Vineland (1990) was Thomas Pynchon’s first novel after the monumental achievement of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), seventeen years earlier (coincidentally, the same number of years that fell between Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake). As such, Vineland was one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of the latter part of the twentieth century. However, many readers and reviewers were disappointed, or at least puzzled, by the novel, partly because it doesn’t seem much like Gravity’s Rainbow at all (and certainly doesn’t go beyond it in terms of sheer literary genius). In many ways, though, Vineland does have a great deal in common with The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Pynchon’s last novel before Gravity’s Rainbow. Indeed, if Lot 49 is at least partly concerned with the birth of the 1960s counterculture, Vineland is largely concerned with the demise of that culture, making it a sort of sequel to Lot 49[1]. Read against Lot 49, or even simply on its own merits, rather than in comparison with Gravity’s Rainbow, Vineland is an interesting novel indeed, addressing serious issues such as politics, popular culture, and American history (especially the history of the American Left), all with Pynchon’s trademark combination of playfulness and profundity.

Pynchon’s book depicts a contemporary society gone badly wrong, an America of the 1980s in which the radical dreams of the 1960s have turned to nightmare. In particular, Pynchon suggests that the failure of the radical counterculture of the 1960s to fulfill its project was due largely to its own political naïveté, opening the way for increasingly repressive forces to take power, making the America of the year 1984 (the year of the current action of the novel) resemble the world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four much more than most Americans realized at the time.Meanwhile, Pynchon’s sympathies are largely with the leftist projects of the 1960s, despite his criticism of those projects. And, though Vineland argues that genuine political change is difficult, it finally suggests that positive action is possible, provided that the participants have sufficient theoretical awareness to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Vineland and Politics

More than anything, Vineland examines the historical defeat of the 1960s counterculture, beginning with the election of Richard Nixon and the subsequent turn toward more repressive policies on the part of the U.S. government, a period that the novel refers to as the “Nixonian Repression” (71) and the “Nixonian Reaction” (239). But, in the historical narrative endorsed by Vineland, this rightward turn in American politics ultimately culminates in the far more serious rise of Ronald Reagan via an administration that the novel views as essentially fascist. Reagan lurks in the margins throughout Vineland, his policies marking the final demise, not only of the countercultural movements of the 1960s, but also the attempted undoing of all progressive movements from the 1930s onward. Frenesi’s friend Darryl Louise “DL” Chastain , whose status as a female ninja clearly marks her as a representative offbeat  Pynchon character, delivers the novel’s clearest indictment of Reagan’s policies when she declares the then-president to be a childish fascist, seeking revenge for the earlier defeat of fascism in World War II: “It’s the whole Reagan program, isn’t it—dismantle the New Deal, reverse the effects of World War II, restore fascism at home and around the world, flee into the past, can’t you feel it, all the dangerous childish stupidity—‘I don’t like the way it came out, I want it to be my way.’” (265).

Other than its obvious opposition to Reagan, the politics of Vineland can be a bit difficult to decode, which is one of the reasons why so many early critical reactions to the novel were negative (though the biggest reason is that so many critics were comparing it to its predecessor, Gravity’s Rainbow, in comparison with which almost anything seems lacking). Surveying some of these early reactions, Michael O’Bryan notes that the book did have a number of “notable” early defenders, including acclaimed novelists Salman Rushdie[2] and Richard Powers, then proceeds to deliver his own spirited defense of the novel and its politics, which he sees as tending toward anarchism: “By bringing anarchism to bear on our political narratives of the twentieth century, Vineland helps us understand the history of the American Left as a push and pull between anarchist impulses and Marxian programs of revolution. Such a historical frame could support productive new readings of many well-known texts associated with the American Left” (2). And there is definitely a strain of anarchism that runs through Pynchon’s work, a strain that American readers are not accustomed to dealing with in comparison with the more familiar Marxism.

Vineland is clearly informed by anarchist political theory, but it is also anarchic in the sense of simply being disorderly and irreverent. Writing in 2019, Peter Coviello acknowledges some of the weaknesses of Vineland but ultimately defends it, though he also admits, first, that the political events of 2019 make Vineland’s vision of American fascism seem prophetic, rather than exaggerated, and, second, that it is easier to appreciate Vineland as a historical novel if we read it in the context of the towering achievements of books like Mason & Dixon and Against the Day. All of this contextualization, Coviello argues, helps us to see that, while Vineland might appear to be a “fucking mess” in some ways, it is perhaps better read simply as unconventional, and in a complex and dialectical way (108). Coviello concludes that Vineland might break many of the rules of the novelistic, or even the humanistic tradition, but it does so in useful and interesting ways: “I am thinking of the heartening way the ambitions we might think of as most broadly “humanist,” in Vineland but not only there, hold space with such measured grace with the kinds of political critique in which it is no less forcefully invested and with the kinds of refusal of humanism in its liberalized forms that follow from them. This is no mean trick, as most everything about our hard-to-conceptualize and rapidly collapsing present tense is always and everywhere reminding us. If Vineland is ongoingly wonderful to me it is not only for its hilarity, and not only for its ludicrous inventiveness, and not only for the acuity of its vision of neoliberalism as the age of total and ceaseless carceral counterinsurgency” (120–21). In particular, Coviello finds himself moved by Pynchon’s “symphonic orchestration of these disharmonious strains—his conjuring of a world where laughter and outrage each circulate within the orbital pull of the other, to the diminishment of neither” (121).

