Sunday, 1 May 2016

V. by Thomas Pynchon

V. is the debut novel by Thomas Pynchon, first published in 1963.

As usual with Pynchon, the plot is complex to the point of confusion. The main plot is about Herbert Stencil, who is on a search for V, which is an abbreviation for something or someone, probably a woman. Stencil learned about V from his dead father, Sidney Stencil's notebooks. V appears in various places at various time periods, including Egypt in 1898, Florence in 1899, Paris in 1913, Southwest Africa in 1922, and several times in Valletta, Malta.

The novel also has sections which are heavily influenced by the Beat generation and describe the adventures of a group of bohemians called "The Whole Sick Crew" in 1950s New York. These center around a drifter called Benny Profane.

Despite this being a debut novel, in V. we met Pynchon fully formed, coming seemingly directly from the head of Zeus. Here we all of Pynchon's trademarks such as his absurdist humour, his labyrinthine plots, weird names (such as Rachel Owlglass or Kurt Mondaugen) or his musical prose. He blends together high and low culture, with V. having elements of the detective, science fiction, adventure and spy genres.

The meaning of the novel is, as always with Pynchon, obscure. He never answers the central question of the book: what does V. stand for? With each page, the answer seems to change. V might very well stand for Valletta, Venezuela, Botticelli's Venus or even a fictional place called Vheissu.

In the end, the most probable answer seems to be that V., at least the one mentioned in the notebooks, is a woman, with many names, but which all begin with V, such as Victoria Wren, Vera Meroving and Veronica Manganese. It's possible that she is Stencil's mother.

As said, she appears in various places at various times. The common denominator between these episodes seems to be that they are times of violence and crisis. Does she cause them in some way? Is  she somehow connected to the horrors of modern Western civilization, such as war, imperialism and genocide?

Again, the question is: what does V stand for? Maybe there are several answers, or none at all. It's possible that Stencil's search for V. is meaningless and ultimately is just one of mankind's attempts to give meaning and order to a chaotic universe, the futility of which is a theme also explored by Pynchon in his later books.

The novel also ask the big existential questions, that were so popular in the post-war era when the novel was written. It's made explicit that the search of V. is Stencil's way of giving meaning and purpose to an otherwise aimless life. It's his sisyphean task. The purposeless, drifting lives of Benny Profane and the Whole Sick Crew are of course also related to his existentialist musings.

But even if V. remains a mystery, it is an entertaining one. Even if you are not up to solving it's puzzles, one can always be swept along by Pynchon's humour or his prose. One can't help but be impressed that this is the work of someone who was only 26 years old.

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