V, by Thomas Pynchon
V is a confusing novel. It’s a dense near-500 pager which ranges across continents, decades and an awful lot of characters. It has at least two main plot strands, but plot here is a generous term. It’s rich with symbolism, references and outright puns only a fraction of which I expect I got. That’s ok though, even Pynchon probably doesn’t get all of them.
Where to start? Probably where Pynchon does – with demobbed sailer Benny Profane. Profane’s a schlemihl and human yo-yo who falls in with the Whole Sick Crew in 1950s New York and through them with Schoenmaker (beauty-maker) the plastic surgeon, Dudley Eigenvalue the soul dentist and perhaps most importantly Herbert Stencil who is on a quest to track down V.
Profane’s chapters intertwine with the story of Stencil’s quest for V and the narrative soars back and forth in time between Profane’s exploits in the novel’s now and the history of V as discovered and interpreted by Stencil. Put that way it sounds almost straightforward. It’s Pynchon. Nothing is straightforward.
The obvious question is this: who or what is V? Is V a place, a person, a condition? For me V is the questing beast and Stencil its Pellinore, but your V, and his, may be very different.
As spread thighs are to the libertine, flights of migratory birds to the ornithologist, the working part of his tool bit to the production machinist, so was the letter V to young Stencil. He would dream perhaps once a week that it had all been a dream, and that now he’d awakened to discover the pursuit of V. was merely a scholarly quest after all, an adventure of the mind, in the tradition of The Golden Bough or The White Goddess.
But soon enough he’d wake up the second, real time, to make again the tiresome discovery that it hadn’t really ever stopped being the same simple-minded, literal pursuit; V. ambiguously a beast of venery, chased like the hart, hind or hare, chased like an obsolete, or bizarre, or forbidden form of sexua delight. And clownish Stencil capering along behind her, bells ajingle, waving a wooden, toy oxgoad. For no one’s amusement but is own.
I felt terribly clever when I thought of that questing beast analogy. Mostly I felt clever because I read that passage shortly after thinking of it and it seemed confirmatory. I had cracked Pynchon!
My triumph was short lived, though for me that remains a core metaphor. Before too long what had seemed to make sense no longer did. I could see tracks, but only dimly. I was confused and increasingly lost. I was Pellinore.
V is an incredibly confusing novel. It is full of lengthy digressions which may well be relevant, but to what isn’t always clear.
Profane hunts alligators in the sewers with a shotgun and learns of a priest who went mad and set up a ministry to rats (including the voluptuous Veronica) among the tunnels. In the 19th Century an English explorer despairs after perhaps seeing the horrors of Vheissu. But what is Vheissu? A hidden kingdom that only he knows the location of? A code name as some believe for Venezuela, or for Vesuvius? A young woman named Victoria gets drawn into a web of conspiracy and espionage with Vheissu at its centre but does Vheissu even exist or are the agents of the various powers each seeing shadows on the cave wall with nothing to cast them?
There are art heists in Florence and revolutionaries arrested for the wrong revolution, there is chaos and intrigue and death. The Stencil chapters form a sort of overview of the horrors of the 20th Century and the patterns and events giving birth to them, but with one notable omission that I’ll return to.
Profane’s adventures, at least at first, appear to belong to a different novel. He careens through New York with his old Navy buddy Pig Bodine, the beautiful Rachel Owlglass and a host of others. As the novel continues the Stencil and Profane chapters start to come together (forming yet another V within the novel’s structure itself) but at risk of writing a spoiler this isn’t one of those books with a great aha! at the end making sense of all that went before.
Several themes run through the novel. The conflict between the animate and the inanimate is a key one. Profane, a schlemihl, is forever at war with the inanimate world. It seems perpetually to frustrate him – devices fail, objects protrude in his path, but ultimately we are all schlemihls because the truth is that the inanimate is indifferent to us and so frustrates our ambitions without even the kindness of enmity. A bus’s brakes fail and a dozen people die – colliding with the unthinking obstinacy of the inanimate.
The quest for V is in part a quest for logic, for reason in a world that ultimately is reasonless. Stencil’s father is one of the spies involved in V’s earlier history and he has a theory of “the Situation”. A circumstance where various factors outside our control combine to create chaos and destructive change. The Situation is shaped by the heat a crowd face as they pour out of their homes to protest a hated law. Is there a cooling breeze? Is there moonlight to see by? Historians will later find human causes for whatever happened, but the truth is blinder.
The conflict between the animate and the inanimate is one sided. The inanimate merely is. It has no agenda. We, being the creatures that we are, impose meaning on a universe conspicuously lacking it.
Living as be does much of the time in a world of metaphor, the poet is always acutely conscious that metaphor has no value apart from its function; that it is a device, an artifice. So that while others may look on the laws of physics as legislation and God as a human form with beard measured in light-years and nebulae for sandals, Fausto’s kind are alone with the task of living in a universe of things which simply are, and cloaking that innate mindlessness with comfortable and pious metaphor so that the “practical” half of humanity may continue in the Great Lie, confident that their machines, dwellings, streets and weather share the same human motives, personal traits and fits of contrariness as they.
