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  • TITLE: V.
  • AUTHOR: Thomas Pynchon
  • GENRE: Mainstream
  • AWARDS: Faulkner Foundation Award



V. is a novel that attempts to describe the chaos and randomness of life in the 20th Century. Its structure aptly follows its themes as the characters move through an impossibly jumbled world of outrageous accidents, unlikely chance meetings, and fantastic coincidences. A graph of character plotting would look like a Jackson Pollack painting. Or, as old Stencil reveals at the end of the novel, "what [is] real [are] the cross purposes"(p.455).(1) With a character list that reads like a phone book, Pynchon sacrifices their depth to the chaotic void and replaces emotional motivation with intellectual ponderings. It seems erroneous to label the people of V. as charactersthey are more like vehiclesand personal, idiosyncratic musings are shared by unrelated characters. Benny Profane talks about The Street in New York City, as does Fausto Maijstral on Malta; Eigenvalue and Winsome partake in attitudes about decadence with Mondaugen and M. Itague. Characters also bound freely through the numerous spatial and time segments of the novel as if they had access to a time machine. Following Herbert Stencilpossibly the novelist/protagonist of the bookFausto Maijstral, Father Fairing, and both Goldolphins make supertemporal jumps as if time was a "traveling clock"(p.428). Even the Lady V. has a false eye with a clock face instead of an iris and, like her many disguises and historical appearances, seems omnipotent concerning time. Furthermore, the personas of the parents are sustained by their children, making them interchangeable. Old Stencil is attached to the British Foreign Office and Young Stencil resuscitates his legacy by becoming "He Who Looks for V."(p.210); Evan Goldolphin inherits Hugh Goldolphin's Vheissu dream (Florence, 1899), and becomes a servant to Vernonica Manganese (Valetta, 1919), not unlike his father's mad, masochistic death (S.W. Africa, 1922) due to Vera Meroving's psychological torture.

This unconventional handling of characters and plot create an aura of confusion and anxiety congruous with the outrageous and overwhelming facts of modern existence. That "events seem to be ordered into an ominous logic"(p.423) is due to the manipulations of the author, not the futile workings of his cast. One of the most effective devices in V. is that the reader continues to forage out a conspiracy of universal proportionsto make order out of chaosfrom the many manifestations of V., even though there is ample evidence to suggest the opposite. As the novel progresses and the pages become peppered with Vs, its meaning expands until it encompasses all the symptoms and directions gone astray with a sick century. It achieves such a status of complexity that it defies simple categorization. A frustrated Stencil at the end of the novel says,


V.'s is a country of coincidence, ruled by a ministry of myth. Whose emissaries haunt this century's streets. Porcepic, Mondaugen, Stencil pere, this Maijstral, Stencil fils. Could any of them create a coincidence? Only Providence creates. If the coincidences are real then Stencil has never encountered history at all, but something far more appalling.



Stencil has been looking for the meanings of V. by tracing tangibility in human form. Going over his father's papers, he has found frequent references to a woman initialed V., and takes up the search under the guise of unraveling the facts of his father's mysterious death. That she would be over 75 years old and probably dead weigh less on his motivation than the chance to escape from his "prewar sleepwalk"(p.44) by instigating some purpose to his life. Of his tactics, "he [tries] not to think . . . about any end to the search. Approach and avoid"(p.44). Clearly, the animateness of the hunt is more important than any discovery he might make.

Stencil gathers information by "roving the city, aimlessly, waiting for a coincidence"(p.45). Deciding that the Lady V. seems to appear on the outskirts of confrontations, wars, and international incidents, he concludes that she is inexorably linked with "The Big One, the century's master cabal"(p.210). His telling of her exploits to other characters in the novel lead to the various historical chapters that interlace the book and add to its surface maunderings by not maintaining a chronological order. These digressions are presented as bona fide fact, but as they continue, it becomes obvious they have been "Stencilzed"(p.211).

