Family and Antifeminism in Vineland
This chapter argues that the central political concern of Vineland (1990) is understanding the function of capitalism and exploring options for opposition to it. Although gender is, therefore, not the central focus of the novel, the relationship between different ways of performing gendered identity and capitalism is a crucial part of Pynchon’s exploration of why the counterculture failed in its overall revolutionary intent, how the status quo reasserted itself in the neoliberal context of the 1980s and 1990s, and what methods of resistance might be viable. Challenging norms and expectations associated with masculinity, for example, contributes to an anticapitalist stance, as Pynchon valorizes the refocusing of male attention from work and the value of money to family and the value of love. Conversely, however, female sexual and social liberation is presented as leading to damaging duplicity in the character of Frenesi, who justifies and rationalizes her betrayals of Weed, Zoyd, and her revolutionary lineage, as well as her abandonment of her daughter, Prairie, by appealing to ideas of radical individual freedom and female emancipation from roles such as wife and mother. In Vineland, Pynchon levels heavy critique at strands of countercultural feminism that promote sexual and social liberation. Although he arguably celebrates traditional female roles and qualities while criticizing macho masculinity—amounting to an embrace of one model of femininity—his representation of a female genetic propensity toward sexual masochism across Vineland and Against the Day (2006) seems to go beyond a critique of one particular school of feminist thought, suggesting a general distrust of women’s ability to support radical political change.
In previous considerations of gender in Vineland, Molly Hite has foregrounded the character of DL Chastain as a feminist figure, Joanna Freer has built on Hite’s work, analyzing the Kunoichi Sisterhood as a potential site for feminism in the novel, and Madeline Ostrander has explored Frenesi’s role as a “locus” for ideology. This chapter, however, focuses in particular on the characters of Zoyd and Frenesi, considering how Pynchon’s representation of the family as a counter to capitalism facilitates the diversification of masculinity but limits the kinds of female behavior that can be considered either moral or radical.
In Vineland, Pynchon considers the trajectory from the postwar countercultural era to the neoliberal 1980s and 1990s, and the novel documents convergences between counterculture and capitalism as well as depicting the co-optation of the former by the latter. Pynchon problematizes a countercultural characterization of power as rationalistic and considers the implications for postwar countercultural stances of capitalism’s reliance on values such as transgression, youth, novelty, and change. In the postcountercultural era, the very pleasure principle that Molly Hite argues Pynchon champions in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) to counter the death drive of Western society (“Fun Actually”) now supports power and can no longer supply the foundation for radical opposition. The centrality of capitalism to Vineland’s assessment of power and a cultural mainstream echoes the concerns of prominent academic cultural theorists also publishing in the 1990s such as Zygmunt Bauman, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Thomas Frank, and David Harvey, all of whom highlight the importance of fluidity, transgression, creativity, novelty, and change to contemporary power. Vineland emerged alongside prominent social theories that sought to make capitalism once again central to critiques of society, culture, and power. The novel depicts capitalism not only as functioning on the basis of values associated with counterculture and other radical movements but also as being capable of functioning on the basis of any values that do not contravene the generation of profit; all individuals and actions are valued or disregarded according to their ability to generate profit. Against this vision stands one in which a moral and radical way of life rests on the intrinsic value of individuals or actions. In Vineland this amounts to a valorization of love, of familial duty, and less compromising ways of making a living. Interrogating not only particular capitalist values in post-Fordist society but the nature of value itself within a capitalist framework, Pynchon delineates a moral, intrinsic value system as the only sound opposition to the extrinsic value system of capitalism that converts everything into equations of profit and loss. Pynchon’s moral and political opposition in Vineland correlates with dominant strands of virtue ethics (particularly the work of Alas-dair MacIntyre), a school of thought that secured its position in the modern philosophical canon during the 1990s.1
In the consumer market there is an apparent countersubversive intent in the generation of products to meet popular, radical tastes. Zoyd and Mucho Maas perceive reactionary intentions behind mass production and marketing of rock and roll; for Zoyd, there is a “They” operating with intent behind the production of popular music culture. He laments, “They just let us forget. Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted.” For him, television is, and rock and roll is becoming, “just another way to claim our attention” (314). The proliferation of countercultural commodities represented in Vineland is corroborated by factual accounts of the period such as Kirkpatrick Sale’s recollection that “an economy continually in search of artificial stimulants immediately made [the young] into a ‘youth market,’ accountable for no less than $40–45 billion by 1970” (20). Not only did this market “supply the young,” he argues, but “it eventually defined the group, economically and socially, establishing a consciousness in society at large (and particularly among the young) of their separateness” (20).
