Commentary Magazine


V., by Thomas Pynchon

Keeping Cool

V.
by Thomas Pynchon.
Lippincott. 492 pp. $5.95.

V. is a first novel by an obviously talented young writer. It is an ambitious work and asks to be taken seriously, so it would be well to get to its claims to seriousness at once.

The subject of the novel is nothing less than the 20th century and its essential spirit, which is identified, every twenty pages or so, as the Inanimate. A female named V., or better, the v-ness of V.—Pynchon’s symbol of the Inanimate—is the subject of a search made by a sort of blank named Herbert Stencil whose only identity is that of “He Who Looks for V.” V. herself first appears at the beginning of the belle epoque as a young girl named Victoria Wren who is innocently mixing politics and sex in Cairo. A year or so later she appears in Florence as a free-lancing operative, happening into the midst of three comically political plots and a riot. Next, she turns up in the Paris of 1913 as a lesbian; then, as Veronica Manganese, in Malta in 1919; again, in South Africa in 1922, as Vera Meroving, where she seems to have some connection with Hitler; last, in Malta again during World War II, where dressed as a priest, she advises girls to enter the nunnery and boys to become like crystal. Here she dies in an air raid, wearing high-heeled sandals inside her shoes, a false leg, a sapphire in her navel, a glass eye which is also a watch, a wig, a Crucifixion tattooed on her bald head, and an elaborate set of false teeth. Throughout this history, she has become progressively more reified, political, deracinated, defeminized, “anti-life,” fetishistic, abstract, nameless, has become, in short, V.—while the politics in which she is involved, beginning with the comic Egyptian and Florentine intrigues, encompassing the supposed leisure and preposterousness of pre-World War I Europe, and ending with the Second World War, become more pitiless and deadly. And V. itself, the ultimate V., is the final abstraction, the hieroglyph v—here standing for a meeting place of two extremes: a confluence of “the street” of Leftist riots, of the alienated tourist, of the honky-tonk, of stone and the “hothouse” of the Rightist and conservative dream. It is also supposed to represent, I guess, the female delta made abstract by random lust, its fruit aborted. So it is that V. returns to Malta, the mother-island it is called here, to counsel abortion and abstinence. Men make inanimate; women are their victims.

But these avatars of V. make up only one-third of the novel. The rest is given over to the partyings, couplings, and “yo-yo-ings,” of a group of zanies with odd names and odd behavior among whom Herbert Stencil circulates in search of clues to V. These are the denizens of the Street, mostly New York in the 1950’s, who live out the Inanimate—rootless, frightened, desperate, weary, wantless, or cynical, they carom around at random in the great gaudy pinball machine of the times, ringing up bizarre lights and grotesque scores, colliding and drifting away to turn up again, predictably, in the oddest holes. The cast includes Benny Profane (in flight from commitment and frightened of the Street, whose most perfect citizen he is, “a schlemihl and human yo-yo” who ruins women by not loving them); Rachel Owlglass (she makes love to her MG but turns out to be a regular guy and good woman); Pig Bodine (a pig who quotes Sartre, an AWOL sailor); various other sailors of the freak-show variety; Esther Harvitz (enamored of the plastic surgeon who’s Irished her nose) ; the “Whole Sick Crew”—failed artists and hangerson around the arts: Raoul, Slab, Winsome, Fu, Charisma, Fergus Mixolydian, etc.; Mafia (lady novelist, wearer of falsies, racial and sexual ideologue); McClintic Sphere (jazz musician, who becomes wise); some shadowy characters named Dudley Eigenvalue (a “psychodontist”) and Bloody Chiclitz, the munitions king. I need only add that the plastic surgeon is assisted by a scalpel-throwing man named Trench and a woman named Irving for the reader to get the full flavor of the comedy.

