Monday, May 28, 2007

"V" Thomas Pynchon

Events seem to be ordered into an ominous logic.

In many ways this, Pynchon's first novel, is the most conventional of his novels. A double plot, one set in the present (1956) one in the past (1890-1940) laid out over alternating chapters. The one set in the present details the life and adventures of Benny Profane and his pal Pig Bodine and their friends in the Whole Sick Crew during one hot summer in New York. The one set in the past deals with the story of Stencil and his attempts to uncover or track down the mysterious V all over the antebellum world. Who or what is V? A place? A woman? The spirit of the age? History itself?
Perhaps history this century is rippled with gathers in its fabric such that if we are situated at the bottom of the fold, it’s impossible to determine warp, woof pattern or anything else. By virtue , however, of existing in one gather it is assumed that there are others, compartmented off into sinuous cycles each of which come to assume greater importance than the weave itself and destroy any continuity. History as a wave of repeating Vs.
At various times and places V appears as an automaton, a spy, a mysterious femme fatale. Gradually, as in the most conventional 19th century novel, the two plots come together, although nothing is ever clarified or made plain.

Of course there is the usual Pynchon madness: great riffs of language in which Pynchon revels in his Dionysian vision and his halucinatory ability to describe that vision. There are fantastic set pieces: Mondaugen’s vigil in the siege in south Africa, shore leave in Malta at the height of the Suez crisis. There are the strange alternative histories, whacky science. As with his other novels, one is never quite sure what is real and what is not. The vision encompasses a moral relativism that is only matched by its paranoia : He had decided long ago that no Situation had any objective reality: it only existed in the minds of those who happened to be in on it at any specific moment, Since those several minds tended to form a sum total or complex more mongrel than homogenous, The Situation must necessarily appear to a single observer much like a diagram in four dimensions to an eye conditioned to seeing its world in only three.

There is some breathtaking writing.
I am the twentieth century. I am the ragtime, and the tango; sans cerif, clean geometry. I am the virgin’s hair whip and the cunningly detailed shackles of decadent passion. I am every lonely railway station in every capital of the Europe. I am the Street, the fanciless buildings of government; the cafĂ©-dansant, the clockwork figure, the jazz saxophone; the tourist-lady’s hairpiece, the fairy’s rubber breasts, the travelling clock which always tells the wrong time and chimes in different keys. I am the deal palm tree, the Negro’s dancing pumps, the dried fountain after tourist season. I am all the appurtenances of night.

However, there is a strange coldness at the heart of this novel, a lack of inwardness. Many of the characters in the Whole Sick Crew appear to be interchangeable: Pig Bodine, is not very different from Benny Profane; the women Esther/ Rachel/Paola/Mafia all seem to be facets of one woman, and in fact do dress up as each other. There are so many minor characters, that one gives up after a while trying to assimilate them into one’s imagination, and one just revels in the mad strangeness of their names. Even Stencil, marvellously named as he is, refers to himself in the third person all the way through his sections, as if to underline the lack of inwardness.

There are traces of groundbreaking works from the generation of writers immediately prior to Pynchon: the late 1950s. William Burroughs is present in much of Pynchon’s tone: the opening sentence alone could come from a Burroughs novel:
Christmas eve, 1955 Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia.
And perhaps more surprisingly, Durrell's Alexandria Quartet is also present in much of V. Not only in the Alexandrian section of the novel, but also in the way Pynchon writes about Malta and the Mediterranean. The search for V, the mysterious, eternal feminine, is also a theme of Durrells’s work.

To have humanism we must first be convinced of our humanity. As we move further into decadence this becomes more and more difficult…. A decadence is a falling way from what is human, and the further we fall the less human we become. Because we are less human, we foist off the humanity we have lost on inanimate objects and abstract theories.

There is much wisdom in this. In its lack of inwardness, lack of centre, this novel seems to enact the very decadence it describes. In the debate about who is the greater, Bellow or Pynchon, on the evidence of this book, I would side with Bellow. Pynchon seems to lack a morality: he is too inclusive in his vision, too promiscuous in his piling on of theme and detail. He seems to contribute to the decadence, while Bellow seems to stand like a giant against it.

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