Nothing more intricately conceived than Thomas Pynchon’s first novel has appeared in American fiction since the work in the thirties by Faulkner, Nathanael West and Djuna Barnes, the last two being among the writers who have given him the courage of his artifices and of the assumptions that go with them. V. is full of self-mystified people consistently avoiding direct relations with one another through disguise or evasion, people living the disrupted existences either of the Cook’s Tour, in one plot, or, in the other, of a kind of contemporary tourism called “yo-yoing,” the pointless, repetitive passage and return on any convenient ferry or subway. Neither of the two interwoven plots is presented in sequence. One involves a self-styled schlemihl named Benny Profane, his naval buddies, and a gang in New (sometimes “Nueva”) York who call themselves the Whole Sick Crew. The other is an international melodrama of spying that covers the years since 1898. It is reconstructed by Herbert Stencil—the name meaning that he is a copy of his father in the effort to keep track of the elusive V. He cannot be sure what V. is, whether she (or it) is not wholly a fantasy.
Even the title of the novel is thus cryptographic. V. comes to stand for anything to which, in the absence of love, one devotes his passion and curiosity. It can refer to a bar called the V-note, where Benny and the Crew listen to a jazz player named McClintic Sphere; to Valetta on Malta: to a sewer rat, Veronica, so named by a Father Fairing who wants, in his efforts to convert the rats of New York to Roman Catholicism, to make Veronica his first saint and his mistress; to Venus, the goddess, the planet, the mons Veneris—to Venezuela and Queen Victoria, to Vesuvius and other volcanoes, to the mythical land of Vheissu with its iridescent spider monkeys. So far as Stencil is concerned, however, V. is a lady internationally renowned as spy, lover, transvestite and impersonator. She has been on the scene of various international crises since her first appearance in Cairo during the Fashoda incident in 1898. There, in her nineteenth year, and under the name Virginia Wren, she is deflowered by a British agent. The next year she is in Florence coincident with a manufactured crisis over Vheissu (and, of course, Venezuela) during which she seduces Stencil’s father at the British consulate, thereby becoming Stencil’s mother. In subsequent impersonations, she is identified in Paris in 1913 as the Lesbian fetishist lover of a dancer named Mélanie l’Heuremaudit. Still later, she is placed in German Southwest Africa during a native rebellion in 1922, and in this instance is given two simultaneous identities by Stencil: as a child of sixteen with white-blond, hiplength hair and the information that “I am Hedwlg Vogelsang, and my purpose on earth is to tantalize and send raving the race of man”; and as the older, more subtle Vera Meroving who sports a glass eye, the face of which is also a watch, and a star sapphire sewn into her navel on Malta in 1919-she was known then as Veronica Manganese. She makes her last appearance, in Stencil’s increasingly weird dehumanization of the figure, again on Malta in 1939 when, disguised as a priest with a detachable gold foot, she is knocked unconscious in a bombing raid and disassembled by a group of children who are less mean than inquisitive.
Roughly speaking, each story involving V. as lady spy and seductress is given a chapter, sometimes narrated by the author, sometimes by Stencil to members of the Crew or to Dudley Eigenvalue, a “psychodontist” who treats patients for such ills as “heterodont configuration.” Alternating with these tales are chapters devoted to the career of Benny Profane—as yo-yo, schlemihl, hunter of alligators in the New York sewers, or, as we first see him, as assistant to a Brazilian salad man at a borscht resort. It is here, at the opening of the novel, that he meets the most humanly identifiable of the characters, if that is what they can be called, a Rachel Owlglass, she who can see wisely without becoming a voyeur. Though she is to become the moral heroine of the novel, she is at first presented with a satiric extravagance that puts an excessive limit on the possible development of the figures in the books. She is at the time a Bennington girl, full of postures and a greater desire for sexual contact with her MG than with Benny: ” ‘Benny,’ she cried—a little cry—’be my friend, is all.’ ”
Anyone reading this account of the novel, insofar as it has been possible to give one, will probably take Rachel’s “little cry” for friendship with a kind of wry amusement. And in fact that is what the novel itself seems to ask of us, especially at this particular point where the weight of surrounding caricature bears heavily upon her. But the comic intention is thwarted by an uncertain pathos, and one comes to feel even this early in the novel a considerable discomfort about its alternations of pace and sensibility. Pynchon’s comic style resembles the zanier writings of Evelyn Waugh or the early S.J. Perelman. Inherent in the dislocations between this style and the moments where the author wants to evoke human sympathy and tenderness is the guess that Pynchon will not feel that these comparisons do justice to his book. And in some important ways they do not. His ambitions in V. are prodigious, enough to demand comparison less with Perelman than with the Joyce of the Circe episode of Ulysses. He shows unusual capacities for philosophical discriminations, an astonishing knowledgeability—of history, medicine, geography, sexual lore—all expressed with an authoritative ease especially remarkable in a young writer, and he has the eye and ear of a great parodist. With such talents, he is limited now only by his determination to show off. His displays of genius tend to jostle each other out of the way; his comic inventions are always so active, his caricature so eager, that he cannot effectively allow his characters the seriousness and delicacy his thematic ambitions require of them.
The insistent grotesqueness of this novel—literally of confusing human, animate and inanimate things—is Pynchon’s way of showing a world in which gestures of human warmth, kindness or love are barely visible, and his elaborately jumbled plots make it appear that such gestures are unable, even temporarily, to bring order and sequence to the lives of his characters. The effect of his grotesqueness is thus extremely pessimistic, especially since the interweaving of the two plots makes the decadence of life, public and private, seem like a historical development that has been accelerating since the end of the last century. Obviously, Pynchon’s view of modern existence is too speculative to center on any institutionalized villain or to expend itself in yet another attack on “conformity.” His book is about the failure of human beings to arouse in one another their potentialities for love and hope. They choose instead to become, in a metaphorical sense, inanimate, like Benny Profane whom Rachel finally cannot save from the Whole Sick Crew. Or they find some hopeless animation in the madly ingenious orderings of life around a phanton like V., creating in the process those international situations that have no objective reality but which express an unconscious, universal urge to self-annihilation. The search for V. is not along a path of human victory but of historical fatality, constructed, even sought, by those characters, by far the most numerous, whose incapacity for love allows them to see the human image only as a thing to see in the spread thighs of a woman, for instance, only a V. Being at first a participant in this surrender to the inanimate. Rachel must of necessity cry “be my friend” in a small voice, even though her later scenes with Profane are the most eloquently poignant in the book.
Pynchon would obviously like to imagine some way out of the paralysis toward which his comedy is always pointing. And yet wherever he tries an alternative his style usually betrays the effort. It becomes limp and platitudinous, especially in the treatment of kindly bartenders or, as he rather cloyingly alludes to them, “young people.” The advice which McClintic Sphere gives himself—“Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it: keep cool but care”—is also a kind of stoic coda to the book. But in the context of the startling energy, stress and imagination of the prose devoted to the grotesque shape which life assumes here, McClintic’s line, full of a sloganeering crispness, sounds like so much pap. To have therefore mocked it is more, no doubt, than this brilliantly apocalyptic writer had the heart to do. This means, I think, that while there are still unmanageable conflicts in him he is strong enough to evade them—a most productive tension in a novelist, who, in his debut, earns the right to be called one of the best we now have.
June 1, 1963