Sunday, January 16, 2005

Pynchon's Vineland

"The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer" - Henry Kissinger
I have not long finished reading Thomas Pynchon's Vineland - usually not considered to be one of his "big" novels. It is sprawling, and sometimes chaotic, fragmented and anarchic. But it seems to me to be an always compelling account of America's anxieties during the Reagan imperium of the 1980s and thus has something important to say to us today. While the novel ranges over a broad sweep of American history and touches on a number of Pynchon's familiar themes (the failure of 60s radicalism, the pervasiveness of television ("tube") culture, the fear of American "decline" and much more), it is fundamentally about a critical political moment whose consequences are now deeply embedded in much of what passes for liberal political culture.

The novel's leitmotif is the aggrandisement of executive power. This shift is embodied in the character of Brock Vond, a right-wing pathological egotist from the Department of Justice, charged with investigating the "subversive" actvities of the "Peoples' Republic of Rock 'n' Roll". Vond represents the sinister,
secret and potentially arbitrary exercise of power by the executive over its citizens. Pitted against Vond's malevolence is the ambiguous character of Frenesi Gates, a radical filmmaker who falls for Vond, betrays her friends and her ideals by turning informer, and is forced to go on the run to escape retribution. Pynchon is interested in exploring this double movement: the steady encroachment of emergency powers without accountability by the US government especially at times of declared and undeclared wars (both Vietnam and Nicaragua are pervasive references here); and the political apathy and cooptation of that 1960s generation whose "sloth" permitted America to slouch to tyranny.

As in all his writing, Pynchon has his finger on the pulse of the historical struggle between reactionary and progressive forces that have marked modern American society. This political moment of the mid-1980s is only the latest reversal in a series of conflicts reaching back to the clashes between US government forces and the
Industrial Workers of the World (the "Wobblies") in the 1930s, or hostilities between McCarthyites and left-wing liberals in the 1940s and 1950s. Elsewhere Pynchon has said this about the consequences of the dangers of political somnambulism:
In this century we have come to think of Sloth as primarily political, a failure of public will allowing the introduction of evil policies and the rise of evil regimes, the worldwide fascist ascendancy of the 1920's and 30's being perhaps Sloth's finest hour, though the Vietnam era and the Reagan-Bush years are not far behind.
In Pynchon's view, though, there is nothing inevitable about this demise of the American radical tradition. For radicalism's compromises and defeats, Vineland is also a celebration of an alternative America, in which no government, however reactionary or tyrannical, has ever managed to suppress for long.


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