books The Novel and the Secret Police
At the center of Thomas Pynchon’s antic and largely unloved 1990 novel Vineland is a campus revolt. It transpires in the ripe spring of 1969 and what Pynchon offers, in his account of the events at “the College of the Surf,” is at once fantasia upon, parody of, and elegy for that bygone season of upheaval. That last strain, the elegiac, might surprise you. For despite the fact that, for long stretches, Vineland reads like an exercise in delirious comic fabulation—the rebelling students, having chosen “to secede from California,” name their new country “The People’s Republic of Rock and Roll”—many of the scenes there get played straighter than you’d imagine.
The drama on this small beachhead of a campus, “bracketed by the two ultraconservative counties of Orange and San Diego,” kicks off like this: “In the midst of a noontime scene tranquil enough to have charmed a statue,” we are told:
there arose, suddenly, the odor of marijuana smoke. That it was widely and immediately recognized later led historians of the incident to question the drug innocence of this student body, most of whom were already at least in violation of the California mopery statutes about Being In A Place where the sinister herb was burning. The fateful joint that day could have come, heaven knew, from any of the troop of surer undesirables who’d lately been finding their way up the cliffside and in among the wholesome collegians, bringing with them their ‘stashes,’ consisting—up til now—mainly of stems and seeds, which because of a mysterious anomaly in surfer brain chemistry actually got them loaded but which produced in those they were trying to ‘turn on’ only headaches, upper respiratory distress, shortness of temper, and depression, a syndrome that till now the college kids, not wishing to seem impolite, had pretended to find euphoric.
It’s all as outlandish as you could wish. (I have not even mentioned the gigantic statue of Richard Nixon that gazes down, colossus-like, upon the campus.) Even here, though, are contrary indications. For this weed-fueled day of sudden liberation comes to a rapid crisis, as “before long units from Laguna to Escondido were responding.” At precisely this moment, the campus’s accidental revolutionary, Weed Atman, finds himself jolted into new consciousness when he wanders into the heart of the melee.
His thoughts were interrupted by a scuffle nearby. Three policemen, falling upon one unarmed student, were beating him with their riot sticks. Nobody was stopping them. The sound was clear and terrible. ‘What the hell,’ said Weed Atman, as a throb of fear went right up his asshole. It was a moment of light, in which the true nature of the police was being revealed to him.
Shorn of Pynchon’s habitual prolixity, the scene unfolds in direct declarative bursts. None of which offers much ambiguity about the novel’s, or the author’s, vision of the police: what they do, what they’re for, who they are. Strange, you might think reading it today, I don’t recall the early nineties as a time of especially acute antifascism. But there it is.
For all that, Vineland is pretty much nobody’s favorite Pynchon novel. Published in 1990, the first of Pynchon’s novels to appear after the Literary Event that was Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), it was soon enough eclipsed by Mason & Dixon (1997) and has been held ever since in middling esteem. (One exception is Salman Rushdie’s warmly appreciative review in the New York Times.) None of this is unfair exactly: the novel is a baggy, digressive, shaggy dogish sort of mess. It is also among the most ludicrously funny novels, sentence by sentence, you’re likely ever to read, as committed to puns, punch lines, and a romping unbridled silliness as it is to philosophic seriousness. Given the obscuring fogs of unjoyous, exalting, serious appraisal—call it, for short, male—that have gathered around Pynchon and his works since the 1970s, it’s easy to forget how cherishable a thing this is.
Here, to offer an offhand example, is protagonist Zoyd Wheeler, recalling the cousin of his bride: “Zoyd remembered her, among the roster of his in-law aunts, uncles, and cousins, as a tall florid girl in a minidress that bore the image, from neck to hemline, of Frank Zappa’s face, thus linking her in Zoyd’s mind somehow with Mount Rushmore.” The whole undertaking is a lot like that.