Behind these shifts in the market toward catering to countercultural appetites, however, Zoyd perceives an intention to distract and ultimately to undermine subversive intent, the effect of which is to convert the movement into an image rather than an actuality, rendering it a revolution in style rather than substance. For critics such as Neil Brooks, the commercialization of counterculture is the result of cynical co-optation, a thesis that upholds a binary distinction between counterculture and capitalism. He argues, for example, that “Rock and Roll represents a form of popular culture which had been able to present truly oppositional social values” (181) but that, in Vineland’s 1984, has become a superficial image of, rather than metonym for, social revolution. He corroborates Zoyd and Mucho Maas, who worry that “the green free America of their childhoods” is “turning into” something unrecognizable (314).
The very inclusion of Maas, however, a character first introduced in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), compromises the idea that a pure counterculture has been co-opted. In reprising Maas, Pynchon displays a similar imperative to Boltanski and Chiapello when they describe their desire to understand “why many of the ‘class of ’68’ felt so at ease in the emerging new society that they made themselves its spokesmen and egged on the transformation” (xxxvi). Like such critics of 1980s and 1990s capitalism and its social realities, Pynchon seeks to understand the complicity of the counterculture in the generation of his contemporary sociopolitical situation. The 1966 Maas was already connecting the togetherness of LSD experience with mass consumerism, hearing a multitude of voices repeating advertising slogans while on his acid trips (109). Maas’s reappearance in Vineland recalls Lot 49’s analysis of the manufacturing of teenage dreams on radio stations like the one at which Maas worked and of the liminality between capitalist mainstream and counterculture of not only products such as drugs but a variety of nonmaterial goods and services relating to image and lifestyle (see Sale 11). Maas’s comeback prefigures Frank’s 1990s analysis that depicts the parallel revolutions of the counterculture in society and within business itself. Frank describes new economic social organization as predicated on liberation and transgression, on the appreciation of constant novelty and variety (19): “During the 1950s and 1960s, management thinkers went through their own version of the mass society critique, first deploring the demise of entrepreneurship under the stultifying regime of technocratic efficiency (The Organization Man), then embracing all manner of individualism-promoting, bureaucracy-smashing, and antihierarchical schemes (The Human Side of Enterprise, Up the Organization)” (20).
Frank lists business publications and examples from advertising of the period to argue not only that businesses adopted the images of countercultural rebellion and overlaid them on the same conformist system but also that a new form of capitalism emerged as a revolution within business that identified with the values of liberation from the old, with youth, change, and the new. Through figures such as Maas who work in a post-Fordist service economy of radio stations, advertising, and health care/well-being, Vineland implies that the counterculture challenged Fordist social organization but not capitalism itself, augmenting the generation of a new model of economic-social organization without challenging the underlying principle of society’s organization around capitalist principles.
Deborah Madsen considers Gravity’s Rainbow’s waning popularity among students as a phenomenon of the profound sociopolitical effects of developments in economic organization between the 1970s and the 1990s: “In the seventies, what was called at the time Pynchon’s paranoid vision of global conspiracy mounted by the military-industrial complex against the interests of the individual was very compelling” (144). But by the 1990s, Madsen suggests, this paranoid vision has become “so real as to be passé” and “inauthentic” (144). She argues that “recent developments in management theory and public-sector initiatives like Al Gore’s National Performance Review […] indicate a trend toward decentralization, worker empowerment and diversification of ‘organized anarchy’ in late capitalism,” evincing a postindustrial capitalist context perhaps foreshadowed by, but markedly different from that of the novel (144).