Early in Vineland we are introduced to the book’s political themes as ex-hippie Zoyd Wheeler prepares to do “something publicly crazy” in order to demonstrate that he still qualifies for the government mental-disability checks with which he supports himself and his daughter Prairie. In particular, Wheeler is readying himself to perform his annual act of “transfenestration,” a carnivalesque exhibition in which he hurls himself through the plate glass window of some local business establishment. Pynchon makes it clear that Wheeler is not really crazy and that his annual act of lunacy is mere theater, staged for the benefit of the authorities. At first glance, then, it would appear that Wheeler has found a way with this scam to get the last laugh on the powers that be, powers whose sinister figuration in the book is already hinted at by the fact that the present-day action of Vineland is set in the ominous year of 1984. But we discover as the book proceeds that the authorities are in full complicity with Wheeler’s staged act of transgression, which becomes a mere media event, complete with live television coverage and fake candy-glass window to ensure that all goes well. Realizing that his act of subversion has been appropriated by those whom it is designed to subvert, Wheeler characteristically turns to the tube for a metaphor to express his frustration:

“It was like being on ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ only there were no genial vibes from any Pat Sajak to find comfort in, no tanned and beautiful Vanna White at the corner of his vision to cheer on the Wheel, to wish him well, to flip over one by one letters of a message he didn’t want to read anyway” (12-13).

Wheeler’s television allusion, together with the media coverage of his transfenestration, points toward the central role that popular culture plays throughout Vineland, raising serious issues about the relationship between image and reality in postmodern culture. Indeed, in typical Pynchon fashion, this seemingly silly opening scene makes a number of serious and important points that will be further elaborated as the book unfolds. We will later learn, for example, that Wheeler’s transgressions are even more thoroughly administered and authorized than is immediately obvious. In particular, the government uses Wheeler’s annual demonstration of public craziness to help them keep tabs on his whereabouts, contributing to the motif of surveillance that runs throughout the book and that provides one of the strongest echoes of Vineland‘s most obvious literary predecessor, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four[3].

In Nineteen Eighty-Four it is the government agent O’Brien who encourages the book’s “hero” Winston Smith in his own acts of transgression, so that Smith can be properly identified as a subversive and then properly dealt with. Both Vineland and Nineteen Eighty-Four thus make much the same point about the difficulty of genuine transgression in a society in which the powers that be are so powerful and so well organized that they seem able to turn any act of potential rebellion into a mere reinforcement of existing structures of power. One of the most striking aspects of Orwell’s book is the fact that his future dystopia is not so different from his contemporary England in many important ways. Pynchon takes this motif a step farther in Vineland, setting his dystopia not in a distant place or time, but in the here and now. For Pynchon, dystopia has already arrived, and the saddest part is that most people didn’t even notice[4].

The clash between individual and society in Vineland has been widely recognized as a central problem of modernity. It dates back at least as far as Dostoevsky’s fiercely anti-social Underground Man, perhaps figuring most famously in Civilization and Its Discontents, which sees this conflict as the central fact of civilization itself. Part of the problem in Vineland, however, is that the political activists of the 1960s were largely unaware of this heritage, just as they also lacked the theoretical sophistication to understand the larger context of the political issues in which they were involved. One of the book’s most important motifs involves the story of Wheeler’s ex-wife Frenesi Gates, a one-time 1960s radical who has been appropriated by the system as a government informer. Frenesi comes from a long line of leftist activists, with family roots running back to the early years of the labor union movement in the first part of the twentieth century. Vineland suggests that the countercultural movements of the 1960s had much in common with their leftist predecessors, except that they failed to realize this commonality. As Katherine Hayles notes, the parallels drawn in Vineland between the radicalism of the 1960s and the leftist activism of the 1930s and before suggest that “the radicals of the sixties, with the arrogance typical of youth, may have made the movement seem more anomalous than it really was” (80). And this very inability to understand their own heritage was just another element in the lack of theoretical awareness that brought the revolutionaries of the 1960s to their downfall.

The failure of the American Dream in Vineland is very much a matter of the stifling of private desires by the demands of public authority. One of the central images of resistance to authority in Vineland occurs when a group of 1960s students with “subversive hair” at the College of the Surf” band together under the leadership of mathematics professor Weed Atman to secede from the Union and form their own independent leftist “People’s Republic of Rock and Roll,” also known as “PR3” (209). This “republic” functions as a sort of parody of the vision of the 1960s counterculture, its “subversive project” doomed to failure. Indeed, sinister federal prosecutor Brock Vond and his minions soon destroy the fledgling “nation” through a combination of brute force and a program of intrigue that leads to dissension in the ranks and the assassination of Atman by one of his own lieutenants. The opposition between Vond (as the representative of governmental power) and the students’ quest for happiness (through a program of “sex, drugs, an’ rock an’ roll”) provides a striking dramatization of some of Sigmund Freud’s comments on the opposition between the individual’s quest for happiness and society’s demand for order in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929). Indeed, Freud lists versions of the components of the program of PR3 (“sexual love,” “intoxication,” and “enjoyment of works of art”) among the various (doomed) methods for pursuit of happiness enumerated in Civilization and Its Discontents.

The sex portion of this problematic political program resonates with a number of theoretical arguments from the 1960s, recalling in particular the liberation psychology of neo-Freudian thinkers like Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse, both of whom have been prominently mentioned in criticism of Pynchon’s work[5].Indeed, any number of modern thinkers—ranging from D. H. Lawrence to Georges Bataille—have apotheosized sexuality as a privileged locus of transgression against official authority. These various theories are based primarily on Freud’s notion that civilization represses normal sexual instincts, forcing them to be sublimated into other, socially productive, directions. The liberation of sexual impulses from this official repression thus presumably works in direct opposition to the fundamental means by which society imposes its power on individuals, potentially resulting in a radical transformation of society itself.

This figuration of sex as subversion is presented in particularly direct form in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in whose totalitarian society of Oceania, sexuality is repressed indeed: “The only recognized purpose of marriage was to beget children for the service of the Party. Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema” (57). In response to this policy of official repression, Orwell’s Winston Smith concludes that “[tlhe sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion” (59). Smith thus later enacts his subversive tendencies through an unauthorized sexual relationship with Julia, a young woman who shares his view of intercourse as rebellion. After consummating their illicit passion, both partners conclude that sexuality is “the force that would tear the Party to pieces” and that their union “was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act” (105). On the other hand, Smith later becomes concerned about Julia’s lack of theoretical awareness, accusing her of being “only a rebel from the waist downwards” (129). Indeed, the sexual rebellion of Smith and Julia turns out to be entirely ineffectual. Both are arrested by the authorities, then tortured and brainwashed and forced to turn against each other. In the book’s chilling conclusion, the official appropriation of Smith’s passion for Julia becomes complete; he sublimates his desire for the woman in a socially acceptable direction, realizing that his only love is now directed toward “Big Brother,” the book’s Stalinesque personification of official power.

