I’m a pretty smart guy. I’m not being cocky. That’s just how it is. Honestly, it’s a pain in the ass more than it’s a blessing. Try finding people to discuss movies and books with when you’d rather watch the latest Terrence Malick film or some old Italian neo-realist pictures than sit through the latest summer blockbuster. It doesn’t lend itself to watercooler conversations. That’s for sure. Still, I prefer to be challenged. Life’s too short to go around reading the book equivalent of comfort food (although sometimes the easier stuff is nice and gives my brain a rest, hence why I’m reading the newest Stephen King novel right now). You need to find material that pushes you every now and then. Otherwise, you’re never going to experience any intellectual growth. So, if you’re ever looking for an author that is going to push you to your limits, can I go ahead and recommend Thomas Pynchon? I’ve already reviewed the indescribably dense and complex (and border-line incomprehensible at moments) Gravity’s Rainbow many moons ago. It has a reputation as being one of the most “difficult” novels in the English language, and it totally is. However, after a semester where all I really read was manga because I didn’t have any of my real books with me in NYC, I decided to read Pynchon’s first novel, V. . I’m not going to lie. I actually think its far more amorphous and obscure than even Gravity’s Rainbow. While Gravity’s Rainbow had moments that left me completely baffled and confused, I felt like I understood the novel. I think I get what Pynchon was going for. V. has the same brilliant prose and construction that I associate with Pynchon but at the end of the day, I’m at a complete loss as to what the point of the novel was.
It’s not that I didn’t understand what was happening in the novel. I can recount the events that occurred. It’s tying them all together into any sort of meaningful thematic statement that is difficult (though knowing Pynchon that was obviously his intention). In the 1950s (though the story flashes back as far back as the turn of the 20th century), Benny Profane is a schlemihl (read: loser/bum/layabout) who gets involved with a group of pseudo-bohemians known as the Whole Sick Crew and gets into all sorts of misadventures in New York City including alligator hunting, gang violence, drug use, and escaping the military police that are after him and his friend Pig Bodine (who makes an appearance in Gravity’s Rainbow). At the same time, a man known as Stencil is on a quest to find the truth surrounding a mysterious woman known only as “V.” Stencil’s father may or may not have known V in the years surrounding World War I, and with the help of his father’s journals, Stencil, has devoted his life to solving this mystery. Along the way, in typical Pynchon fashion, we are given a history lesson in post-World War I Maltese politics, turn of the century Florentine conspiracies, and regular spiels on other, even more diverse subjects because this is Thomas Pynchon we’re talking about. Digressive novels is the name of his game (as well as being transgressive but this one was surprisingly tame compared to the parade of depravity in Gravity’s Rainbow).
Honestly, this is the kind of novel that you need to be in a discussion group while reading. Perhaps it’s just me, but any solitary reading of this novel is going to be surface-level at best. I even took my sweet time with the book (it took me a little less than a month to get through and to me that is reading at a snail’s pace), and I still felt mentally exhausted every time I put it down. No doubt, Thomas Pynchon is a genius. His prose is uncanny, and a friend of mine once said (and I totally agree) that reading his novels is like watching a David Lynch film. You’re not sure what you just read, but you know it’s brilliant. Although, I generally actually understand David Lynch films. Inland Empire is the only one I really have any actual confusion about. At the end of the day, with a Thomas Pynchon novel, you just pray that the parts that stuck were the parts that were important to the overall themes of the novel (although the way he deconstructs the whole concept of plot and theme and structure and the notion of things needing to mean anything is often far more important than his actual subtextual “thematic” statements). If you were to quiz me right now on the individual moments of the novel, I could probably recount them fairly well (I finished reading the book about four days ago) although I’d likely screw up the names of the legion of characters (once again, small in comparison to Gravity’s Rainbow). But if you were to ask me right now to say exactly what Thomas Pynchon was trying to accomplish with V., I’d have to throw my hands up in defeat and say I don’t know. I need more time to ponder on it.
I would love to write more about Thomas Pynchon’s novel. I know that it’s great (even if I don’t totally grasp it yet), but I just don’t know how much more I have to say. His insights into the life and outlook of a schlemihl like Benny Profane are fairly profound and tapped into much of the Beat Generation angst and disconnect that defined a generation of authors like Jack Kerouac. Similarly, if Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow was the definition of (justified) paranoia, then Stencil is one of the best literary representations of obsession that I’ve ever seen. However, I think the novel is meant to be more than just a sprawling character study of these two individuals. There’s (I believe) some commentary about the mechanisms of our ancestors and the turning of history that affect our lives in ways we can never comprehend because we never witnessed these tiny moments in history that would force our hands decades and decades later. See, it’s that kind of fucking novel. As I write about it, I come to new realizations about its meanings. Perhaps I should just free-thought respond to the novel but no one wants to read that. If you have any interest in post-modern literature and the school of hysterical realism, Thomas Pynchon is the undisputed master (along with David Foster Wallace). If the idea of using every single cell in your brain and still possibly coming up disappointed though doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, you should probably leave Thomas Pynchon alone. I know I relish the challenge though.
Final Score: A-