Vineland presents capitalism as the structuring force of society, and changes in its form between the countercultural era and the 1990s amount to changes in the nature of power that requires a reconsideration of the qualities needed to formulate potentially successful opposition. As Madsen observes, the characterization of capitalism in Gravity’s Rainbow is no longer accurate, and Vineland represents a recognition of the necessity for socially radical opposition to reconsider its values and activities in response to socioeconomic shifts that reveal a correlation between characteristics of counterculture and capitalism. In part, then, the novel corroborates the identification of a shift from Fordism to post-Fordism. Erik Swyngedouw, for example, has associated Fordism with “mass consumption of consumer durables,” “modernism,” and “socialization,” and post-Fordism with “individualized consumption”: “‘yuppie’—culture,” “postmodernism,” and “individualization” (qtd. in Harvey 178–79). Similarly, Scott Lash and John Urry have noted a movement from “organized” to “disorganized” capitalism between the postwar period and the 1990s (qtd. in Harvey 174). Vineland recognizes that the ascendancy of this new form of capitalism has popularized countercultural values such as individuality as opposed to conformity and freedom from rigid social expectations without challenging fundamental social inequalities. This new form of capitalism ascended in the postcountercultural decades, marked, as Harvey puts it, “by a direct confrontation with the rigidities of Fordism” (147). No longer industry-centric, this new form is sustained by services and immaterial commodities like the hundred-dollar mantra that Vineland’s Van Meter owns (11). It is no longer the industrial production of material goods that is of value but the production of images; the Bodhi Dharma Pizza Temple where pizza cut into the shapes of mandalas offers a unique selling point and the “Hip Trip” pinball machine that employs psychedelic countercultural imagery exemplify the primacy of image in the marketplace (49, 314). Madsen notes this development, corroborating Lash and Urry’s distinction between Fordist, modern, “organized” capitalism and post-Fordist, postmodern, “disorganized” capitalism. One example that she cites from management guru Tom Peters is that “the prominent group California Raisins earned more in 1989 from personal appearances, the sale of T-shirts and from other forms of merchandising than farmers earned from raisins” (150).
Shopping malls such as the Noir Centre in Vineland make manifest the profitability of image rather than material goods in the form of the movie-themed names of shops and the visual effects of the center that bear no relation to the products on offer and even less to the economic system they serve: “Noir Centre here had an upscale mineral-water boutique called Bubble Indemnity, plus The Lounge Good Buy patio furniture outlet, The Mall Tease Flacon which sold perfume and cosmetics, and a New York–style deli, The Lady ’n’ the Lox” (326). The connection between noir film and the products for sale is entirely based on wordplay rather than content. Such marketing is symptomatic of the revolution in business that Frank depicts as mimicking and intimately related to the revolutionary intent of the countercultural movement, revolving around the genesis of market segmentation, advertising based not on the qualities of the product for sale but instead on the images used to sell the product (VL 24). Pynchon explicitly references the “marketing philosophy of the mid-1980s” when Prairie is offered a “designer seltzer” by a robot. The product epitomizes the bifurcation between style and substance in the novel’s economy: “[T]here was the stylish seltzer stone-cold in its YSL-logo container in the essentially Reagan-era fashion colors of gold and silver” (193).
Despite the ascendancy of a form of capitalism that popularized countercultural images, liquidated social rigidity, transgressed norms and taboos, and elevated the value of creativity and individuality as opposed to functionality and homogeneity, the broad social revolutionary aims of the counterculture have not been achieved. Pynchon takes up the fact that capitalism, albeit in an altered form, has continued to underpin sociopolitical reality, exploring the limits this places on the depth of change that can be achieved. The valuing of capital above all else has meant that counterculture can succeed insofar as it doesn’t contravene profit but that it cannot alter the foundational values of society without challenging the economic system and its powerful social and cultural effects. Here Harvey is illuminating, arguing that the first tenet of capitalism across its different forms is that it must “achieve the expansion of output and a growth in real values, no matter what the social, political, geopolitical or ecological consequences” (180). It is this devaluation of all values except that of profit within a capitalist system that Pynchon sees as undermining the potential for radical sociopolitical improvement within any form of capitalist social organization. While the counterculture was largely anti-Fordist, Pynchon explores the necessity of anticapitalism for radical sociopolitical change. Peter Singer, discussing the normalization of the supremacy of economic value evidenced by, among other things, a lack of strong public outcry at politicians claiming undue expenses and state legislators accepting bribes in the early 1990s, recalls representative Bobby Raymond’s words: “There is not an issue in this world that I give a (expletive) about. My favorite line is, ‘What’s in it for me?’” (qtd. in Singer 129–30). While Vineland explores the values that counterculture and specifically post-Fordist capitalism have in common, it also characterizes capitalism as entailing a “cash nexus,” representing it as amoral and capable of adopting different and even opposing causes in its zeal to maximize profit.