As Gorman Beauchamp has pointed out, Smith’s final sublimated love for Big Brother corresponds to Freud’s notion that the attraction of individuals for strong figures of authority is largely erotic in nature: “In the megacivilization of utopia, man’s whole duty is to love the führer and serve him” (Beauchamp 288). But if sexuality is so easily conscripted in the service of authority, then the general effectiveness of sex as a means of subversion seems highly questionable. Indeed, Michel Foucault, in the introductory volume to his History of Sexuality,has suggested that modern society seeks not to repress or even extirpate sexuality, but instead to admininster sexuality and turn sexual energies to its own advantage. In short, sexuality does not necessarily stand in direct opposition to official power and may in fact stand in direct support of it.

In Vineland the 1960s rhetoric of sexual liberation as political resistance turns out to be as ineffectual as the program of sexual revolt carried out by the rebels of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Indeed, both books resonate with Foucault’s analysis, suggesting that sexuality is more often effectively used as a tool of official power than as a form of insurrection. For one thing, the insurgents in Pynchon’s People’s Republic of Rock and Roll—and by extension, a large percentage of 1960s “radicals”—parallel Orwell’s Julia in their lack of political sophistication and theoretical awareness. “None of these kids,” Pynchon’s narrator tells us, “had been doing any analysis” (205). It is almost as if the 1960s radicals of the book are partly inspired by an anarchist strain that they don’t really understand, contributing to the incoherent nature of their activities. And this lack of sophistication leads them to place their blind faith in Atman as a sort of counterculture Big Brother, whom they “were busy surrounding with a classically retrograde cult of personality” (205). Meanwhile, sex is one of the principal means by which Vond is able to undermine the rebellion at the College of the Surf. Vond’s lover Frenesi Gates functions as a sort of sexual double agent, being simultaneously involved in a torrid sexual relationship with Atman.

Frenesi’s sex with Atman, “who as a bonus happened to fuck like a porno star” (237), seems wild and unrestrained, but it is hardly subversive; it merely provides an opportunity for Vond to know the inner workings of PR3 and to orchestrate Atman’s downfall. For Vond sexuality is a locus not of liberation, but of domination. After his trysts with Frenesi, he orders her to go to Atman without bathing, so that she will still be carrying his semen when she meets Atman, though Frenesi at the time does not understand that Vond is thereby revealing “a secret about power in the world,” as Vond thus uses sex to establish his domination over both Frenesi and Atman (214). Indeed, sex is very much a matter of power in Vineland, again recalling the work of Foucault, who describes sexuality as “an especially dense transfer point for relations of power” (History 103). Like the “love” of Orwell’s Smith for Big Brother, Frenesi’s sexual fascination with Vond directly enacts—and perhaps parodies—Freud’s suggestions concerning the erotic nature of attachment to authority figures. This fascination is represented in a particularly direct way in Vineland through the suggestion that both Frenesi and her leftist mother Sasha Gates experience an irresistible sexual attraction toward men in uniform, “as if some Cosmic Fascist had spliced in a DNA sequence requiring this form of seduction and initiation into the dark joys of social control” (83). Sasha openly wonders if all of her various acts of resistance to official authority are merely a reaction against what she knows is the powerful erotic pull that they exercise on her.

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud suggests that the “crudest, but also the most effective” method by which individuals seek happiness is through “intoxication” (26). This suggestion clearly resonates with the program of the sixties drug culture, and the clash in Vineland between drug users like Wheeler and government drug agents like Vond and Hector Zuñiga is one of the central figurations of the book’s conflicts between individuals and authority. The cruel and sinister way the book’s drug agents go about their business in the book is contrasted with a relatively sympathetic treatment of users like Wheeler, a situation that leads David Cowart to conclude that in Vineland Pynchon employs drugs in a symbolic way as a transgressive alternative to official society (74). Such transgressive symbolism of substances which act to alter the perception of reality resonates not only with the drug culture of the 1960s, but with certain of Vineland‘s predecessors in the dystopian tradition, as with the subversive use of alcohol and tobacco in Zamyatin’s We. But it is also worth keeping in mind the way substances like the Victory Gin of Nineteen Eighty-Four or the soma of Huxley’s Brave New World act merely to dull perception and to make the populace more susceptible to authoritarian control. Indeed, if the 1960s emphasis on sexual liberation thus fails as a locus of subversion in Vineland, then the turn to drugs as a means of opposing “official reality” is equally problematic.

Despite his fierce criticisms of American drug enforcement policies, Pynchon hardly presents the drug culture as a utopian alternative to contemporary society. On the contrary, Vineland continually suggests that drugs functioned in the 1960s as a literal opiate of the masses that dulled the awareness of those involved in the counterculture and helped the prevailing authorities to maintain and solidify their power. In a motif that echoes Foucault’s suggestion that official society attempts not to repress sexuality but to administer it, Pynchon suggests that U. S. drug enforcement procedures are intended not to eliminate drug use, but merely to circumscribe drug users as an official Other against whom they can exercise their official power[6].In a conspiracy theory reminiscent of earlier Pynchon works like Gravity’s Rainbow, drug agent Roy Ibble suggests late in Vineland that the CIA— especially during the tenure of George Bush as Director—has in fact been working to stimulate the importation of drugs into the U.S.: “for verily I say that wheresoever the CIA putteth in its meathooks upon the world, there also are to be found those substances which God may have created but the U.S. Code hath decided to control” (354).

