The Rocket

Totalizing Postmodernism: Master-narratives in Pynchon's Vineland

By Bruce A. Sullivan

In his work entitled The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Jean François Lyotard defines "postmodernism as incredulity toward metanarratives" (72). This postmodern "incredulity" results in skepticism and distrust of the systems that attempt to explain cultural phenomena in terms of a single, unifying principle; the search for truth and order in human experience collapses. Other authors, such as Henry Giroux, have also defined postmodernism in such terms; Giroux states: "postmodernism rejects . . . [g]eneral abstractions that deny the specificity and particularity of everyday life, that generalize out of existence the particular and the local, that smother difference under the banner of universalizing categories" (463). According to Giroux, universalizing categories are the trademarks of "the Enlightenment and Western philosophical tradition" (463), and he refers to them as "master-narratives." As a postmodernist work of fiction, Thomas Pynchon's Vineland exhibits suspicion toward master-narratives. Through his masterful marriage of plot and parody, Pynchon debunks many assumptions about life in contemporary America. Surprisingly, however, Pynchon ultimately surrenders to the master-narratives, even as he seeks to question and subvert those same concepts. Vineland concludes with an exchange from one master-narrative to another, and readers are left feeling both relief and despair.
Pynchon's most obvious critiques of master-narratives come in the form of Sister Rochelle's anecdotes. These anecdotes deconstruct various myths. Myths are master-narratives; they are mere stories that attempt to find truth in unexplainable phenomena. When myths are accepted and proliferated, they become mechanisms of control. For instance, the Biblical creation myth dictates that Eve ate the forbidden fruit and tempted Adam to do so as well. Adam eats the fruit, and hence, Paradise is lost to humankind. The misogyny in the creation myth is obvious; the myth allows for the oppression of women by blaming the fall of humankind on Eve (and by extension, all women). Sister Rochelle's first anecdote rewrites the creation myth:

"Back then, long ago, there were no men at all. Paradise was female. Eve and her sister, Lilith, were alone in the Garden. A character named Adam was put into the story later, to help men look more legitimate, but in fact the first man was not Adam — it was the Serpent . . .
"It was sleazy, slippery man," Rochelle continued, "who invented 'good' and 'evil,' where before women had been content to just be. In among the other confidence games they were running on women at the time, men also convinced us that we were the natural administrators of this thing 'morality' they'd just invented. They dragged us all down into this wreck they'd made of the Creation, all subdivided and labeled...." (166).

In this anecdote, man, as a being, becomes a construct of later men. The anecdote undermines male authority by reversing the traditional placement of blame; the master-narratives of "good," "evil," and "morality" become meaningless constructs of a being (man) that has no legitimization. Rochelle's second anecdote questions further the concept of "evil" by redefining Hell as a place that is just like Earth, though removed and presently misunderstood (382-83). The anecdote demystifies Hell, and Hell loses its meaning as a place of exceptional and eternal suffering. David Cowart, referring to the creation anecdote, states that "perhaps one at first disregards or discounts it in the desire for a totalizing version of a cherished American literary myth. But its seeming insignificance reveals the deconstructive point: it is one of the aporias around which at least one weave of meaning begins to unravel" (72). The master-narratives that the anecdotes address are deconstructed and exposed for their restrictive nature.
There are other examples. Cowart calls Vineland ahistorical (72), but Vineland is firmly rooted in historical narrative. Much of the book is written in the narrative past (Robberds 239), and details about the characters are revealed to the reader through flashbacks. In one such episode, Zoyd recounts his wedding as an idyllic microcosm of the "Mellow Sixties," a scene "to be seen on 'sensitivity' greeting cards in another five years" (Pynchon 38). Such a ridiculous generalization (master-narrative) of history ignores the turbulence of the sixties; Pynchon writes, "War in Vietnam, murder as an instrument of American politics, black neighborhoods torched to ashes and death, all must have been on some other planet" (38). Pynchon's juxtaposition of Zoyd's pleasant nostalgia with some of the more grim aspects of the 1960s reveals that history is largely subjunctive, and Zoyd remembers what he wants to remember. By extension, the historical master-narrative also "remembers" certain things and "forgets" others; indeed, any conception of history as a causal relationship assumes that some events are more important than others, and therefore those events are worth mentioning and the others are not (Robberds 241). Another master-narrative that Pynchon questions is the idea of courtly love. During the same wedding scene, Zoyd and Frenesi must "promise to remain always on the groovy high known as Love" (Pynchon 38). This reference seems to indicate that "love" is an abstract form universally understood by everyone (hence the "known as..."), ignoring the facts that Zoyd's feelings for Frenesi consist of pure infatuation, and that Frenesi is merely using Zoyd to cover her past. Later, Zoyd asks, "Frenesi, do you think that love can save anybody?" (39). Ironically, the relationship between Zoyd and Frenesi (love?) saves neither party: it dooms Zoyd to a life of self-pity, and Frenesi never escapes her past. Even death, the absolute master-narrative, the one principle that defines and limits all human life, is no longer certain in Pynchon's conception. His Thanatoids are dead people, but because of karmic imbalances, they go on living rather sedate existences, mostly in front of the television (169).
Even as Pynchon questions these master-narratives, he accepts or surrenders to others. The existence of Thanatoids, with their steady, postmortem diet of artificial incandescence, is one example of Pynchon's apparent fixation with television. The "Tube" (14) is omnipresent throughout the work, from Zoyd's ability to interpret his life in terms of Wheel of Fortune (12-13) to the Twi-Nite Theatre made-for-TV movie, The Bryant Gumbel Story, starring John Ritter (355): as E. Shaskan Bumas writes, "The cultural life of Vineland is dominated by television" (163). Vineland contains few references to literature and orchestral music, typical genres of high culture. When Pynchon does mention such art forms, they are parodied and trivialized. For instance, Prairie's first interaction with her newly found half-brother involves the two of them watching "the Eight O'Clock Movie, Pee-wee Herman in The Robert Musil Story" (370). Thus, Pynchon does not distinguish between high culture and low culture; rather, the two become indeterminately mixed on the Tube. Bumas writes of television, "No complex view of self, interpersonal relationships of a society can readily survive the glow of the easy resolutions and formulaic plots of most television. What challenge to its authority could withstand the simplification of the media?" (165). Like the creation myth or historical narrative, television is a master-narrative; it is a totalizing system that defines and limits the human experience. Yet, Pynchon uses television as such again and again. In one instance, Justin remembers the advice he got for dealing with parents, advice that comes from the "smartest kid Justin ever met" (Pynchon 351): the kid "told him to pretend his parents were characters in a television sitcom. 'Pretend there's a frame around 'em like the Tube'" (351). Television has replaced the authority figures in Justin's life, and he can only deal with his life in terms of that authority.
The conclusion of Vineland presents a curious exchange, and it demonstrates Pynchon's surrender to the master-narrative. "Feeling totally familied out" (374), Prairie, who has returned to Vineland for the Traverse-Becker family reunion, wanders off into the woods. She finds a clearing, sits down, and falls asleep, until:

