The Thomas Pynchon Countdown: V.
November 21, foax...that's when Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day hits the shelf in a bookstore near you. It's his first published work in nine years and is being anticipatedly hotly by fans and scholars alike.
Yet, you might not be planning on buying Against the Day. Which is fine...a 1,000+ page novel by a guy you've never really heard of is not a very appealing way to spend a month of your time. But I hope that by spotlighting a different novel every week, you will find something that kindles your interest...and on November 21 you'll find yourself buying a Pynchon book. Maybe not the latest Pynchon book, but a Pynchon book nonetheless.
So for the next five weeks (ending, conveniently, the day before Against the Day's publication) I will be spotlighting every one of Pynchon's novels...which is easy, because there's only five.
Let's start at the beginning...
Published in 1961, V. is Thomas Pynchon's first full-length novel, and for a debut work I have to admit it's pretty daring. Unfortunately, speaking as someone who read this after reading Pynchon's other works, it's a bit of a let-down. But let's deal with that later.
The novel opens on Christmas Eve, 1955 and the events unfold from there...moving (mainly) forward in time at a pretty meditative pace, but periodically the reader will find himself or herself thrown back in time anywhere from a decade to a hundred years. It's not the easiest novel in the world to follow...but then again, Pynchon isn't the easiest author in the world to follow.
Ostensibly, V. is the novel of two people, each of whom has a definite path in mind...and another very different path that reality forces them to follow.
The first of these protagonists (and, by quite a lot, the more interesting one) is Benny Profane, an ex-Navyman who feels as though he yo-yos through life...always at the whim of somebody (or something) else, finding himself crossing his own path without ever having accomplished anything in the meantime. Profane is a self-professed schlemiel, a description at which he arrives once he realizes that even inanimate objects are constantly getting the best of him.
The other is Herbert Stencil, in many ways a detective figure, though his motives are (explicitly and exclusively) his own. Stencil seeks to learn the identity of a woman (or at least a presence) referred to in his father's journals by only the initial V. Stencil's story takes us literally around the world and figuratively through time itself as he seeks to assemble clues (and coincidence) into a shape that will at last reveal the true nature of V.
V. is a complicated novel...I can say that much. I can also say that it's the only Pynchon novel I'd really consider to be over-complicated.
While Stencil himself is an interesting character (and many of the tangential stories we encounter by his hand are phenomenally rendered) he does manage to slow down the novel quite a bit, which is ironic when you take into account that it is his half of the story--not Profane's--that contains the action, the romance, the exotic locations...somehow it falls flat.
Stencil's quest to identify V. is arguably the driving force of the novel, but it failed (in all three of my readings) to engage me. The real magic is happening in Benny Profane's half of the novel, even though the character, by definition, achieves nothing.
Whereas Stencil is operating with a definite end in mind, and every word and action of his lead him closer to achieving that end, Profane wants nothing more than to disappear, to be taken away...to have somebody snip the yo-yo string at last and allow him to drop out of view. Stencil is trying to force himself into the life that his father led and Profane is trying to force himself out. The two may work in (theoretical) tandem, but Profane's half of the story is significantly more affecting...and it's clearly the half of the story that Pynchon himself had the most fun with.
I find it difficult to care much for Stencil which, I am certain, was an intentional decision on Pynchon's part. Yet he seems to be struggling constantly to reassure us of his value as a character...a value that is implied, but never quite realized.
Far more interesting are the lesser characters in this book...Rachel Owlglass who feels (simultaneously) love, pity and disgust for Benny Profane; Dr. Schoenmaker, a despicable plastic surgeon who forces a character to sacrifice her individuality for the sake of conforming to his idea of beauty; Pig Bodine, a crass but loyal seaman who has served Pynchon well in all three of the novels in which he appears; Hugh and Evan Godolphin, a father-and-son adventuring duo who are undone by time, madness and inanimation...
The list goes on. It really does. The characters in this book are brilliantly realized...with the exception of Herbert Stencil who, unfortunately, has about fifty percent of the book devoted to him and what becomes a very tiresome quest.
It seems to me that Pynchon was still finding his footing. He had a lot to say but wasn't quite sure he'd be allowed to say any of it without couching it all in elaborate format. Compared to Gravity's Rainbow--another remarkably complex novel of his--V. just goes to show what happens when great ideas just won't manage to go right. Gravity's Rainbow functioned as a brilliant, beautiful and moving work of literature, but it also functioned extremely well as a cold, unforgiving nightmare of precision and formatting. V. would have worked just fine as a formless character study, but Pynchon's overt shaping of the work as a whole robs it of its natural humanity...something Pynchon used to his advantage in later works, but it really only hinders him here.
That said, you should all know that I am in the significant minority in my opinion of V. Probably around half of all Pynchon fans still consider V. to be his masterpiece. (The other half, for the record, sides with Gravity's Rainbow.)
It could well be me. I will be more than willing to admit that I'm just not getting it, if that's the case...but I really don't think it is. I don't come away from V. with a feeling of, "What just happened?" I come away from it with a feeling of, "Oh. That's it?"
There are readers who live by this book. There are those who say it's the only true American masterpiece.
I can not understand these people. It's a good book...but not great. It has all the ingredients that would make later Pynchon novels true works of art, but here it's almost like somebody forgot to turn the burner on...and you've just got a big pot full of cold ingredients.
I do have to mention that there is a lot to be enjoyed, here...which is why it pains me to say that I'm disappointed by the book. The songs are some of Pynchon's best ("The Eyes of a New York Woman" is particularly affecting, and a duet in which one character attempts to seduce another with variable mathematics [she reverses these selfsame rhyming equations to turn him down] is almost unbearably clever and yet still emotional). Esther's nose job is gorgeously, graphically horrifying (both for its realism and its symbolism) and Profane's "dialogues" with a crash-test dummy are brilliantly haunting.
On the whole, however, it's a young Pynchon...trying to write a novel that's just a shade more brilliant than he is.
But don't worry foax: he catches up with himself by the next book. And never once does he stumble again.