Pynchon’s invocation of this motif draws upon rumors that had been floating around for some time and that have subsequently received considerable validation. For example, the U.S. government officially admitted that, back in 1990, the year in which Vineland was published, the CIA had shipped a ton of cocaine from Venezuela into the U.S., where it wound up being sold on the streets, claiming it had been done by “accident” (Weiner). In 1996, journalist Gary Webb reported that the CIA had imported cocaine into the U.S. to raise money in support of the Reagan administration’s illegal efforts to provide support to the right-wing Contras in Nicaragua[7]. And reports of CIA involvement in drug trafficking in various locations around the world have continued to appear since that time.

One final political issue worth mentioning involves environmentalism, which was not a major emphasis of the 1960s counterculture and so does not receive major emphasis in Vineland. Nevertheless, the northern California setting of much of the novel (and of the fictional town of “Vineland” itself) would, fairly soon after the 1984 events of the novel, become a main focal point of struggle between environmentalists seeking to protect California’s magnificent redwood forests and logging companies seeking to cut down those forests for financial gain. Pynchon subtly sprinkles dozens of references to the redwoods and to logging into Vineland without commentary[8]. Meanwhile, anyone who knows the history of logging in northern California will know that attempts to save the redwoods would become a key focus of political activism beginning in the 1990s, suggesting that the energies of the 1960s counterculture had not completely dissipated. Battles over the redwood forests of the Western U.S. would subsequently become central to such environmentalist novels as T. Coraghessan Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth (2005) and Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2018).

Popular Culture in Vineland

Neither sex nor drugs functions in Vineland as an effective means of subversion, especially as the powers that be seem to understand the real workings of such mechanisms so much better than those who would employ them. And this situation is even more the case with rock and roll, the third major plank in the platform of Vineland‘s sixties counterculture. As the disc jockey turned record producer Mucho Maas explains to Wheeler late in the book, rock and roll turns out to be anything but an earth-shattering revolutionary tool. For Mucho—who was himself not above using the power of rock and roll to seduce young girls in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)[9]—contemporary music is largely used to dull the minds and enthusiasm of would-be revolutionaries through a process of sensory and information overload:

“Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it’s what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it’s what rock and roll is becoming—just another claim on our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die.” (314)

In Vineland rock and roll functions as just another element in a vast and complex culture industry in which popular culture functions, like sex and drugs, as a mind-numbing medium for the suppression of genuine and creative resistance to official power. Indeed, popular culture is linked directly to the notion of sex as a tool of authoritarian control in Vineland, as when Frenesi masturbates while watching the uniformed figures of authority on reruns of “CHiPs.” Even more directly, popular culture, and especially television, figures in the book as a drug, another opiate of the masses that is so habit forming that many are forced to enter “Tubaldetox” centers to fight the addiction and to avoid losing touch with reality altogether.

Freud again anticipates Pynchon here with his suggestion that “the enjoyment of works of art” tends to bring about a “mild narcosis” (Civilization 30). In Vineland, however, the principal works of “art” to which the populace are exposed are the ostensibly insipid products of contemporary popular culture, especially network television. Prairie Wheeler’s boyfriend Isaiah Four echoes Maas when he argues that it was in fact television that killed the revolution of the 1960s. He explains his theory to Wheeler late in the book:

“Whole problem ‘th you folks’s generation,” Isaiah opined, “nothing personal, is you believe in your Revolution, put your lives right out there for it—but you sure didn’t understand much about the Tube. Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, the whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like th’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies” (373).

Meanwhile, with a sort of postmodern bovarysme, virtually all of the characters in Vineland—of whatever generation—approach the world with expectations developed from popular culture, especially television. Wheeler is not alone in constantly interpreting the experiences he encounters in the real world in terms of the things he has seen on television. And, despite her own countercultural protestations, his daughter Prairie secretly admires the “teenagers in sitcoms, girls in commercials learning from their moms about how to cook and dress and deal with their dads.” Indeed, these characters from the Tube exert a strong pull, leaving the envious Prairie “knowing like exiled royalty that that’s who she was supposed to be” (327).

Popular culture in Vineland—in the process that Louis Althusser calls “interpellation”—is a powerful force through which citizens are indoctrinated with the official ideology and encouraged to behave themselves properly. One of Vond’s pet projects—the Political Re-Education Program (PREP)—involves the establishment of a system of prison camps where political undesirables can be taught to think appropriately, much as in the Stalinesque Ministry of Love in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But, by the 1984 of Vineland, this project, begun in 1970, is cancelled as unnecessary. Popular culture and other mechanisms at work in society (what Althusser would call “Ideological State Apparatuses”) are already so effective in molding the youth of America into obedient citizens that there are no serious political undesirables left for the PREP camps to process. What is left in Pynchon’s America of 1984 is a nation of virtual zombies, a population of “drug-free Americans, all pulling their weight and all locked in to the official economy, inoffensive music, endless family specials on the Tube, church all week long, and, on special days, for extragood behavior, maybe a cookie” (222)[10].

At the same time, Vineland does not simply suggest that our problem is the low nature of television culture, a problem that could ostensibly be solved by a return to the high culture of great literature. Indeed, Pynchon, with his studied silliness and nonstop wackiness, refuses to present his work (however serious it ultimately turns out to be) as a high-cultural alternative to contemporary popular culture. As Tobias Meinel notes, Vineland can be read as a sort of commentary on the process of reading. For Meinel, Vineland demonstrates that “it is not just television that can lull people into unthinking and un-critical acceptance; reading can do the same thing. It can be escapist and equally cater to a need for slogans, simple messages, and happy endings. This shows that simply blaming cultural decline on the Tube is naïve” (463). In short, it is not really the poor quality of television that is numbing our brains: it’s the fact that we are not doing a good job of being critical and intelligent readers of television and other elements of our culture.

