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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Big August Novel: V. by Thomas Pynchon

V. and books like it present the critic with something of a conundrum. If I tell you I found it unnecessarily confusing and obscurant then you might justifiably charge me with not being equal to the task of reading it. On the other hand, if I praise it effusively, intimating that I understood all of it, then you would probably realize I was full of shit.

So let me say this, then. The parts I understood, I mostly enjoyed. The parts I did not understand, I did not.

The question that remains is, would I enjoy the book more if I were smarter? If I were, say, as smart as the man who wrote it? Maybe, but I doubt it. It’s probably not worth leaning Maltese over, at any rate. To me, V. reads more like an author pouring out the whole of his consciousness on the page in an attempt to bewilder the reader into being impressed with his intellect. As a reader I find this an irredeemably hollow reason to write a novel.

I hesitate to even try to summarize the plot of V. The novel’s two main protagonists are Benny Profane, a discharged sailor who believes that he is a schlemiel through-and-through and is in a private war against inanimate objects, and Herbert Stencil, the aging son of a diplomat who is on a lifelong search for the mysterious woman referred to in his father’s journals only by the single initial of the title. Profane and Stencil both become involved in the antics of a group of lost young people that calls itself the Whole Sick Crew.

About half the chapters are told as Stencil’s versions of V.’s history, taking the reader through episodes in world history when situations seemed on the brink of disaster. From the Fashoda crisis in 1899 through the German cruelties in Southwest Africa to the Suez crisis, Stencil follows her trail. Some of these episodes are compelling, none more so than the Southwest Africa chapter, which takes place at a surreal house party that lasts for months due to an uprising of the oppressed local tribes. Others are deliberately confusing and/or alienating, such as a chapter taken from the journal of one character’s Maltese father, which is so boring and pointlessly long that I even considered abandoning the novel, though I was more than three-quarters through it.

The Whole Sick Crew chapters are kind of fun for a while, but increasingly frustrating as they fritter away to no real resolutions. There are far too many characters in the Crew and few if any of them really jump off the page and become real to the reader. Most of them are just funny names with one or two signifiers, if that. (For a while I wasn’t sure whether one character’s name referred to a person or to a cat. I suppose this could be my fault, but I still think it’s symptomatic of the novel’s aversion to straight-forwardness.)

I tried before writing this review to find some discussion online of the important themes of the novel. But then I realized that the fact that I needed to do that said it all, from my point of view. There are recurring tropes, of course, but I honestly have no idea what any of it is supposed to represent.

The extremely interesting parts of V. are all the more frustrating because of how much better they are than the rest of the novel. When the novel has a clear story to tell it tells it in intriguing and arresting fashion, but too often the novel is just a collection of Pynchon’s awful original song lyrics and assorted other juvenilia. (Examples or the author’s much remarked upon humor were hard to find, unless the idea of an artist painting portraits of cheese Danishes is in itself hilarious to you.) It’s clear that Mr. Pynchon is an immensely talented author and a staggering intellect. I just wish that in V. he’d decided to showcase the former instead of the latter.

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