While not Major Pynchon (that Bugs Bunny-playing-R. Lee Ermey military officer quired up from the pages of V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow, and Against the Day), Vineland is essential to an understanding of the worldview underlying those greater novels. For Vineland is Pynchon's most explicit, angry, even at times hopeless, statement on the Sixties counterculture and its failure--indeed, its self-betrayal--as seen from the vantage point of Reagan's 1980s. Fascism as the thanatozation of eros, the fascisization of America beginning with Dick the Trickster (and culminating 30 years after Pynchon's novel with the triumph of Don the Con), the psychology of revolution and its subversion by power, the erotic fascination of fascism--all these themes that energize major Pynchon by implication or subtext are here explicitly, even pedantically, stated. Aesthetic diminution is the predictable price of preachiness, but Vineland stands as perhaps the best skeleton key to the TP oeuvre.
I'm trying and failing to think of another case where a minor novel is so truly essential to a writer's major works.... It's as though A Fable somehow illuminated Absalom, Absalom!.
Contra all this seriousness, I feel compelled to remind myself that Vineland is also, in more than a few places, very funny, laugh-out-loud outrageously funny, with several excellent examples of TP propelling the jams with the business ends of his nether appendages... It is a fuckin' Pynchon novel, after all.