Pynchon's Vineland: The War on Drugs and the Coming Police-State
Vineland is a politically engaging, darkly hilarious novel. Vineland describes America as "scabland garrison state," where organized political dissent is monitored and ultimately destroyed by the federal government. The Repression, as Pynchon calls it, takes many forms, including naked police power, political infiltration of the resistance, and the War on Drugs. The American culture pre-empts dissent; Hollywood and the Tube even weakens people's intellect and powers of resistance. The American economy, as seen in Vineland, is barren; workers provide each other with "services" like law enforcement, drug enforcement, as well as Hollywood movies and TV shows to feed the Tube.
Pynchon's view of America is unflattering, yet more realistic other writers, many of whom write dystopias. Pynchon convincingly depicts hard power: drug raids, paramilitary assaults, and the dark corridors of the military and corporations. Some reviewers, looking for another literary tour de force, were disappointed by Pynchon's straightforward tale of Sixties radicals undermined by COINTELPRO, the federal government's notorious program of infiltrating the counterculture.
Pynchon’s main goal is to dramatize the American government’s repression of its people in the early 1980s. The outlines of the Repression have been clear for a long time. The problem is that the struggle seems long lost. Re-reading Vineland during the steady loss of civil liberties during the George W. Bush regime, we are reminded of the long genesis of the repression: police used as strike-breakers in the 19th century, and in Hollywood in the 1930s, the COINTELPRO activities, and the 1980s war on drugs (mainly marijuana) in the novel.
Pynchon's tale of fascist America is realistic and historical, rather than allegorical or overtly dystopic like Animal Farm or 1984. Pynchon describes characters who, however silly some of their names and situations, are emblematic of the 1960s resistance to state power. Yet the state successfully undermines them all.
Zoyd Wheeler, an "average doper," after being framed as a pot dealer in the late Sixties, is reduced to accepting mental disability checks. Although Zoyd is not politically active, his alternative lifestyle is considered mentally defective by the government, much as Stalinist Russia treated political dissent as a psychological problem.
The central co-optation of the novel is Frenesi Gates' rather inexplicable drift into becoming a "snitch," apparently out of lust for the novel's villain, Brock Vond, a federal prosecutor. While Frenesi's lust attempts to explain her individual betrayal of the Movement, through her story Pynchon describes federal infiltration of dissident groups. The often hilarious episode of the People's Republic of Rock and Roll, a small California college town that turns countercultural and secedes from the union, is emblematic of the Sixties campus rebellions. The PR3 as it is called, is led by an unlikely leader, Weed Atman, a mathematics professor spontaneously proclaimed leader on account of his height. Brock Vond, who doesn't want to destroy the PR3 through simple invasion, sees it as a "scale model, to find out how much bringing down a whole country might cost." His plan is to plant money in the PR3, and get everyone fighting over it.
Frenesi’s betrayal of the movement is the pivot, but remains unconvincing. Pynchon tries to explain it in turns of her fetish for men in uniform, apparently inherited from her mother. Frenesi's treachery weakens the movement, leading to the end of Frenesi's filmmaking career, 24fps, and the People's Republic of Rock and Roll. Frenesi's betrayal of the movement is the least convincing action of the book. Frenesi seems so strong to us, has such an illustrious leftist pedigree; and Brock Vond, despite being described as a handsome man in uniform, is one of Pynchon's incredibly crazy characters (Hector, Takeshi, and Brock are three of the crazier ones here). So this explanation is deterministic, and so unsatisfying, but we sense that explaining Frenesi’s change of sides in the struggle is not the central mystery of the book.
Instead, Frenesi’s love of Vond lends itself more to “symbolic” interpretation. We meet Frenesi in 1984, married to Flash, and later on film, as the director of 24fps. But Zoyd and Prairie, DL and Takeshi, Sister Rochelle, and even Hector, among other characters, register more clearly and memorably than Frenesi. Perhaps, Frenesi is representative of the press, or at least video journalism. She moves from exposing the predations of the unchecked governmental power to actively working to undermine the resistance. The media at large now beats the drum for the police, in countless TV shows and movies that glorify policemen, and military men. The media has fallen in love with men in uniform just as Frenesi has. Frenesi remains shadowy, the object of Prairie's search, of everyone's search, as the search for the meaning of the Sixties.
