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Literature / V.

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Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia.
— Opening line

V. is the first novel by Thomas Pynchon, published in 1963.

The novel’s plot is split into two mostly separate plot threads, both of which feature large cast of characters.

The first story is set in late-1950s New York City, and follows a discharged Navy, Benny Profane, hunting giant alligators in the sewers, reconnects with a group of pseudo-bohemian artists and hangers-on known as The Whole Sick Crew, and pines for his devastatingly cool lover, Rachel Owlglass. Among them is his shipmate, Pig Bodine and an artist called Slab, who can’t seem to paint anything else other than cheese danishes.

In Cairo, Florence, Malta, South Africa, and Paris, meanwhile, and at various points across the 19th and 20th centuries, we’re introduced to Herbert Stencil, a mysterious traveler searching for a mysterious woman known only as V. Which may be a code-name, a phantom, a conspiracy, or a dream.

The two threads eventually converge (like a V, y’see) against a backdrop of riotous boozing, Danish-pastry abuse, Orientalist fantasy, wondrous descriptive prose and sobering animadversions on man’s inhumanity to man.

V. had a very different style and is more serious, grounded and a lot less cartoony and/or comedic than his later work. Nevertheless, it contains all of his trademarks, style, themes and ideas that will haunt his future work.

The novel contains examples of:

