If the elusive Pynchon regularly cranked out novels, then this latest addition to his semi-classic oeuvre would be considered an excellent, if flawed, fiction, not as demanding and complex as Gravity's Rainbow, nor as neat and clever as The Crying of Lot 49 and V. As it is, coming 17 years since the last book, it's something of a disappointment.
Yes, it's compulsively funny, full of virtuoso riffs, and trenchant in its anarcho-libertarian social commentary. But there's a missing dimension in this tale of post-Sixties malaise--a sense of characters being more than an accumulation of goofy allusions and weird behavior. And all of its winding, conspiratorially digressive plot adds up to a final moment of apparently unintentional kitsch--a limp scene reuniting a girl and her dog. Built on flashbacks to the 60's, the story reenacts in 1984 the struggles that refuse to disappear. Not politics really, but the sense of solidarity and betrayal that marks both periods for the numerous characters that wander into this fictional vortex. At the center is Frenesi (Free and Easy) Gates, who's anything but. A red-diaper baby and radical film-maker during the rebellion-charged 60's, Frenesi sold her soul to a man in uniform, the quintessential Nixon-Reagan fascist, Brock Vond, a fed whose manic pursuit of lefties and dopers finds him abusing civil rights over three decades. He's motivated not just by innate evil, but by his obsession with Frenesi, whom he sets up as a sting-operation expert protected under the Witness Protection Program. Meanwhile, the venomous Vond sees to it that Frenesi's hippie husband, Zoyd Wheeler, and her daughter, Prairie, are "disappeared" to Vineland, the northern California town where L.A. counterculturalists lick their collective wounds among the redwoods, and bemoan "the heartless power of the scabland garrison state the green free America of their childhoods even then was turning into." Brilliant digressions on Californian left-wing history, the saga of The People's Republic of Rock and Roll, a Mob wedding, and the living dead known as the Thanatoids all come bathed in the clarity of Pynchon's eye-popping language.
Pynchon's latest should prove to the legions of contemporary scribbler-fakers that it isn't enough to reproduce pop-schlock on the page, it needs to be siphoned through the kind of imaginative genius on display everywhere here.