Saturday, May 2, 2015

Summer of Hate

Summer of Hate: The Death of the Hippie Dream in Vineland and Inherent Vice

At the height of the Hippie movement in 1967, it seemed like the counterculture was pure energy, an unstoppable force of youth and idealism destined to rock the system to the core. By 1970 at the latest, the movement was all but finished, already looking quaint and naïve to those looking from the outside, idealism spoiled by the shadow-government policies started by the presidential reign of Richard Nixon starting in 1969. It is this darkness behind the pastel rainbow of happiness one usually associates with the hippie movement that Thomas Pynchon works his magic, and the failure of the '60s counterculture is the backdrop that informs every moment in his novels Inherent Vice and Vineland.

The specters of both Nixon and Charles Manson loom large throughout Inherent Vice, reminders of the failure of the hippie ideal simply in their mere existence. Vice's Doc Sportello is the last of dying breed, a shaggy dog hippie in 1970 who has yet to realize that the rest of the world has already gone on without him. Doc lives a life that would make Jimmy Buffet envious, an apartment on the euphoniously-named 'Beachwood Drive', where the town is “ahoot with funseekers, drinkers and surfers screaming in the alleys” (Pynchon 4). His beautiful, ethereal ex is known for wearing “sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt” (Pynchon 1) and his group of friends are a bunch of drug-addled nogoodniks who spend their days scarfing down pizzas with, like, totally far-out toppings. And yet, for all that Gordita Beach seems to be a kind of hippie paradise, there is a darkness at its edges that is slowly encroaching, with the ultimate aim not just to bleach everything to a square shade of beige, but to enslave it, to reduce it to a cog in the infinite machine of power and sacrifice. 
Stephen Maher states that “Inherent Vice is perhaps the most brilliant depiction of...the harsh end of the dreams of the 1960s generation” (Maher) and his statement rings more true the further the reader gets from Gordita Beach itself; at Coy Harlingen's bungalow up on Topanga, Doc and his pal Denis are assaulted by zombies, not merely addled by drug intake but straight-up crazed, a cult on a perpetual bad trip that Pynchon relates to the Manson Family, not the first or last time he does, as one of “them darker type activities” (Pynchon 135) that have begun to overtake Southern California. Gordita Beach may seem like a hippie haven, but once the story moves on, it becomes clear that it's an illusion, a sort of suspended animation where the residents don't realize they're already anachronisms.

As the book goes on, Doc travels out of California entirely, to a dry, dusty Las Vegas ruled by the almighty dollar, and back to Los Angeles to be nearly killed by the sociopath in a suit Adrian Prussia, a perfect amalgamation of Nixon and Manson if there ever was one: a blood-hungry violence fetishist who works for the physical embodiment of The Man. Coy Harlingen himself is more indicative of Nixon than Manson, a junkie-turned-COINTELPRO lackey who by trade sells out his compatriots to the all-devouring Nixon government, a man who is rewarded by his good work by being prevented from seeing his family again, a thousand deaths to someone who only wishes, in his age and wisdom, to be a family man. In the context of the novel, Coy “embodies the confused morality of the late 60s as he tries to find ways to provide for his family by not being with them” (Duyfhuizen) and in attempting to provide for his family, he allows himself to be manipulated by the vast, villainous corporate and government entity the Golden Fang.

Nowhere in Vice is it more obvious that the hippie dream has been crushed into absolution than it is under the wheels of the Golden Fang, the closest Pynchon has ever got to recreating one of H.P. Lovecraft's Elder Gods; an ineffable, inscrutable being that exists to enslave and destroy mankind. But Pynchon's Golden Fang is no alien being slumbering under the waves; it is a demonic being for our time, a vast, powerful, multinational corporation that has its tentacles in every aspect of the character's lives. The Golden Fang exists on every level of society, from the Mafia bums in Vegas to the informants like Coy to the all-too-human monsters in Adrian Prussia and Puck Beaverton, an organization which “on one level appears to be a consortium of dentists with a diversified portfolio of investments (including cocaine distribution), but on another appears to be a cartel of highly connected criminals with a diversified crime portfolio that includes all stages of the heroin trade, including the rehab centers for those trying to kick the habit” (Duyfhuizen). In the Fang, we can see the world of Nixon and Reagan, the world of corporations and clandestine alliances, the world of a people so without empathy or scruples that they get you addicted to heroin only to sell you a clinic to get you clean. This rot exists deep within Inherent Vice, a cancer that actively eats the world Doc and the other lovable hippies inhabit. There is no room for free love in Nixon's America, where developer Mickey Wolfmann initially starts the novel as a changed man, looking to give away his new communities for free, by the end the Golden Fang has reprogrammed him back into a pitiless Capitalist once again, his brief flirtation with altruism dead and forgotten. By the 1970 of Doc and Wolfmann and the Golden Fang, there is no place for unselfishness; Kennedy is long gone, Vietnam has been raging for over a decade, and Nixon has interred youthful idealism beneath 6 feet of dirt.