  • Ace Pilot: Evan Godolphin during WWI, before a crash destroys his face.
  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: Everywhere, particularly around Pig Bodine. In his final appearance, it gets him arrested for going AWOL.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Averted humorously with Dr. Eigenvalue, who has developed his own system of “psychodontism” which applies orthodontic concepts to human psychology, with his dentist’s chair serving as a Freudian Couch.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Paola, who is Maltese but can pass for African-American.
  • Anachronic Order: Profane’s story is the second, and the Stencil’s story is the first.
  • Animal Motif: A female rat named Veronica.
  • Annoying Laugh: Pig Bodine’s, which is given as “hyeugh, hyeugh”. He goes out of his way to make it as obnoxious as possible.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The German colonists at Foppl’s mansion during the siege party. They pop champagne while watching Hereros being surrounded and killed by German soldiers, beat and murder their Bondel slaves, and reminisce about the atrocities committed under Lothar von Trotha in the Herero Wars.
  • Artificial Limbs: By the 1940s, V. has acquired a glass eye with the iris in the shape of a clockface, an artificial foot, a set of false teeth, and possibly more. These are stolen by a group of children while she is trapped and dying under a fallen beam.
  • Attempted Rape: Pig tries to force himself on Paola while drunk.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Mafia and Rooney Winsome, who cheat on each other and have nothing in common. Pappy Hod and Paola as well, though they reconcile by the end.
  • Ballet: L’Enlèvement des Vierges Chinoises (The Rape of the Chinese Virgins), in which Mélanie l’Heuremaudit performs the lead role. She is accidentally impaled and killed onstage, thanks to forgetting her protective equipment.
  • Beatnik: The Whole Sick Crew, though they arrived late to the movement (like Pynchon himself, according to his introduction to Slow Learner), and are mostly spectators.
  • Bestiality Is Depraved: Father Fairing is implied to have been involved with a female rat he named Veronica.
  • Bold Explorer: Hugh Godolphin in his younger days, which led him to (supposedly) discover Vheissu.
  • Book Ends: The ending of Valletta chapter parallels with the beginning when Profane entered the scene wearing a big cowboy hat.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: The Whole Sick Crew again, who spend a lot of time getting drunk and discussing other people’s art without making any themselves (besides Slab and his cheese danishes).
  • Butt-Monkey: Benny Profane, to the point that he believes inanimate objects are consciously out to get him.
  • Central Theme: Although there were several themes laid out including madness, paranoia, friendship, loneliness and entropy, obsession seems to be the central focus.
  • Chained to a Bed: Sarah, the Herero girl in Mondaugen’s story who is taken in by the soldier.
  • Complexity Addiction: Mantissa and Cesare’s plan to steal Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, which involves disguising themselves as workmen, travelling three corridors to enter a gallery with only one entrance/exit, hiding the enormous painting inside a hollowed four-meter Judas tree which they intend to haul in and out with them, exiting the way they came and taking an elevator outside (creating lots of opportunities for guards to catch them), then walking several hundred yards to escape on a barge, all while working with multiple third parties who could betray them. The Gaucho, a Venezuelan revolutionary assisting them, calls them both lunatics and tries to back out of the plan. He suggests simply throwing a bomb at the gallery wall, grabbing the painting and commandeering a carriage, witnesses be damned.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Herbert Stencil, who obsessively hunts a figure named V. and comes to believe that there’s a sinister logic connecting all the events he researches to find her.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Vagina impalement, colonial cruelty, off-screen castration with the victim’s penis found in his sewed mouth. You get the idea.
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: V. becomes more cruel and amoral the more inanimate matter she incorporates into her body. The artificial parts ultimately supersede her when she dies in the bombing raid and they end up dispersed across the world.
  • Cyborg: Bongo-Shaftsbury scares Mildred Wren by showing off the switch and wires embedded in his arm, but doesn’t reveal what they do. Maijstral also wonders if V. has synthetic organs and clockwork mechanisms under her skin as he watches her being disassembled by a group of children.
  • Darker and Edgier: V. is darker, more serious, and less funny than Pynchon's later work.
  • Demonic Dummy: SHOCK and SHROUD, the test dummies at Anthroresearch Associates. Particularly SHROUD, which is made from an actual human skeleton covered in artificial skin and whispers ominous things to Profane when he's working late.
  • Downer Ending: Sidney Stencil died with the rest of the boat crew in the waterspout.
  • The Drifter: Benny Profane (“a human yo-yo”) had been wandering up and down the East Coast chasing temporary work for some time when the novel begins.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Rachel in her MG.
  • Eerily Out-of-Place Object: The rainbow-coloured monkey from Vheissu which Godolphin finds waiting for him under the ice in Antarctica.
  • The End Is Nigh: The insane priest Father Fairing becomes convinced that the apocalypse is coming and that only the rats will survive, so he moves into the sewers under New York to preach Christianity to them.
  • End of an Age: Several characters dwell on the First World War as this, having caused a collective loss of innocence toward society and revealed the mass-destructive potential of technology. Sidney Stencil in particular mourns the loss of “gentlemanly” warfare and espionage where conflicts were decided by the abilities of individuals rather than impersonal forces.
