Reader's Guide to Vineland

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Babies of Wackiness 

A Readers' Guide to Thomas Pynchon's 



John Diebold and Michael Goodwin 

 August, 1990 - June, 1991 (on and off); touch-up April, 1997; HTML conversion August, 1998; minor 

corrections 2002 and as needed... 


"For all those folks who want to read Vineland, but are uneasy about making their way in, we've put 

together a starter kit, a Captain Midnight Decoder Ring that will serve you as a resource, a reference, a map, 

and a handy-dandy Pynchon guru all in one..." 



Talk to us...  




Thomas Pynchon and Us 

People read Thomas Pynchon because he's fun. That's why one reads any good novelist, of course, no matter 

how "literary" or "difficult." Melville is fun, Dickens is fun, Joyce is surely fun.  

Pynchon, who we rate as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, is big fun. For one thing, like all 

great novelists, he reveals fascinating, underlying truths about the culture, society, and characters in his books -- 

and his keen intelligence lends weight to these insights. For another, the beauty and grace of Pynchon's writing 

is fun -- from his gorgeous turns of phrase and extended metaphors to the artfully complicated plots he loves to 

weave. Also, he's incredibly, shamelessly comical -- "goofy" might be an even better word -- building in 

terrible/wonderful puns, silly names, and broad slapstick at every possible turn. In addition, he includes an 

amusing array of elements from popular culture -- comics, horror movies, rock 'n' roll, TV. Finally, Pynchon is 

fun because he knows so much interesting stuff -- scientific, literary, historical -- and puts so much of it into his 

books. As a result, reading his novels can be every bit as challenging (and rewarding) as solving a difficult 


There's a down-side to this, of course. Like Joyce, Pynchon can be tough to get into. His plots tend toward 

the labyrinthine, his best gags often turn on obscure biochemical or mathematical references, and critical 

concepts in one book may have their origin (and explanation) in another. Even Vineland, his most recent, and 

most accessible, novel, has confounded many literate readers. 

Given all that, it's surprising, perhaps, that Pynchon's books are as popular as they are. At the same time, we 

know there's a huge number of people who would love Pynchon if not for that "tough puzzle" aspect to his 


So, for all those folks who want to read Vineland, but are uneasy about making their way in, we've put 

together a "starter" kit, a Captain Midnight Decoder Ring that will serve you as a resource, a reference, a map, 

and a handy-dandy Pynchon guru all in one. 

Pynchon's literary output, though of very high quality, has not been prodigious. His first novel, V, came out 

in 1963. The Crying of Lot 49 was published in 1966, followed by Gravity's Rainbow in 1973, and Vineland in 

1990. A collection of early short stories, Slow Learner, appeared in 1984. Over the years we've read these 

volumes repeatedly -- partly because rereading helped us understand them, but mainly because rereading 

Pynchon is more rewarding than reading most books for the first time. If we had to rate them, we would rank V 

and Gravity's Rainbow as his great works-to-date, with Vineland just a hair below. The Crying of Lot 49, for all 

its appeal, seems relatively minor. 

Babies of Wackiness (our title comes from a TV show on page 159 in the hard-cover edition of Vineland

started as a series of trans-continental e-mail messages between two pals who love Pynchon, have read all his 

books many times, and were reading Vineland for the first time, at the same time. We wanted to share our 

delight in the cool parts, our amusement at the outrageous jokes, and our confusement over some of the obscure 

references and intricacies of the plot. As we exchanged questions and answers, we found ourselves getting 

deeper into the book than we'd expected. This process turned out to be so much fun that we kept at it -- and 

roped in some of our other friends to help. Before we knew it we had this book.  

Since we're neither lit-crits nor academics, you'll find our tone informal; after all, we never really expected 

our notes to be read by anyone else. But our intention is more serious than the tone suggests. We hope you'll 

find the material useful. And we hope you'll read Babies of Wackiness with the same sense of adventure, and 

discovery, and excitement that we felt writing it.  

