Monday, July 25, 2022

Pynchon's V.

"Stencil has stayed off Malta."

Ever since I've been signing up for the European Reading Challenge, there's been these two big historical/encyclopedic novels that turn around Malta I've been thinking about rereading. It turns out this is the year for one, V., Pynchon's debut novel. (The other is Anthony Burgess' Earthly Powers.)

Part of the resistance was I'm not sure I'm capable of saying anything about either one.

But let's see. First, the story: the novel has two interlocking plot lines. One in 1956, (the present, roughly; the novel comes out in 1963) and the other in a series of discrete moments from 1898 to 1943. The protagonist of the present is Benny Profane, in his early 20s, child of a religiously mixed marriage (Jewish/Italian Catholic), born in New York City, recently having served a hitch in the US Navy, but now at odds and ends. (Which things, I think, are basically Pynchon himself, except Pynchon's mix is Episcopal/Catholic, and he grew up further out on Long Island, not in the city itself.) The other timeline is the result of an investigation by Herbert Stencil into a woman V., possibly Veronica Wren, who was, as a teenager, caught up in the assassination of a British spy in Cairo in 1898. Herbert's father is Sydney Stencil, a British Foreign Service agent/spy. V. may (or may not) be Herbert's mother. 

Benny is a schlemiel, and is constantly at war with objects: alarm clocks don't wake him; flashlight batteries fail; at one point he tries to rappel down the side of a building and is left hanging upside down. Benny has (imaginary?) late night conversations with a crash-test dummy: they're soul-brothers of a sort, individuals whom the powerful mechanisms of the modern world are out to damage, possibly destroy.

But une guerre contre les objets is the honourable position; the alternative is V., gradually turning herself into an object, glass eye, false teeth, artificial leg. This conflict is Pynchon's theme.

"'I detect allegory in all this,' she said.
'No,' said Slab. 'That is on the same intellectual level as doing the Times crossword puzzle on Sunday. Phony. Unworthy of you.'"
There are moments when it feels like a schematic message novel--Pynchon's message would definitely be humanist, anti-machine, admirable--but the novel escapes allegorical reductionism by a deliberate fudging. V. is not just symbol of the dehumanization of people into objects in the 20th century. (Appropriate as that might be, with the ultimate dehumanization being nuclear annihilation. 1956 is the year of the Suez crisis, important to the novel, and of Hungary. War seemed closer.) But V. is also the woman Veronica Wren, maybe somebody's mother, who's capable of falling in love. (Though not with Sydney Stencil.)

The novel's also funny, or at least I think so:
"Mountebank is a dying profession; all the good ones have moved into politics."
Pynchon is also famous for his zany song lyrics, which can be found in V., although I think he gets better at this as he goes along.

Pynchon also gets better at female characters--though never great--and the women are thinly realized in this, with Benny Profane's sometime girlfriend Rachel Owlglass being the best-drawn of the lot. From Pynchon's (wonderful) introduction to his collection of short stories Slow Learner (1984):
"Modern readers will be, at least, put off by an unacceptable level of racist, sexist, and proto-Fascist talk throughout this story. I wish I could say that this is only Pig Bodine's voice, but, sad to say, it was also my own at the time. The best I can say for it now is that, for its time, it is probably authentic enough."
Pynchon is writing of one of his stories in Slow Learner, but Pig Bodine is a character that also shows up in V., and it's also kind of true of the novel.

Still, I find it a pretty great novel. And it reaches its climax on Malta. Stencil had stayed off Malta; I had, too; but no longer.

You could even call it a classic...

which I've read a few times:

I guess I can treat myself to a new copy. 😉