Friday, November 19, 2010

Thomas Pynchon's Perfect Novel: V. Satisfies!

The Good: Excellent characters, wonderful diction and vocabulary, engaging plot, funny
The Bad: In truth, none, other than being occasionally confusing
The Basics: A perfect novel exploring compelling characters who weave in and out of situations they create or find themselves in.

Perhaps the essential writer who forces one to actually be awake and alert while reading is Thomas Pynchon. Frankly, the man's a genius and his words are amazing and brilliantly crafted. The thing is, you have to pay attention and he requires some serious ability to recall things. That is, as I believe I've said in reviews of his other works (The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, Gravity's Rainbow, etc.), he writes like a movie packed with detail, using a camera that will routinely focus on something aside from the primary action. When it focuses away from the characters or the action, whatever it latches onto may get a full exploration and history. In V. there is a digression like that involving a painting.

V. is essentially a novel focusing on two primary characters, who are foils. Benny Profane, a schlemiel (which is defined by my dictionary - New World Dictionary College Third Edition, in case you're curious - as "an ineffectual, bungling person who habitually fails or is easily victimized." I read it as "loser," which for the most part fits Benny), who spends his time drifting and Stencil, an obsessed man who is searching the world, and in the novel mostly New York and Malta, for V.

On the plot front, the novel literally follows Benny from the Navy to the sewers of New York to Malta in the company of some eclectic enlisted men, the Whole Sick Crew, and finally Stencil. Stencil's plot is a search for who or what V. is. The initial appears in a letter from his dead father and he has been searching some twenty years to decipher its meaning. His plot leads to near continuous divergences. As he searches, the past is revealed to him in long chapters populated by characters otherwise disconnected from the novel. It is primarily the Stencil plotlines that take the reader to three distinct times: 1899 (the year Godolphin, who has a relationship with V. is part of a scheme to steal the painting "Birth of Venus"), 1917 (the year his father died), and 1956 (the present in the novel). His obsession with V. is a significant chunk of the novel which involves seemingly pointless sidestories and full casts of characters interacting and doing their own things with information Stencil seeks only on the periphery, sometimes only in the subtext.

On the vastly more important level, the characters are interesting and compelling. They evoke empathy and when that is not possible, curiosity. The characters live in intriguing times, doing interesting things. The reader explores a world filled with the horrors of war, the build-up to conflict and the horrors war leaves behind. Yet, the true journeys in this novel are psychological, focusing on the elements that make a man passive and the other obsessive. As Stencil searches selfishly - and often carelessly - for evidence of V., Profane often stumbles into situations, relationships and responsibilities. One makes his destiny, the other seems at its mercy.

The advantage of V. is that it never gets tiring or tired. Whenever the lives of Stencil or Profane ramble too far, there is a diversion, a segue into a different time or place. There, the reader is taken on a journey that does relate back to the lives of our anti-heroes. In fact, my favorite chapter of the novel is Chapter Seven, "She Hangs on the Western Wall," which focuses on the events of 1899. But the whole novel works that way with an interweaving of characters that sometimes it helps to have notes on!

Pynchon is perfect in his language. Reading V. is a fun event, even during an excruciating nose job scene! The deeper themes of self control Vs. society are woven masterfully utilizing characters who are layered and intriguing. Pynchon is a poet; V. his perfect epic poem which provides the reader with much to think about, read, reread and analyze.

All you need is to be awake and open to language and ideas.

For other works by Thomas Pynchon, please check out my reviews of:
The Crying Of Lot 49
Slow Learner
Gravity's Rainbow
Mason & Dixon
Inherent Vice


For other novel reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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