When Hector meets Zoyd to discuss Frenesi, Zoyd half-jokes, “I really need to hear some advice right now about how I should be bringin’ up my own kid, we know already how much all you Reaganite folks care about the family unit, just from how much you’re always in fuckin’ around with it” (31). The narrative of the disruption of Zoyd, Frenesi, and Prairie’s family by direct federal action and also by Brock’s manipulation of Frenesi—through which he pushes her to embrace individualistic, neoliberal models of identity—microcosmically reflects the ways in which the emerging neoliberal “Reaganite” culture “fuck[ed] around” with family and the human values it fosters. In Vineland, Pynchon presents ways of being engaged, invested, and dedicated to an occupation undertaken without the motivation of remuneration, presenting familial roles as providing a model of the individual embedded in community as opposed to the individual making and remaking himself or herself as a commodity as well as a worker in the public sphere of the neoliberal era.
Here Pynchon intersects with 1990s virtue ethics and MacIntyre’s concept of pursuit of “practices” as distinct from the roles, both social and professional, that capitalist society offers, particularly in the post-Fordist era. MacIntyre argues, “In many pre-modern, traditional societies it is through his or her membership in a variety of social groups that the individual identifies himself or herself and is identified by others” (33). Importantly, he uses the familial roles of “brother, cousin and grandson”—which do not “belong to human beings accidentally” but are essentially a dominant concept of “the real me”—to illustrate his point (33). “[T]he peculiarly modern self, the emotivist self, in acquiring sovereignty in its own realm,” he adds, “lost its traditional boundaries provided by a social identity and a view of human life as ordered to a given end” (34). MacIntyre’s thinking illuminates Pynchon’s attempt to recuperate an alternative model of self to replace that of the free, self-made individual. In opposition to the amoral individualism supportive of the kind of capitalism described in Vineland, Pynchon valorizes the family and love not tied to concern for financial or personal profit. The Traverse-Becker family, for example, represents a strong sense of collective identity and acceptance of inherited sociopolitical roles. Sasha thinks of each generation as like a monument to its ancestors, as she recalls her mother saying that “[a]ll we can do about it now is just stay. Just piss on through. Be here to remind everybody—any time they see a Traverse, or a Becker for that matter, they’ll remember that one tree, and who did it, and why. Hell of a lot better ’n a statue in the park” (76).
MacIntyre denaturalizes and traces the history of the belief that individuals are role players rather than defined by birth and inheritance, arguing that this popular belief amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy that shapes sociopolitical reality. In Vineland, Pynchon demonstrates how the market facilitates the popularization of this model of the individual; Mucho Maas, for example, constantly transforms himself in line with the dominant industries and marketable fashions of the moment. Although satirized, Maas is not denigrated for his mutability. By contrast, Frenesi’s changeability is presented as disloyalty, climaxing in the abandonment of her child, which is depicted as unnatural due to its precipitation by a fear of being limited to a pregnant and postnatal physiognomy. Pynchon’s critique of post-Fordist capitalism is astute, but the different treatment of these characters arguably reveals that his perspective on the issue involves different implications for men and women, if not outright gender bias.
For Macintyre, the modern and contemporary model of the self as created and constantly changeable (which has become ubiquitous) is antithetical to morality because it licenses and demands the alteration of behavior depending on what is advantageous or expected in different situations. Morality, he argues, requires staying faithful to beliefs and ways of being, in doing the right thing in any situation despite the consequences. In opposition to the amoral role-playing of work and social life in the fluid age of individualism, MacIntyre suggests a means of recuperating integrity, of reattaching and recommitting the individual to an occupation and way of life. “Practices,” on his view, are antithetical to roles that are performed for the pursuit of goals external to them; a practice is undertaken for its own sake, “piss[ing] on through,” as Sasha puts it, despite a lack of success. MacIntyre describes, for example, a child who would cheat at chess if she simply wished to be seen to be good at chess and to gain a reward but who would not if she saw chess as a practice and wished to genuinely gain skill at it (196). MacIntyre’s conceptualization illuminates Pynchon’s valorization of family roles undertaken with love in Vineland. The human value of loved family members is an intrinsic value that cannot be bought and that provides a moral affront to the amoral value system of capitalism: a commitment to roles such as mother or father denies that the individual is free to make and remodel themselves, insisting that some things are still “sacred.” In his presentation of the family Pynchon implicitly highlights the key failure of the “radicalism” of neoliberal subjectivity’s challenge to Fordist-era alienation; it preserves capitalism itself even as it alters its form, and the supremacy of profit under capitalism necessarily subducts the human values that underpin the radically new society toward which Pynchon writes.
