by Joshua Potter
This far-flung amalgamation of diverse historical events sums to an unfulfilled quest of epic proportions; in the process, Pynchon tells us something about contemporary times as bastardized reflections of the past and about the future as a futilely constructed straw man of false hopes. It sounds dark, but you will laugh. Oh, how you will laugh.
Thomas Pynchon / American / 1963 / 547 pages
Pynchon is perhaps not best known for V. but it put him on the map. A young 20-something at the point of its publication, Pynchon virtually rocked the literary world with his surprisingly advanced command of language and history. Critics predicted that, with time, Pynchon would become one of the most important figures in American literature and, in large part, they were right. Within just a decade, Pynchon returned to the presses with The Crying of Lot 49 and the daunting Gravity’s Rainbow which (like Joyce, Gaddis, and Wallace) continues to exude a hugely complicated attraction for “serious” readers of high literature: Rainbow sounds so awesome, so tortuous, and so mind-blowing that it scares off even the most conscientious consumers. Rainbow is a book that you talk about for years, buy a copy and place it on your shelf, look at it every day through slitted eyes for months before you pick it up, and, having done so, undergo massive countermeasures in other areas of your life in order to set aside considerable time to digest its prose.
Luckily, V. is not like that. Scholars of Pynchon normally recommend V. as an entry point to the author’s corpus, a flexing of the fingers prior to engaging in the real fight against Gravity’s Rainbow. Having never read the latter novel, I cannot endorse this opinion, but I will say that reading V. certainly will whet your appetite for more Pynchon. Even better than this, though, is the fact that the novel is an incredible offering in its own right; no mere overture, V. amounts to one of the most satisfying reads I’ve yet undertaken this year. When paired with Lot 49, it also presents a diverse range of form and style. While the two novels are similar in many respects, Lot 49 is radically different from a basic prose perspective. Devoid of the winding, endless sentences that came to characterize Pynchon’s later work, V. generally employs punchier writing and a comparatively manageable vocabulary to convey its points. You’ll still need an online dictionary and Wikipedia open on your laptop to understand the countless cultural and historical references, but — on the whole — V. comes off like Pynchon’s last effort to remain halfway considerate toward the (everyman) reader.
The novel itself is difficult to explain. Set equal parts in a 1950s present and a various-year past, V. progresses in narrative fits and starts through disjointed chapters that do not always stand in clear relation to one another. Ostensibly, the novel focuses on two men, named Stencil and Profane, who could not be more different from one another (the names are weird, but that’s part of the fun of Pynchon; other character names range from Pig Bodine to Mafia to Winsome; indeed, their construction is often representative of the character; allegories abound). Stencil is obsessed with identify/locating/copulating with a woman named simply V. who is often mentioned in the journals left to him by his father. It’s not immediately clear why this woman is so important; she does not factor particularly prominently in the narrative of Stencil’s father’s life and the accounts of her existence are so vague and disparate that actually locating her is surely an exercise in futility. If Stencil’s obsession is misplaced, then Profane’s is nonexistent. A product of a Depression Era pregnancy, Profane is aimless, amoral, and barely animate in his day-to-day existence. Indeed, Pynchon often invokes yo-yo-related imagery to describe his mechanical, empty movements back and forth across the great urban landscape of New York.
But Stencil and Profane are really just along for the wacky ride, most of which takes place beyond their own limited horizons. Stencil draws on sources other than his father’s journal to construct lengthy backstories surrounding V.’s existence and these narratives are generally only loosely (and unreliably) connected to one another. V. pops up in an account of 1890s British espionage in Egypt; she appears again a few years later during the planning stages of a painting heist in Florence; a similar figure materializes in Namibia in 1922 during an indigenous uprising against colonial power; then again in Malta during the WWII German bombardments of the country’s capital city, Valletta. One of the tenuously fascinating/frustrating things about the novel are the variations in style across these different accounts. The Namibian siege is told as an introverted personal narrative and borders on the gothic in nature. The bombing of Malta comes from a man’s personal confession and waxes philosophically on moral, familial, and geopolitical subjects. The British espionage bit (which reappears for an encore performance in the book’s epilogue) is told in terse, rollicking prose that seems intended to underscore the hair-raising intrigue of these somewhat tense situations. So, sometimes the book drags a bit and sometimes it soars, but it remains compelling throughout.
