V, by this time was a remarkably scattered concept.

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.”



Filed under Personal canon, Pynchon, Thomas

28 responses to “V, by this time was a remarkably scattered concept.

  1. Brilliant piece of work, Max. And I completely agree with you on the best plan of attack. You just have to go with it; it could, potentially, be infuriating I guess, but I love the sprawl of it and the ingenious way he’ll run off at a seeming tangent, a seeming cul-de-sac, only to pull things back into focus…in what can only be described as a ‘Pynchonesque’ move. Just at the point of seemingly nothing arrives some startling clue: seemingly pivotal scenes become farcical punchlines. And so on.

    ‘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.’

    I think that, to an extent, you do crack Pynchon here (were such a thing possible). The last six words there are so apt for Pynchon. Great stuff.

  2. Great post, really interesting.
    I’ve never read Pynchon (one of those authors I take in hand in bookstores and put down) and I’m not sure I should, it sounds too complicated for me.

  3. Thank you Lee. He’s hard to write about.

    It is impressive how elements recur. That mad priest in the subways ministering to rats – I took him as a bit of colour but he returns in another context and when I realised that’s what Pynchon had done (and how he did it) it did rather take my breath away.

    There’s an ending and then an epilogue (which is a fairly long chapter in its own right). It ends beautifully on an image I can’t really quote without potentially spoiling it for others but which is beautifully judged. The epilogue too though is well judged, rounding off certain core themes nicely. It’s an accomplished piece of work and for a first novel staggering.

    I prefer Lot 49 and I imagine in future I’ll probably have others I prefer to this, but it’s serious stuff and Pynchon deserves his reputation (in several senses).

  4. Try The Crying of Lot 49 if you’re going to bookaround. It’s 150 pages so if you hate it then at least it doesn’t last long.

    The mistake people make with Pynchon is they start with something like Gravity’s Rainbow which is a behemoth of a book and it kills them. Lot 49 isn’t necessarily an easy book, but it’s vastly more accessible and actually quite a lot of fun. You might not take to it, but equally you might and if you enjoy that one you can always move on as I have to the longer works.

  5. Good advice, it’s usually safer to start with shorter works. Reading the blurb of The Crying of Lot 49, I still think Pynchon isn’t for me. But I don’t want to be narrow-minded or prejudiced, I’ll have a look in a bookstore or at the library.

  6. leroyhunter

    I really enjoyed this piece Max, it reminds me why I so much want to read Pynchon and the the trouble I’ve had actually trying to do that in the past. You often see specific works suggested as “entry points” to him (and you’re spot on to suggest Lot 49 as that) but excluding Lot 49, all the other novels seem to be equally long, dense, discursive etc and hence all pose the same challenge (so far as I can see).

    In short: he should be someone I love, but I haven’t quite made it there yet. I think your advice to just dig it, and if you don’t, not to sweat it, sounds like the best mindset to approach him with.

    I do wonder about his names, though.

  7. Thanks Leroy. I won’t say it’s not work at times – though I made the grave mistake of reading this on the tube each day which meant it took weeks and was much more of a slog than it needed to be. When I gave it space I enjoyed it far more. It’s a better book to put a weekend aside for than to read over a long period.

    At the end of the day I don’t think he’s amazingly accessible, but he’s not impenetrable either. We’re not late Joyce territory here. The desire to make sense of it all as you go along though is an enemy. There are clear references and themes, but there’s so much in there that any attempt to fit it all together is doomed to failure unless you read it as an academic exercise and so leach the life from it.

    The names are sometimes puns, and sometimes I think implicitly meaningful but not really very. There’s much could be said about them I suspect, but at the end of the day I just take them as they are and if I get the joke I get it and if not I don’t worry too much (Schoenmaker I saw explained somewhere, I didn’t get the pun myself).

  8. Max, I think you’re entitled to feel terribly clever.

    Pynchon is beyond me, but every time I read one of your Pynchon reviews I want to give him another go. I couldn’t read Gravity’s Rainbow, although I got halfway through and preferred it to The Crying of Lot 49; with which I would not persevere past a handful of pages. Chances are I will now try V. Probably won’t finish it but have a positive expectation of enjoying the ride until it’s time to get off.

  9. Sometimes the chemistry’s just not there Sarah. I don’t think one should ever feel bad for not liking a book. There’s so much to read that there’s only so much point struggling on with authors one hasn’t taken to.

    Like Julian Rathbone for me. I read his Joseph until about fifty pages from the end and had to bail because I hated it. It’s had extremely good reviews so plainly lots of well read people find it marvellous. I still don’t plan to read more by him though.

