wallflower: V. (no relation to the Vendetta or the TV series with all the sexy mouse-eating aliens) launched Thomas Pynchon’s career and set the trajectory for it, from 1963 to the present. The novel intertwines two narratives: a hangout work about a loosely connected group of not exactly friends, and Herbert Stencil’s quest for V., a woman who keeps appearing in different times and places under different names, assuming she exists at all. The first narrative happens in Pynchon’s homelands (here, the Navy and New York in the 1950s) and the second in world-historical places and times (Egypt in the 1890s, Florence, World Wars One and Two, Malta, South Africa, 1913 Paris). He’s followed that pattern ever since, moving from the local to the global and back, sometimes between books, sometimes within them. His most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, comes back to the New York of 2001, almost fifty years after the New York of V., completing what good ol’ Bill Yeats would call a widening gyre and what should technically be called an eccentric orbit–and there’s perhaps no other writer like Pynchon for making one appreciate technical language. Avathoir, I launched this Conversation ‘cuz I’m a long-standing Pynchon fan and you’re new to him, so you take it from here. Before we get into any longer discussion, what were your reactions to this?
Avathoir: I should clarify before we begin that I am not someone who is totally new to Pynchon. I have read a number of things on Pynchon, and attempted to read him several times. I actually did get through The Crying of Lot 49 when I was around…14 I want to say? And I also liked the movie version of Inherent Vice, but this represents my first completion of V. after getting no more than 40 pages each time. 40 pages which I know ironically consider to be among my favorite of the book and in fact what I wish more of the book was like.
Since this is a project meant to convert me into being just as much of a fan as you are, I’ll list what I like about V. and what ended up frustrating me. I’ll begin by saying all the adventures of Benny Profane and the Whole Sick Crew (how has that not become a band name yet?) are delightful, a fascinating exploration into the first generations to live after World War II, where Hitler was dead but Stalin was still lurking in the minds of many people, and Hirohito lived scot free in the Chrysanthemum Palace. It doesn’t really feel like the 50s in these sections but instead the late 60s, when the idea of wearing a suit with a hat was ludicrous and things like Woodstock, LSD, and Kent State were just over the horizon. He writes about this disillusion beautifully, and shows how what was going to be a fringe that not even the Beats (who he seems to viciously mock in parts of here, especially the poem sections) were venturing would soon crash into the mainstream. The alligator hunting, the entire sections set in bars, the car sex…all of this is great.
Then we get into all the stuff that comes before this and I have to admit this is where Pynchon utterly lost me. There are chapters I loved (Fausto’s confession, V. in Love) but the first time it hit I was utterly perplexed. It felt like a second, less interesting book had been inserted in the middle of a great societal illustration. I don’t understand the plot, I don’t know who any of these people are, and the whole thing feels like it doesn’t even give me a sense of what’s going on. It’s stunningly ambitious but it’s not enough for me, at least at the moment.
Now that I’ve horrified you, do you have an answer for the Stencil chapters and my dislike of them? Am I nuts?
wallflower: You’re not more nuts than me. (Small comfort, that.) Coming back to V. I was struck by how weak it was, especially the non-Whole Sick Crew parts, simply because Pynchon has since done all of that kind of thing better: more fluidly, more imaginatively, and with a better sense of integrating history and fantasy. (In Against the Day, his biggest and most Pynchonian if not his best novel, he openly insults and rewrites V.) Like a lot of young authors–Harry Partch and Stanley Kubrick come to mind–his ambition runs way past his talent at this point. His problem (and as you’re going to find out shortly, he knows it) is that he’s writing way past his experience; one page from the end of the narrative (although not the novel), Brenda reads her poem that starts “I am the twentieth century” and critiques it with “it’s a phony college-girl poem. Things I’ve read for courses,” which describes too much of V.
Pynchon has said that On the Road is one of the great American novels, and its influence is all over the Whole Sick Crew chapters. They’re Pynchon’s Lost Generation, aimless in post-World War 2 America, and like you said, they’re not even the Beats but the wannabe Beats, spending all their time “talking proper nouns.” (Wow, Pynchon landed a vicious blow on commenting culture half a century in advance.) My defining V. moment lands in this section: Benny Profane working as a night watchman at Anthroresearch Associates and falling into conversation with a crash test dummy (that does have a band named after it). That would be SHROUD (Synthetic Human, Radiation OUtput Determined):
“Look at you, masquerading like a human being. You ought to be junked. Not burned or cremated.”