The implications of the mode of radicalism elaborated by Pynchon in recognition of the necessity to revise countercultural tactics, however, carry uneven consequences for male and female characters. Although the theorists of capitalism and culture cited in this chapter assume a gender-neutral concept of the individual, Vineland explores how the turn toward neoliberalism affects men and women. Against the social fluidity that Pynchon sees supporting the status quo in Vineland, the novel retreats into the private sphere to disentangle potentially radical groups from capitalist society and valorizes the family and traditional roles in contrast with the social liquidity reaching a climax in the post-Fordist period of the novel’s setting and publication. While Vineland depicts a capitalist economy that can operate alongside any value structure that does not hinder the accumulation of profit (an extrinsic value system), it also delineates a private community context in which a different moral value system (an inherent/intrinsic value system) is at work. Employment becomes a problematic node between the public and private in the novel and an act that embodies extrinsic value. The comparison between the means through which Zoyd and Frenesi get paid by the state stages the concern about how to attain money to live on without compromising integrity. David Thoreen argues that “[t]he only true revolutionary, the only really dangerous insurgent, in the consumption economy is the non-participant” and suggests that Zoyd is such a nonparticipant (“The Economy” 60). While Thoreen locates Zoyd’s countercapitalism in his ability to make a living from piecemeal employment (his dependence on the state notwithstanding), a case can be made that Zoyd’s real achievement is in exchanging a yearly performance of instability for a “mental-disability” welfare payment: he plays the system in such a way that he can preserve his authentic self (however problematic a concept this is) the rest of the time. Having completed the yearly task, he is able to peel off the persona who has “earned” a paycheck from the state: “Zoyd had begun removing the large and colorful dress […]. He was wearing ancient surfer baggies underneath, and a dilapidated Hussong’s T-shirt” (14). Even though Zoyd is still complicit in the system, through him Pynchon provides a model for social engagement that is less morally compromising than other jobs presented. The reinscription of conscious alienation as a counter to capitalist power in this example is a central way in which Pynchon moves beyond a countercultural position in the novel. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval describe the breakdown of alienation between the subject and his job and the implication of the subject in his or her work as characteristic of neoliberal society. Like Pynchon, they recognize that the conceptualization of power as rationalistic and embodied in the organization man is now obsolete: “We are no longer dealing with old disciplines intended to train bodies and shape minds through compulsion to render them more submissive […]. It is a question of governing beings all of whose subjectivity must be involved in the activity they are required to perform” (260). For them, the employee is now viewed “as an active subject who must participate fully, commit himself utterly, and engage completely in his professional activity” (260).
By preserving his alienation from his means of gaining an income, Zoyd avoids becoming a neoliberal subject, thereby retaining a sense of himself as an end rather than as synonymous with his function as means to money in a capitalist working environment. In comparison, Frenesi appears as the archetypal neoliberal subject according to Dardot and Laval’s definition. The rendering useful of her sexuality robs Frenesi of this private, personal and intrinsically valuable aspect of her life or rather allows her to exchange her very self for the extrinsic value of pay. Brock Vond appears precisely as “the Other who speaks softly within the self” when he convinces Frenesi to abandon her baby, and his sexual appeal means that following her own desire equates to obeying the Other (Dardot and Laval 260). The concept of earning money is critiqued, and Zoyd’s reliance on a disability benefit is validated as a means of preserving oneself from regular and frequent engagement in any practice for extrinsic financial gains. Ultimately, while Zoyd’s cross-dressing is comic, Frenesi’s assumption of rights to freedom and public life previously monopolized by men is threatening and rigorously critiqued, reflecting the diversification of models of masculinity that the novel offers but also the novel’s constriction of acceptable female behavior.
For male characters, the private sphere, family roles, and love model ways of living that are valuably distinct from traditional ideals of masculinity. In his care for Prairie, for example, Zoyd epitomizes a sight described in Inherent Vice (2009) as shocking to members of the “straight world,” who are confused to see that “the male one is carrying the baby” (209). Zoyd challenges the model of homo economicus through his accession to homo familiaris in Frenesi’s absence, and this challenge of normative masculinity embodies the challenge Zoyd’s parenting poses to the privileging of capitalist value. In his “devotional routine” of changing Prairie’s diaper, Zoyd experiences a shift of priorities in his recognition of the ultimate intrinsic value of his daughter for which there can be no substitute and to which nothing compares (296). Later, when a young Prairie falls ill and asks him, “Dad? Am I ever gonna get bett-or?” Zoyd “had his belated moment of welcome to the planet Earth, in which he knew, dismayingly, that he would, would have to, do anything to keep this dear small life from harm” (321). While he does want to be seen to be a good father—he “made sure his ex-mother-in-law noticed he was wiping in the right direction” as he changed Prairie’s diaper—fatherhood is more than a performance conducted to reap an external reward; this is also the moment that he recognizes how meaningful even the most banal and perhaps unpleasant aspects of fatherhood are for him (296). In Pynchon’s version of radicalism, male characters are able to embrace the diversification of gendered behavior championed by the counterculture, but Frenesi is critiqued for her interpretation of sexual and social liberation.