Early critical response to Vineland sometimes suggested that Pynchon might have put too much emphasis on popular culture in the novel. Joseph Slade suggests that the references to television shows in the book are “numerous enough to turn off academic audiences” (“Communication” 126). Cowart, meanwhile, is almost nostalgic when he recalls the wealth of allusions to high culture in Pynchon’s earlier work; by contrast, he suggests that in Vineland “the density of reference to the ephemera of popular culture is almost numbing” (71). Indeed, there is a way the popular culture depicted in Vineland is deserving of the apparent contempt shown by critics like Slade and Cowart. Pynchon seems to be suggesting that much of the deadness of the society he depicts comes about because of the emptiness and banality of contemporary culture. The popular culture depicted in Vineland is pure commodity, all style and no substance, one television show just as good as another. Pynchon images this commodification of culture in a series of fictional made-for-television movies, including such gems as The Robert Musil Story starring Pee-wee Herman (370), the Woody Allen vehicle Young Kissinger (309), and The G. Gordon Liddy Story, starring Sean Connery (339). Pynchon’s popular culture is no respector of persons or traditions, and throwaway movies can be made about anything, starring anybody, without regard to propriety. Anything is grist for the mill of an information culture whose main purpose (at least according to Mucho Maas) is to keep up an incessant barrage of images that will keep the minds of the populace so busy with information reception that they will be unable to interpret or analyze the information they receive.

Of course, the critical landscape has changed considerably in the more than 30 years since Vineland was published, and Pynchon’s deployment of popular culture in the novel tends now to seem highly appropriate. It should also be noted that Pynchon’s allusions to popular culture are not indiscriminate and that he does not treat all popular culture in the same way. For example, much television is treated as disposable and dangerously addictive, usually represented by laughably bad-sounding invented TV movies). However, some real TV series are treated with more respect, as when both Gilligan’s Island (1964–1967) and Star Trek (1966–1969) are treated as important elements of American culture. Significantly, both of these series were originally broadcast in the 1960s and so are especially important to the novel’s 1960s generation (Zoyd and Frenesi), though both were also heavily re-broadcast in syndication between their original run and the 1984 setting of the current time of the novel.

Theatrical film is also treated somewhat differently than television, partly in that the films to which the novel refers are real films and partly in the somewhat odd way the films are mentioned—followed by their year of release in parenthesis, as they might be in an academic essay on film. For example, Zoyd and other musicians in the novel often play music from films, which are then cited with year of release by the narrator. But these references to years of release are not restricted to the narrator. Characters often mention films in their dialogue, suggesting that film makes up a big part of the cultural capital that helps them to constitute and express their thoughts. But when they do mention films they also cite the year of release. Thus, when Zoyd encounters a huge vertical slab of marijuana planted in his home by Zuñiga in order to frame Zoyd as a drug dealer, Zoyd is immediately reminded of the famous monoliths from a certain science fiction film: “Let me guess, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).” In response, Zuñiga refers to Zoyd’s impending legal problems: “Try 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1933)” (294).

Interesting enough, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing is a real film, directed by Michael Curtiz—a big-time director best known for Casablanca (1942)—and starring Hollywood legends Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis. Zuñiga is mostly categorized in the film as a television addict, but the fact that he can so quickly come up with such an appropriate quip based on such a little-known film suggests that he has an extensive knowledge of film as well (even though, in this case, he actually gets the year slightly wrong, given that this film was released on December 24, 1932). In general, though, the years of release cited in the novel are accurate. Most of the films cited are pop cultural entertainment films—such as Gidget (1959)—rather than cinematic classics, but the addition of these years of release tends to link the films to their historical moments and to suggest that films constitute an important part of their historical context. This seeming stylistic tic can also be taken as an effort to encourage readers to think historically—something contemporary Americans are notoriously bad at doing[11].

In fact, Vineland presents several examples of the ways contemporary American culture often cannibalizes the culture of the past, with little or no interest in the original context of that culture—much in the mode that Fredric Jameson associates with “pastiche” in postmodern culture. Probably the most colorful example of this phenomenon occurs when Prairie Wheeler visits a new mall called the Noir Center, loosely based on crime movies from around World War II and after, designed to suggest the famous ironwork of the Bradbury Building downtown, where a few of them had been shot.” Prairie actually is something of a fan of film noir (partly because her grandparents worked on some of them) and somewhat resents this attempt to cash in on it, though some of the shops in the mall are classic Pynchon inventions, such as “an upscale mineral-water boutique called Bubble Indemnity, plus The Lounge Good Buy patio furniture outlet, The Mall Tease Flacon, which sold perfume and cosmetics, and a New York-style deli, The Lady ’n’ the Lox” (326). It all seems very silly, but there is a serious point being made. This mall is merely an uncritical attempt to cash in on vague cultural memories of film noir, not an attempt to increase our appreciation or understanding of noir or to learn lessons from it.

Vineland as Historical Novel

Indeed, virtually everything Pynchon has written in his career can be seen as a vast exploration of American history designed to encourage Americans think historically. Vineland, which serves a something of an autopsy of the 1960s counterculture, can be seen as a sort of sequel to The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), which itself is something of an exploration of the birth of the counterculture.Tony Tanner, in an early book-length study of Pynchon’s work, suggested that, in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), “Pynchon has created a book that is both one of the great historical novels of our time and arguably the most important literary text since Ulysses” (75). Similarly, building on Tanner’s work, Paul Bové has declared that, while critics have viewed GR from a variety of perspectives, “the most important critical perception is that GR is an historical novel and Pynchon an historical novelist. … Any reading or teaching of Pynchon must begin with the recognition that his novels stand in complex relations to history. Unfortunately, though, scholarship does not make clear enough either the nature of those relations or the importance of history to Pynchon’s poetics. It is essential that any reading or teaching of Gravity’s Rainbow proceed from a secure sense of Pynchon’s aesthetic relation to history” (659).