  • Facial Horror: Evan Godolphin, following the crash during the First World War.
    The upper part of the nose seemed to have slid down, giving an exaggerated saddle-and-hump; the chin cut off at midpoint to slope concave back up the other side, pulling part of the lip up in a scarred half-smile. Just under the eye socket on the same side winked a roughly circular expanse of silver.
  • Fat Slob: Pig and Benny.
  • Fun with Acronyms: SHROUD (“Synthetic human, radiation output determined”) and SHOCK (“synthetic human object, casualty kinematics”).
  • Gainax Ending: Stencil abandons Benny on Malta to hunt for V.’s artificial body parts in Sweden. Benny meets a girl in Valletta and they run off together into the night. The novel ends with an account of the final months of Stencil's father, an old-world spy who is put out to pasture on Malta and is killed when he and his boat are swept up in a waterspout.
  • Genre-Busting: See Genre Roulette.
  • Genre Roulette: The tone shifts numerous of times from Kafka Komedy to depressing and bleak. In terms of literary genres, Benny’s storyline is mostly a comic slice-of-life plot following his attempts to find stable footing in New York; while Stencil’s varies between deconstructive spy fiction, colonial adventure stories, mystery, Gothic, and conspiracy fiction. Fausto Maijstral’s chapter is a confession in the style of Rousseau or Henry Adams.
  • Gilded Cage: Foppl’s Siege Party, where the guests are trapped in the mansion by the uprising happening outside.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Rachel and Benny chase Esther to the airport to stop her going to Cuba for an abortion. They fail.
  • Hyperlink Story: Chapter Three, where Stencil retells the events of Pynchon’s earlier short story “Under the Rose” from the perspectives of various background characters who each get a glimpse of the central action.
  • Idle Rich: Stencil, though not wealthy, has a stable income left to him by his father and a wide network of contacts he can mooch from, so he spent his early life aimlessly indulging in hedonism.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Roony Winsome attempts suicide by jumping out of the apartment window, but lands face-first on the fire escape. He then tries to jump over the fire escape, but Pig manages to catch him by the belt and haul him to safety.
  • I Just Want to Be Loved: Esther Harvitz. Her desperation to have someone desire her leads her to get far more plastic surgery than she can afford and an unhealthy affair with Schoenmaker.
  • I Owe You My Life: Pig Bodine to Benny, after Benny inadvertently saved him from frying himself (or at least his testicles) with radiation from a radar antenna. Pig had run out of condoms and heard a rumour that it would make him temporarily sterile.
  • Kavorka Man: Benny, a slovenly, unemployed and passive man, is constantly having advances made on him by attractive young women.
  • Kilroy Was Here: The Trope Namer appears toward the end of the novel, with the theory that the Kilroy icon is actually a modified circuit diagram of a band-pass filter.
  • Kudzu Plot: This passage sums up the entire book.
    They were fever dreams: the kind where one is given an impossibly complex problem to solve, and keeps chasing dead ends, following random promises, frustrated at every turn, until the fever breaks.
  • Left Hanging: See No Ending.
  • Letter Motif: V.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Mélanie l’Heuremaudit.
  • Lost World: Subverted with Vheissu. It’s certainly exotic by Godolphin’s account and isolated from the rest of the world, but he dismisses the idea that it's some magical utopia as a bunch of colonialist fantasy,
  • Madness Mantra: “Events seem to be ordered into an ominous logic.”
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: It’s implied in Mondaugen’s story that colonial soldiers who object to the massacre are sometimes shot by their comrades.
  • Man Bites Man: Ploy, a crewmember on the Scaffold who had his teeth removed by the Navy and replaced with dentures, amuses himself by filing the new teeth into points and biting waitresses at the Sailor's Grave on their rears.
  • Meaningful Name: A Pynchon trademark. It’s unclear how meaningful any of the names actually are, but they’re almost all improbable enough that they seem like they’re driving at something (which, if they’re actually meaningless, could itself be the joke). However, some—like “Stencil”, “Profane” and “l’Heuremaudit”—are undeniably appropriate for their characters.
  • Mind Screw: Knowing that this is Pynchon’s first novel, it contains all of his trademarks that will likely make the readers loses their mind. The novel gets much more complicated as it progresses.
  • Missing Mom: Stencil never knew his mother, and it’s repeatedly suggested that he thinks V. is her.
  • Mood Whiplash
  • Motive Decay: Schoenmaker originally became a plastic surgeon to help young men like Evan Godolphin who were injured in the war. He eventually comes to see himself as merely mopping up some of the damage done to people by the outside world and apathetically makes all his patients conventionally attractive.
  • Multiple Narrative Modes
  • No Ending: Both Herbert, and Profane’s fate are left open ended.
  • No Fourth Wall: Was dropped once.
    Tomorrow, the black morning, I close the door in the face of the dead years. I will go on the road, bum my way over land and sea, from the old to the new world....
  • Only Sane Woman: Rachel Owlglass is easily the most well-adjusted person associated with the Whole Sick Crew, and even she has an erotic obsession with her MG.
  • Parental Incest: Mélanie and her father.
  • Parents in Distress: Evan Godolphin quickly comes to Florence to meet his father when he receives a message implying Hugh is in danger. It’s implied this never happened, and it’s really just Stencil trying to ease his guilt over ignoring his own father’s last message before he died.