If Inherent Vice is a funeral for the noble hippie, then Vineland is the hippie thrown in a ditch. If Vice's Golden Fang was an all-consuming beast that rose from the depths to squash free love, Vineland by its in and of itself a machine that exists to end the idealism of the time that came before it. Skip Willam states that Vineland “virtually foreshadow[s] the dangerous reemergence of the countersubversive tradition” (Willman 1), and the book itself bears this out; while Vice examines the corpse of the revolution after the fact, Vineland is a book about a revolution actively being co-opted, and while Coy Harlingen's COINTELPRO ties are just one facet of the Golden Fang's power, Vineland's Frenesi Gates and Brock Vond are creatures that exist almost wholly of the countersubversibe cloth, and we can see Frenesi go from proud activist to informant for the monomaniacal Vond throughout the body of the text. The centerpiece of Vineland, and the scene which best dashes the hopes and dreams of the counterculture, is an extended flashback where Frenesi falls fully under Vond's spell, selling out her ideals, in the form of her lover and hippie leader Weed Atman, to the crushing machinations of the State. Atman, leader of the so-called People's Republic of Rock'n'Roll, is a hippie free spirit in the mold of Doc Sportello and Frenesi's ex-husband Zoyd Wheeler, but in Vineland's cynical paranoia, he's doomed, a face being stomped on by a boot forever, killed by a fellow radical after Frenesi spreads rumors that Weed is an informant. As countersubversive groups take over the Republic, the optimistic ideas that founded it are left by the wayside; Frenesi tells Brock that “It's totally coming paranoia” (Pynchon 239). So begins Frenesi's total inversion of the hippie dream; in her use of her body as a tool to get left-leaning men to betray their ideals turns the concept of free love on its head, and in her ignoring her own beliefs, as well as the beliefs of two generations of family that came before her, Pynchon seems to be indicating that radical activism is doomed to fail, that it is simply “paving the way for the triumph of the cynical, rich, and sun-tanned retro-fascists of San Clemente and Santa Barbara” (Glover). 
As in the Republic of Rock'n'Roll, as in the shadow-government '80s in which Vineland was written, paranoia permeates every aspect of the crumbling hopes of the hippie world; Zoyd lives in fear of Brock up to modern day (or at least Vineland's modern day of 1984) and even Frenesi is tossed out into the cold after the neuvo-fascist government of Ronald Reagan decides to do a little house cleaning vis-à-vis the retro-fascist government of Richard Nixon, with the woman scrambling to escape Vond and his squadron of black helicopters. Even Pynchon's own structure of the novel, a light, airy beginning with Zoyd leading to dark, confusing, manic flashbacks nestled in flashbacks like a matryoshka doll, invites the reader to feel uncomfortable, the initially easygoing nature of Vineland (the town) betraying the dark core of Vineland (the book). Douglas Glover states that “Pynchon puts the blame for the steamrolling of Hippiedom squarely on the Tube, the Man...and certain dark forces” (Glover) and there is no doubt that there is no place in Pynchon's world for the cohabitance between the iron fist of the government and the happy-go-lucky communes of peaceful radicals. Pynchon is cynical to the very end: though the story ends on a happy note, even that is given to us by the government; Brock has to end his hunt for Zoyd and Frenesi simply because his funding runs out, not because he is defeated by, or learns to accept, the power of peace, love, and happiness. Even Pynchon's happy endings are bittersweet, but at least this one doesn't end with a missile falling on everybody.

Thomas Pynchon, born in 1937, became a young adult in the late '50s and early '60s, and had a front-row seat to the rise and fall of the radical left during that time. It's clear that the movement has the author's sympathies; in both novels, the left comes across as fun-loving and heroic, even at their most inept, while the right comes across as dominating, villainous, and evil. However, Pynchon is not a straight-up idealist like his protagonists, he is a realist who saw how corruption ate the movement from the inside out, and it is with this realism that Inherent Vice and Vineland were birthed. At least, as much realism as can be allowed novels featuring radical biker ninjettes and evil dentists.
Works Cited
Duyfhuizen, Bernard. "God Knows, Few of Us Are Strangers to Moral Ambiguity." Postmodern Culture. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.
Glover, Douglas. "Mytho-Delirium: Thomas Pynchon's Vineland --- Douglas Glover." Numro Cinq. N.p., Apr. 1990. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.
Maher, Stephen. "The Lost Counterculture." Jacobin. N.p., 10 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.
Pynchon, Thomas. Inherent Vice. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.
Pynchon, Thomas. Vineland. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 1997. Print.
Willman, Skip. "Spectres of Marx in Thomas Pynchon's Vineland." Review. Critique n.d.: 198-222. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.