Frenesi’s decision to become an informant marks the end of the resistance. After that, 24fps is disbanded, and the counterculture no longer documents the government’s repression on film. Although Vond sets up his PREP camps to breed informants, by the early 1980s, as Hector tell Frenesi, the funding is cut off because young people are volunteering for it. The quelling of the resistance has succeeded.
Pynchon shows us the severity of The Repression, perhaps too spooky for some to countenance. A steady stream of police and military encounters punctuate Vineland. The most recurring crackdown is that of CAMP, the Campaign Against Marijuana Production, which includes video surveillance and military assaults against marijuana growers. For Pynchon, The War on Drugs has been a pivotal battle in the government's war on civil liberties, and so is worthy of exposure. Pynchon shows the human cost of the War on Drugs within the circle of his characters. Zoyd is a "good" character, a caring father, engaged in simple honest toil and music making. He builds his own house, and yet has it seized unjustly, because of Brock Vond’s mad lust for Frenesi. Frenesi could have been describing Zoyd when she mentions "targets so powerless compared to those who were setting them up that some other motive, less luminous than that of the national interest, must have been at work." (72) Whose interest, and what is the motive?
Pynchon never satisfying answers this question. In Gravity’s Rainbow, it is merely Them. In Vineland, it is "the Real Ones, [who] remained year in and year out, keeping what was desirable flowing their way." (276) It is they who are engaged in “some planetwide struggle [that] had been going on for years, power accumulating, lives worth less, personnel changing, still governed by the rules of gang war and blood feud, though it had far outgrown them in scale.” (146)
Dissidents are targets of the Real Ones, but so are average guys like Zoyd. As Mucho Maas says: “…soon they're gonna be coming after everything, not just drugs, but beer, cigarettes, sugar, salt, fat, you name it, anything that could remotely please any of your senses…" (313)
Whoever They are, Pynchon also shows us naked police power in action. The PR3 is finally destroyed by a military style assault captured on film by Frenesi for 24fps.
By morning there were scores of injuries, hundreds of arrests, no reported deaths but a handful of persons unaccounted for. In those days it was still unthinkable that any North American agency would kill its own civilians and then lie about it. (248).
Frenesi is arrested and later rescued by DL from an underground detention center, accessible only by secret FEER (Federal Emergency Evacuation Route) roads. The center was "intended as a holding area able to house up to half a million urban evacuees in the event of, well, say, some urban evacuation." (249).
Even in the novel's present time, set in the year 1984, DL and Prairie discover a crude bugging device. And it seems that three members of the old 24fps gang have recently disappeared. DL and Ditzah are panicked. "It only begins to assume some nationwide pattern here, right?"
In the olden days we called it the last roundup," DL explained. "Liked to scare each other with it, though it was always real enough. The day they'd come and break into your house and put everybody in prison camps. Not fun or sitcom prison camps, more like feedlots where we'd all become official, nonhuman livestock."
"You've seen camps like this?"…
"Yep, I've seen 'em, your mom was in one, you'll recall, but better than us reminiscing and boring you, go to the library sometime and read about it. Nixon had machinery for mass detention all in place and set to go. Reagan's got it for when he invades Nicaragua. Look it up, check it out." (264)
It is easy to believe that DL's thoughts are Pynchon's own, and perhaps her encouragement for Prairie to research these things, is also aimed at the reader.
Perhaps most disturbingly, Hector, the Tube crazed DEA agent recalls an ominous moment he had watching TV the other night.
…he saw the screen go blank, bright and prickly, and then heard voices hard, flat, echoing.
"But we don't actually have the orders yet," somebody said.
"It's only a detail," the other voice with a familiar weary edge, a service voice, "just like getting a search warrant." Onto the screen came some Anglo in fatigues, about Hector's age, sitting at a desk against a pale green wall under fluorescent light. He kept looking over to the side, off-camera.
"My name is — what should I say, just name and rank?"
"No names," the other advised.
The man was handed two pieces of paper clipped together, and he read it to the camera. "As commanding officer of state defense forces in this sector, pursuant to the President's NSDD #52 of 6 April 1984 as amended, I am authorized — what?" He started up, sat back down, went in some agitation for the desk drawer, which stuck, or had been locked. Which is when the movie came back on, and continued with no further military interruptions. (339-340).
Rex-84, the national security exercise alluded to, was a real occurrence. These aren’t literary games. The US federal government pre-empts dissidence, and in the last resort, restricts it and attacks it.
