Vineland (1990) has been one of the lingering Thomas Pynchon titles I had not gotten around to reading (only one left now: Mason & Dixon), and while it has its strengths it is probably the weakest of his novels I have read except for Inherent Vice. The novel follows, at different points, Zoyd Wheeler, his ex-wife Frenesi, his daughter Prairie, and a few companions as they all try to evade an FBI agent out of control, Brock Vond. In particular, Brock is obsessed with Frenesi, who in the 1960s he had seduced into betraying fellow leftist activists. Prairie also is out to track down her mother, who hasn’t seen her ex-husband and daughter since the latter was a baby.
The novel is at its best when it dives into the past to investigate, through its characters, the fall of 1960s leftist activism and increasing oppression under Nixon and then Reagan. This is, essentially, Frenesi’s story: a long chapter a little over half-way through the book describes her slow fall for Brock Vond and betrayal of a campus protest organization and her own ideals. The problems with the novel come earlier, with Prairie’s search for her mother. Prairie is written in a way that makes you feel like Pynchon is writing a Tom Robbins novel, filled with naïve romanticism and gosh-golly pluck. And you could say the novel is working to undermine that by then portraying Frenesi’s story and deflating Prairie’s naiveté, but something still doesn’t sit right.
The end of the novel has me ambivalent. Complete deus ex machina, it is a little too hard (and frankly boring) to read the long final chapter wrapping up loose ends one by one into a happy ending (with one undercurrent of lurking danger with Prairie to undermine the comfort) without wondering if Pynchon intended this all along or just decided he was tired of the novel and wanted to wrap it up. If intentional, the artificiality of the ending would have packed much more punch if much shorter. Indeed, the whole novel would probably be improved by cutting out large chunks. Usually Pynchon is at his best in his longer novels, but here he would benefit from a good edit.