    Or Ian McEwan. Apparently there are people who find him a genuinely gifted and brilliant writer, and not a craftsman at the level of the individual sentence who fails at the level of the wider novel. I’ve given him a go, but I don’t like his work and the fact others do and that on the description I probably should doesn’t change the fact the chemistry just plain isn’t there. I suspect I don’t entirely get him, but it’s hard to get a book once its alienated you regardless of its qualities.

  10. Nick

    Wonderful review Max.
    I’ll think about the Jazz analogy, but I totally agree on the importance of enjoying the ride instead of looking for answers. You cannot read it, and appreciate it, any other way.
    That said I had a bit of a hard time with the book myself, in the way it took me ages to finish it. I think you have a very good point saying “It’s a better book to put a weekend aside for than to read over a long period.” I made the same error you made, taking it around with me and reading bits of it here and there and that was really tough.

    For people who are a bit afraid of him, they can try Pynchon with “Inherent Vice”. It’s much easier, and you still get the Pynchon touch. It’s a much lighter book.

    Otherwise I really recommend Against the day. For sure it’s a bit tough, and it’s long, but the ride is just amazing.
    Just enjoy the ride!

  11. marco

    Good review. This was my first Pynchon, 20 years ago; I was obsessed by it and still remember it well, but it’s probably my least favorite of his novels.
    Lot 49 is almost a novella in comparison to his “big” ones and is much lighter in tone than Vineland, therefore, probably along with Inherent Vice, the only one I’ve yet to read, is the best entry point by default.
    I’d say Against The Day is the more accessible of his big novels, but I’d recommend going in order of publication. You don’t have to, but it’s interesting to see the progression in themes and ideas.

  12. Nice. I haven’t read V, but I pretty much racked up and snorted Lot 49 in one thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. I subsequently got 300 pages into Gravity’s Rainbow – which contains some simply astonishing fragments amidst its general confusingness – before I left it on a nightbus (which probably serves me right for attempting to read Pynchon pissed at 2am on public transport, what a tosser).

    I’ll endeavour to get back round to it, possibly when I next go on holiday. I think Pynchon probably falls into the ‘too dense for public transport’ category we were talking about the other day

  13. Nick/marco,

    I’m hugely tempted by Inherent Vice. It just plain sounds fun. My plan though is to read in order. The only downside with that is Gravity’s Rainbow, which I’ve just discovered is a back-breaking 900+ pager.

    Danny, definitely not for public transport. V might have been less confusing if I hadn’t occasionally been trying to remember who the hell some of the characters were and when I’d last met them…

  14. Nick

    Max, I’m afraid Against the Day (before Inherent Vice in chronological order) comes at about 1200 pages.
    But it’s an easy read! Of course…

  15. leroyhunter

    At the end of your Salter review, you describe “counting the pages” to the end. It’s funny, even before reading that I wanted to ask you if you’d had that experience with this book. I sometimes find, with particularly long books, that “ending anticipation” creeps in, as getting the monster fully down the hatch will be such an achievement.

  16. A little bit, yes. I find it hard to avoid with really long books to be honest Leroy. I’m not one of those readers who want the book never to end. I’m comfortable with books ending. Ideally while I retain enough youth and muscle strength to lift them. I’m a big fan of brevity.

    On which note, 1200 pages? I shall enroll in a gym and perhaps cut down on fatty foods. Reading that will require both fitness and longevity…

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  18. shigekuni

    Well done! You are right, Pynchon is hard to write about so kudos for pulling it off so smoothly here! And you’re right about the best approach to read the fat Pynchon books for the first time. Pynchon’s probably my favorite living American novelist but I get why some people don’t take to him.

  19. Thank you. I have to admit, I’m rather dreading Gravity’s Rainbow. I should enjoy it but it has such a reputation…

  20. Well, I used to be a Gravity Man, but I’ve slowly reveresed my view of Pynchon over the years. Vineland started it – such a boring book. Mason and Dixon failed to hold my attention. Then I started re-evaluating the great Gravity’s Rainbow, and concluded that there’s a lot in it that isn’t very good. He’s not good with characters, especially women. He’s pretty self-indulgent, in a way that may have seemed hip in 1970, but just seems sophomoric now. I’m not all that taken with his ‘paranoia’ theme. Still…he can get off some good stuff!

    A post and a review: [http://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/2008/02/21/pynchon/]

  21. Nice post. I do wonder if I’ll end up with similar conclusions. I wonder how one can need 1,200 pages. It just seems, well, excessive.

    But, as you also note he can do wonders in a paragraph. His books are like bibles, so vast one can find multitudes there.

