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Given that Vineland is no Gravity’s Rainbow, it may seem excessive to devote an entire anthology of critical essays to unpacking the meaning of a novel that in comparison to its great predecessor appears slight in size and scope. But, as critic after critic in this superb collection reveals, there is more to Vineland than first meets the eye. The editors of this anthology (who are also the editors of the journal Critique, in which five of these twelve essays were previously published) wisely chose to solicit contributions from some of the most-respected Pynchon scholars, many of whom have already written important books or articles on his previous works. Thus The Vineland Papers gives these critics the opportunity to assess Pynchon’s first fiction in seventeen years in the light of his earlier triumphs and to reassess their own earlier understandings of [End Page 863] the Pynchon oeuvre. The difference between the patiently perceptive, complex but clear essays in this anthology (well suited for classroom use) and the largely uninformed and uncomprehending reviews of Vineland when the novel first appeared in 1990 is astonishing. Success must be due not only to these critics’ greater familiarity with Pynchon’s earlier works, but also to their method: rather than trying to talk about everything all at once, each critic follows a single thematic thread that ends up leading in a labyrinthine but nevertheless systematic way to clear conclusions.
These themes include Vineland’s relation to modernism and postmodernism; the conflict between kinship and snitch systems in the novel; machines as a problematic means to transcendence; the forms and targets of the book’s satire; and doubling as it poses the issue of moral choices. There are essays which offer revelations concerning Pynchon’s astoundingly well-researched places (Columbus, Ohio) and times (the 1930s). There are essays by critics both close to and distant from Pynchon and his latest novel: Andrew Gordon breaks the silence maintained by friends and acquaintances of this reclusive author and writes about the significance of his reefer-to-reefer meeting with Pynchon in 1967, while Joseph Tabbi painstakingly makes the case for Vineland’s inferiority to Pynchon’s previous works (it is always good to have at least one nay-sayer in an otherwise celebratory collection such as this). Two of the most innovative essays are by Molly Hite and Stacey Olster, who bring feminist criticism and film theory to bear on the novel and who go some way toward compensating for the lack of attention paid by earlier Pynchon critics (and Pynchon himself) to female characters.
Particularly interesting are the areas in which some of the critics disagree. Whereas David Cowart views Pynchon’s allusions to television as a “devastating statement about the shortness of the American cultural memory,” Molly Hite notes that “they also suggest the diversity and weirdness of Tubal culture.” Perhaps the best explanation for what is fast becoming the latest crux in Pynchon studies—what is his attitude toward popular culture in Vineland?—is provided by Joseph W. Slade, who argues in a carefully nuanced essay that television in Vineland is like the rocket in Gravity’s Rainbow: “an instrument for change becomes an instrument of the status quo”: “the power of television to expose political or economic malfeasance” becomes routinized and co-opted by the corporate establishment. Not the least of the pleasures afforded by this [End Page 864] anthology is the chance to read this excellent new essay by Slade, who wrote the first book on Pynchon twenty years ago.
Annoyingly, The Vineland Papers has no index, but it does conclude with a fine bibliography pointing the reader toward other Vineland essays and reviews. Readers of this critical anthology will return to Vineland with a considerably improved understanding of the novel’s breadth and depth, and with a sense that Vineland may not be such a falling-off from Gravity’s Rainbow after all.