Lady V. is first seen in Cairo, 1898, as Victoria Wrena starry-eyed virgin excited by the glamorous intrigues of the secret agent set conspiring around the various embassies at the outbreak of the Fashoda incident. To elaborate Stencil's peculiarity of referring to himself in the third person, this episode magnifies the point of view eightfold and becomes satirically replicative of Durell, especially his Alexandria Quartet tetralogy of 1957-60. From non-involved, un-informed "eyewitnesses", the facts are understandably muddled and only the bare skeleton of actions at its climax can be inferred. Victoria get deflowered, the intrigues are barely controllable, and that somebodyprobably the British, agent, Porpentine gets murderedis about all that can be concluded. However, Lady V. is introduced into conspiracy and the reader becomes maddeningly aware that the basic truth of any situation is impossibly elusive and extremely frustrating.

Her next appearance is again as Victoria Wren in Florence, a year later. She is more sophisticated, but what control she has over the ensuing action is dubious. Although she manages to tie the main characters together by taking them as lovers, what is important is that she begins to acquire the attachments that are later revealed as symptoms of a creeping, pervasive decadence. Whereas the previous exposure of Lady V. to conspiracy was vague, here it is vivid and manifest, engendering a complexity that broadens all aspects of its theme, both public and private. Old Goldolphin's vision of Vheissu is misconstrued as a political subterfuge by various groups to involve Venezuela and the volcano Vesuvius, whileat cross purposesSignor Mantissa is trying to steal Botticelli's "Birth of Venus". Conspiracy is introduced as an acceptable explanation of the apparent randomness of modern situations, or, as one character puts it, "here we are, in the thick of a grand cabal, and we haven't the slightest notion of what's going on"(p.177).


Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus from 1485AD


In Mondaugen's story, the Lady V. is Vera Meroving in Southwest Africa, 1922. Barricaded in Foppl's fortress holding a siege party while the Bondels rightfully revolt outside, the Lady V. is at her most perverse, linking the themes of sex and death through the aberrations of S&M, torture, fetishism, and voyeurism. It is Decadence in its final stages, and God has been replaced by deSade. The naive trappings of Victoria Wren are succeeded by the sjambok whip, yet the point of view is unmistakenably veiled by the admitted voyeur, Mondaugen. That Victoria and Vera are the same individual is indisputable; however, most of the observed action takes place in the presence of mirrors, and instead of giving a true portrait of the Lady V., Mondaugen seems to be reflecting back his own obsessions. "This unglimpsed item on his menu of anxieties: . . . if no one has seen me then am I really here at all; and as a sort of savory, if I am not here then where are all these dreams coming from, if dreams is what they are"(p.240).

The confessions of Fausto Maijstral has little to do with the Lady V.'s presence on Malta in 1943, yet she is perceived by reliable eyes in her final stage as the Bad Priest. First encountered as "a sinister figure", one who "confederates with the Dark One"(p.293), she is later pinned under a beam during a bombing raid and, since she is approximately 63 years old and has replaced certain bodily extensions with prosthetic and cosmetic devices, dismantled by a group of curious children. Faustoconscientiously giving her the Final Sacraments with her own bloodnotes that her lips are cold. This causes him to reflect


I cannot live with that cold. Often, when I fall asleep at my desk, the blood supply to an arm is cut off. I wake and touch it and am no further from nightmare, for it is night's cold, object's cold, nothing human, nothing of me about it at all.



This experience is largely responsible for Fausto writing his confessions. He has penetrated Lady V.'s deeper symbolic implications and this insight makes him Pynchon's main vehicle to truth and understanding in V.. He has witnessed the personification of Decadence and knows that it is "a clear movement toward death or, preferably, non-humanity"(p.301).

The "V. in Love" chapter traces the Lady V. back through time to Paris, 1913. She has a lesbian affair with a 15-year old ballerina who literally views herself as a sex object"Do you only lie passive then, like an object? Of course you do. It is what you are. Una fetiche"(p.381)who later performs the ultimate Dance of Death impaled on a stake "by accident"(p.389). Lady V. is not named, nor is there any objective evidence to connect her with the other identities. Since the episode is filled with Stencil's pet theories of life and is overtly sexual in tone, it is safe to assume that this digression is pure fabrication on Stencil's part. As in Mondaugan's story, there is a proliferation of mirrors.