Thematically, the book is rich. The words “inanimate” and “animate” appear frequently and much is made of their juxtaposition. One of the more macabre and harrowing passages of the book finds Pynchon going into great detail about a “nose job” — how the cartilage is cut, the skin pulled back, the bridge reassembled, etc. In addition to plastic surgery, the characters find themselves in other similar not-quite-animate situations. Profane at one point works as a night watchman at a research facility that uses human dummies made of plastic to simulate the effects of various accidents (car crashes, blunt trauma) on actual human beings. In a jazz bar, inanimate objects (instruments) give rise to free-flowing, animate manifestations (namely, music). A pregnant woman discusses with a friend the moral pros and cons of aborting the fetus, which predictably boils down to an argument over the point at which the fetus becomes animate matter. The list continues.
This debate gets morphed in different ways during the “historical” passages of the novel. A painting of Venus is held to be just that — an inanimate painting — by some people in the Florence chapter, but is revered as a lifelike representation of the goddess by other people (indeed, this is true to such an extent that some characters are willing to risk incarceration to steal it). A particularly damning indictment of German (in particular) colonialism (more broadly) crops up at various points, which twists the in/animate theme in geopolitical and humanistic directions. Pynchon covers in great, disturbing detail the German army’s genocide of indigenous Namibian citizens in 1904 and, nakedly, indicates that this functioned as a historical precursor to the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust some decades later. This section of the novel is told retrospectively (from the perspective of a radioman in 1922) during a siege of a German compound by the surviving Namibian people. Within the compound functions the standard set of high European society (dancing, drinks, and dialogue) while outside the compound, the natives are brutally repressed with heavy artillery and arial bombardments. In this way, the native population is reduced to inanimateness through death while the European colonists are comparatively animate through their nihilistic pursuits. Pynchon’s point is interesting: when we blur the line between the living and the manufactured, we can get by with anything. Morality and meaning fall away.
This jives well with the broader thematic material for which Pynchon is most famous: the conspiracy theory, the intellectual overreaching humanity resorts to in order to project order onto chaos. Certainly this was the case in Lot 49 as the heroine of the novel attributes a set of seemingly unrelated events to some unseen mega-force pulling strings behind the scenes. Defying the more plausible explanation that V. is in actuality not some sort of quasi-mythical female goddess that seems to pop up during historical epochs, Stencil instead connects vague dots and, toward the end of the novel when he believes he’s hot on V.’s trail, begins to think that broader forces might be conspiring to keep the woman out of his reach. He breathes life into chaos by flooding it with agency. Rather than the happening of events, someone is out there deciding how things will take place; rather than the inanimate, probabilistic movements of time, Stencil opts for an explanation predicated on the animate, the human and highly personal processes of sharing information, laying clues, evading detection, etc. How human is a human with a plastic nose? How human is an indigenous population that is virtually destroyed by another? How human and organic is our relationship to our forefathers when any message, any lesson they might have bequeathed to us is hopelessly, irrevocably mutilated by the chaotic intervention of random events?
Big questions. No answers. The book peters out as disjointedly as it begins and, as readers, we end up disoriented and unsettled. But Pynchon fills the holes with inventive wordplay, humor, and — at times — beautiful prose. It’s enough encouragement to propel one forward to further consumption. Somewhere around page 200, I definitively made up my mind to tackle Gravity’s Rainbow in the next year. Allegedly dealing with many of the same themes presented in V., I’m very much looking forward to further meditations on these important inquires.
Rating: 9 / 10