My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Thomas Pynchon’s astoundingly precocious 1963 debut is a double narrative.
Its first plot, set largely in 1956, narrates the misadventures of ex-Navy sailor Benny Profane (“a schlemihl and human yo-yo”) along with a company of bohemians called the Whole Sick Crew, as they drink and joke and work odd jobs and paint and talk theory and have sex and generally dither their way through the nascent postwar counterculture. Profane’s particular dilemma, exemplifying his larger cohort’s, is his inability to commit to any project or relationship, poignantly dramatized by his rejection of the love of his would-be girlfriend, Rachel Owlglass, almost the novel’s sole unambiguously good character.
Also orbiting the Whole Sick Crew is Herbert Stencil, an older man and world traveller who has inherited the papers of his father, a British spy killed mysteriously in 1919. Born in 1901, Stencil is “the century’s child” and is persuaded that his father several times encountered a mysterious woman he calls V. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. V. is somehow—Stencil is not clear how, and neither is the reader—the conspiratorial nexus or spiritual embodiment of the growth of totalitarian politics and technological domination across the 20th century.
Stencil’s quest for her secret leads him to discover, retell, or simply imagine a succession of Conradian novellas of imperial intrigue that narrate obliquely, always from an observer’s vantage, V.’s appearances and re-appearances in Egypt, South West Africa, Florence, Paris, and Malta at moments of geopolitical crisis from the late 19th century forward.
Stencil’s modernist reveries interrupt at intervals the Beat novel Profane is starring in—complete with alligator-hunting in the New York sewers and profound reflections on jazz and ’50s conformity—until the two plot-lines converge on a single point (like the eponymous letter) when Profane accompanies Stencil to Malta, the place where V. died during World War II.
Though this is Pynchon’s first big performance—and a youthful one: he was only 26 when V. was published—his world and, more importantly, his tone are already fully established in it. Pynchon’s tone, more even than his themes, has proven immensely influential well beyond the precincts of literary fiction; its swings between puerile absurdity and aching tristesse is why masters of popular culture from Matt Groening to Alan Moore have paid tribute to this ostensibly recondite author. And though it is indelible, his work’s very extremism, its lack of any middle ground between sentiment and sarcasm, is lamented by several characters throughout V.
Stencil’s father, for instance, muses after the Great War that the sociopolitical future will be divided between reactionaries and revolutionaries, between an idealized elitist past and an impossible populist future, thus annulling any ability to experience the present:
“If there is any political moral to be found in this world,” Stencil once wrote in his journal, “it is that we carry on the business of this century with an intolerable double vision. Right and Left; the hothouse and the street. The Right can only live and work hermetically, in the hothouse of the past, while outside the Left prosecute their affairs in the streets by manipulated mob violence. And cannot live but in the dreamscape of the future.
“What of the real present, the men-of-no-politics, the once-respectable Golden Mean? Obsolete; in any case, lost sight of. In a West of such extremes we can expect, at the very least, a highly ‘alienated’ populace within not many more years.”
If Stencil père attributes this baleful change to World War I, another of the novel’s minor characters, the jazzman McClintic Sphere, blames the Second World War:
After a while he said, not really to her, “Ruby, what happened after the war? That war, the world flipped. But come ’45, and they flopped. Here in Harlem they flopped. Everything got cool—no love, no hate, no worries, no excitement. Every once in a while, though, somebody flips back. Back to where he can love…”
Sphere, a composite of Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman representing jazz’s modernist turn, is the only postwar artist Pynchon portrays as a positive creative force. More characteristic of the Whole Sick Crew is a painter named Slab who does endless studies of Cheese Danish.
The novel links the Crew’s postwar malady to the proto-fascist modernism, in which V. dabbled on her way to collaboration with Mussolini, by naming the whole problem “decadence”—a slumming and self-marginalized cultural elite’s sterile, repetitive, and inorganic inability to create newness in art or society, echoed in the personal life by the failure of eros:
The rest of the Crew partook of the same lethargy. Raoul wrote for television, keeping carefully in mind, and complaining bitterly about, all the sponsor-fetishes of that industry. Slab painted in sporadic bursts, referring to himself as a Catatonic Expressionist and his work as “the ultimate in non-communication.” Melvin played the guitar and sang liberal folk songs. The pattern would have been familiar—bohemian, creative, arty—except that it was even further removed from reality, Romanticism in its furthest decadence, being only an exhausted impersonation of poverty, rebellion and artistic “soul.
So much for Art. What of Thought? The Crew had developed a kind of shorthand whereby they could set forth any visions that might come their way. Conversations at the Spoon had become little more than proper nouns, literary allusions, critical or philosophical terms linked in certain ways. Depending on how you arranged the building blocks at your disposal, you were smart or stupid. Depending on how others reacted they were In or Out. The number of blocks, however, was finite. […] This sort of arranging and rearranging was Decadence, but the exhaustion of all possible permutations and combinations was death.
This depiction of the counterculture as ineffectual vanguard resonates in the present, needless to say. Bohemia is longer on political pretense than on artistic these days—now the Whole Sick Crew is called the Democratic Socialists of America—but otherwise the spectacle of the urban creative class wasting its time and talent on ephemera and therefore failing to live up to the old ideal of culture hasn’t aged a day.
Pynchon does not exactly subscribe to this old ideal either, however, since everywhere the novel looks in history it finds a similar decadence. The Stencil chapters indict every avant-garde from late-Victorian aestheticism to high modernism on charges of complicity with the power-and-control politics slowly overtaking the whole of the 20th-century world.