Of course. Like a human being. Now remember, right after the war, the Nuremberg war trials? Remember the photographs of Auschwitz? Thousands of Jewish corpses, stacked up like those poor car-bodies. Schlemihl: It’s already started.
“Hitler did that. He was crazy.”
Hitler, Eichmann, Mengele. Fifteen years ago. Has it occurred to you there may be no more standards for crazy or sane, now that it’s started?
“What, for Christ’s sake?”
Someone, possibly Harold Bloom, called Pynchon the first post-Holocaust writer, and that passage makes me think he deserves the term. That moment gets across so much of what matters in V.: the sense that the rules of reality have changed. It’s started: Pynchon gets across here something a lot of people (many of them writers) have failed to understand: the Holocaust, the violence of World War 2, weren’t aberrations but quite possibly the beginning of our future, the beginning of a radical transformation of the idea of humanity. He might have handled it clumsily, but he took it on right from the beginning; in our popular culture, The X-Files is Pynchon’s truest inheritor on this score, and a few others.
Avathoir: That Pynchon himself has a knowledge that V. isn’t as strong as he wanted it to be in retrospect gives me comfort. As I’ve said earlier, the first time Benny goes into Old East Main is where you can really see what Pynchon is going to become. Metal teeth, people chasing after taps in the shape of breasts, and of course the brilliant line where “Pig, a militant atheist, could stand it no longer” when he heard Auld Lang Syne playing. At his best Pynchon is not a dream writer like Murakami but the textual equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch: someone who is able to fill an entire page with hilarious little details. You don’t read a book like this for plot, not really. You read it to see the human comedy.
That Pynchon likes the Beats disappoints me greatly. Sure he was BFFs with Richard Fariña, who was a kindred spirit of them, to say nothing of the fact that he’s almost certainly hung out with Bob Dylan as a result of this friendship, but V. to me for the most part seems to escape a lot of what I think make the Beats so insufferable: the naked autobiography, the idea that everything that happened to them was interesting because it was happening to them and gosh aren’t they interesting? The scene where there’s the rant about how the Whole Sick Crew is a bunch of hypocrites seems to be an acknowledgement of this narcissism, but V., like even the Beat works I can stand (Howl and some of Burrough’s more sci fi stuff) is still flawed, but for very different reasons.
As for the idea that Pynchon is a post-Holocaust writer, I think that’s an interesting statement to make, but I don’t think he’s the one who’s able to confront it the way that is necessary. There are writers who are able to stand up to something so chilling about the human condition (Schlink, Grass, Murakami, Knausgaard, Sebald, Littel, Malparte, Serge, Arendt…I can go on) but to me Pynchon isn’t writing about something that is particularly new. There’s been a lot of stuff about “fake news” and “post truth politics” but these aren’t exactly old things, they’re just new in the context of the internet, at least to this degree. We had people alleging presidential candidates were hermaphrodites since Jefferson, and people not caring for facts since Plato.
Pynchon, if you ask me, is confronting the atomic bomb, perhaps the first moment where we realized humans were capable of destroying ourselves with no chance of a do over. It was the moment, more than anything, that the world became globalized, where everyone had to deal with everyone else’s bullshit. I would love to talk with Pynchon on why he thinks Truman dropped the bomb, but I think making people realize this is why Truman did it, personally. Subconsciously anyway.
What else about this book am I missing or that you want to talk about? I can go on as long as you want.
wallflower: Pynchon’s confrontation with the atomic bomb is at least the entire back half of Gravity’s Rainbow, so you have that to look forward to. In V., Pynchon still treats the Beat material of the Whole Sick Crew with an agenda: he’s showing a counterculture that’s falling into its own decadence. That’s not the same thing as showing particular people doing particular things. What’s interesting, and what he’ll develop later on, is an ability to have characters be exemplars of their time and living, breathing human beings, the kind we know and live with and love. He’s about halfway there already: Slab the Catatonic Expressionist and his Cheese Danish Series is one of the best examples.