    I’m pleased to see Inherent Vice looks a bit more manageable though.

  22. The negatives on your Amazon review hold pretty good for V actually:

    “- Characters that are pretty much cardboard – no depth, after London, he doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for them
    – Extremely annoying habit of nudging the reader with his elbow to make sure we know he’s “joking” even if we will never get the joke: italicized text, addresses to the reader, corny colloquial style
    – Pointless and not all that funny songs interjected
    – Tiresome fixation on paranoia and control as major themes, as if that explains anything about anything
    – Boring wallowing in vulgarity as if we will be shocked – maybe readers in the 70s were, but it’s pretty dated now
    – Stoner humor: many passages are the type of thing that might be funny if you were high, and often the characters are, but I was not on this reading ”

    Though I still like it immensely. I think you may be right that many literary critics have so little knowledge of science that if it’s worked in they think it cleverer than it is. Having grown up with sf I’m less impressed. I look more for whether the science does anything in the story. Pynchon though in some ways is close to an sf writer (I’m not saying he is, but there are commonalities, including a focus on idea over character).

  23. I only read V once, and too long ago to comment on it. I don’t read much Sci-Fi these days, though I did as a boy, because I don’t think much of it as writing. Perhaps I’m missing some good stuff, so pointers are welcome!

    Pynchon is way beyond that, but in the end, how does he compare to other writers of Big Books – Tolstoy, Melville, Grossman..? Not too well, I think.
    As I wrote here:

    The title of the book echoes Tolstoy’s War and Peace for obvious reasons. Recently, I gave up reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which I have read twice many years ago. That book, similarly ambitious in scope, seems like a trivial joke next to Grossman’s work. The same for Vollman’s Europe Central. Grossman uses no clever tricks, no post-modern jive, no meta-ironies…none of that. He has a style though. He knows exactly what he is doing: hitting you over the head with a gigantic brick so you will know a little bit of what he saw.


  24. On the literary side Andrew Crumey springs to mind (I’ve covered one of his) and of course David Mitchell though on the one I’ve read so far I’m less a fan than others are. Kerry of Hungry like the Woolf is very good on Mitchell.

    The thing with literary sf is that once sf reaches a certain point of skill it ceases to be marketed as sf. The place then, ironically, to find the best sf is on the literary shelves.

    That said, I wouldn’t call Pynchon sf. I just think he has several concerns which are classically SFnal and that he prioritises the idea over the character (which is a common trait to sf). It’s one element of his work though and it’s not a point I’d want to overargue. Pynchon has no real sf trappings (nothing futuristic, nothing beyond our world literally or figuratively). It’s more a matter of interest and approach.

    Comparing him to those authors does give me pause for thought.

  25. marco

    The thing with literary sf is that once sf reaches a certain point of skill it ceases to be marketed as sf. The place then, ironically, to find the best sf is on the literary shelves.

    Very debatable. Science-fictional works by authors with an established literary career won’t be marketed as Sf; neither will works by authors who have enjoyed a strong presence or exposure in the “literary” field (critics, academics, or in the case you mention, the former literary editor of Scotland of Sunday). For first-time authors or authors whose sales don’t guarantee much of a clout, labelling comes down purely to marketing considerations.
    A novel like The End of Mister Y by Scarlett Thomas – a sort of sf thriller with shallow postmodern jokes, infodumps about science and philosophy, a bit of oh-so-clever metafiction and a conflicted female character straight out of litfic 101 – was marketed as literary, thanks to its crossover potential; masterpieces like On Wings Of Song by Thomas Disch and Little, Big by John Crowley, both included by Harold Bloom in The Western Canon, were marketed as Sf and Fantasy .
    I don’t think the best SF is easy to find on the shelves – most of the time you’d have to actively seek it out , ordering it on the internet, or looking for out-of-print editions. But there’s not much SF published outside the genre that I would rank with the very best.

    Pynchon has no real sf trappings (nothing futuristic, nothing beyond our world literally or figuratively).

    Well…there are elements beyond our world, even in V (V herself), and increasingly in later novels. Some of them are definitely close to science-fiction, others perhaps to a very peculiar kind of magical realism.

    This kind of critiques has been levelled at Pynchon for years. You’ve every right to reassess the importance of Pynchon for you, of course, but as arguments they amount more or less to “Melville has a lot of boring parts about whaling”. That is, they are true on some level, but not necessarily relevant. And while GR deals with war and genocide, comparing it with Grossman or Levi seems to me a category error.

  26. “Melville has a lot of boring parts about whaling…”
    I don’t think Melville has any boring parts about whaling!

  27. leroyhunter

    Ditto Lichanos!

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