For example, Stencil’s second most harrowing chapter, “V. in love,” tells of how V. arrives in Paris just in time for Le Sacre du printemps (satirically rechristened for the novel The Rape of the Chinese Virgins) and has a murderously sadistic affair with a young dancer who ends up impaled on the stage while stand-ins for Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and Diaghilev look on. Of bohemian Paris’s compulsory transgressions, the narrator observes with killing understatement, “Among the upper rooms of a new middle-class home in the 17th arrondissement Black Mass was held every Sunday.”
The problem didn’t start in the 19th century either, or else why does the novel’s “soul dentist,” Eigenvalue, think of the Whole Sick Crew as “the neo-Jacobean school”? Likewise, in Stencil’s single most harrowing chapter, “Mondaugen’s story,” in which a company of genocidal European settlers has an orgiastic “siege party” in German-occupied South West Africa, the carnage is likened to “a mural of the Dance of Death.” If the decadence goes back to the Middle Ages—were the goliards the original Whole Sick Crew?—then how can modernity or modernism be to blame?
One of Pynchon’s purposes in V., I take it, is to offer us historical narratives to explain present problems while showing up the limitations of every such imagined and imposed story. Can we trace the roots of modern genocide, technologically-enabled totalitarianism, and cultural exhaustion to modernism and imperialism? Yes, but then certain human problems—and the failed solution of artists’ jaded retreat from them—are perennial. Historical narratives are, therefore, arbitrary: we apply the “stencil,” as it were, of our own interests and expectations to the chaos of past and present in forming our accounts of how we got from there to here. As the Maltese poet Fausto Maijstral muses in another of the Stencil chapters:
Living as he 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.
Maijstral also describes his literary generation as “ruined” by T. S. Eliot. How does Pynchon avoid a similar ruination, even as he, too, elegizes a modern waste land? McClintic Sphere, in perhaps the novel’s most famous lines, offers this solution:
Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it: keep cool, but care.
Pynchon answers this mandate by giving us the poetry (“care”) and the critique of the poetry (“cool”), the symbol (“care”) and the reminder that the symbol is an invented simplification of reality (“cool”), in one gesture. This chastened recursion sets him apart from predecessors like Eliot and Yeats, though he echoes their techniques, their concerns, and even their symbology. His insistence on metanarrative as antidote to literary totalitarianism has earned him the label “postmodernist,” and, if we restrict our comparison to the modernist poets, the moniker fits.
On the other hand, novelists have been loving with their mouths shut since Cervantes at least—since cool and care first took to the road as Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, respectively, and this goes for the modernists as well. Is Conrad any less meta, Joyce any less ludic, Woolf any less anarchic than Pynchon? Far from some radical departure, V., even at its most experimental, is in the main line of the novel as art form.
Arguments about -isms aside, is V. a great or even a good novel? I can’t say anything very bad about a book so densely, richly, abundantly imagined. There is a line, an image, a fact, an allusion, an insight, or an idea to arrest the attention on every single page. In this review, I don’t even have time to mention many of V.‘s marvels: the priest who baptized New York’s sewer rats and then argued theology with them, the Pym-like hidden country near Antarctica, the brutally explicit nose-job sequence, and more. Combine these wonders with the book’s overall architecture—its enthralling if baffling allegory plus the lucid critique of allegory—and you have a formidable novel. But if Pynchon is splendid at the micro of wordplay, reference, and description, and equally adept at the macro of ideological superstructure, he nevertheless has a much harder time with the more traditional middle ground of character and plot.
Pynchon’s silliness, his flattening cartoonishness, wears out its welcome. V. spends far too much time in the company of overgrown adolescent boys, half lamenting their arrested development and half expecting us to laugh at their stupid jokes. I would have preferred a lot less of the Whole Sick Crew and even a little less of Profane, whose dithering unfits him for the role of protagonist. If Pynchon had given Profane more of a justification for his irresponsibility, had made of him a Roquentin or Meursault, or else had painted him as nicer and more charming in the manner of Leopold Bloom, it might have been effective. But at this immature jerk who spurns the love of Rachel Owlglass—V.’s antitype and the novel’s moral center, a mundanely (and therefore triumphantly) decent human being characterized, as critics have observed, by the wise vision her surname implies—we can only shake our heads in impatience and disappointment.
A persistent doubt I have about Pynchon is this mismatch between simplicity of theme and difficulty of means. It is a wonder he was ever thought a smirking nihilist. He strikes me, rather, as the textbook case of a man laughing so he doesn’t cry. Moreover, I understand the purgative therapy he wants to perform with his novels’ often only partially comprehensible plots and off-putting grotesqueness: he wants to glut us with paranoia and puerility so that we sicken of them. Still, if he’s so convinced that decadence is deadly, why such showy complicity with it? Is it not an unedifyingly circuitous route to the endorsement of values that Tolstoy would have understood?
The best counter to this is that the ever-increasing complexity of our society makes paranoia a given. Everybody believes one conspiracy theory or another; it’s almost impossible not to. We are all Herbert Stencil, at least in part. The storytelling strategies of Tolstoy perhaps can’t capture the inevitability of such hunger for master narratives or persuasively warn of the dangers they pose.
Good paranoid fiction should be prophetic enough to induce apophenia in even much later readers. Here V. uncannily succeeds. For most of the novel, I could not shake the following absurd thought: the candidate the aforementioned DSA takes to be the CIA’s man in the 2020 Democratic nominating contest is the son of a Maltese Marxist and a partisan of experimental fiction to boot—Joyce, alas, not Pynchon. If Pynchon represents Malta as the omphalos of the 20th century—the corruption of its matriarchy into the cruel goddess of modernity allegorizing a more general dialectic of enlightenment—what can its new prominence in American politics mean? Maybe nothing, maybe everything.
This dizzying double perspective, in which any one phenomenon signifies both the all and the null, is Pynchon’s balm to the sick crew of his readership—we who can neither cease caring nor afford to lose our cool.