At this point in the novel, any would-be, literary gumshoe has been thoroughly thwarted at attempting to attach some overlying personality or characterization onto the Lady V. The point of view of her has been so confused that she exists as a pewter dish for thoughts, concepts, and fantasies of other characters' cultures, including the author's. She cannot be seen other than as a symbol for something or everything. She is a force, a direction, a dream. Even Stencil grudgingly admits "that it did add up only to the recurrence of an initial and a few dead objects"(p.419).

However, the Lady V. appears once more in the epilogue of the novel. Back in time again, she is Veronica Manganese on Malta, 1919, at the time of Stencil's father's death.Young Stencil has already left the action of the novel in hot, self-deluded pursuit of another "clue" in the form of somebody named Viola in Stockholm.he epilogue is handled from the point of view of the omniscient narrator and is the only time a truly objective look at the character of Lady V. is presented. All the features attributed to her surface, but without the excessive frills. She is involved in a political conspiracy, she exhibits certain sexual deviations, and she is a devout Roman Catholic, which is referred to as the religion of the Decadence. Although she smiles anarchistically when Old Stencil says, "absolute upheaval, that is you way, Victoria"(p.458), she holds no particular power over him and is not responsible for his absurdly accidental death.

In the end, she is the epitome of a villainous 20th CenturyMachiavelian, debauched, and on her way to physical inanimateness. But through the quest of her mystery, it has been revealed that there is no history, only personal past. As Old Stencil succumbs to "age's worst side effectnostalgia"(p.460), historical truth moves over for emotional response, guided by coincidence, where "no Situation [has] any objective reality; it only exist[s] in the minds of those who happen to be in on it at any specific moment"(p.174). Lady V., then, is not so much a portentous machination as a reaction or consequence to some deeper meaning lying below the surface. She is a symptom, not the disease, and the reader must turn to another V. for further understanding.

Old Goldolphin's Vheissu is a visiona personal insight with an epistemology based on intuition. It is in direct opposition to history, which works from impartial, provable occurrences. V. demonstrates that the historical route is too susceptible to subjective interpretations to emit metaphysical truth. There is no overall pattern to be charted and measured, merely random, arbitrary incidents with no underlying correlation. Vision, however, can pierce the world of objects and "facts", possibly isolating the disease from its multi-dimensional symptoms.

Goldolphin is a 19th Century man. He has lived his life with the philosophy of the Romantic notion, and has coveted the attitudes of virtu and honor. He is an explorer; a man who continually pushes onward for new, undiscovered territory, both internally and externally. In 1884, while on an exploration in remote Africa, he came upon an isolated land called Vheissu and has been "fury-ridden"(p.154) ever since. He describes Vheissu as


. . . no different from any other godforsakenly remote region . . . [But] the colors. So many colors . . . The trees outside the head shaman's house have spider monkeys which are iridescent. They change color in the sunlight. Everything changes. The mountains, the lowlands are never the same color from one hour to the next. No sequence of colors is the same from day to day. As if you lived inside a madman's kaleidoscope. Even your dreams become flooded with colors . . . Not real shapes, not meaningful ones, [but] simply random.



Soulless, with "Nothing"(p.188) below its skin, the abominable vision of Vheissu haunts him with its inaneness and drives him to a monomaniacal conquest of the South Pole. "I wanted to stand in the dead center of the carousel, if only for a moment; try to catch my bearings"(p.189). There, frozen beneath the surface in the cold, lifeless ice, he sees an iridescent spider monkey"a mockery of life . . . inanimate"(p.190)and its insinuation sparks Old Goldolphin's profound revelation. He has penetrated below the Surfacethe skinof reality and found


Vheissu itself, a gaudy dream . . . a dream of annihilation.



Later, Signor Mantissa will repeat these words while cutting Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" from its frame, causing him to abandon his thievery. Thus, the shaking discovery of Vheissu lies at the heart of the prolific V.s and becomes tantamount to its symbolic import.

That the universe is indifferent, that there is no God, no Fate, merely Nothing, is the existential metaphysics of modern man. If God is the supreme conspiracy theory, then there is no "ultimate Plot Which Has No Name"(p.210). Nothing is the fertilizer which allows Goldolphin's vision of annihilation to sprout.