The War on Drugs in Vineland is shown to be the latest chapter of the government's Repression, which stretches far into the past, but grows in intensity over time. It is here that Pynchon is politically engaging, for how many novelists have been willing to address this perpetual war against civil liberties? Many find it difficult even to criticize the War on Drugs, perhaps because the "debate" has been framed in such a way that those opposed to it are seen as condoning drug use. The mainstream press joins the chorus of praise for drug busts, instead of discussing the loss of civil liberties, or criticizing government excesses.
The CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Production) offensive of the government is disturbingly portrayed. In the past Zoyd was set-up by Hector with a huge monolith of pot planted in his house. The War on Drugs is so prone to abuse by police power, precisely because mere possession of controlled substances is an offense, and so easy to orchestrate, to “plant the evidence.” Its villains, notably Brock Vond, are irrational tools of the powerful.
The victims of the War on Drugs are people like Zoyd, an average doper of the Sixties, depicted as an honest, hard-working caring father and musician, who smokes pot all the time. Zoyd even builds his own house, bit by bit over the years, only to have it confiscated by the government under civil RICO. After he is framed for growing marijuana, he seeks legal counsel, and is told:
“What about innocent ’till proven guilty’?”
“That was another planet, think they used to call it America, long time ago, before the gutting of the Fourth Amendment. You were automatically guilty the minute they found that marijuana growing on your land.”
“Wait — I wasn’t growin’ nothin’.”
“They say you were. Duly sworn officers of the law, wearing uniforms, packing guns, bound to uphold the Constitution, you think men like that would lie?” (360)
Not only does the government frame suspects, bribe informants, burn marijuana plants, seize property, the final irony is that they are a ultimate source of drugs. Agent Roy Ibble, tells Flash that:
notice how cheap coke has been since ’81?…Harken unto me, read thou my lips, 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. Get me? Now old Bush used to be head of CIA, so you figure it out? (354)
The “you figure it out” recalls DL’s admonition to Prairie about the detention centers, to “check it out.”
So the War on Drugs in Vineland is shown as a perpetual attack by a corrupt government upon its people. Agent Ibble is even seen gambling with government money.
Although Pynchon cannot resist satirizing the counterculture along with its fascist oppressors, there is no doubt on which "side" he is on the struggle. Many of the main characters take drugs, including Zoyd's marijuana use, Takeshi's amphetamines, Ernie Triggerman and Sid Liftoff’s cocaine use, even Hub and Sasha's Benzedrine inhaler. (290) Vineland's cover shows a burning forest, suggestive of the government's attempt to stamp out marijuana use, a great nation’s war on a botanical species.
Vineland is the story of the repression of the counterculture, and the origins of the wider culture wars. The War on Drugs is central to the current repression, and an important battlefield on which civil libertarians must defend their liberties.
The drug of choice for nearly everyone is the Tube. The main characters watch the Tube, exhibit intimacy with it, and even see the world in terms of the Tube. Some are extreme Tube watchers, including especially Hector, an escapee from Tubaldetox (where inmates sing a house hymn before supper called “The Tube” (336)), as well as the Thanatoids, for whom it is their favorite activity.
The Tube helps consolidate the Repression in many ways. It is a daily distraction from life. Characters in Vineland watch a lot of TV movies, often biographies about TV personalities, such as The Frank Gorshin Story, or The Bryant Gumbel Story. Frenesi masturbates to the Tube, to the show “CHIPS”, and its images of police authority. (83) The characters also pick up the habits of TV characters. Prairie buzzes like a game show when Zoyd gives an unsatisfactory answer to her question. Hector’s everyday personality attempts to mimic the actor Ricardo Montalban.
Isaiah 2:4 even blames the Tube for the end of the 1960s revolution. He tells Zoyd:
“Whole problem ’th you folk’s generation,” Isaiah opined, “nothing personal, is you believed 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, that whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like the’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970 dollars — it was way too cheap…” (373)
TV is now used to trivialize people. Zoyd’s annual jump through the window to do something “publicly crazy” is televised. The Tube is also his last recourse for the trumped-up marijuana charges against him; if found guilty, he intends to try to get on 60 Minutes. Examples of the corrosive impact of the Tube on the characters occur throughout the book. Interestingly, books are seldom mentioned or referred to in Vineland.
