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Breath as Inherent Vice, pt. four (of five)

Ronald Reagan (left) with stunt double (right)

Vineland, then, is the descent into hell, the triumph of police, the demise of free dope growers, the application of Reaganomics, the construction of a privatized prison system, the Rise of the Right, Wall-Street-funded icicles made with ice taken from up to then pristine Alaskan glaciers, the ugly face of Republicanism, Fear, the fear of everything conservative, everything that is dead inside. There is dread everywhere in Vineland, and taking into account the period Pynchon worked on it, the middle and late 80’s, that is, he couldn’t cut himself any slack, and thus topped up everything with that grafted-on ending, a transplant to hide the burns beneath, a stilted vision of paradise projected onto hell’s walls to make damnation even worse. The projector shows a place where Zoyd can still talk with Frenesi, Prairie goes around having a ball, Brock is borne aloft like a Secret Service Madonna attended by cherubim that masquerade as cop helicopters, thanatoids abound, and even Desmond the Dog gets to eat his blue-jays – Vineland stand-ins for cops and state power.

On the other hand, Inherent Vice’s Gordita Beach is the opposite, a paradise nearer to whatever god of the sixties Pynchon believes in (pot, anarchism, rebellion, or the I Ching), which does not reside in the tail-end of an entropic process, no, but is caught in a 500-page snapshot at the moment of its greatest glory, augmented by a still mysterious ocean, some valleys still undeveloped and fire-free, and cops of Swedish descent who can still go on national TV wearing a big Afro and psychedelic-patterned capes, even if it is only about selling the latest real-estate scam. Doc, Shasta, Wolfmann, Denis, along with every other misfit wandering the corridors of this latent California, are not the unwitting pawns in the end-game (as for example Slothrop seems to be), but the knights, bishops and queens that shape, revel, and eventually fall in the mid-game. Inherent Vice is a celebration, a full-on 70’s fantasy, written not in the throes of some holy and paranoid madness, like Gravity’s Rainbow, or in the shadow of the morose acceptance that everything one has believed in has died and one will soon follow, like Mason & Dixon, but in some sort of making peace with what was Pynchon’s golden era, the 60’s and early 70’s in California. Probably the time and place where youth was allowed to act youthfully in the most comprehensive sense, and when young people had the luxury, for a while, to believe they could conquer the world with their flower powers, their bong hits, their surf-boards, their anarchocinematic collectives, all water under the bridge and faded now, little more than porn for the desperate masses that never had the chance to experience it, just excuses to buy lava lamps made in PRC.

The book’s ending is, if not joyous, then at least serene. It’s the first time we are allowed not just a look down the tunnel, but also the few first steps, and the experience of a communal feeling that can be described, at times, as simple bliss. For Pynchon, this amounts to the acceptance of his impending death, even a death wish, and a secular prayer to the direction of what would come after but never will. What is important is that this is the first time that Pynchon goes beyond hiding the unavoidable end and does not allow himself to even think about it.

This isn’t denial, but the crafting of a world where denial is not a necessary ingredient of everyday life.

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  1. Pingback: Breath as Inherent Vice, pt. five (of five) « Seven Steps Back - December 10, 2011

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