Zoyd is contrasted with other male characters whose destruction of private lives and familial communities matches their seeking to reinforce normative masculinity and to uphold the social and cultural status quo. While Zoyd cares for Prairie as a single parent, for example, Brock has his “own baby,” the “Political Re-Education Program” (PREP); that Brock loves and nurtures an aggressive arm of politicized policing encapsulates his machismo, his “feminine” and caring qualities being directed toward violent ends (268). Pynchon describes Brock as offering a perverted version of family to members of “the sixties left,” perceiving in them “the deep—if he’d allowed himself to feel it, the sometimes touching—need only to stay children forever, safe inside some extended national Family” and offering an alternative to the sense of belonging they found in political activism (269). His intent to use these “children in need of discipline,” however, suggests a relationship that is opposite to the kind of relationship that Zoyd discovers with Prairie in his becoming conscious of her unique individual worth to him (269). While Brock plans to conduct “some reconditioning” on his “children” (269), Zoyd gives up any individualistic agenda that is not compatible with protecting his child, fusing his identity with that of “parent.”
As Madeline Ostrander notes, Brock is “the most masculine figure of the novel” (128). She highlights his assertion of a patriarchal ideology that understands himself and his male adversaries as the only real social actors, with Frenesi as a mere “medium” to be used (128). Pynchon represents the proximity to homosexuality that such love and respect for men and disregard for women might entail when Brock reminds Frenesi, “Remember last time, when I told you not to bathe, hm? because I knew you’d be seeing him that night, knew he’d go down on you—didn’t he? ate your pussy, hm? of course I know, because he told me. You were coming in his face and he was tasting me all the time” (213–14). Brock, however, denies Frenesi’s claim that the reason he feels violent toward Weed is “because you can’t love each other” (214) and remains on the normative side of the homosocial/homosexual divide. Brock’s comments, however, highlight the degree to which his understanding of social action negates female importance; in this novel, as Hite notes, even sex between a man and woman is really a power relationship between two men (“Feminist Theory”). In such a description of the manipulative quality of individualistic social relations, Pynchon presents a peculiarly masculine means of upholding the capitalism-based status quo that undermines the individual worth of each person and the type of community that is fostered by recognizing such worth. Recognizing the human worth of women is a necessary aspect of Pynchon’s anticapitalism and prohuman politics in Vineland, and in this respect converges with feminist principles.
As Joanna Freer argues, “particular men are found guilty of smaller-scale brutality as the novel offers support for feminist critiques of the vulnerability of women and girls to male relatives in the contemporary familial power hierarchy” (147). Freer discusses the representation of Moody Chastain, for example, the abusive husband of DL’s mother whose abusive personality is rooted in a machismo that encompasses, as Freer notes, “driving fast” and “discharging firearms inappropriately” (148). She discusses the Kunoichi Sisterhood’s Sister Rochelle’s condemnation of masculinity as to blame for large-scale historical brutality and raises the possibility that “the novel’s general attitude to men as historical actors” might coincide with this radical (and essentialist) feminist perspective (147). Zoyd’s movement away from normative masculinity, however, offers a means for men to become positive social actors, and the novel’s diversification of models of male identity is fused with Pynchon’s politics.
Although the novel’s men are often depicted as being culpable, however, women’s capacity for effecting radical change is limited in the novel. Arguing that Pynchon questions the efficacy of the Kunoichi Sisterhood, Freer references Germaine Greer’s analysis of Judith Brown’s perspective on separatist feminism: “Brown ‘did not see that an all-female commune is in no way different from the medieval convents where women who revolted against their social and biological roles could find intellectual and moral fulfilment, from which they exerted no pressure on the status quo at all’” (148). As Freer points out, the Kunoichi Sisters’ building was once a nunnery and Freer concludes that “Pynchon’s distrust of feminist separatism […] is thus confirmed in Vineland” and that “Pynchon’s political distaste for separatism reflects his repeated affirmation of the value of community” (148). In particular, in Vineland, Pynchon’s representation of anticapitalist community modeled on the interpersonal love and human value within a family intersects problematically not only with female-only separatist enclaves such as the Kunoichi Sisterhood but also with female social and sexual liberation that sees female characters entering into public life. Frenesi’s individualism, for example, her will to define herself rather than be defined by her sex and her physical as well as social role as mother and her employment by the state support the sociopolitical ethos that the novel rejects in ways that are not peculiar to Frenesi as an individual character but more generally applicable to women as a group.