The Tube is now the historical record of our time. When Prairie watches the 24fps archives, a “true” record of the sixties, she is surprised by
an America of the olden days she’d mostly never seen, except in fast clips on the Tube meant to suggest the era, or distantly implied in reruns like “Bewitched” or “The Brady Bunch.” (198)
It is significant that Brock ultimately destroys the 24fps footage, an echo of Winston Smith’s alteration of history in 1984. History in Vineland is also written falsely as it happens. For example, the mainstream “official” press is docile after the PR3 crackdown. At Brocks’ press conference, "the media toadies present" ask a few polite questions. But
Somebody from the radical press must have infiltrated. "You mean they're on the run?" Are there warrants out? How come none are listed as federal fugitives?" The reporter was led away by a brace of plainclothes heavies…(248)
Sheriff Willis Chunko of Vineland country is seen on the Tube “gleefully slashing into yet another patch of mature [marijuana] plants.” (373)
The Tube is becoming our governing authority. For many it is our only contact with elected officials. It is even the source of orders. When Hector sees the accidental military interruptions to his movie, he suspects a silly national emergency "As if the Tube were suddenly to stop showing pictures and instead announce, "From now on, I'm watching you."” (340)
The influence of the Tube in the world of Vineland cannot be overstated.
Pynchon’s sketch of America shows a decline into a barren service economy. America has become a “scabland garrison state.” A lot of union jobs have been lost, resulting in Zoyd, for example, working as a “gypsy” roofer. How many people in Vineland are engaged in productive labor? Zoyd is a hard worker, who puts together a day’s work out of odd jobs, and even builds many additions on to his house. (Yet he also receives a mental disability check from the government.)
Many of the major characters are occupied in non-productive work. Brock and Hector are federal agents, Frenesi and Flash their paid snitches; all are federal employees, prosecuting a war against their own people. The Thanatoids only watch the Tube, as does everyone else. Prairie works in food service. Takeshi works in insurance adjustments (later karmic adjustments with DL). Ralph Wayvone is a successful mob boss.
The great union days, strongly represented by Sasha Gates, Frenesi’s mother, are gone. The labor struggle is something that appears to have been lost by 1984. Frenesi fought some battles for it during the sixties, but there is no sign of it in the novel’s present time.
Corporations are perhaps best seen in the Chipco incident, as actors in a global power struggle unseen by most men. Takeshi is an insurance claims adjustor and sees the “deep actuarial mysteries,” and had “come to value and watch closely in the world for signs and symptoms, messages from beyond…” (147-48) Takeshi must investigate the destruction of the Chipco research complex. It appears to have been the work of a giant reptile; the insurance adjustors detect a size 20,000 reptilian footprint left behind. Takeshi’s instincts, however, are that it is fabricated, and suspects that Chipco destroyed its own complex and wants to collect the insurance, just one evil act in the “planetwide struggle [that] had been going on for years,” mentioned earlier. “Chipco was in it up to its eyeballs, and it looked like the Professor might have been fading some of the action.” (146)
Takeshi and DL, as karmic adjustors, are able to keep one step ahead of
the faceless predators who’d once boarded Takeshi’s airplane in the sky, the ones who’d had the Chipco lab stomped on, who despite every Karmic Adjustment resource brought to bear so far had simply persisted, stone-humorless, beyond cause and effect, rejecting all attempts to bargain or accommodate… (383)
Business is a key player in the great worldwide power struggle.
Pynchon is a precise chronicler of 1980s America. In less than 400 pages, Pynchon connects situations from 1980s Northern California, and follows family links back to 1940s Southern California, covering the counterculture, federal law enforcement, the military, the film industry, and links it to the American and Japanese mafia, martial arts. Pynchon is at his very strongest in his historical flashbacks, where he can merge history with his own fabrications. He does it all believably, with rich detail, and with his patented style of humor, which is to describe precisely, and to bear merciless witness to violence and artificiality of the world. There is no more able fictional chronicler of where we are and where we are going.
Pynchon’s prime motivations as a writer are to be funny, and to expose what Man Does to Man. Pynchon does encourage us to dream as well, to imagine, but however beautiful his imaginings, Pynchon's fine-wrought language and breadth of ideas is the star of the show. He is not rhapsodic about life, though he clearly values nature, and endows many of his characters with his intelligence (though too often his voice as well).
