V.—That Obscure Object of Desire

Swedish Book Cover for Thomas Pynchon’s V.

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)]

Film Director Luis Buñuel (1900-1983)

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.


The Whole Enchilada

A Server Farm at Night

A Server Farm at Night

Oscar Wilde said it: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” For Thomas Pynchon, it’s not only the true mystery, but the whole enchilada.

There is no introspection or doubt in his novels: Things happen according to a kind of internally generated gonzo energy. In the case of Bleeding Edge, that energy involves—most especially—the Internet, September 11, hidden server farms, insane conspiracies, Russian gangsters, bent right-wing government men, Satanic CEOs, and a sinister firm called hashslingerz.com that could be either pro or anti government.

What is nowhere are any steps one millimeter closer to finding the meaning of life. That gonzo energy is life itself. Why be paralyzed by doubts, when those omnipresent marionette strings are urging you on to the next adventure?

Okay, no, scratch introspection. What there is, is the energy—and great gobs of interesting trivia and wit. Whenever heroine Maxine Tarnow jumps into action, I want to know what will happen in all these terribly involved situations that would have me, were I in her shoes, edging out the door, down the street, across the country—hell, halfway to Argentina.

Maybe I’m just a big coward. But at least I know what I like, and I do like Thomas Pynchon with his paraphernalia. Maybe Horace Engdahl of the Nobel Prize for Literature selection committee was right about American literature:

“There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world … not the United States,” he told the Associated Press. “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature…. That ignorance is restraining.”

But it sure is fun.