The Bosch comparison is great, by the way, and that’s something that was there at the beginning and worth talking about. Someone (at Newsweek, I think) likened Pynchon’s style to a late-night 1960s DJ: discursive (Pynchon holds up the narrative for seven pages so he can spin a story to explain why Profane calls in a favor; said story involves hamburger, condoms, and radar), funny, more than a little stoned, associative. There’s a sheer pleasure in the way Pynchon finds the goofiness and puns in language; think of McClintic Sphere’s composition Fugue Your Buddy. And let’s put this right up front: no one, fucking well no one in the history of literature, comes up with names better than Thomas Pynchon. That skill was there at the beginning: Gouverneur (“Roony”) Winsome, Pig Bodine, Sidney and Herbert Stencil, Dudley Eigenvalue, D. D. S., and my personal favorites, Officers Steve Joneš and Al Ten Eyck. What were your favorite details; what were the things that kept you reading?
Avathoir: What really kept me reading with this book, because it wasn’t really the prose or the characters (which are skeletal compared to the snippets of Later Pynchon I’ve gotten at over the years) is that more than anyone else Pynchon is able to throw in what I call the Secret Sauce, the thing that makes an artist singular, whether it’s as obvious as David Bowie’s voice or Malick’s use of voiceover. There are dozens of Pynchon ripoffs, with Dear God How Do People Think He’s Any Good Hack Mark Leyner chief among them, but Pynchon I think has something all of them do not: the ability to genuinely imagine something that we’ve never seen before.
Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s something that’s never existed. It just means that Pynchon, because he’s a genius, is able to take everything he’s ever consumed and put it into a form that’s unrecognizable. Old East Main, as I keep coming back to, has never appeared before and never will again. V., in all her many forms, is someone who has never shown up quite the same way if she ever has. And certainly the ambition to encapsulate so many different worlds is something that almost nobody has done nearly as well (yes that’s right Rushdie I’m calling you out). I’d get bored stiff at times, but then something would show up that would make me instantly sit up and I would be drawn in again. So that’s what kept me reading, I would have to say, and I can’t wait to see what new recipes are in store.
wallflower: Right from the beginning, Pynchon had a grip on conspiracy and paranoia that was unique; he keeps the search for V. hovering just on the edge of coherence, and the book ends with something that’s just on the edge of revelation. (You can have a lot of fun tracking V.’s comb throughout the story, especially when you see who gets it at the end.) There’s the old line that the conspiracy theory of history comes from getting rid of God and then asking: “who is in His place?” With (say) Oliver Stone, there is someone in His place, definitely; with Pynchon, there might not be anyone at all. All the chapters on V. are explicitly stated to be Stencil’s imagination, and late in the novel Stencil says “it did add up only to the recurrence of an initial and a few dead objects.” It’s a balancing act that’s incredibly difficult and absolutely necessary, because to create a conspiracy underlying all modernity is too easy an out, and to make the conspiracy entirely false mocks the characters. Pynchon does neither and holds out the possibility of both, and I’ve seen nothing else that did that until the early seasons of The X-Files and Lost.
I’ve heard Pynchon (and some of the others you named) described as a “systems writer,” someone more interested in describing complex conspiracies and social orders rather than actual people. This description seems exactly backward to me, because it makes it sound like Pynchon (or William Gaddis, Don deLillo, Burroughs again, David Foster Wallace, so on) came up with that crrrrrrrrrrrrazy idea of complex social systems on his own. Like Tarantino with pop culture, Pynchon just sees these complex systems as the world we live in, and writes characters who live in that world, and I think he’s right. Like James Ellroy, he takes for granted a truth about our world that a lot of other writers haven’t figured out yet. (Maybe we should start calling other writers “simplifying writers.”) V. and V. are about the birth of the modern world–a moment he’ll come back to in Against the Day–and about the people caught up in it. Maybe that’s what I love the most in his work, the sense of his characters–us, really–living in a large, almost comprehensible world as best we can. “Keep cool, but care.”
Next up: Slow Learner (early stories)
(Fuck Yeah Dave Strider image courtesy of Kit Kat in a Hat.)