# V. by Thomas Pynchon - Book Review

  • What: I actually can't remember why I wrote this but V. is one of my favourite books from my favourite author. Everyone read this book.
  • When: June 2018
  • Who: Me

# Review

The first time I traversed Thomas Pynchon’s novel V., I found myself repeatedly flicking back to the inside-cover to check the publication date. Yes these 492 pages really were released in 1963, and even more implausibly, they came from the mind of a 26-year-old on debut.

The book opens on Christmas Eve, 1955 in Virginia with our protagonist Benny Profane witnessing a violent scuffle between a bar-full of drunk, miscreant sailors. The catalyst for this fight is an engineman named Ploy who enjoys sharpening his teeth with a file and biting barmaids. As the night unfolds, Benny finds himself on a bus to New York where he meets a troupe of unemployed, talentless artists and ultimately lands a job hunting albino alligators in the sewers of Manhattan. The events of V. unravel from here and span three continents and about 50 years.

At this point, you might be wondering what the hell this book is actually about. Honestly, even after a second reading I’m still unsure. I can tell you that within it’s pages you’ll find a mad priest who preaches sermons to rats, a step-by-step description of a rhinoplasty procedure, a Namibian genocide, international espionage and a telepathic robot, but I can’t explain what it all means. In fact even the title is amorphous. A character named Stencil spends most of the novel on a quest to find the elusive V. but even he doesn’t seem to know if what he’s searching for is a place, person or object. Maybe it’s all of those things, ya dig?

I hesitate to classify V. as a postmodern work, but with character names like “Dudley Eigenvalue” and a plot that metaphorically forms the shape of the letter V, it is a difficult label to avoid. The book even contains a “Kilroy was here” cartoon (accompanied by a fictitious explanation of how this symbol was originally derived from the schematic of a band-pass filter). With that said, I would argue that V. (and much of Pynchon’s work) actually transcends postmodern fiction. David Foster Wallace described postmodern irony as being effective at exposing hypocrisies and falsehoods but claimed that it offers no solutions. These characteristics are present in V. and the book does utilise some postmodern tropes, but Pynchon’s experimental and dream-like prose is also transparently indebted to exponents of Beat literature such as Burroughs and Kerouac. Unlike many postmodern novels, V. is populated by humane, sincere characters, imbued with real motivations and struggles and even passes the famous Bechdel test.

This book is also frequently hilarious. The 26-year-old already had an encyclopedic knowledge of disciplines such as chemistry, engineering, history and jazz, but for an author of such intellectual depth, Pynchon unselfconsciously peppers the novel with moments of broad comedy. Remarkably V. is able to flit gracefully from thoroughly modern critiques of colonialism (I repeat, this book was written in 1963 by a 26-year-old) to goofy scenes of slapstick humour.

Some passages of V. wash over you like a disturbing dream. At other times it feels like a drunk genius is rambling incoherently at you. It’s inventive, engaging and a little bit terrifying but if you’re asking what it all means, you’ve missed the point.