Poets have been at this for centuries. It is the only useful purpose they do serve in society: and if every poet were to vanish tomorrow, society would live no longer than the quick memories and dead books of their poetry.
It’s not all serious. There’s a lot of humour in this book. At times it’s downright farcical though the absurd is rarely far from the tragic. On a page by page basis it’s a very easy read and if I had one tip for approaching it then it would be that. Just read it. Don’t worry about what it means or about what’s really going on. Relax. You’re not going to find V so you may as well just enjoy the journey.
For all the comedy though and the constant in-jokes and puns at the heart of the book is horror. Stencil’s search brings him to the story of Mondaugen – a German in South-West Africa in 1922. A rebellion is feared among the local populace and he holes up in a plantation surrounded by ravines -an impregnable castle against the Red Death stalking the land outside. As the days pass the occupants fall into the decadence of an endless party and the recreation in small scale of the aftermath of a previous uprising in 1904.
The Herero rebellion of 1904 saw what may be the 20th Century’s first genocide. A german general, von Trotha, sought to extinguish the Herero people entirely. All were to be killed, women and children included. The Germans made use of concentration camps, death marches, carried out medical experiments on prisoners, and became obsessed with the threat the Herero presented to German racial purity. One of the scientists involved later became Chancellor of Berlin University where he taught a student named Mengele.
I mentioned earlier a notable omission in this book. That omission is the Holocaust. The Mondaugen chapter explores, in frankly difficult to read detail, a conflict now forgotten which looks all too much like a dry run for what came later.
We remember the Holocaust, but in the West at least not what happened to the Herero people. Even in the face of absolute horror we create narratives and impose a pattern, a beginning and end, to events which may not be anything so tidy. History itself is a form of narrative. To make any sense of what happens we have to choose a point where it starts to happen. In doing so though we obscure as well as illuminate. The same is true for where we choose to say something ended.
We can say the Final Solution started on January 20, 1942, and that’s true and sheds light on what happened. We could say too though that it started in 1904 and that has a degree of truth also. Truth is another narrative, but truth is also millions of brutal murders. There is the logic we find in events, but also the irrevocability of the events themselves which remain the same however we interpret them.
Pynchon later came to see his equation here of the Herero genocide and the Holocaust as superficial and there’s perhaps some truth to that. Even so, he does manage to use that earlier slaughter to cast light on the later one, and that I think has merit.
I’ve talked about the imposition of narrative on history, about the human desire for meaning where really there is none and about the attempt to grapple with the Holocaust. All that is present but I could equally have picked other elements. Those themes are all present, but there’s plenty of others too.
I could have talked about the history of Kilroy and how Profane at one point becomes a human version – hanging off a rooftop with only his face and hands visible as he prepares to rob a dentist of a valuable set of antique dentures. There’s also the powerful theme of the animate incorporating elements of the inanimate – a whole article could be written (and probably has been) just about the symbolism of prostheses in this book from implanted tv remotes to glass eyes with horological designs.
I could have talked too about jazz. The whole novel is infused with the stuff even though it’s only referenced briefly. Pynchon has a core structure from which tangents fly out seemingly without reason, yet somehow manage to return to the central theme just when you thought it impossible. What’s that if not jazz? A book this dense has many interpretations. The only certainty is my failure to capture more than a fraction of them.
This is the second Pynchon I’ve read. To be blunt I thought The Crying of Lot 49 a better novel – tighter and better controlled. It’s not flawless, in particular like many great American authors Pynchon struggles with women whom he tends to reduce to plot elements rather than characters. Note this quote and its assumptions as to the reader’s gender:
Standing before his old door he knocked, though knowing from the sound of it (like we can tell from the buzz in the phone receiver whether or not she’s home) that inside was empty.
The key overall to reading V for me is to treat it like jazz. There’s no point trying to make it all fit into neat progression. All you can do is go with the flow and see where it takes you. In the end your impressions and the narrative you make from it is what’s there. The answers such as there are aren’t in the detail but the overall piece. The reader is in the position of the audience to jazzman McClintic Sphere:
He blew a hand-carved ivory alto saxophone with a 4-1/2 reed and the sound was like nothing any of them had heard before. The usual divisions prevailed: collegians did not dig, and left after an average of 1-1/2 sets. Personnel from other groups, either with a night off or taking a long break from somewhere crosstown or uptown, listened hard, trying to dig. “I am still thinking,” they would say if you asked. People at the bar all looked as if they did dig in the sense of understand, approve of, empathize with: but this was probably only because people who prefer to stand at the bar have, universally, an inscrutable look.
If you read this there’s a good chance you won’t dig and a good chance too that if you try too hard to dig you’ll end the evening still thinking (and that might get in the way of digging too). You’re best just standing at the bar and letting it wash over you. You might still not dig, but you’ll probably at least enjoy yourself along the way.
By way of postscript I originally had another title in mind for this piece. It’s McClintic’s life philosophy and in the face of an insensate universe it’s as good as any other I’ve come across.
“Keep cool but care.”