Stencil started his search right after World War II, the dawn of the nuclear age. Although Fausto is speaking of conventional warfare when he says, "only one thing matters: it's the bomb that wins"(p.311), this statement assumes immense proportions when applied to the thought of nuclear holocaust. As Hemingway explored the loss of valor and impersonal death by war machines in A Farewell to Arms at the start of this century, Pynchon contemplates mass annihilation in V. as its midpoint. He believes modern society to be transfixedhypnotized like a snake to its charmerwith the possibility of its own communal demise. The first sign is a proclivity for decadence, highlighted by the supplication of inanimate objects for human interaction and endeavors. As the world of objects increases, so does entropy, until everything becomes still, silent, annihilated. Threatened by an object, modern man embraces other objects and plunges into the nihilistic vortex that estranges him from himself and community, becoming an object himself to be inveiglingly manipulated.

There are no answers in V. as to why man rushes suicidally down "the street of the 20th Century"(p.303); perhaps he has always been mesmerized with the grim fascination of his own death. But there is little room for this thanatos wish when, either by political conspiracy or whimsical accident, mankind faces total obliteration. Like a paranoid, Pynchon sees the symptoms of this self-destructive urge like a "gaudy godawful riot of pattern and color"(p.156) weaving the fabric of modern reality.

If the 19th Century was the Victorian Era, the present centuryby comparisonis certainly an age of Decadence. "A decadence," one character says, "is a falling-away 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"(p.380). This effectively sums up the world of V.the "inanimate" furiously competes with the overabundance of V-words for dominance. The word is an obsession for Benny Profanehe is constantly trying to stay clear of "hostile objects"(p.16)and it even invades his sleep with dreams of "a boy born with a golden screw where his navel should have been"(p.30). Indeed, inanimate objects replace flesh in a number of characters: Lady V. disguised as the Bad Priest wears a wig, a sapphire in her navel, and has a false eye, artificial foot, and false teeth; Young Goldolphin has his face rebuilt with ivory, silver, and paraffin; Bongo-Shaftsbury has a switch sewn into his forearm. Perhaps the most pitiable situation of becoming inanimate is seen in the alligators Profane hunts under the streets of New York City. Bought as toys, they have been flushed down the toilet into the sewers when their animateness becomes a problem. Sensing their own ironic fate, Profane feels the alligators welcome his shotgun, as if pleading for the static security of being transposed into handbags, belts, and shoes.

Sex is abundant in a time of decadence, while love, with its higher state of interpersonal communication, becomes elusive. Again, object love abounds in the form of fetish throughout V. Rachael Owlglass makes love to the gear shift of her MG, Lady V. and Melanie have their affair through mirrors, Profane gets an erection thinking about particular clothes on a woman, and, the ghastliest object love of all: Foppl shoots female Bondels through the head then ravishes them.

Such misplaced sexual connections are prevalent in the novel, emphasizing the scarcity of real love. "Don't ask me if we're in love," Profane says to Paola Maijstral, "The word doesn't mean anything"(p.26). Later, he tells Rachael, "I don't love anything, not even you"(p.346). Profane is not the only character that cannot love. Virtually all couplingswith the exception of Paola and Clinton, Fausto and Elenaare empty, but few approach the ludicrousness of Father Fairing, in his sewer parish fornicating with Veronica the Rat, while she dreams of entering a rat nunnery and he thinks about which one of her brothers he will eat for dinner.

Another symptom of man's communal "dream of annihilation" is the corruption of religion. Feeling Christ is her husband, Victoria Wren rationalizes by proclaiming her sexual partners "imperfect, mortal versions of Him"(p.152). Later, as the Bad Priest, she sermonizes to Elena, who is sinfully-guilty over her pregnancy, about Christ's mission "to know sickness intimately" and metaphorically refers to the fetus as "spirit's cancer"(p.294). As Profane tries to piss out the sun and thereby become the "god of a darkened world"(p.17), Ester Harvitz sells out her Jewishness with a nose job. Even Fausto, emigrant from the priesthood, thinks "God's face [has] gone sick and his eye [begins] to wander"(p.318]. Pynchonthe master black humoristlinks his theme of the transposition of sex and religion when Fina, teenage virgin and spiritual advisor to a street gang called the Playboys, receives her secular canonization by performing a consummate gang-bang. In a world where "there is more accident to life than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane"(p.300), God has taken a permanent vacation.