The beat of helicopter blades directly overhead woke her. As she stared, down out of it, hooked by a harness and cable to the mother ship above, came Brock Vond ... whom his colleagues were calling "Death from Slightly Above," had been out traveling in a tight formation of three dead-black Huey slicks, up and down the terrain of Vineland nap-of-the-earth style, liable to pop up suddenly over a peaceful ridgeline or come screaming down the road after an innocent motorist.... (357)

Brock is Vineland's true villain. As head of the Political Re-Education Program (PREP), Brock infiltrates "college campuses, radical organizations, and other foci of domestic unrest" (268). He functions within the confines of his own master-narrative, as Pynchon relates:

The hunch [Brock] was betting on was that these kid rebels, being halfway there already, would be easy to turn and cheap to develop. They'd only been listening to the wrong music, breathing the wrong smoke, admiring the wrong personalities. They needed some reconditioning. (269)

Because Brock seeks to impose his master-narrative on others, it may be said that he represents that same belief system. His organization, though, functions under yet another master-narrative -- that of "Reaganomics." As Cowart relates, "In a single generation -- from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties, America veered from a liberal to conservative bias, from the New Frontier and the Great Society to 'Reaganomics,' from hordes of student demonstrators to whole undergraduate populations majoring in business" (75). Reaganomics functions as a master-narrative because it dictates the actions of "whole undergraduate populations." These students view reality based on Ronald Reagan's conservative economic plan; they accept it, and they act based on that reality, thus preparing for the future by enrolling in business courses. Near the end of Vineland, these two master-narratives -- Brock and Reaganomics -- come into conflict. Just as Brock is about to abduct Prairie, "some white male far away must have wakened from a dream, and just like that, the clambake was over" (Pynchon 376). Reagan cuts the funding for Brock's strike force, and Brock, "his authorizations withdrawn, now [is] winched back up, protesting all the way, bearings and brake pads loudly shrieking, trying to use his remote but overridden by Roscoe at the main controls" (376). Readers feel a sense of relief as Prairie is saved from Death-by-Brock, but strangely, Pynchon has saved her with Reaganomics. He has ultimately succumbed to the master-narratives, and he trades one for the other. Prairie cannot escape completely from either; she is doomed to live under Reaganomics, and Pynchon concludes the novel with Prairie longing for Brock's return.
In Vineland, Pynchon pays considerable attention to master-narratives. He points out the foolishness of such belief systems by undermining the reasoning behind them; he accomplishes this through Sister Rochelle's anecdotes, Zoyd's wedding memories, and his own invention of the Thanatoids. Curiously, however, Pynchon concludes the novel by trading one master-narrative for another: Reaganomics for Brock Vond. This trade-off represents Pynchon's own surrender and his belief that master-narratives are inescapable. This is entirely appropriate; Vineland, and Pynchon's work in general, have been labeled as postmodern (Cowart 67): he has, despite his efforts to deconstruct generalizing belief systems, fallen victim to the master-narrative of "postmodernism."

Works Cited

Bumas, E. Shaskan. "The Utopian States of America: The People, The Republic, and Rock and Roll in Thomas Pynchon's Vineland." Arizona Quarterly 52.3 (1995): 149-75.

Cowart, David. "Attenuated Postmodernism: Pynchon's Vineland." Critique 32.2 (1990): 67-76.

Girouz, Henry. "Postmodernism as Border Pedagogy: Redefining the Boundaries of Race and Ethnicity." Natoli and Hutcheon 452-98.

Lyotard, Jean François. "Excerpts from The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge." Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Natoli and Hutcheon 71-90.

Natoli, Joseph, and Linda Hutcheon, eds. A Postmodern Reader. Albany, SUNY Press, 1993.

Pynchon, Thomas. Vineland. 1990. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Robberds, Mark. "The New Historicist Creepers of Vineland." Critique 36.4 (1995): 237-48.