From where we sit, though, it may be better even than this. The matter is not just that Vineland is a sweetly companionable sort of book, heartsick and humane. I mean rather that it is hard, here in the somehow-not-yet-done-with-us summer of 2020, to avoid feeling that it is also unnervingly prescient, and that it is so not least in how it stitches into coherence scenes of street-fighting militancy, brutal state reaction, and the ramping up of a rabidly privatizing economic order we have since taken to calling, a little gauzily, “neoliberalism.” There are stark and distressing clarities on offer even in slapstick, messy Vineland—about economy and security, about the bringing of militarized counterinsurgency back to the metropole, and above all about what the novel unblinkingly calls “the true nature of the police.” And these, with each new day, seem a little more vivid, a little more goddamn realist, and a little less the stuff of stoned counterfactual invention.
What, actually, is Vineland? The plot is baroque, but if you were trying to be quick about it you might say that Vineland tells the history of twentieth-century U.S. political life through the story of late-twentieth-century California. The novel takes place in Northern California—the logging, pot-harvesting, fog-bound California, up near Arcata and Eureka—in the ominous high Reaganite summer of 1984, journeying back for extended passages to the late 1960s and early ’70s, and wending briefly as well through other scenes of political promise, fracture, and turbulent radicalism, from Wobblies in the teens to Hollywood during the blacklist.
Across these locales, Vineland traces a welter of intersecting lives. Among these are Zoyd, a post-counterculture doper, knockabout, day laborer, and single dad; fourteen-year-old Prairie, Zoyd’s daughter from a brief marriage; and Zoyd’s ex-wife Frenesi Gates, child of blacklisted parents and grandchild of Wobblies, who abandoned Zoyd and Prairie for one Brock Vond, an archvillainous prosecutor in the Department of Justice. The action of the book is set into motion when, after more than a decade during which Zoyd and Prairie have hidden away in Northern California, the ceasefire between the four begins suddenly to collapse. This is because Vond, orbiting in the upper echelons of U.S. policing power, decides all bets are off, what with Reagan in the White House, hippie-despiser Ed Meese seated at his right hand, and the time therefore ideal for the once-and-for-all rounding up of whatever subversive elements remain. Will the prosecutor for Justice, riding down the strong currents of anti-drug fervor and flag-waving Reaganism, succeed at last in bringing the former radicals to heel? Will the unquiet dead rise again in vengeance, or achieve some peace-granting karmic restitution? Will Prairie meet her mom?
I’ve made it seem a shade cartoonish, which it is. (I have not even mentioned the lawn care service founded by “a reader of forbidden books” and therefore named The Marquis de Sod.) But to miss the novel’s mournfulness would be to miss a lot. At once wounded and rueful and shot through with gawping outrage—much of which leverages its manic comedy—Vineland is, you could say, a book about the hard afterlives of U.S. insurrectionary politics: about the ascent of Reaganite reaction, about the recurring and epochal shamelessness of law-and-order tyrants, and about the slender possibilities for safe haven, out in the sprawling wilds of American space, for renegades and castaways, the unmoneyed and unreconciled, whose visions of the Good Life square only very little with the state-sanctioned American Real. Sweet and bumblingly parental Zoyd, with his Zappa aspect and his unhealed heartbreak, is only one face the novel gives to the ranks of those making their way through the Orwellian days.
The novel’s affection for dopers and thwarted insurgents, and for the scenes they make, might well incline a person to write the whole thing off as a species of Boomerish nostalgia, cued up for a sad era of ascendant Yuppiedom. Let’s be fair about it and say: there is not nothing to this. Linger with it long enough, though, and you’ll find its heartsickness plays in a darker key. Frenesi comes into her own in a “guerilla movie outfit” called the 24fps, whose practice is to go to scenes of struggle and, cameras in hand, expose the lies of the powerful. But they have a certain clarity, too, about what “struggle” in this moment entails.
The informal slogan around 24fps was Che Guevara’s phrase, ‘Wherever death may surprise us.’ It didn’t have to be big and dramatic, like warfare in the street, it could happen as easily where they chose to take their witness, back in the shadows lighting up things the networks never would—it might only take one cop, one redneck, one stupid mistake, everybody on the crew could dig it, though in the usual way it was too hard for most of them to believe in, even when they began to learn with their bodies the language of batons, high-pressure hoses, and CZ gas.