What are the alternatives to annihilation? Is there anything that can break man's trance-like fascination with the Dance of Death and save his souring values? V. offers little hope. Arttraditionally a source of vision and inspirationseems to be stilled by mirroring its times, going through a phase that members of the Whole Sick Crew call "catatonic Expressionis(m) . . . the ultimate in non-communication"(p.45). While one member expresses his art by becoming an extension of a TV set, and Slab paints endless still-lifes of cheese danishes, most of the artists "produce nothing but talk and at that not very good talk"(p.277).

Science also helps feed the downward trend by aligning with big businesses such as Yoyodyne, a producer of "instruments of war"(p.211). Science has sired SHROUD (synthetic human, radiation output determined), a robot to test the effects of radioactive fallout on the human body, and SHOCK (synthetic human object, casualty kinematics), designed to measure impact during automobile accidents on human frailty. Technology is seen as another grinning skull when SROUD links the stacks of mutilated car bodies in junk yards with the thousands of Jewish corpses at Auschwitz.

Yet amidst death, decadence, and entropy, there is some hope. Pynchon uses Malta and a sparse scattering of M.s to indicate the positive counterforces, or personal alternatives to the V.s of the novel. For Malta has withstood the siege of World War II; it is the "womb of rock"(p.298) and, like Fausto's re-birth from "the non-humanity of the debris"(p.286), offers possible regeneration.

Malta has a supporting mythologynot only the Knights, but Mara. As related by Mehemet, she seems a worthy adversary to V. A "teacher of love"(p.435) and magician, she repels the Turks and brings peace to the island. Also, and most importantly, through its endurance and sustenance, Malta provides a sense of community for its people with the creation and protection associated to motherhood. It is Malta's children, after all, who dismantle the Bad Priest and scatter her influence, and it is Fausto Maijstral and his daughter, Paola, who emulate the most positive, human attributes in the novel.

Only the Maijstrals have the capacity to love. This is illustrated by Paola's affair with McClintic Sphere, which displays genuine affection and tenderness. Sphere's philosophy of "keep cool, but care"(p.342-3) is a weak confirmation in a decadent void, yet Paola enhances its meaning by subsequently returning to Malta and her husband. As Profane, at the close of the novel, reflects, "offhand, I'd say I haven't learned a goddamn thing"(p.428), and ambles off into darkness with Brenda Wigglesworth to his Day of Doom, Paola re-discovers her matriarchal and matrimonial roots, knowing it is love that sustains humanity. She is "a single given heart, a whole mind at peace"(p.294).

Poetry is another way to separate from the mindlessness of modern experiences. It re-affirms man's beliefs and strengthens his ability for humanistic comprehension and communication. As Fausto knows, "if every poet were to vanish tomorrow, society would live no longer than the quick memories and dead books of their poetry"(p.305). In a world where all the values have broken down, new ones must be created. Fausto rightly assigns this chore to the childrenMalta's "poets in a vacuum"(p.318)and, with it, his hope for the future.

Thus, with the M.s of the bookMalta, the Maijstrals, Motherhood, MythologyPynchon envisions a way to restrain its V.s. For if V. stands for a falling off, a decline in art, literature, and other cultural activities, what can oppose it but the spirit of inspiration and creativity itselfthe Muse.


I wrote this review in 198135 years ago when these concepts were more radioactivefor an English class at UC Fullerton taught by Prof. McNelly. I called it "Vectors Through The Void: V.". Philip K. Dick was living close by, thanks to McNelly who brought him down from that scary situation in Vancouver, B.C., but his death was only 3 months away. I missed a chance to meet PKD, but certainly didn't miss his influence, as, I'm sure, neither did Thomas Pynchon.

1) All quotes are from the Bantam paperback issue (133705), c.1963. And, all cover images from website

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