Gravity’s Rainbow deals primarily with World War II and its aftermath in Europe, though it does look both back and ahead from that context. Then, in Mason & Dixon (1997), Pynchon turned his attention to the period of the birth of the American nation in the eighteenth century, demonstrating that many problematic contemporary social tendencies in America (the eighteenth-century America of the book is filled with religious fanatics, gun lovers, and White supremacist militias) have been there from the very beginning. Finally, in Against the Day (2006), Pynchon produced a vast and sprawling historical novel that spans American history from the 1890s to the twenty-first century, at the same time presenting a number of alternative histories and suggesting that history might well have proceeded otherwise[12].

In addition, several characters in the novel are directly involved in the film industry in one way or another, while mentions of the film industry focus on important moments in film history—and American history. In particular, these moments include the Hollywood labor struggles of the 1930, the anticommunist purges of the 1950s, and attempts to use film as a weapon in the struggle of the 1960s. Frenesi’s involvement as a documentary filmmaker and member of the radical 24fps film collective is absolutely central to her role in the novel, her complicity with Brock Vond suggesting the ultimate failure of leftist filmmaking during the period of the 1960s counterculture. Meanwhile, both of Frenesi’s parents once worked in the film industry, her father Hub as a gaffer and her mother Sasha as a script reader. And, while Hub was apolitical, Sasha was deeply committed to radical politics during her work in the film industry, especially during the crucial decade of the 1930s, when radical labor union organizing was beginning to make important inroads in Hollywood, prompting a strong response from Hollywood’s more regressive elements, with a young Ronald Reagan among those who did the most to help suppress the rise of effective labor organizing in Hollywood. The ultimate collapse of the Hollywood Left, leading into the black list period of the 1950s, is thus another example of the victory of repressive forces in America in a battle that had been going on since the beginning of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, the use of the history of Hollywood history to mark this element of American history not only signals the importance of popular culture in this phenomenon but also reminds us that Ronald Reagan, the ultimate villain of Vineland, had been a leader in the fight against progressive forces in America for nearly half a century by the time of the 1984 setting of the novel.

That Reagan got his start in an effort to wrest control of the film industry away from leftist forces suggests the importance of the film industry to American history, while also suggesting that American popular culture has ultimately remained in service to the powers-that-be, much in the mode of the Culture Industry famously critiqued by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. In this sense, Vineland again echoes Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which popular culture has been thoroughly conscripted by the ruling Party in the interest of furthering its power. Popular culture in Orwell’s novel (like everything else) is completely under the control of the Party, which produces a variety of insipid cultural products for mass consumption, including the book’s famous ever-present barrage of television images, but also including music and even books. Most of these products are turned out by machine, following simple compositional algorithms. After all, in Oceania “[blooks were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces” (108). The Party even produces pornography, which it then officially bans but makes easily available to “proletarian youths who were under the impression that they were buying something illegal” (108-9). As in Vineland, ostensible acts of transgression turn out to be strictly in the control of the existing structures of power and work not to subvert, but to solidify that power.

In the final analysis, however, Vineland is not nearly as pessimistic as Orwell’s book; Pynchon in fact offers a number of suggestions that point toward possible avenues of resistance to the subtly totalitarian society that America has become. For one thing, popular culture in Vineland, like Frankenstein’s monster, is not a force that is easily controlled, even by the titanic power structures that have created it. The mesmerizing effects of television turn out to be all too powerful, and even government agents like Zuñiga succumb to Tubal addiction. As a result the government is forced to create agencies like the National Endowment for Video Education and Rehabilitation (NEVER) in an attempt to counteract the effects of popular culture run amuck.

There are also suggestions in Vineland that viewers with sufficient theoretical and analytical sophistication to understand how popular culture works will be less susceptible to its potentially insidious effects. Much of the problem with television in Vineland is that children are exposed to it so early, before they develop this sophistication. Prairie Wheeler first becomes fascinated with television while watching Gilligan’s Island when she is less than four months old, as her grandmother Sasha Gates explains to her later: “whenever the show came on, you’d smile and gurgle and rock back and forth, so cute, like you wanted to climb inside the television set, and right onto that Island—” (368). By kindergarten age, children in the book seem able freely to move back and forth between the ontological levels of television and “reality.” The boy Justin, son of Frenesi and her second husband Flash Fletcher, thus explains the advice given him by a kindergarten classmate for dealing with problematic parents: “Pretend there’s a frame around ’em like the Tube, pretend they’re a show you’re watching. You can go into it if you want, or you can just watch, and not go into it” (351).

This kind of challenge to traditional ontological boundaries may lie very much at the heart of postmodern culture, but it greatly enhances the ability of those in power to manipulate the perceptions and reactions of the public[13]. Such ontological manipulation is, for example, precisely the heart of the “doublethink” by which the Party maintains its power in Orwell’s Oceania[14]. The “forbidden” book of Party enemy Emmanuel Goldstein thus explains that “[i]f one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality” (177). In this sense, Vineland resonates with critiques of postmodernist culture by critics like Gerald Graff, who suggests that “conventions of reflexivity and anti-realism are themselves mimetic of the kind of unreal reality that modern reality has become. But ‘unreality’ in this sense is not a fiction but the element in which we live” (180). Thus, for Graff, literature that calls attention to its own fictionality and criticism that calls attention to the fictionality of literature may be largely in complicity with the kind of blatant fictionalizations of reality that inform so much of modern society.

But Graff admits that “even radically anti-realistic methods are sometimes defensible as legitimate means of representing an unreal reality.” He suggests that “[t]he critical problem—not always attended to by contemporary critics—is to discriminate between anti-realistic works that provide some true understanding of nonreality and those which are merely symptoms of it” (12). Vineland clearly seems to fall among the works that attempt to provide some “understanding” of nonreality. For example, both Cowart and Slade end up suggesting that Pynchon’s book is not so much a symptom of the trivialization and commodification of popular culture as a critique of that phenomenon. Cowart, for example, concludes that in Vineland Pynchon “commits himself to imagining the relentlessly ahistorical consciousness of contemporary American society” (71). And Slade agrees, noting that many reviewers have seen Pynchon’s use of popular culture as a series of “cheap jokes,” but arguing that Vineland in fact gives us a fairly accurate picture of modern American culture, a picture that carries ominous warnings. Slade suggests that, behind Vineland‘s barrage of images from popular culture “lies a renascent fascist state” (“Communication” 127).

