16 February 2008

Booklog, V.

V., 1963
by Thomas Pynchon
Hardcover, 492 pages

When writer/director Peter Bogdanovich saw his friend Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, he is purported to have said of it: "I'd seen the film for or five times before I noticed the story." Welles' response was, "That speaks well for the story," and Bogdanovich's response to that was, "No, no -- I mean I was looking at the direction."

I recount this anecdote because I've read all of Thomas Pynchon's works at least once, and some of them more than once, and I have only the vaguest notion of what the plots are really about. I was looking at the writing. And I think this is at least one reasonable way at approaching Pynchon's writing, at attempting to wrap your head around the way he views the world.

V. is his first novel, published in 1963, and I've now read it twice. The book follows two "main" characters, Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil, in plots that begin as radically divergent but eventually come together towards the end. (In this sense, the plot itself seems to form a sort of "V" itself.)

Profane is a discharged US Navy sailor who runs with The Whole Sick Crew, a group of bohemians living in hovels and having lots of sex and making lots of art/music, etc. Profane takes a series of low-paying jobs, including travelling under the streets of New York and killing alligators. He gets into torrid love affairs with no less than four women, and spends most of his time dealing with the consequences of such.

Stencil, on the other hand, is an aged world traveller. His father was a British spy and diplomat, and much of the novel is filled with long excerpts from his father's journals from years past. These journal entries are all regarding this mysterious figure "V." who may or may not be a woman, or a place, or.... Working out exactly who or what V. is becomes an obsession of Stencil's, and researching this topic through his travels and reading his father's notebooks provides the overall spine of the plot.

These two thread may sound fairly straightforward, if perhaps a bit convoluted, but if you know Pynchon you know that's not the whole story. Pynchon fills his novels with endless amounts of detail, dozens of supporting characters, scientific metaphors, literary allusions, etc. etc. etc. Characters pop up, are given a lengthy introduction of a page or two, have a few lines, then disappear for dozens of pages. The effect is bewildering, absorbing, and this is Pynchon's point in writing this way -- he is intentionally drawing the reader into the maze of the novel, forcing us to make decisions about what we feel is important and what isn't, only to prove us wrong by making nearly every element important, working on some grand scheme of literary allusions. To make it even worse, Pynchon has a devil-may-care style of detail, mentioning dates, places, events, and objects that send a modern reader scurrying to Wikipedia on a regular basis.

So, again, look at the writing, not the plot. The best way to approach this, at least for me, is to not allow myself to get drawn in so far that I lose the flow of the book. Reading Pynchon is to float on his language, to examine the allusions and strange imagery without necessarily feeling the need to grasp every aspect of it immediately. Those looking for pat solutions should look elsewhere than a Pynchon novel, and V. is no exception.

This very quality makes a review of a Pynchon novel almost superfluous. I could give examples of things I liked, of the basic thrust of the imagery, but in a very real sense each of us approaches these novels in our own way, and the experience is meant to be different for all. My understandings may differ from yours, and my approach may not be useful to you.

Still, it's possible to put together very vague generalities. More important than characters or plot in a Pynchon novel is the overall narrative theme, the central metaphor that influences the overall story that he wants to tell. Here it is the question of the animate and the inanimate, and especially the way that human beings have historically treated their fellow men as the latter rather than the former. This is most aptly illustrated in chapter nine, subtitled "Mondaugen's story," which takes place during the Herrero Wars in 1904, and is a sort of dress rehearsal for the Holocaust. The white colonists use their African conquests as slaves, sexual and otherwise, and even supposedly sympathetic characters are shown as dehumanizing their fellow man in fundamentally awful ways.

The sequence takes place in the approximate middle of the book, and if what has happened before was full of pratfalls and silliness (and in a sense it was), what comes after is never quite as much fun -- this sequence represents a sort of Original Sin for the novel, and the characters (and readers!) are never quite as innocent afterwards. The novel builds to a tour de force ending in which the identity of V. is (maybe) revealed, and in which that central metaphor of animate and inanimate comes to a sort of stark relief.

I have read V. twice and fully admit to not quite understanding it. I'm not even fully cognizant of the details of the plot. But I think that's Pynchon's goal, that we keep reading and re-reading in our attempt to understand, and that we eventually will fully appreciate the world that he has created for us. I don't think V. stands as one of the best of Pynchon's works, but it's a remarkable novel nonetheless, and is worthy of the detailed study is has received.

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