In an attempt to better understand postwar/contemporary American fiction, I’ve set out on Thomas Pynchon’s V. An impressive novel that has left me flummoxed, he wrote it at 24 (I’ve never been more acutely aware of an author’s age before), and is apparently some kind of key to later works, or at least Gravity’s Rainbow. What a strange key that must be.
Largely I’ve been put off by it, despite what should be a natural affinity – a nerdishness, a devotion to history, an underlying fussiness. Its paranoia doesn’t come through to me and it feels overall obscure. I don’t see how the parts hang together and its rambling plot does it no favors, leaving us with set pieces that can be impressive (nose job, the priest lording over the civilization of rats) but are too disconnected to make much sense. The novel never sets up what ‘normal’ is and so, at least for me, the moral horror of the 20th Century or the mechanization of modern life, or whatever Pynchon is getting at, is never able to properly destabilize and horrify. We start out lost.
There’s also a slight thing I’d need to look at closer: the carefully described Stencil portions, reaching back into history to trace who ‘V.’ is… Seem to be in a full 3rd person omniscient POV. But, this puts Pynchon’s narrator in a godlike position, doesn’t it? And so the obscurity of meaning is malicious rather than edifying, right?
What I’ve most responded to, so far, has been the rhythm of the Benny Profane portions, him and his buddies, the Whole Sick Crew. There’s this sort of this bebop, forward-leaning wildness that reminds me for some reason of Animal House, especially its slobs v. squares ending (the stately parade torn apart and reordered by our heroes).
But I’m only a bit past halfway. What really has gotten me around to this post is the Mondaugen section. Essentially a long recounting of the atrocities perpetuated on the peoples of present-day Namibia by invading Germans in 1904, it’s basically stopped me dead in my tracks. The episode is so horrifying, so alarming, it feels out of place in the book. Yes, I understand the point: here, somehow, is the birthplace of all 20th Century atrocity. But it overthrows the genial, dumb madness of the Benny Profane sections especially that I wonder what the book has been doing up until this point at all. Indeed, how it will recover. Then, there’s that recognition of Pynchon’s 3rd person omniscient POV, and I’m left wondering why the decisions have been made to show what we’ve been shown. Each section is its own brand of muddy, and now the entire book is shown in its muddiness. At some point, to me, this is not a feature, it’s a bug. I understand that ultimately we’re to wonder how V. is never known or understood to be known, but either the Benny Profane sections are too ambling to provide a proper backdrop, or we need some acknowledgment for why the narrating voice is so mute in the face of a suddenly horrifying, soul-rending portion.
Ultimately I will come away impressed and jarred. But I’m not sure I’m the type to sort through a man’s box of receipts and other trash, trying to figure out what he’s been up to.