And Vineland goes well beyond a mere criticism of the mind-numbing effects of popular culture, offering positive suggestions on ways to combat these effects. The book continually suggests that the authorities have appropriated the subversive energies of the counterculture for their own use, but it also hints that the reverse is also possible, that officially endorsed culture might be conscripted in the service of rebellion. Frenesi Gates and her cohorts in the 24fps film collective are attempting very much this strategy when they attempt to capture the revolution on film as a means of combating official depictions of what was going on. And the failure of that project in no way suggests that all such projects need fail. After all, Pynchon has constructed Vineland itself as a sort of collage of references to popular culture, demonstrating that these images can in fact be turned against their makers. In this and other ways, he suggests that those with sufficient insight and awareness have access to a great deal of potentially subversive cultural energy in modern society.

It may be, for example, that Pynchon’s vision of The Robert Musil Story with Peewee Herman cast in the title role shows, as Slade suggests, that “not even the icons of high culture can escape the appetites of an information economy” (“Communication” 126). On the other hand, there is a great deal of carnivalesque potential in the challenge to traditional cultural hierarchies that Pynchon effects through this unlikely conflation of Musil, an “icon” of High Modernism, with Herman, a sort of “anti-icon” of postmodernism. Herman, in fact, epitomizes the ontological confusion associated with postmodern society in Vineland. For example, he is not really an actor at all, but another actor (Paul Ruebens) playing the role of an actor, starring in movies like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Big-Top Pee-wee that are constructed largely as patchworks of scenes parodying past movie classics and clichés. The collected works of Pee-wee Herman present themselves as entertainments for children, and on the surface they seem informed by exactly the sort of insipid silliness often cited by critics of modern popular culture. Yet it is possible to read a great deal of serious social commentary into Herman’s oeuvre. Constance Penley, for example, notes the ways in the which the (now defunct) television series “Peewee’s Playhouse” challenges traditional notions of gender identity. Ian Balfour echoes this motif and further suggests that the show does its best to “resist or reroute” the “gravitational pull of the commodity” (164). And Henry Jenkins Ill argues that Herman’s work reinforces the creative spirit of play that modern society so often tends to suppress.

It is not my purpose here to provide an in-depth reading of the works of Pee-wee Herman, but I would like to suggest that such a reading is possible and that Herman’s work, like much of popular culture, can be appropriated by sufficiently creative readers in ways that work very much in opposition to the ostensibly mind-numbing effects of popular culture in contemporary America. Indeed, the big problem with The Robert Musil Story is not that it lacks substance, but that Justin and Prairie do not pay attention to it as it airs. The biggest problem with popular culture in Vineland is that it is too easily absorbed passively and without close attention, whereas sufficiently active reception—of the kind normally reserved for “high” culture—might be able to generate a great deal of substance indeed.

Pynchon’s conflation of Herman and Musil provides some salutary reminders of the fact that the mechanisms by which popular culture and “high” culture do their work are very much the same. Musil’s The Man Without Qualities stands as a quintessential expression of modernity, yet the Austro-Hungarian Empire of Musil’s book bears some strong resemblances to the America of Pynchon’s Vineland. Musil’s Ulrich, the “Man” of the title, experiences strong feelings of personal inauthenticity, and his contemporary culture is depicted as fallen and fragmented relative to the greatness of the past. When Musil’s Arnheim bemoans the fact that the people of his time are no longer able to appreciate the great works of the past (like Homer and the Bible), he does not sound so different from those who proclaim the degradation of culture in the age of postmodernism.

Interestingly, Arnheim’s examples of degraded modern culture—Dostoevsky, Strindberg, and Freud—are by now the classics of the modernist past against which postmodernism appears to many as empty and banal. One wonders, then, if there will come a time in a half century or so when critics bewail the fact that their contemporary culture no longer matches the standard set by past masters like Pynchon and Pee-wee Herman. Indeed, it is always easy to criticize contemporary culture for not meeting the standards of the past. But Pynchon’s point in Vineland seems to be that we should judge the present by its own standards rather than remaining mired in nostalgic recollections of past glory, recollections that were, after all, at the heart of the Reagan administration that itself functions as the book’s Evil Empire.

Vineland and Nostalgia

Vineland consistently calls the radicals of the sixties to task for lacking the theoretical awareness to constitute a genuinely effective program of political change. But the real subject of his critique is not the oppositional thinking of the sixties so much as the nostalgia of those in the 1980s who see the 1960s as a time of lost innocence. Vineland‘s 1980s characters consistently live in the past, fed on precisely the sort of golden memories of the sixties as “the best time most people from back then are ever goin to have in their life” (51) that Pynchon himself refuses to entertain. The rhetoric of nostalgia and loss, of a contemporary “spilled and broken world” (267), runs rampant through the pages of Vineland, be it in a generalized lament for the destruction of the American Dream or in a more specific longing for the supposedly better days of the sixties, “a slower-moving time, predigital, not yet so cut into pieces, not even by television” (38).

