I am the twentieth century … I am the ragtime and the tango; sans-serif, clean geometry. I am the virgin’s-hair whip and the cunningly detailed shackles of decadent passion. I am every lonely railway station in every capital of Europe. I am the Street, the fanciless buildings of government; the café-dansant, the clockwork figure, the jazz saxophone; the tourist-lady’s hairpiece, the fairy’s rubber breasts, the traveling clock which always tells the wrong time and chimes in different keys. I am the dead palm tree, the Negro’s dancing pumps, the dried fountain after tourist season. I am all the appurtenances of night
I feel a sense of relief to have finished Thomas Pynchon’s V – a mad, complex novel written by one of America’s most famous and elusive authors. V is nuts. V is a novel revolving about hundreds of characters, whose shenanigans crisscross and get caught in knots throughout narrative time and space; it is a novel about war, history, rioting, trauma, sex, absurdity, body modification, hedonistic abandon, psychodontia, alligator chasing, the identity of an elusive woman… V is the epitome of twentieth century chaos and a dizzying statement towards the futility in finding any one coherent meaning in the world.
I was supposed to have read V in one of my university courses about 20th century literature but a mixture of habitual laziness and initial confusion at Pynchon’s complex style prevented me from making a decent independent stab at it. Having actually read and enjoyed (and to a degree understood) The Crying of Lot 49, and from learning about this novel, I decided I would give it another whirl. V is definitely a novel that requires some sort of extratextual guide, whether via a companion or a two-hour seminar, in order to fully understand what the hell is going on. If you have read this novel yourself and understood it no bother then good on you. There is also a wiki if you are interested.
In this review I am going to semi-regurgitate what we learnt about this novel in class with a couple of other points thrown in by myself about Pynchon and some other stuff too. I make no attempt to summarise or to fully TL;DR the novel itself because it is about hundreds of different things, and a lot of these things I’m not even sure of.
First of all, who is Thomas Pynchon?
Pynchon is an American author who writes dense, challenging novels about Western culture, in a nutshell. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about him is that he has mythical status as a hermit-like figure who prefers to keep his identity under wraps, rejecting celebrity authority and the public eye. Yet his aversion to public scrutiny is not an angry or misanthropic statement, if anything he upholds his decision with good-humoured conviction. When his magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, won the National book Award for 1974, he got Irwin Corey, comic entertainer, to go instead and pose as Pynchon and perform an acceptance speech. He has also voiced for The Simpsons, hence the pic, poking fun at his shady identity. In short, Pynchon is a massive lad.
Let’s get onto some V.
We are introduced to Benny Profane in the first chapter of V, “a schlemihl and human yo-yo”, a disenchanted young man who is part of the Whole Sick Crew, a band of degenerates that try to find their hole and get gassed every day. Benny observes and takes part in the tornado of hedonism and excess that defined the 50s and 60s counter-culture, while struggling to understand how to deal with the pressing demands of capitalist life and resisting what is referred to copious times throughout the novel as the “inanimate”.
…anybody who worked for inanimate money so he could buy more inanimate objects was out of his head. Inanimate money was to get animate warmth, dead fingernails in the living shoulderblades, quick cries against the pillow, tangled hair, lidded eyes, twisted loins…
Many characters through the novel represent this inanimateness as they are robbed of their human vitality by becoming subject to the overall machine, or “the man” if you will. As Profane thinks to himself in the chaos of city streets and seedy sailor bars, he yearns to avoid the shadowy ever-present forces that transform the ostensible liberty of modern life into one of control and unthinking subjugation as dictated, for example, by higher powers such as faceless corporations like Pynchon’s insidious defence contractor, Yoyodyne, and even broader intangible systems such as standardised clock time and the unknowable, implicating forces that shape certain events into defining moments of history. Characters are subjected to the inanimateness of improving technology, they often literally merge into objects: for example, Fergus Mixolydian (himself an example by name alone of Pynchon’s zaniness of characterisation) has a device wired to his brain that wakes him up if he drifts off to sleep in front of the TV, and V is adorned with a glass eye with a clock in it, a star sappire sewn into her navel and has the desire to substitute her human feet for exchangeable multi-coloured prosthetics.
This brings me onto the character of V, and her potential reincarnations. V is an enigma, the female subject who Stencil, the novel’s other protagonist, spends his life trying to find. The figure of V transforms and shifts into different aliases, made all the more confusing by the narrative’s non-linear time and incoherence in plot. In such a crazy dense novel, we inevitably side with Stencil’s journey in finding out who V is, but to little avail. Cherchez la femme indeed. The ambiguity of meaning in finding V, who is seemingly unattainable and nowhere to be found at the right time or way, and yet to be found in many different ways, is perhaps a metaphor for life’s versatility of meaning. Pynchon in this way has been hailed as the archetypal postmodern writer in his alignment with allowing the existence of multiple truths, rather than one overarching metanarrative of truth… and I’m going to stop right there cause this is all getting a bit messy.
These are the two main protagonists’ plots, but there are many sub-characters and tangents and side-stories and histories and confessions that shake everything up and further layer the density of V. In the end, Profane and Stencil’s narrative timelines converge, rather appropriately, into the shape of, you guessed it, the letter “V”. The 22nd letter of the alphabet inspires many different allusions and appearances and justifies the novel’s title, the most obvious being within V’s reincarnations, in the converging of timelines, in Profane as a human yo-yo, but could even go as far as to represent the essence of semiotics:
To wrap things up, V is intense but technically amazing and rather strangely, once you overcome it, you feel yourself wanting to explore his other books. I certainly haven’t done the book any justice and have only scraped the surface to the themes and issues V confronts such as the objectification of women, ethics of body modification, the processes that sparked and could spark again the holocaust and even World War III… Just gonna have to read it for yourself, innit.
If you want to get started with some Pynchon, do not read V first. I would recommend The Crying of Lot 49 which is about a sixth of the size and with relatively clearer themes and prose. I’m gonna give Pynchon a rest for now, but only until his new novel, Bleeding Edge, is released this September. Arrrrgh.