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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 characters—they are more like vehicles—and 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 Stencil—possibly the novelist/protagonist of the book—Fausto 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 proportions—to make order out of chaos—from 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,
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 Wren—a 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 somebody—probably the British, agent, Porpentine gets murdered—is 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, while—at cross purposes—Signor 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).
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. Fausto—conscientiously giving her the Final Sacraments with her own blood—notes that her lips are cold. This causes him to reflect
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.
Old Goldolphin's Vheissu is a vision—a 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
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 Surface—the skin—of reality and found
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 transfixed—hypnotized like a snake to its charmer—with 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.
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 couplings—with the exception of Paola and Clinton, Fausto and Elena—are 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]. Pynchon—the master black humorist—links 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. Art—traditionally a source of vision and inspiration—seems 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.
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 children—Malta's "poets in a vacuum"(p.318)—and, with it, his hope for the future.
Thus, with the M.s of the book—Malta, the Maijstrals, Motherhood, Mythology—Pynchon 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 itself—the Muse.
1) All quotes are from the Bantam paperback issue (133705), c.1963. And, all cover images from website http://thomaspynchon.com/