Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V., was published in 1963 when its author was 26 years old. Forty-plus years on, it’s easy to see V. and Pynchon as the highly influential—and influenced—novel and writer they are. William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac are present in the fluid free association of Pynchon’s writing, while the novel is clearly a force field surrounding and influencing the likes of Richard Powers and Don DeLillo (especially with their interest in conspiracy) as well as T.C. Boyle and J.G. Ballard, to name just a few.
V. is an amazing piece of work and one that stands the conventional structure of the novel on its head:
Instead of a conventional plot composed of rising action leading to a denouement or climax and followed by a resolution in which loose ends are tied up, V. descends down various lines of force (vectors) to a nadir and then rises up and simply flies away. Everything about V. is V-shaped, from its interstitial weaving of storylines to the geometry of its syntax. Although V. is frequently acclaimed as an early and great example of post-modernism it is, in fact, an even greater example of modernist formalism.
V. operates by means of a trigonometric function, that of triangulation. Allegedly the novel, according to the synoptic blurb on the cover, is “about” (the word hardly has meaning in this context) “two men—one looking for something he has lost, the other with nothing much to lose—and ‘V.,’ the unknown woman of the title.” Benny Profane, recently ex-Navy, presumably has nothing to lose. He gets drunk, sleeps in bathtubs, and runs wild with his pals in a (mostly harmless) gang called the Whole Sick Crew. Herbert Stencil is the “man” who searches for something he has lost. Profane is a well-drawn character but Stencil, as his name implies, is a cut-out who refers to himself in the third person. Stencil hasn’t lost anything; the V. he seeks is something—or someone—he never had. Stencil isn’t a character so much as a template of a seeker, with all the bumbling naïf-like sincerity that implies.
But what of this creature, V.? If she’s a woman, than in V. she is many women: Veronica Manganese, Viola, Victoria, Vera Meroving…. “Mere roving?” The novel does seem nomadic, roving, as if following some inner compass bent on directionless travel, as if written by a latter-day Chuang Tzu (who, like Pynchon, was a near-legendary writer and recluse and “aimless wanderer”). Closer reading, however, reveals the trigonometric precision of the book: like its unruly stepchild, Gravity’s Rainbow, V. is targeted like a V-2 rocket. It follows a parabola down an arc that creates a paranoiac parable—all the while escaping its own gravity with jokes, bits of parodic song, and set pieces. This “bird” won’t be caged.
V. is not “a” woman, anyway, neither in the specific nor the symbolic sense. One of the Veronicas in the novel is a rat who wants to be a nun (featured in a wonderful set piece about alligator-hunting in the sewers of New York). Other V.s are various volcanoes (such as Vesuvius), virginity (though, as far as I can tell, no actual virgins), voyeurs, the (truly) mysterious country of Vheissu (which if it exists outside Stencil’s imagination lies at the nadir of the world, Antarctica) and the capital of Malta, Valletta.
V., in short, is a history of the twentieth century written from the point of view of a yo-yo—a toy that describes the precise arc described above. Benny Profane, and other members of the Whole Sick Crew, yo-yo around the New York subway system and up and down the East Coast. The interwoven chapters concerning Stencil and his quest (and what is a quest but, pace Joseph Campbell, the delusional yo-yoing of an egomaniac—see Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, etc.—trying to find his lost marbles, er, bearings?) yo-yo convulsively through time and space: the net effect of all this is the sensation of movement. Where are we going? Nowhere (otherwise known as “utopia”), everywhere—it’s “touch and go,” as Pynchon writes, the point being to touch and then move on: the novel’s “particular shape” is “governed only by the surface accidents of history at the time.” There’s a Yoyodyne Corporation in V. (as in The Crying of Lot 49 and the film featuring Buckaroo Bonzai) that is a nexus of “breathings-together”—literally, con-spiracies. What Pynchon has done is to take the “V-structure” of a “normal” (read: mainstream or Hollywood) narrative and skew it: thus there’s a character called “Eigenvalue,” the mathematical term for skewing a space along one or more axes.
What we end up with is a book that is wildly funny and entertaining and—much to the glee of the literary-industrial complex—infinitely analyzable. As a writer, Pynchon is himself an Eigenvalue: he lives along the planes and tangents of popular culture, an “architect-by-necessity,” and like a Borg absorbing and transforming everything with which he comes into contact. With V. we always recognize where we are even if we can’t name the place. But then, as Buckaroo Bonzai said as he made ready to descend into the depths of Yoyodyne, “Wherever you go, there you are.”