In short, characters in Vineland of the generation of Frenesi Gates and Zoyd Wheeler figure the 1960s as a time of lost past wholeness, even as the postmodernism that Jameson and others have associated with fragmentation was already in full swing[15]. By the same token, characters like Sasha Gates, a generation older, just as whimsically recall the golden days of the 1930s, when leftist politics really meant something. And presumably, Sasha’s children Prairie and Justin will someday recall the 1980s as a similar Golden Age. Indeed, American culture of the 2010s and early 2020s has made the 1980s a key focus of culktural nostalgia. But effective potential action requires not only a recollection of the past, but also engagement with the present and anticipation of the future. Nostalgia leads not to positive change, but merely to escapism, and Vineland suggests that much of the transgressive energy of the 1960s was in fact escapist rather than activist. Thus, Pynchon’s narrator suggests that “Brock Vond’s genius was to have seen in the activities of the sixties left not threats to order but unacknowledged desires for it. Brock saw the deep need only to stay children forever (269). In short, Vond may have understood Freud’s insights into the attraction of authority in ways that his opponents didn’t, and this edge in theoretical awareness gave him a large tactical advantage. Popular culture again figures prominently in Pynchon’s suggestions of the dangers of nostalgia. If all of the book’s characters tend to view reality through a haze of popular culture, it is typically through the popular culture of their own youths. Children like Justin and Prairie are attuned to contemporary music and television, while their parents are still lodged in the culture of the 1960s, recalling old shows and old songs with a strong sense of loss. And when Zoyd and Frenesi watch television in the 1980s, they tend primarily to watch reruns of shows from the 1960s. At the same time, the characters of Sasha Gates’s generation approach the world with expectations garnered from old movies and songs of the big-band era—one of which supplied Frenesi with her name.

In Vineland one of the most invidious effects of popular culture is its tendency to freeze its consumers in the cultural world of the past, a world which no longer corresponds to the present. Our conceptions of popular culture are thus formed principally in childhood and tend to remain perpetually naive, whereas effective political resistance requires a sense of history that is diametrically opposed to such nostalgic visions of the times of one’s own youth. Paradoxically, however, this suggestion implies that we should not reject popular culture out of hand, but that on the contrary we should engage it more actively and thoroughly, keeping in touch with the current culture of our children as it continually evolves and seeking to read that culture creatively and transgressively in order to activate its subversive energies rather than simply to accept its potential for propagation of mindless conformity.

Vineland itself is an extended illustration of how such a project could be carried out, and as such the book’s vision is finally hopeful, even if cautiously so. There are, in fact, clear utopian moments (though shaky ones) in the novel, such as in the Traverse-Becker family reunions, in which “Pynchon shows this utopian sense of imperfect, flawed solidarity to be the only, precarious, mainstay against the “cosmic fascist” and fascist appropriations of the narrative of America” (Kolbuszewska 210). Indeed, in stark contrast to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Vineland ends on a recuperative note, with the evil Brock Vond appropriately dispatched to hell and the lost dog Desmond safely returned home to the Wheelers. There is, of course, a great deal of parody in this mock romance ending, and all of the rest of the book warns us against the expectation of easy solutions to all our problems. But this does not mean that no solutions are possible. It simply means that any viable solutions will require hard work, diligent attention, and sophisticated theoretical understanding. Neither Vond’s demise nor Desmond’s return changes the fact that the characters of Vineland are still surrounded by a “renascent fascist state,” but both indicate that the good guys sometimes win, especially if we have the acuity to figure out who the good guys really are.


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[1] It should also be noted that Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice (2009) is set in 1970, in the midst of the California counterculture. Indeed, Lot 49, Vineland, and Inherent Vice have sometimes been lumped together by critics as the “California Trilogy.”

[2] Rushdie, incidentally, was an especially important early booster, calling Vineland “a major political novel” in an early review in the New York Times.

[3] For an extensive discussion of Vineland in relation to the tradition of dystopian fiction, see my essay “Vineland and Dystopian Fiction.”

[4] Pynchon’s argument here is hardly unique. One might compare, for example, Thomas W. Cooper’s suggestion relative to Orwell’s book as a warning of things to come that “the deepest danger is not that 1984 is coming, but rather that it has come in another guise, and we are unaware of it” (99—100).

[5] For example, Slade mentions Brown and Marcuse prominently among influences on Pynchon’s use of psychology (“Religion”). For an extended discussion of Pynchon and Brown, see Wolfley. Note also Ellie Ragland-Sullivan’s suggestion that the schizo-hero of Deleuze and Guattari evokes “a curious reminiscence of the theories of Norman O. Brown and Marcuse” (116). Pynchon includes a whimsical reference in Vineland to Deleuze and Guattari as the authors of a volume entitled Italian Wedding Fake Book (one of many invented works that appear in the novel) (97).

[6] Drug use thus functions in Vineland very much in the same way as madness in the society of the early Enlightenment per the analysis of Foucault in Madness and Civilization. Freud also addresses this need for an Other in Civilization and Its Discontents, suggesting that such groups function as an outlet for the human instinct toward aggression.

[7] Webb’s reports, originally published in the San Jose Mercury-News, were ultimately documented in his book Dark Alliance. Webb’s investigations have been dramatized in the 2014 film Kill the Messenger.

[8] Note that some editions of the novel showed a California forest being ravaged by a mass logging operation.

[9] In that novel, Mucho is the husband of protagonist Oedipa Maas, but we learn from Vineland that the two divorced in 1967 (309).

[10] The zombie-like nature of 1980s Americans is explicitly figured in the novel in the form of the “Thanatoids.” See Collado-Rodríguez for a discussion of their role in the novel.

[11] For a more detailed discussion of Vineland’s engagement with film—especially in the context of histories of film—see Mathijs.

[12] Against the Day features a great deal of leftist labor history, much of it fictionalized in the actions of the Traverse clan, who are the forebears of Sasha Gates in Vineland. These parts of Against the Day thus function as a sort of prequel to Vineland.

[13]For a suggestion (from a very different perspective) that postmodernist fiction is centrally informed by precisely such ontological instabilities, see McHale.

[14] Compare Hannah Arendt’s suggestion that “[t]he ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false … no longer exist” (474).

[15] It is, of course, no accident that this figuration echoes the myth of the Fall from the Garden of Eden. Vineland even includes its own embedded retelling of that myth, though in the hands of Sister Rochelle, “Head Ninjette” of Pynchon’s “Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives, ” the story is significantly altered, to say the least. In her version, the battle between heaven and hell is won by hell, after which earth is colonized as a tourist resort, then abandoned when it becomes too much like hell itself (382–83).