Who, you might ask, are we? John Diebold is a seagoing geophysicist employed by the Lamont-Doherty 

Geological Observatory of Columbia University. Michael Goodwin is a writer of books and magazine articles 

on film, food, music, computers, and traditional American culture. He was an almost-founding-editor of Rolling 

Stone, Managing Editor of Take One, Senior Editor of Francis Coppola's City Magazine, and an  Associate 

Editor of PC World. He is also an occasional screenwriter and calypso record producer.  

Also worth mentioning is that all three of us (Pynchon, Goodwin, Diebold) attended Cornell University. 

Pynchon graduated in 1959. Goodwin started in 1959, and Diebold made his appearance in 1960. A-and not 

only that, but Goodwin actually met Pynchon. Sort of. At some point (probably 1959 or '60), Goodwin found 

himself at a party at a beatnik fraternity called Watermargin. Pynchon (even then a well-known campus 

character, respected as much for his adventures with Cornell Folk Song Club president Richard Farina as for his 

writing abilities) was there too, standing across the room, talking with Farina. Goodwin has always regretted the 

shyness that kept him, a lowly freshman, from walking over and greeting the post-graduate celebrity. 

We're very grateful to all the friends and associates who helped us with this book: Richard Hyatt (martial 

arts), Audie Bock (Japanese films), Charles Pickel (film stock, studio lights, firearms), Robert Lauriston 

(Sicilian slang), Bob Dickerson (sportscasters, monster flicks, Italian jokes), Judy Nihei, and especially Naomi 

Wise, whose close reading of the novel (and our manuscript) provided us with invaluable insights into theme, 

plot and character -- as well as solutions to countless textual puzzles.  Additional material has been provided by 

a number of devoted Pynchonians who found their way to this text on the Internet and emailed us with 

invaluable contributions. Our thanks go out to Ben Riley, David Wisker, Anastasia Miller, David B. King, and 

Jennifer Grodowsky -- as well as several others whose names seem to be lost on the hard disk... 



In some respects, Vineland is Thomas Pynchon's reinvention of Orwell's 1984: a novel about the triumph of 

totalitarianism. In 1949, when Orwell's novel first appeared, many Europeans and Americans considered the 

greatest threat to world freedom to lie in Soviet Communism. However, by the time 1984 actually rolled 

around, most of the details in Orwell's book had been outmoded by real events, giving the false impression that 

things had worked out OK after all. For instance, there was no Big Brother -- except, maybe, in the Soviet 

Union, where he wasn't much bother to most Americans. Vineland turns on the idea that while details may have 

changed, it's far too early to congratulate ourselves. Orwell's concerns about the erosion of individual liberty are 

still very pertinent, especially in America. Big Brother isn't dead, he's just hired a good public relations 


Orwell's  1984 was about Communism; Pynchon's book looks at home-grown American totalitarianism: 

Nixon/Reaganism. Vineland is set in 1984 partly to make the Orwell connection, but also because that was one 

of the heaviest years of the CAMP anti-marijuana campaign in northern California: a small-scale version of 

Vietnam with helicopters and soldiers invading Humboldt and Mendocino Counties. Pynchon sees CAMP as a 

paradigm of how bad things have gotten, how far fascist forces have dragged us from the American ideal of 

personal liberty. 

However, while Vineland's ostensible "present" is 1984, it ranges over most of the last century, 

concentrating particularly on the 25 or so years between 1960 and 1984. Its main focus is on the sixties, and one 

of Pynchon's primary purposes seems to be to raise some important "lost" questions, questions that have neither 

been asked nor answered by our politicians, or our cultural leaders: What happened during the sixties, and to the 

sixties? How did we get from the sixties to the nineties? What did we learn? What did we lose? 


The Sixties 

It's a well-known fact that the winners get to write the history books. Over the last 25 years, the history of 

the sixties has been rewritten and distorted by a series of ever-more conservative politicians and TV anchormen. 

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