Frenesi abandons Prairie, for example, owing to Brock’s manipulation of the countercultural/feminist movement’s individualism and its antitraditional sentiment. As David Thoreen notes, Brock plays on the perceived limitation that the definition of motherhood places on the individuality of female identity and encourages Frenesi in her depression (“In Which” [56–57]): “Brock came to visit, and strangely to comfort, in the half-lit hallways of the night, leaning darkly in above her like any of the sleek raptors that decorate fascist architecture. Whispering, ‘This is just how they want you, an animal, a bitch, with swollen udders lying in the dirt, blank-faced, surrendered, reduced to this meat, these smells …’” (287).
In Frenesi’s case Pynchon rebrands the countercultural feminist agenda of social liquidation and its valorization of the individual as opposed to the rigid social role as disloyal promiscuity that is useful to the state. In part, Frenesi’s betrayal represents another instance of convergence between counterculture and the status quo; Frenesi was not manipulated by Vond because she did not share countercultural values of openness and freedom but because of the way she interpreted those values. When she begins allowing Vond to see her footage, for example, “[s]he told herself she was making movies for everybody, to be shown free anywhere there might be a reflective enough surface” (209). It is particularly this feminist embodiment of countercultural desire for personal freedom and for individuality that Pynchon’s representation of Frenesi explores and critiques for its support of the status quo. Vond is able to seduce Frenesi, for example, because she believes it is acceptable to have multiple sexual relationships, a belief in line with an embrace of liberated female sexuality. Frenesi describes the reabsorption of female promiscuity, which had been transgressive and countercultural in itself, under state control in her work for the government. She explains to Flash, “Once they find out you’re willing to betray somebody you’ve been to bed with, once you get that specialist’s code attached to you, don’t have to be glamour beefs like high treason anymore, they can use you the same way for anything, on any scale, all the way down to simple mopery, anytime they want to get some local judge tends to think with his dick, it’s your phone that rings around dinner time, and there goes the frozen lasagne” (70–71). Interrupting her familial duties of preparing the frozen lasagne, the state in fact requires the kind of transgression of social roles that the counterculture had believed would threaten state stability. Rather than asserting his conservative ideology through traditional values such as the family or defined gender roles, Vond encourages social fragmentation and, in particular, female liberation against a sense of duty toward fulfilling roles within a family. While MacIntyre’s virtue ethics assumes a general, ungendered subject, theorists of virtue such as Martha Nussbaum and Iris Murdoch have considered “goodness” in relation to gender. Murdoch, for example, notes that “[g]oodness appears to be both rare and hard to picture. It is perhaps most convincingly met with in simple people—inarticulate, unselfish mothers of large families” (51–52). Although Pynchon gives Sasha, a mother and grandmother figure whom the novel casts in a positive light, strong political convictions as well as articulacy, his celebration of the family and parental love is as problematic as Murdoch’s definition of “goodness.” That self-sacrifice for the sake of a loved child testifies to “goodness” is a standard that holds true for both male and female characters in the novel, but it has different implications for both when considered in the context of the history of gendered social expectations and ideals.
While, as Hite notes, DL Chastain is celebrated for her political activity, her feminist social and sexual emancipation is set against a backdrop of domestic abuse and lack of care. Pynchon sets limits on the toleration of feminism within his anticapitalist ethic and aesthetic; when female individualism comes at the cost of a loving family or relationship it is heavily critiqued. Furthermore, that Pynchon presents a situation in which female sexual and social liberation amounts to the destruction of the family that maps onto undermining countercapitalist sociopolitical radicalism arguably overemphasizes the role of that brand of feminism in limiting the radical impact of counterculture.
