I’ve been meaning to embark on the works of Thomas Pynchon ever since I tore through Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon seven years ago and found out that people were calling that work Pynchonesque.
I’m glad I waited. Pynchon would have been utterly lost on my younger self.
V. is the first of the works of Pynchon, and already sets itself up as a work of overwhelming density. Multitudes of characters, times and places too many to track flash before the reader’s eyes, riotous and following opaque laws of logic and causality. Pynchon’s prose is dense and sprightly, flitting breathlessly from scene to scene, the reader chasing its fleeting silhouette through opaque forests of multisyllabic words with nary a backward glance.
V. is the kind of book that expects your complete attention. It won’t care if you get lost in its labyrinth of twisting prose and its menagerie of misfits. And it does get bogged down in its own overweening cleverness at times. But reading it has its own pleasures and rewards. V. displays an astonishing versatility of styles, and showcases Pynchon’s encyclopaedic, intimate knowledge of his variegated subject matter. To read V. is to sit through a semantic roller coaster, marvelling at Pynchon’s ability to wield the English language like a hammer and chisel, creating exquisite sculptures of meaning. Inscrutable at times, perhaps, but beautiful to look at nonetheless.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about V. is that, once you take a step back from examining its minutiae with a magnifying glass, the overall plot structure is remarkably simple. The book is about the narrative journeys of two men: Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil (there’s a certain irreality about Pynchon’s characters’ last names: they are seemingly random words that seem deliberately chosen for some inscrutable reason). Profane is an itinerant some-time freeloader: his life is endlessly transitory but purposeless. Stencil is the opposite: his life is a dedicated quixotic quest to find out who or what, in the end is the mysterious, elusive V. Unlike Profane, who has no purpose, Stencil has a singular, all-consuming purpose.
That purpose is the narrative fuel that brings us through the book’s variety of times and places: all pieces of V.’s own journey through time and space. V., in that sense, is the ultimate macguffin, a one-size-fits-all cipher whose only requirement is that whatever it purports to be starts with the letter V. It’s a fantastically vague vehicle to house Pynchon’s various ventures into variegated styles. V. is most commonly a woman, who may or may not be the same woman, appearing in various places and times. Sometimes V. is a place or time, like the mysterious city Vheissu, or Veronica the rat, a member of the rodent congregation of a mad priest that lives in the sewers of New York.
To Stencil, V. could be anything, and his life’s journey has been to catalogue all the instances of V. that are connected by even the most tenuous of threads. V. has the logical coherence of a dream, a stream of recountings linked by the vagaries of incidental alliteration. And the reader who expects the entire story of the various incarnations of V. to unfold into a cohesive, unified story is likely going to be disappointed.
And where does Profane fit into all of this? His interactions with Stencil and his apprehension of the whole V. business are incidental, two brownian particles colliding in a vast world of random encounters. Profane’s story starts in a different place from Stencil’s, but they converge at the end of the book as Profane accompanies Stencil to Malta to piece together yet another element of the story.
In actual fact, it’s pointless to try to imagine V. as a book that presents some unified, coherent thematic message. V. is a paean to the vast confounding web of cause and effect, a joyous romp through encyclopedic fields of meaning. It is the pre-Internet equivalent of an hours-long binge on wikipedia articles, with the only rule that you must only click on a link that starts with the letter V. Pynchon writes what he will – vignettes in a sea of incidental connectedness, and has Stencil embark on a quixotic quest to piece it all together. Profane’s story, and the various confused accounts of V. are ways for Pynchon to create a pastiche of styles and thematic elements in a single novel, with V. as the framing mechanism to make it work as a singular novel.
So a book such as V. is sustained not by an overarching theme, but by the sheer force of Pynchon’s inventiveness and gift for giving life and texture to the interstices of his gangly narrative web. And for the most part, he succeeds in creating secondary accounts that each have their own themes, messages, symbols, and literary innovations. From the multi-perspective recounting of tale of intrigue and espionage in Alexandria, to a nightmarish account of the rampant evils and inhumanity of colonialism in Africa during the Herero wars, to the Lovecraftian ramblings of an explorer describing a mysterious, apocalyptic city named Vheissu, to a disturbing, Lolita-esque tale of a ballerina killed by her craft, to an examination of the Beat Generation-esque antics of a bunch of pseudo-bohemian layabouts in New York City that Profane and Stencil have dealings with, Pynchon’s range is staggering and his knowledge seemingly boundless – at one point, he spends pages of text on a step-by-step description of a plastic surgeon’s nose alteration surgery.
And there are symbols and images that span these disconnected vignettes – faint ripples across the thematic space of V. – notably a pervasive theme of people that modify their bodies, themselves, either through plastic surgery or through artificial limbs, to make themselves more or less than what they are.
At the end of it all, V. is one work that cannot be encompassed by a single reading. It is a work of immensity, a dreamlike, proto-logical romp, one that will make you feel as if dribbles of meaning lurk amidst the saccades of your eyes as they scan the page, taking in the sights of Pynchon’s reality while searching futilely for some overarching meaning that binds it all together.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 Yoyodyne Dummies