What binds the group together is something more than the “idealism” favored by soft-focus PBS histories of the era. It is rather a learned intimacy with the tactics and favored implements of state violence. This intimacy, this less joyous version of carnal knowledge, is what adheres them to one another, as well as to larger scenes of action.
The novel takes us repeatedly to the heart of those scenes. (Frenesi and her partner in revolutionary action, the motorcycle-riding heroine DL Chastain, discover one another in the midst of a Berkeley street battle: a meet-cute for incendiary times.) But it scrutinizes no less closely the wide array of carceral forces solidifying in opposition to them. You might be forgiven for assuming that CAMP—“the infamous federal-state Campaign Against Marijuana Planting”—is another of the novel’s silly confections, invented by Pynchon to convey the lunacy governing the police pursuit of the demon crop. But not so. CAMP was every bit as real as COINTELPRO: a complexly organized task force generated by the California Department of Justice, initiated in 1983, and involving “local, state, and federal partner agencies”—indeed, it was the largest law enforcement task force in the country in its day.
When, early on, Zoyd encounters a representative from the considerably more fictive “NEVER”—the “National Endowment for Video Education and Rehabilitation”—he shows real acuity about the intricate funding structures proper to these entities. “Nice per diem,” Zoyd says to a man who introduces himself as Dr. Dennis Deeply. “You guys’re Federal?” To which Dr. Deeply replies: “Bisectoral, really, private and public, grants, contracts. . .” Bisectoral. It’s a fleeting but a telling moment—the briefest of idiomatic reminders that, when authority speaks in Vineland, it is quite ready to do so in the sanitized nomenclature of administrative cogency, financialized bureaucracy, public-private synergies. Not a lot of people, in 1984 or for that matter 1990, were naming that idiom of power neoliberalism, though of course eventually they would.
But authority, in Vineland, speaks in other tongues as well, as the young people in the 24fps well know. The most harrowing of these are to be found in the recesses of the nation’s intricate, immense security apparatus. It’s true that, at choice moments, this provides for Pynchon’s signature flights of stoner absurdism. Zoyd, set up for arrest by Vond and his DEA stooges, returns with baby Prairie to his Hermosa Beach bungalow to find “the biggest block of pressed marijuana Zoyd had ever seen in his life, too big to have fit through any door yet towering there, mysteriously, a shaggy monolithic slab reaching almost to the ceiling.” Being hauled away in cuffs, Zoyd is “led out through an audience of neighbors mostly staring in wonder, or in forms of mental distress such as fear, at the tall prism, now miraculously outside again, secured on a flatbed trailer, ready to be hauled back to whatever spacious Museum of Drug Abuse it had been borrowed from.”
It’s not all played for laughs, though. Vond personally orchestrates the shock-troop invasion of the College of the Surf, where the benign little campus uprising is put down with an unchastened brutality that, reading it now, already seems less fictional than it did six months ago.
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. So the mystery abided, frozen in time, somewhere beyond youthful absences surely bound to be temporary, yet short of planned atrocity. Taken one by one, after all, given the dropout data and the migratory preferences of the time, each case could be accounted for without appealing to anything more sinister than a desire for safety.
Among the piercing things to notice here is that swift drawing together of “atrocity” and “safety.” For Vond, Pynchon’s law enforcement visionary, has seen the future, and knows it to lie not solely with the FBI and its COINTELPRO protocols, nor with the Department of Justice, where the DEA is housed, nor even with CAMP, whose helicopters, at harvest time, “gathered in the sky and North California, like other U.S. pot-growing areas, once again rejoined, operationally speaking, the Third World.” (The shadow of the Iran–Contra affair falls decisively across much of the novel’s police action.) He sees, more largely, that the American future lies in the routing of all available definitions of freedom through the ever-narrowing channel of security. His is a magisterial vision of a republic fashioned, top to bottom, on the model of a never-ending war waged against elements internal to the nation. Given the provenance of so many of these tactics in scenes of imperial conflict—from Southeast Asia to Latin America to the Middle East—you could do worse than to think of this as a dream of perpetual counterinsurgency, brought back to what we have for some time now been calling the Homeland. That dream nourishes itself even now—as surely you know—in places such as Portland, Louisville, Minneapolis, and Kenosha.