  • The Peeping Tom: What Mélanie and V.’s relationship consists of.
  • Postmodernism: Subverted. V., unlike Pynchon’s later work, is more Modernism and Surrealism than Postmodernism.
  • Quest for Identity: Stencil’s hunt for V., with a twist: the hunt itself is what gives him his sense of identity, and actually finding her would mean losing it because the quest would be over. He’s effectively trapped himself in a game of “approach and avoid”, and the contradiction causes his mental breakdown on Malta.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Characters frequently drop words, speak in 50’s-era New York slang, and are written with unusual punctuation to replicate their speech patterns.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Roony delivers one to the Whole Sick Crew, calling out their artistic pretensions and moral turpitude.
  • Romanticized Abuse: In-Universe. Willem van Wijk in Mondaugen’s story who rapes and kidnaps Sarah, the young Herero girl, and keeps her chained in his house so that he can imagine he has a wife to look after.
  • Sanity Slippage: Stencil, once he gets to Malta and comes perilously close to exhausting his obsession with V. He becomes even more obsessive and paranoid than usual, compulsively repeating his Madness Mantra to himself and walking at all hours of the night. Finally he runs away on what’s most likely a wild goose chase to find V.’s glass eye.
  • Saying Sound Effects Out Loud: Da Conho, a Brazilian Zionist Benny works for, likes to play with a machine gun he bartered for from a marine by camoflaging it with lettuce, strafing his customers and yelling “Yibble, yibble” to imitate gunfire along with Islamophobic taunts. The narrator snarks that Conho’s is the only machine gun in the world to go “yibble, yibble”.
  • Sewer Gator: In chapter 5, Benny Profane hunts with the Alligator Patrol in the sewers of Manhattan. According to the narration, he had already managed to bag four gators and a rat during his first two weeks on the job.
  • Sex Bot: Benny fantasises about one while in a rough patch with Rachel. In a story about humans being overwhelmed and consumed by inanimate forces, it’s an unsettling image.
  • Sex Slave: The Herero women kept in the prison camp in Mondaugen’s story. The soldiers wonder if these women or the ones used for slave labour are worse off, since they are all ultimately killed.
  • Sinister Minister: The “Bad Priest” during the siege of Malta, who the locals believe preaches heresy to children and who tries to persuade Elena Maijstral to abort her baby (i.e., Paola). It’s actually the final incarnation of V.
  • Take That!: Mafia Winsome, an anti-Semite who writes crappy political fiction with questionable gender dynamics, is a parody of Ayn Rand. Being married to her is one of the things that drives Roony to throw himself out the window.
  • Third-Person Person: Stencil always speaks in third person as a “forcible dislocation of personality” to make his reconstruction of other people’s histories easier.
  • Unreliable Narrator: As Eigenvalue points out, Stencil tends to “Stencilize” the material he researches and twists it to suit his obsession with V.
  • Violence Is Disturbing: Though some of it is played for laughs, much of the violence is portrayed as shocking, cold, grotesque and disturbing, rather than cool or adventurous.
  • Wall of Text: Here’s one:
    If a season like the Great Rebellion ever came to him again, he feared, it could never be in that same personal, random array of picaresque acts he was to recall and celebrate in later years at best furious and nostalgic; but rather with a logic that chilled the comfortable perversity of the heart, that substituted capability for character, deliberate scheme for political dances of death between Warmbad and Keetmanshoop, the taut haunches of his Firelily, the black corpse impaled on thorn tree in his soul’s gallery, it was to substitute the bleak, abstracted and for him rather meaningless hanging on which he now turned his back, but which was to backdrop his reached the Other Wall, the engineering design for a world he knew with numb leeriness nothing could now keep from becoming reality, a world whose full despair he, at the vantage of eighteen years later, couldn’t even find adequate parables for, but a design whose first fumbling sketches he thought must have been done the years after Jacob Marengo died, on that terrible coast, where the beach between Lüderitzbucht and the cemetery was actually littered each morning with a score of identical female corpses, an agglomeration no more substantial-looking than seaweed against the unhealthy yellow sand; where the soul’s passage was more a mass migration across that choppy fetch of Atlantic the wind never left alone, from an island of low cloud, like an anchored prison ship, to simple integration with the unimaginable mass of their continent; where the single line of track still edged toward a Keetmanshoop that could in no conceivable iconology be any part of the Kingdom of Death; where, finally, humanity was reduced, out of a necessity which is his loonier moments he could almost believe was only Deutsch-Südwestafrika’s (actually he knew better), out of a confrontation the young of one’s contemporaries, God help them, had yet to make, humanity was reduced to a nervous, disquieted, forever inadequate but indissoluble Popular Front against deceptively unpolitical and apparently minor enemies, enemies that would be with him to the grave: a sun with no shape, a beach alien as the moon’s antarctic, restless concubines in barbed wire, salt mists, alkaline earth, the Benguela Current that would never cease bringing sand to raise the harbor floor, the inertia of rock, the frailty of flesh, the structural unreliability of thorns; the unheard whimper of a dying woman; the frightening but necessary cry of the strand wolf in the fog.

Life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.