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Pynchon’s humor is of the strenuous contemporary sort, for this novel goes to extraordinary lengths to be funny, extreme, alive to the soullessness of the times. But Pynchon is not a lighthanded nudger of pinball machines, and the scoreboard mostly comes up Tilt. To put it plainly, much of V. is unreadable. Pynchon’s humor gives me the impression of a generation of the brighter college wits locked up with their favorite comedians in the think-tank of an endless living room party where they are all engaged in brainstorming into existence the great American satire, the skit to end all skits. Such deliberate humor may do passably well where it meets, as it does on social occasions, an audience deliberately enjoying itself, but in the privacy of the printed page (and without the ministrations, oglings, and tongue-suckings of a professional comedian), it is impossible—perhaps a very young reader of V. might imagine an audience of the like-thinking and right-thinking enjoying themselves along with him over this sort of thing:

Mrs. Buffo [the owner of a sailor’s bar], poised on her rampart like the trumpeter of Cracow, took the full impact of the onslaught, toppling over backwards into an ice-tub as the first wave [of sailors] came hurtling over the bar. Ploy, hands outstretched, was propelled over the top. He caught on to one of the tap handles and simultaneously his shipmates let go; his momentum carried him and the handle in a downward arc: beer began to gush from the foam rubber breast in a white cascade, washing over Ploy, Mrs. Buffo and two dozen sailors who had come around the bar in a flanking action and who were now battering one another into insensibility.

The trouble, however, goes deeper than this broad, youthful, self-conscious humor with its fatiguing brightness, its bad jokes, and toneless prose. It resides in the fact that Pynchon is an extremely facile writer of caricature. If Virginia Woolf, Gide, Borges, Proust, and Lawrence Durrell, for example, turn up in V., they do so not as “influences” but as taking-off points. It is very much as if Pynchon’s talent can only work given the springboard of pastiche, as if he can deal with his characters only on the condition that they are isolated and qualified by some literary or psychological tongue-in-cheek. Thus he has great difficulty in stabilizing his characters and in getting them to talk to one another, for they are constantly being defaced by the universal solvent of Pynchon’s archness, which functions like some hidden second thought of the writer, something he knows that his characters don’t know: that he is the only deviser and player of the pinball game through which they spin. Naturally, the characters will have their revenge, and enter into a subtle conspiracy with the reader against him, for both want a serious existence for the characters. As in some anti-novel or anti-play, Pynchon’s characters seem always on the verge of demanding their author to grant them their freedom. But given their screwball beginnings in the novel and the air, breathless and hypomanic, of pastiche continuously surrounding them, nothing could be more meaningless than the problem of Rachel finding fruitful love, Esther having an abortion, Benny Profane reaching the end of the Street. Maybe Pynchon himself is secretly on the characters’ side, since he frequently introduces a sane and sympathetic note into his weird scenes. As it stands, however, the characters do not struggle with one another but against their premises. The real source of the Inanimate in V. is the author.

The Inanimate again! The springboard of caricature leads to the pratfall of theme, the false empyrean of the former implies the false profundity of the latter. As I have noted, the theme of the Inanimate is explained and commented on throughout the novel—necessarily, for it constitutes the ground of seriousness that the characters themselves lack; when the whirling balls finally come to rest, they tumble into the great fosse of the theme, the sea level into which all of the novel drains. The characters turn out to be mere instances of the Inanimate, all the dizzy details of their careers reduced to the prosaicism of the author’s intention. And this means, I think, that Pynchon hasn’t conceived of his theme greatly enough. He may show the Inanimate to be omnipresent, but he hasn’t made it important, for his characters are themselves worthless.

One last thought. McClintic Sphere, the jazz musician, gets wisdom, which is summarized in his motto, “Keep cool, but care.” This is an old wisdom. The version of T. S. Eliot (who was also afflicted with pastiche) is, “Teach us to care and not to care.” (I think the order of caring and not caring given in the Eliot line is the right one; Sphere’s higgledy-piggledy cutely “authentic” prose holds no charm for me.) Maybe the wisdom of the next line in Ash Wednesday might be apt for Pynchon’s practice as a novelist: “Teach us to sit still.”

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