. I honestly had a whale of a time reading this book and I couldn’t wait to pick it up every day, but it does take quite a lot of mental effort on the reader’s part. Pynchon really does push the limits of form in his writing, with sentences sometimes spanning up to a page at a time, and seemingly endless chapters with arbitrary breaks. There are very few cues when the story jumps from one character’s point of view to another, or when you move to a completely different setting or time. My one piece of advice would be to acquaint yourself with the feeling of confusion. Relax into it. Missing details will be revealed in good time. If you’re not sure whose storyline you’ve jumped into, you will find out soon enough. If you are introduced to characters and details that seem completely irrelevant to what you’ve read so far, store them in the back of your mind because it will all come together eventually. The “aha” moments you are waiting for will come in due course, so until then try your best to just enjoy the trip.

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