More Is Less

July 10, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon.

I think I can safely say that the first two chapters of Vineland were the most fun I’ve had with Pynchon since I read Lot 49 in college. Gravity’s Rainbow is awesome, but it’s exhausting. This is a straight-up blast. Case in point: “More Is Less, a discount store for larger-size women…” Our hero (apparently), Zoyd Wheeler, buys a garish dress there which he wears to better seem insane for his annual jump through a window to keep receiving mental-disability checks.

Nothing’s an accident with Pynchon, especially not the jokes, and even more especially not the names. This one got me, made me laugh out loud. And after getting the joke, the store’s name made me think of that “less is more” dictum of writers’ workshop lore. (Surely no one actually uses this line anymore.) It occurred to me that the star of Raymond Carver, the minimalist’s minimalist, Mr. Less-is-More (well, with Gordon Lish’s help), had risen and fallen between Pynchon novels: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? came out in 1976, three years after GR, and Carver died in 1988, two years before Vineland.

Pynchon’s a maximalist. He’s setting his story in the mid-80s, and it’s clear from the get-go that part of the point here is going to be mediation, inundation, the sensory saturation that had been kicked up a notch since the 70s. I suspect that Pynchon believes that to trim out the details of modern life to tell intense stories of personal relationship and unspoken tension is a goddam lie. You are not going to get a discussion of how a former dive lumberjack bar has been transformed into an upscale gay bar and restaurant (still named the Log Jam, of course) since Return of the Jedi was filmed nearby in a Raymond Carver story. You are also not going to get brilliant and semi-prescient descriptions (seemingly offhand, like so much important stuff in Pynchon) of TV newscasts and their insatiable appetite for “human interest” fluff, their selective reporting of inconvenient details (choosing not to mention that Zoyd’s jump this year was through a window made of candy, and that the media had more or less directed where he would jump rather than reacting to his decision), and their willingness to analyze in absurd detail worthless trivialities while overlooking massive atrocities (here, a panel discusses the development of Zoyd’s jumping technique, and I can’t help but see this as in part a comment on the rise of the ESPN family of networks).

I don’t know that Pynchon cares enough about his contemporary literary milieu to have done this intentionally. But I do think it’s interesting that the reigning dictum of 1980s literature has been inverted and put to work as a plus-size ladies’ clothing store.

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