Frenesi’s transgressive, individualistic, free, and arguably immoral behavior exemplifies the convergence between counterculture and capitalism that Pynchon is concerned with in the novel and constitutes a critical representation of the way in which some women embraced the “anything goes” characteristic of market values to escape domestic expectations. Pynchon’s critical representation of Frenesi’s sexuality, however, particularly when we read Vineland in the context of Pynchon’s oeuvre, goes beyond illuminating convergences between counterculture and capitalism and casts doubt on female trustworthiness and the ability of women to support any radical socio-political movement. In Against the Day (2006) an ancestor of Frenesi, Lake Traverse, asserts her right to choose her own husband rather than be guided by her family, marrying her father’s murderer and subsequently engaging in a masochistic ménage à trois with him and his partner in crime (297–98, 302). The inheritance of masochistic sexual desire through Traverse family women depicted in both Against the Day and Vineland suggests a female genetic propensity toward it that represents a generalized fear of female sexual liberation; in Pynchon’s novels women are presented as inherently attracted to power and their own sexual as well as social subjection. Women’s liberation, thus delineated, is not only a false achievement for women (as women paradoxically assert their freedom by choosing subjection) but also undermines wider agendas for radical social change by supporting the status quo. Noticing an early fetish for uniformed men in her daughter, for example, Sasha Traverse concludes she must have genetically passed this trait on because she has the same fetish: “Since her very first Rose Parade up till the present she’d felt in herself a fatality, a helpless turn toward images of authority” (83). It was “as if some Cosmic Fascist had spliced in a DNA sequence requiring this form of seduction and initiation into the dark joys of social control” (83). Despite distancing himself from Sasha’s perspective by foregrounding the comically unlikely idea of a “Cosmic Fascist,” Pynchon’s representation of Lake as a sexual masochist in Against the Day entertains the notion of female genetic inheritance of the trait. In Inherent Vice, too, wherein Pynchon again turns to the era of the waning of counterculture, a majority of the female characters share this propensity to sexual masochism, suggesting that the genetic characteristic might affect all women rather than simply all one family’s women.2 Again Pynchon criticizes women as being unfaithful to counterculture, paying negative attention to a peculiarly female way of selling out. The relatively generalized mistrust of women implied by female characters’ representation as innately desirous of sexual masochism and the policing of female sexuality that Pynchon’s radicalism demands in Vineland problematically sacrifices feminist notions of progress in the process of modeling sociopolitical change.
The critique of the paradoxically conservative implications of the status quo’s social fluidity in Vineland is embodied in Pynchon’s criticism of “loose” or free female sexuality leading to masochism and infidelity; Frenesi’s betrayal of Weed and Zoyd stands for the counterculture’s betrayal of radicalism both through selling out and through its similarities with capitalism. A woman and—through the theme of genetic and essentialist female masochism—women as a category take a large share of figurative blame for the movement’s failure and are neither comic nor endearing, as many of the male figures are; the moral implications of Maas’s drug selling, for example, are less rigorously critiqued than Frenesi’s choice of sexual partner and abandonment of her family. Although there is a problematic mutual constitution between feminist movements emerging from the postwar period and capitalism, Pynchon’s unequal treatment of female and male characters’ betrayal of counterculture appears to belie a gender-biased attitude. Pynchon’s use of the family as a model for a community based on notions of worth and value other than those on which capitalist society is founded valorizes nonnormative masculine behavior. Indeed, what redeems men from being essentially culpable as a group of historical actors is that they move away from macho masculinity and enter into caring roles in the family and in community structures based on human value and love. Conversely, where monogamy and/or a loving family is the context, women are criticized for straying from their domestic role as partner/wife and mother, and female social and sexual liberation is commended only so far as it doesn’t impinge upon this alternative community structure.
1. See Hursthouse for a discussion of virtue ethics’ professional history.
2. The stewardii (as Pynchon calls them), Lourdes and Motella, for example, are fatally attracted, drawn “out of some helpless fatality,” to the company of male “lowlifes” (IV 71). As Doc observes Clancy Charlock “deep in conversation with two motorcyclists of a sort mothers tend not to approve of,” he is told that she has “always been into two at a time” (148–49). Trillium recalls for Doc her first encounter with Puck Beaverton: “Before Trillium knew what was happening she found herself in the back seat of a stolen ’62 Bonneville parked in a cul-de-sac off Sunset, being seen to California Department of Correction style” (223). Later she is driven by “humiliating heat” to seek him out for sex, disempowered by her desire for him, which “would seize hold of her,” “envelop her,” and leave her unable to think (223). Penny, too, is fascinated by the masochism of female members of the Manson cult. She tells Doc, “The only part [of the trial] I enjoy anymore is hearing how all these hippie chicks did everything Manson told them to do” (280).
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