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Vineland retains Pynchon's sense of the absurd


By Thomas Pynchon.

Little, Brown & Company.

385 pp., $19.95.


LONG TIME FANS OF Thomas Pynchon may be disappointed at first with his new novel, Vineland. He doesn't seem to have that viciously sharp edge that was on display in his masterpiece, Gravity's Rainbow. The virtuosity in the perfectly controlled chaos that Rainbow invoked left one's mouth watering for more.

The author has spread his small but masterful body of work over most of this half century (V. and The Crying of Lot 49 are his other novels). His themes of paranoia, conspiracy, and the life of the counterculture have been hallmarks in an era that seems to personify those themes, to the extent that the question of which inspired which becomes problematic. These concerns, plus 17 years of anticipation, may have produced impossibly high expectations. However, after these outside distractions are forgotten, Pynchon draws you in with his outrageous characters, situations, and unique style.

The book begins with Zoyd Wheeler and his 15-year-old daughter Prairie who live in Vineland, a northern California town. Mainly, they mind their own business, except for Zoyd's annual act of televised insanity (he jumps through a window) for which he receives a monthly disability check from the federal government.

Their laid-back existence in this most laid-back part of the world is shattered by the appearance of past nemesis Brock Vond, FBI agent extraordinaire. It seems that back in the 60s, Brock had a mysterious connection with Zoyd's former wife and Prairie's mother (whom Prairie hasn't seen since infancy), Frenesi Gates. Frenesi exists in the no-man's land of the federal witness protection program for former informers. However, the Reagan administration's cutbacks have left Frenesi and her new family high and dry. And Brock wants Frenesi back again.

Accompanying these characters are a new version of Pynchon's "Whole Sick Crew." There's Prairie's boyfriend Isaiah Two Four (it's a verse in the Bible, look it up), who is a drummer for a punk band called Billy Barf and the Vomitones. There's DL Chastain, a sort of killer Ninja feminist, and Takeshi Fumimota, karmic adjustor, who are linked through the Vibrating Palm Death Touch, which kills its victims a year after it is applied. Then there are the Thanatoids, sort of the living dead with buying power. Pynchon tells these characters' stories in hallucinogenic flashbacks to the 60s and beyond, tracing Frenesi's leftist roots back to her parents and the heyday of unions in the 30s. In the 60s, Zoyd was a surf bum/sometime dope dealer, and Frenesi was an avant-garde documentary film maker who chronicled the protest movement.

The paranoia and conspiracy themes, as in Pynchon's previous novels, are here again but somewhat muted. A nameless, faceless menace no longer hovers somewhere just out of view, controlling events and people for unknown and vaguely sinister reasons. The villains are known and quite familiar: the federal government. Pynchon's hilarious sense of the absurd remains intact. He is a master of taking everyday situations and events and giving that slight twist that reveals the absurdity beneath the surface.

The Tube is ubiquitous. Life is defined, framed, imitated, and irradiated by the Tube. Movie and TV show titles have dates next to them as if they were references for the story. Pynchon can pack more historical, literary, scientific, and entertainment references into a single sentence than anyone.

The tone of Vineland is softer, more conciliatory than in past works. There is a hopeful sense of coming together that contrasts with the apocalyptic Gravity's Rainbow. Could the years be mellowing Pynchon? No matter, his talents remain sharp, and it's good to hear from the master of the absurd again.