Visions of Excess: on Thomas Pynchon’s V.
Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. was published when he was twenty-six, an outrageous and humiliating fact for the rest of us. V. is sprawling, overwhelmingly complex, and clocks in at a nimble 547 pages. At twenty-six, Pynchon had a comprehensive knowledge of a staggering amount of historical and technical information, which he expressed through V., with some of the novel’s most significant examples being: the British intellectual and political communities in Egypt at the end of 19th century, espionage in Florence circa 1899, German expatriates in 1920s South Africa, the Herero wars, Malta in the midst of the Suez Crisis and under German bombardment in World War II, and lastly, the bohemian scene of 1950s New York City (although Pynchon did see this first-hand).
It’s hard to write about V. in any sort of traditional book review sense. A review in Time from 1963, when the novel was originally published, explains why this is pretty well: “In this sort of book, there is no total to arrive at. Nothing makes any waking sense. But it makes a powerful, deeply disturbing dream sense.” Although, to say that the book arrives at “no total” is incorrect and downplays what Pynchon achieves with his narrative. Everything in the novel’s plot connects little details into a daze; this book often lulls you in with its endless subplots that suddenly reoccur chapters later in the middle of far more important parts.
V. is about a conspiracy theory (Pynchon fans, please hold your gasps). Herbert Stencil, one of a number of alternating protagonists, discovers the recurring initial “V.” in his late father’s journals. Out of a mix of boredom and yearning for purpose, Stencil decides to dedicate his life to discovering the meaning behind the tantalizing letter. The problem is there are many V words in his father’s journals, and they in turn create rabbit holes to other V people and V places, including Valletta and the cryptic Vheissu, over a span of decades. Signs point to the answer being in the country Malta where Stencil’s father was prior to his death, but the fear of losing his adventure and the ominous possibilities of what he may find there, keep Stencil away and instead following more obscure leads in New York City. But he can only hide from Malta for so long.
That is the heart of the story, but in his playful and distinctively experimental style, Pynchon for much of the book throws the heart of his story deep into the background. Benny Profane, sailor, schlemiel, and “human yo-yo,” is easily more of the novel’s protagonist than Stencil is. Out of all the many, many individual characters in the book, he is the focus of the most chapters, and is involved in every non-flashback narrative thread. He is a beer-bellied buffoon who is at once irresistibly likable and infuriatingly self-detracting. Everyone turns to him to vent their problems, and just about every major woman character tries to shack up with him, and even though he says no to them all the first couple times, he still ends up sleeping with most.
Profane is the last-arriving yet definitive member of the Whole Sick Crew, the collective made up of Roony Winsome, a music producer who hates his sex-addicted novelist wife; Pig Bodine, a gluttonous drunk and former fellow sailor with Profane; Esther Harvitz, a young Jewish woman who gets a nose job and falls in love with her surgeon, Shale Schoenmaker, who in turn becomes obsessed with trying to further augment her body; Paola Maijstral, Maltese immigrant and fellow late arrival with Profane, she infatuates all the men, assumes an alter-ego, and her past becomes a key to Stencil’s search; and finally Rachel Owlglass, the most self-controlled and stable member of the Crew who nonetheless finds herself constantly dragged into their shenanigans. There are other secondary members, but these five, with Profane, are the principals.
One of the book’s few major misfires is not making Rachel a more prominent figure in the story. She, Paola, and Profane are the most interesting of the Crew members, but she is kept mainly at the periphery. When most of the women in the book are cast as fairly similar versions of the same sexually neurotic type (the men are all sexually manic schmucks, to be fair, with Pynchon deeply understanding the pervert in us all) Rachel is refreshingly independent. Predictably, she does ultimately lure Profane into a period of unconventional domesticity, but it fits with the self-destructive quality the entire Whole Sick Crew shares. But it’s disappointing when she is sent even further into the background immediately after.
The structure of the novel is roughly this: six chapters made up of flashbacks that all end up centering around an incarnation of V., either a mysterious femme fatale-type character or a geographical location, such as Valletta. In each, Stencil’s father is either involved in the events or is mentioned as a peripheral figure. The other roughly ten chapters revolve around Profane and the Whole Sick Crew, with subtler and cryptic tie-ins to Stencil’s V. search.
As previously mentioned, subplots proliferate. It could be said that the entire novel is a conglomeration of narrative fragments that together create a work of abstract beauty. But it also must be said that the book is often a very frustrating read. Knowing of Pynchon’s love of dizzying interconnected narratives going in doesn’t save you from the frustration and anxiety of trying to piece it all together. He throws such an exhausting supply of characters and information at you that if you’re not mentally prepared it can come to feel like you are potentially missing something every page. I won’t lie, this is how I felt for the first 50-80 pages, especially during Chapter Three, titled “In Which Stencil, a Quick-Change Artist, Does Eight Impersonations,” which is exactly as confusing as it sounds. It is at this point in the book that you will either decide to trust that Pynchon is leading you somewhere worthwhile or you will give up. There is no judgement here if you choose the latter, I nearly did myself.
However, Pynchon follows the deeply disorientating third chapter with three chapters revolving around the Whole Sick Crew; one revolving around Esther’s nose job and another with Profane becoming an alligator hunter in the sewers of New York City. These chapters and the evenly placed flashback chapters that follow see Pynchon finding a deeply satisfying balance of the picturesque chaos of the Crew’s shenanigans with the colorful intrigues and disturbing undercurrents of the historical scenes.
One of the strongest narratives of the entire book is story told to Stencil by Kurt Mondaugen (who is featured in Pynchon’s next novel, Gravity’s Rainbow), a German engineer who hides out in a castle in South Africa with a group of other German expatriates during a siege by the natives. The Germans treat the “Siege Party” as an adventure, which they use as an excuse to drink and indulge in all forms of decadence. The incarnation of V. in this narrative comes in the form of Vera Meroving, a provocative woman who spawns memories of the 1904 Herero wars which Mondaugen played a disturbing role in. More starkly than any other part of the novel, it is this chapter where Pynchon explores the theme of indulgence and decadence as a means of hiding from the horrors of history. The debauchery Mondaugen witnesses in the castle is very reminiscent to the many parties the Whole Sick Crew throws, and while the Crew wasn’t complicit in wartime horrors like many of the castle’s German inhabitants, one feels that Pynchon is raising the question: would the members of our jolly and tortured Crew have acted any different if put in the same circumstances? It isn’t hard to imagine the roles flipped.
That is only one of many things Pynchon has on his mind. The glorious challenge of reading him is that you can’t pinpoint the meaning behind his work to any one or two or three things. If you think you are drowning in the information and ideas he is throwing at you, imagine being Pynchon himself and having to endure knowing so much and having to find a way to make use of it. V. is his attempt at that, and it is a stunning achievement. ♦
Adam Moody is a contributing editor for The Review of Uncontemporary Fiction, and by day: Operations at Chronicle Books, by night: coated in dust from reading too many old books.