At Play With the Thanatoids: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

Vineland (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

Sometimes I’m asked who my favourite living writer is. My answer? I dunno. It’s probably why my coworkers joke that I don’t read anything written before 1950.

But its a tricky question: is it the author of my favourite book? The writer of the most books I’ve enjoyed? Can it be someone that’s never written a book, but whose writing I enjoy reading?

Or can it be can author who I keep thinking about long after I finish reading his books?

For me, Thomas Pynchon is that kind of writer. He sticks in my craw. Admittedly, I’ve only read a handful of his books: Mason and Dixon (previously reviewed here), The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, a handful of essays, plus a couple false starts on Gravity’s Rainbow. But I think about his novels a lot: puns that reveal themselves a month after I’ve finished a book (Prairie Wheeler = Prayer Wheel) and scenes I keep thinking back to (the part of M&D that touches on Hollow Earth theory and aliens). And lately, I can’t help but think about Vineland a lot.

What is Vineland? It’s a romp through post-Nixon California featuring an aging hippie named Zoyd, a DEA agent addicted to bad television and two tow-truck drivers who may or may not be the Grim Reapers. It’s a sci-fi thriller, a pulpy kung-fu flick and a frantic history of a renegade film company. It has a punk band, led by a guy named Billy Barf, playing a mob wedding and an alien attack repulsed by an analog synthesizer. And the Thanatoids, just wait until you get to them!

Vineland’s got a little bit of everything thrown in and it’s a relentlessly fun novel, often laugh-out-loud funny, not only when Pynchon goes into songwriting mode, but especially when he does. But that’s just scratching the surface.

The more I think about it, the more it feels like so much more than those. It’s a novel about the fallout of the sixties, when the war on drugs began in earnest, and how the federal government waged war on its own citizens. This is the kind of stuff Hunter Thompson was talking about when he asked “Where were you when the fun stopped?” This novel goes from somber to ridiculous without batting an eye and when it does, it does with a bang: it’s stunningly well-written and kept finding myself stopping and rereading passages. No mean feat when you’re writing about aliens, punk rock or a made-for-TV movie about the 1984 NBA Finals.

In an age where the NSA’s been revealed to spying on everyone, the paranoia of Vineland doesn’t seem quite as comical. Even at its most far-fetched it feels oddly just removed from reality. Surely it couldn’t quite unfold like it does here… but then again, weren’t warrantless wiretaps a thing that only happened before Obama was elected?

Rating: 8/10. If you’re curious about Pynchon’s novels, Vineland’s probably the best place to get started: it’s not too hard to follow, it’s shorter than M&D and it’s a fun read to boot, especially when it gets dark and Pynchon shines a light on how quickly everything changed for people like Zoyd. In some corners it’s viewed as his worst novel, but I maintain that if this hadn’t been the book that followed Gravity’s Rainbow, it’d be a lot better received. There’s been a ton of books about the changes America underwent between 1969 and 1981, but few are as fun as this. Recommended, especially for those looking forward to watching Inherent Vice.




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