I have just finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V. (1963). This is one of those works which is so disturbing to readers who feel they must understand every reference, every symbol, every character. And what if the novel has hundreds of characters, most of them with highly fanciful names like Herbert Stencil or Benny Profane or Rachel Owlglass or Pig Bodine. For good or ill, something happened in the twentieth century that resulted in a great divorce of art from the common everyday experience of reality.
One can find it in James Joyce (Finnegan’s Wake), Samuel Beckett (The Unnamable), Georges Perec (Life: A User’s Manual), William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom!), and Gertrude Stein (The Making of Americans). And, in fact, all over the place.
Because my academic training is in film history and criticism, I was able to make a connection to one of my favorite directors, the Spaniard Luis Buñuel. In an interview with André Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze that appeared in Cahiers du Cinéma in June 1954, Buñuel wrote:
For me it is natural to tend to see and to think of a situation from a sadistic rather than from, say, a neorealistic or mystical point of view. I ask myself: What must this character reach for? A revolver? A knife? A chair? In the end, I always choose whichever is most disturbing. That’s all…. [Quoted in Ado Kyrou, Luis Buñuel: An Introduction (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963)]
If one looks at Pynchon’s novel V., one finds a search for a feminine entity referred to as V., presumably because that is the first letter of her name. In the course of the novel, there are dozens of characters who could qualify, and Pynchon is in no hurry to identify which one is right. The candidates include Victoria Wren, Vera Meroving, the goddess Venus, Veronica Manganese, a rat named Veronica in the sewers of New York, Madame Viola, Hedwig Vogelsang, the Blessed Virgin, or ??? Then again, V. could be a place, such as Valetta (Malta), Venezuela, the mysterious Vheissu (never explained), Vesuvius, or the V-Note Jazz Club in Manhattan ???
Thomas Pynchon is not terribly interested in providing closure, but he does know how to suck you in and keep turning those pages until you get to the strange death by waterspout of Sydney Stencil in 1919.