Pynchon’s sense of humor may be his strongest asset. But his humor is at times juvenile, and sticks out in works that treat such serious themes. Pynchon may trivialize his own points by using his trademark character names, or by being too playful. In a novel with such throwaway characters as the Marquis de Sod, or Count Drugula, or bizarre ones as Hector, are we as readers supposed to be afraid of the repression that Pynchon chronicles? Perhaps the humor is a needed sugar for the pill of his serious themes. I think Pynchon cannot help himself, and such playfulness, such black comedy, even in the face of what he sees to be a fascist state in America, is his response to such an implacable force as fascism.
It is absurd, and so it is funny, even if it is real. It’s not all real either. One very unlikely coincidence is that Zoyd and D.L. both know Takeshi, who moreover closely resembles Brock Vond, a somehow Japanese Robert Redford look-alike. DL and Takeshi, the karmic adjustors, are the happy counterparts to Frenesi and Brock. We are often are aware of Pynchon's characters as artifices, even when he writes strong ones, even when the dialog rings true. The magical realism surrounding the Kunoichi and the Thanatoids also functions outside the realist mode.
Structurally, Vineland's unnamed or numbered chapters generally offer scenes, followed by even more background information about the characters. Here he often works in background characters for a few paragraphs at a time, who often show Pynchon's knowledge of some specialized area, and are good for a laugh.
Although the many flashbacks are seamless, the story’s continuous movement to new things, usually into the past, diminishes Vineland’s impact. So the dramatic tension doesn't build. We somehow lose track of the fact that Brock Vond is hunting everyone down; he somehow doesn't seem to matter and so is trivialized. The same is true of DL and Takeshi’s pursuers. So the novel ends on a note of release, with Brock Vond easily dispatched, and the early Reagan chapter of The Repression ending, just as earlier the Nixonian Repression ended.
Vineland as a whole is warning about the growing police state, so the "happy ending,” is somewhat surprising. A main theme in Vineland is domestic repression throughout the 20th century. Vineland focuses on characters from the Sixties, who in the Eighties experience this in different forms. Pynchon gives us background information on the repression even from the Thirties and Forties.
Perhaps a weakness of Vineland is its "happy" ending. Things turn out about as well as they can for the "good" characters. Brock Vond, poised to descend on Vineland, is yanked from the sky deus ex machine, saving everyone because his federal funding is cut off. It is as if Pynchon was afraid to go for the jugular, after all his many hints, asides, and innuendoes.
Instead of anyone going to jail, in the closing scene of the family picnic, Prairie joins three generations of leftists from Frenesi's side. These are the good guys.
And other grandfolks could be heard arguing the perennial question of whether the United States still lingered in a prefascist twilight, or whether that darkness had fallen long stupefied years ago, and the light they thought they saw was coming only from millions of Tubes all showing the same bright-colored shadows. One by one, as other voices joined in, the names began — some shouted, some accompanied by spit, the old reliable names good for hours of contention, stomach distress, and insomnia — Hitler, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Nixon, Hoover, Mafia, CIA, Reagan, Kissinger, that collection of names and their tragic interweaving that stood not constellated above in any nightwide remoteness of light, but below, diminished to the last unfaceable American secret, to be pressed, each time deeper, again and again beneath the meanest of random soles, one blackly fermenting leaf on the forest floor that nobody wanted to turn over, because of that lived, virulent, waiting, just beneath. (372)
It is perhaps Pynchon's encyclopedic erudition that wows his readers most of all. We know Pynchon served in the navy, and wrote technical manuals for Boeing, and his technical erudition is one his main pillars of credibility. Pynchon describes objects through the characters that use them or make them, so he brings them alive with ample detail. We are aware of the technique especially through his naming, his knowledge of proper nouns. To cover so much ground, Pynchon writes somewhat elliptically. His writing can be so dense that the main lines of the story can be hard to follow. This has made his work inaccessible to many readers.
A close reading of Vineland reveals Pynchon’s concerns about the state of American liberties even during the late 1980s, when he must have been completing Vineland. The erosion of these liberties has only quickened since then, in the wake of anti-terrorist legislation passed after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, or the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Note: This essay was originally entitled "Pynchon's Vineland: The War on Drugs and the Coming American Police-State"
Vineland by Thomas Pynchon. ©1990. Little, Brown & Company. 1st edition. (Softback)
“The President's Emergency War Powers and The Erosion Of
Civil Liberties In Pynchon's Vineland” formerly available at http://tarlton.law.utexas.edu/