And so, like many who would succeed him, Vond regards the College of the Surf less as a threat than a practice run, a chance to game out live-action variables. “‘It’s a laboratory setup,’ Brock argued, ‘a Marxist mini-state, product of mass uprising, we don’t want it there and we also don’t want to invade—how then to proceed?’ . . . It would also, as Brock pitched it, have value as a scale model, to find out how much bringing down a whole country might cost.” The turn to “cost” strikes the note. For if Vineland is a novel about the ascent of neoliberalism, it takes care to identify that political order not solely with market-triumphant privatization and the marginless financialization of civic existence, but also with the carceral forces, the baton-wielding counterinsurgent armies, required to secure it. Put all this together—the gleeful impunity, the DEA hysteria, the wars abroad against black and brown people reimported as domestic wars against Black and brown people—and what you get is a full vision of Pynchon’s United States, circa 1984, but also circa 1990 (and also, echoingly, thereafter): a “scabland garrison state” where freedom is whatever you have left after the agents of security have had their way.
A novel of riotous post-hippie nostalgia; a novel about the frightful ascent of carceral-minded counterinsurgency, positing the late 1960s less as inaugural moment than as decisive instance of consolidation: Vineland is all these things, which makes it easy to imagine how, thirty years ago, it puzzled even critics favorable to Pynchon’s daffiness, his prolixity, his career-long antifascism. Just think of all that hadn’t happened yet: the first Gulf War, welfare to workfare, the Great Recession—to say nothing of 9/11 and the resultant collapse of any major-party opposition to the logic of security as freedom, safety as the greatest and only good. Vineland came before all that.
I was first induced to read it one summer back in the techno-optimist early nineties, because a group of friends had been passing it around between them all season like a newfound intoxicant everybody needed a hit off of. We loved it, with the stupid fervor usually reserved for bands and records. We loved its affection for the hapless but ineradicable decency of miscreants like Zoyd. We loved its inventiveness and semi-deranged comedy, the anarchic delightedness we did not much associate, then, with Serious Literature. And of course we were flattered, bookish as we were, by its inanely recondite lore. (As in: “Fortunately, Ralph Wayvone’s library happened to include a copy of the indispensable Italian Wedding Fakebook, by Deleuze & Guattari.”) All the unspooling syntax, the madcap in-joking, the doper fantasia—what was not to love?
But then, sweet and benighted children of the Clintonite nineties that we also were, what the actual fuck did we know? Now I know that you can spend a lot of time thinking Gravity’s Rainbow is just a batshit fugue hallucination of World War II before realizing it is also a counter-historical argument about the continuity—the occluded non-antagonism—between capitalism and fascism. But then? Then I just took Vineland for a gleeful demented romp, lit up by beautiful righteousness, through a long era of dissent and counterreaction.
Everything about Vineland feels different now, because of course it does. Here in the high season of Trumpian noxiousness, with its Border Patrol armies, its forced-labor marches toward exposure to illness and pandemic death, and now this intranational urban strike “surge,” how could it not? What else is there to see, at this point, but the truncheon coming down, Black life held cheap, the true nature of the police? Who, by now, would not discern the corrosive dread, murmuring beneath the expansive laughter? Once you do, Vineland catches the light in a different way. It hasn’t become less sad, and certainly not less funny. But read it today, in the midst of our own fever dream of penal sociality, and you are liable to be taken aback by the clarity of its insistence that a style of carceral fanaticism—a making over of everyday life into the image of perpetual security crisis—is no less a signature of the thing we call neoliberalism than are manic privatization, oligarchic dominion, and the total absorption of public life into market imperatives. Uproarious and joy-propounding as it is, Vineland is a novel of acute political grief—a thing as near to us as it has ever been, and likely to get nearer.
[Essayist Peter Coviello is Professor of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His most recent books are Long Players: A Love Story in Eighteen Songs—selected as one of ARTFORUM’s Ten Best Books of 2018—and Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism.]
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