Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Thomas Pynchon's "V.": Book Review

This debut's strong if not a knockout. I liked its ambition, but compared to "Against the Day" nearly 45 years later, for instance, or even the recent "Inherent Vice" (see my reviews), this satisfies as a shaggy-dog tale but does not overwhelm me with its power. But, he wasn't even 25 when this bold book was published in 1961. Pynchon improved in crafting intellectual thrillers full of global conspiracies, cartoonish characters, flashes of inspired prose, and dense allusions you have to look up. These elements all exist in "V.", so it's valuable to watch them bloom. But, they often dazzle for briefer periods, before the plot veers away and its caricatured figures (few of whom manage to stick with you) recede into the distance.

Distancing does diffuse Pynchon's power. For all of their detail, the Whole Sick Crew whir past as if stick drawings in an animated film. There's an accelerated pace to this narrative crammed full of digressions and shenanigans. Granted, some chapters amass enough obsessively compiled data (how Esther gets her nose job's described in clinical, precise language), weird scenes (Father Fairing's mission to the rats) or horrific settings (South-West Africa after WWI); other events such as the siege of Malta in WWII or the attempted theft of Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" for all their bulk don't leave as much of an impression. Still, as in the passages I cite, the writing suddenly rises to its potential.

The book spins two gradually intertwined storylines. Benny Profane and the Sick Crew disembark from the Navy in dock and pal around the East Coast in Beat style, circa 1956. Here he thinks of his sometime lover, Rachel Owlglass, my favorite character, sketchy as she stays. "She visited him occasionally, as now, by night, like a succubus, coming in with the snow. There was no way he knew to keep her out." (30; Modern Library 1966 ed.) Profane eventually makes his way to Malta.

To there, Herbert Stencil early in the last century pursues the enigmatic title character "V." He tells one of her guises about the strange Arctic realm of Vheiss (similar to the pursuit of Shambhala in "Against the Day"): "As if you lived inside a madman's kaleidoscope. Even your dreams become flooded with colors, with shapes no Occidental ever saw. Not real shapes, not meaningful ones. Simply random, the way clouds change over a Yorkshire landscape." (170)

For "V." in Florence, Victoria Wren, at that moment of diversion as the theft's attempted, it was "as if she saw herself embodying a feminine principle, acting as complement to all this bursting, explosive male energy. Inviolate and calm, she watched the spasms of wounded bodies, the fair of violent death, framed and staged, it seemed, for her alone in that tiny square. From her hair the heads of five crucified also looked on, no more expressive than she." (209)

Later, regarding her latest incarnation as Victoria: "If she was an historical fact then she continued active today and at the moment, because the ultimate Plot Which Has No Name was as yet unrealized, although V. might be no more a she than a sailing vessel or a nation." (226)

The embedded tales of African terror, Maltese assault, and New York subway oddness with albino alligator hunts do serve to break up the crazy zig-zag of the plot as it is. They show Pynchon's love of invention, one of his most endearing qualities. Sections approach poetic profundity.
"Why use the room as an introduction to an apologia? Why? Why use the room as introduction to an apologia? Because the room, though windowless and cold at night, is a hothouse. Because the room is the past, though it has no history of its own. Because, as the physical being-there of a bed or horizontal plane determines what we call love; as a high place must exist before God's word can come to a flock and any sort of religion begin; so must there be a room, sealed against the present, before we can make any attempt to deal with the past." (305)

Rachel tells Benny after they make love and he's complained about his shortcomings:
"You have to grow up," she finally said. "That's all: my own unlucky boy, didn't you ever think maybe ours is an act too? We're older than you, we lived inside you once: the fifth rib, closest to the heart. We learned all about it then. After that it had to become our game to nourish a heart you all believe is hollow though we know different. Now you all live inside us, for nine months, and when ever you decide to come back after that." (370)

The Epilogue in 1919 follows the connection between the 1956 and the earlier stories of the pursuit of "V." I felt the last third of the book lagged as the Crew's exploits rushed by in more dull than lively fashion, but as of 1961 their carrying on might have felt fresher than it does a half-century later. The Maltese setting's innovative, even if the characters and their plotting don't add up to as much as one hopes (a common result for Pynchon's schemers). Still, near the end, it winds up in relevant fashion, as do many of his subsequent novels, no matter how wildly told.

"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." (468)

I found this readable, not nearly as hard to comprehend as I'd been warned. As I turned the pages I kept wondering what would happen next. There's a lot of valleys compared to peaks, but any imaginative reader may find this entertaining and sometimes philosophical. Like "Inherent Vice," there's a detective plot overlaying deeper reflections. As with "The Crying of Lot 49" which came next, this sketches out a sketchy conspiracy that remains such. Compared to "AtD," this feels more accessible and makes a good preparation. I'm off to "Gravity's Rainbow" next, feeling finally ready for its ascent. (Posted to Amazon US & 8-11-10)

No comments: