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Life in 11-Minute Segments

VINELAND by Thomas Pynchon, Boston: Little, Brown, 385 pp., $19.95

THOMAS PYNCHON'S bestseller ``Vineland'' may be what we wanted all along from the many retrospectives on the '60s published in the '80s. By creating a main character that recalls battered Farrah Fawcett in the television movie ``Extremities,'' Pynchon has managed to say goodbye to all that and hello to an uncertain future.

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It wouldn't be a Pynchon novel if it didn't seem to come from a ``true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself'' - to use words from his ``The Crying of Lot 49'' (1964). This time the paranoia fixes on TV as the demiurge to whom all the imperfections of our world may be attributed and from whom a few, possessed of the truth, may escape back to the original whole.

Pynchon's gnostic vision received its definitive treatment in the monstrous award-winning ``Gravity's Rainbow'' (1973). With more than 700 pages and 400 characters, a plethora of allusions and quotations and technical scientific references, and vast historical reach, this book probably caused something like paranoia in general readers. There Pynchon focused fear on the V-2 rocket, sailing over the rainbow but ultimately bowing to the law of gravity.

Still, Pynchon's deployment of ambiguity forced a chuckle as one reread the title, if not the whole book, as a play on the other meaning of ``gravity'': staidness or solemnity in demeanor or style. This time Pynchon brings his verbal prism to ``Vineland'' and displays the rainbow of meanings implicit in the persistence of the utopian community idea. But in northern California, at least, ``Idealistic flower children looking to live in harmony with the Earth were not the only folks with their eyes on Vineland.''

In this after-the-'60s vision, the forces that join to ruin Eden come from all over the psycho-political map. Burned-out flower children join with Ronald Reagan and Edwin Meese to stamp out the embers of the happy campfire around which they smoked joints and sang ``We Shall Overcome.''

What happened? TV. The original flower children soon became ``Tubeheads.'' One of the main characters now understands, ``like all suffering Tubeheads he must have really thought, as he and the baby were making their getaway, that that was it, all over, time to go to commercials and clips of next week's episode....'' Life happens in happy 11-minute segments; only advertisements stand between us and the happy ending.

The baby in question is Prairie, offspring of Zoyd Wheeler and Frenesie Gates. Along with being a Tubehead, Zoyd is a perennial innocent. He brings up Prairie when Frenesie disappears into the Sargasso Sea of the federal bureaucracy as an FBI sting specialist.

Frenesie, who I take to be the central character, grew up thinking movie concepts automatically became real on the big screen. Her beauty makes her the object of male fantasy and she eventually meets her black knight in Brock Vond, federal prosecutor.

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What she sustains from him, and from life in general, makes Farrah Fawcett the inevitable pick for her role in the movie version. Frenesie is a battered woman of the '60s who first uses her skill with a camera to document repression, then uses it to betray a friend, then herself. Prairie's search for her mother sometimes seems halfhearted, as if she may wonder if she actually ever existed. But the patient, fascinated reader will come to know Frenesie as a moving target of loss.

The plot unwinds in Vineland. Vineland is a complex symbolic place. Part pastoral - where Frenesie's family has annual reunions - part development, and part mythological land of the living dead - the couch potato Thanatoids camp there: Vineland is an ambiguous spot and finally the great subject of the book, not unlike C.S. Lewis's ``Narnia.''

As Prairie's boyfriend says toward the end to everyone, including the reader: ``Whole problem 'th you folks's generation ... is you believed in your Revolution, put your lives right out there for it - but you sure didn't understand much about the Tube. Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, that whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like th' Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970 dollars - it was way too cheap....''

This from Isaiah Two Four (look it up), a heavy metal rocker with the instincts of an entrepreneur. One of his schemes is to create Violence Centers - ``each on the scale, perhaps of a small theme park, including automatic-weapon firing ranges, paramilitary fantasy adventures, gift shops and food courts, and video game rooms for the kids, for Isaiah envisioned a family clientele.'' Is Pynchon a prophet like Isaiah? After reading ``Vineland,'' a recent New York Times article on ``A Country Club with Guns Instead of Golf Clubs'' excites only a sense of d'ej`a-vu.

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