Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Battered Penguins - V by Thomas Pynchon

I know quite a lot of people who have read V, but I have not met one who professes to understand it. While Pynchon has a very readable style and the book swings along with gusto and confidence, it never really goes anywhere very much. 

Actually, I should rephrase that slightly - the book in fact goes to lots of places: Malta, Florence, Africa, New York, to name but a few. What it never does is arrive anywhere. Instead, it adopts the approach later taken - with somewhat less verve and energy - by Italo Calvino in If on a Winter's Night a Traveller and Robert Bolano in 2666 .  In those novels, and in V, one narrative gets underway and is then replaced by another and then another, over and over again.

The result is quite vexing, if you are the reader.

But is it a novelistic duty to be comprehensible and not to annoy your reader? And is it possible that Pynchon is doing something deliberate with his interruptions and general lack of coherence? Is this jumbled approach emblematic of the random absurdity of life?

Who knows. Possibly the broken narrative is a deliberate attempt to invoke the mystery of existence - or possibly it is just a sign that the author couldn't think of any good endings.

Mind you, the concluding passage of V does have a poetic beauty - and it seems to hint at the ephemeral, meaningless quality of life. But it also doesn't have much to do with anything that has gone before, (admittedly, it involves sea and water, of which we do see quite a lot as the novel progresses, but the character who appears in the finale is one we have only recently been introduced to).

Does incoherence matter, if it is (moderately) entertaining? Should we sit back and enjoy the sheer variety on offer in the book, without worrying about whether it all makes sense? Pynchon is certainly inventively generous. He conjures up a sojourn in the New York sewers, (including crocodiles), several rollicking naval passages, a recurrent fascination with the world created by Baedeker guides, a sidetrack into the world of Parisian ballet and another, even more vivid, into a nightmarish period in the history of an unnamed African country. Presented with such a feast, I feel a bit ungrateful to have to admit that, rather than revelling in Pynchon's invention, I found myself increasingly appalled.

One reason for this is that as I grow older my tolerance for depictions of male sexual violence toward women is diminishing day by day, particularly when they are presented - as they are in V - as a kind of entertainment, or certainly without any apparent reference to the female perspective. The whole African section of the novel is vile in this regard. It also does not allow a black point of view even for a fraction of an instant to penetrate the text. I hope I'm not becoming absurdly precious and too heavily influenced by the whole "safe space", "trigger warning" movement, but the description of female impalement seemed to be undertaken with a disturbing relish that did not appeal to me. On the other hand, perhaps if you accept from the beginning that the novel is told from an entirely, utterly male viewpoint, a viewpoint that sees women as variations on a template supplied by Jayne Mansfield, (whose impending marriage is bemoaned by one character), you may get on better with the book than I did.

Pynchon does pepper the text with aphorisms, some of which don't stand much consideration, while others may resonate a little. Here are some examples; the second two are better than the first, in my view, but I don't spend much time in bars so it's hard to judge, (the fourth is problematic, I think, and the final one I can't judge at all, or even fully understand):

"... people who prefer to stand at the bar have, universally, an inscrutable look."

"...we suffer from great temporal homesickness for the decade we were born in."

"People read what news they wanted to and each accordingly built his own rat house of history's rags and straw."

"Surely, if war has any nobility it is in the rebuilding not the destruction."

"Perhaps British colonialism has produced a new sort of being, a dual man, aimed two ways at once: towards peace and simplicity on the one hand, towards an exhausted intellectual searching on the other."

Pynchon also lards the text with ditties he has made up, and I'm afraid I found them tiresome. Mind yoy, I found the consistently wacky and, presumably, allusive names of his characters even more tiresome. Here are some examples:  Profane; Mafia; Stencil; Howie Surd; Veronica Manganese; Pappy Hod; Fergus Mixolydian; "Roony" Winsome, (who appears in an apartment decorated in what Pynchon describes as "Early Homosexual"); Benny Sfacim; and Dudley Eigenvalue,

Some surprising things that are mentioned in a book written as far back as 1963, include "Gitmo", "jihad" and "Chilean Riesling". Even more surprisingly, the book includes this passage about the Koran:

"The Lord's Angel, Gebrail, dictated the Koran to Mohammed the Lord's Prophet. What a joke if all that holy book were only twenty-three years of listening to the desert. A desert which has no voice. If the Koran was nothing, then Islam was nothing. Then Allah was a story, and his Paradise wishful thinking."

Impossible to prove, but I doubt that would be included in the text if the novel were published for the first time today. Joking about the Koran is not much of a laughing matter any more.

In conclusion, I found the book extremely original and intriguing but not entirely satisfying. Whether for good or bad, I also suspect it was a trailblazer - would David Foster Wallace have produced Infiinite Jest without Pynchon's puzzling precedent? It seems to me there is a line that leads from one to the other.

Possibly the novel is an attempt to portray through fiction the vision of life articulated in the diary of a character called Fausto:

"There is, we are taught, a communion of saints in heaven. So perhaps on earth, also in this Purgatory, a communion: not of gods or heroes, merely men expiating sins they are unaware of, caught somehow all at once within the reaches of a sea uncrossable and guarded by instruments of death."

Possibly; possibly not. While I admire Pynchon's persistence and confidence, I think that a novel cannot be described as entirely successful if, at the end of very nearly five hundred pages, the reader is still asking themselves, "What exactly is this thing all about?"


  1. Is it safe to assume that The Crying of Lot 39 and Gravity's Rainbow haven't moved up your wish list?

    It struck me that Pynchon had nailed a number of the trends of the 1980s well before they got there: Felix Mixolydian was a "couch potato" before they were invented; and I thought of the "soul dentist" when so many acquaintances were concerned with temporomandibular joint disorders.

    The baseball player Al Kaline had a distinguished career with the Detroit Tigers, and is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. It has since occurred to me that I would have rolled my eyes had I encountered his name not in the sports pages but in Pynchon.

    1. I won't dive back in for a while, but I do think he is a terrific writer & I will read more of him. The plus of him is that when you are reading his books you are never bored, although you may be many other things, first & foremost confused. The biggest minus for me, at least in V, is that, consciously or unconsciously, he is writing to an audience of men