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#32 Songs in the key of V, part 1
An introduction to V. (without spoilers).
It’s V period, dammit!
Such was the alleged reaction of famed literary recluse Thomas Pynchon when presented with one of the covers that got the title of his debut novel wrong. Or perhaps it was Pynchon seeing the title misrepresented in print somewhere else, in a newspaper or magazine. There’s always been an aura of mystery surrounding this author and his writing. He’s not quite a B. Traven for our time, but almost. Thus my uncertainty, my having been unable to establish that quote’s precise context, feels appropriate. Btw, I found it on thomaspynchon.com.
Scrolling through the V. cover gallery at that site, I was surprised to see just how often, over the course of the book’s 60-year publishing history, that particular clanger had been dropped. This, one of my favourite covers, is an ambiguous case:
Is that red dot behind the alligator a period, or just a graphic element included to make the scaly critter’s head show up, make it ‘pop’? Or is it even, conceivably, a halo?
I also really like this cover, though it’s one of those in which nothing like a period is anywhere to be seen:
It’s curious. Maybe this and cases like it are evidence of careless disinterest in V. on the part of publishers? While the book, in the early and mid Sixties, does seem to have been kind of a big deal, celebrated for innovations that would later come to be called postmodern, it looks to have since been overshadowed by what came to be Pynchon’s two most popular and most highly esteemed works—The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). The latter book especially of course. Can a rainbow cast a shadow? Ordinarily I think not, but that singular one certainly has, and over the entire rest of Pynchon’s oeuvre. I wonder if it’s caused the novelist some frustration.
Any reader of Pynchon is likely to be vexed sooner or later, though for quite different reasons. Crime writer Ian Rankin has described him as
the greatest, wildest, most infuriating author of his generation.
For a long time—almost twenty years—I resisted Pynchon. Though I acquired a Gravity’s Rainbow paperback in about 2004 I never made any headway with it. I knew Pynchon’s reputation for difficulty and, sure enough, the prose struck me as turgid, the story obscure and impenetrable. I’d also picked up, from J.G. Ballard if memory serves, a prejudice against all fiction pigeonholed as postmodern. That copy of GR remained in my possession, neglected, until I sold it about eight years ago. Last year I acquired another copy. I’d revised my views, finally discarded that anti-pomo prejudice, was intent on getting into Pynchon. I felt it was time. The reader is probably no stranger to that sense of owing it to yourself to finally read this or that very important writer. But besides that, I was aware there was a vitality and a richness in Pynchon, even if I’d not been able to appreciate it the first time. I’m always on the lookout for works that can be pitted against what is, for me, the defining problem of our time: that metaphysical desertification I often write about. The slow, steady advance of barrenness.
And so I attempted Gravity’s Rainbow once again. I got further than before, but still not that far. Yet my reason for halting this second time was different. It wasn’t that I wasn’t having fun with the book. I was enjoying it so much I realised I wanted to read all of Pynchon’s fiction. It’d be logical, I figured, to set GR aside and pick up the man’s debut, published ten years before when he was only twenty-six.
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So this brings me back to V., with its oft-misrepresented title.
Without the period V is just a letter. With it, an initial. But who, or what, is V.? Not only the identity but also the ontological status of V. (animate / inanimate; living / dead; natural / supernatural)—these are the central obsessions which hold together this first novel, a near-500 page pocket epic set largely in mid-1950s east-coast America. Though they soon become the reader’s obsessions too (at least this reader’s), to begin with it’s only a single mind they haunt, that of middle-aged Englishman Herbert Stencil. Born to an unknown mother in 1901 and thus “the century’s child”, the peculiar Stencil, like his father a former employee of the British Foreign Office, is one of V.’s two protagonists (the other being 23-year-old ex-sailor Benny Profane, more on whom below). Herbert’s interest in V., destined to become an extreme fixation, begins with a discovery in his dead father Sidney’s journal:
Stencil reached his majority three years after old Stencil died. Part of the estate that came to him then was a number of manuscript books bound in half-calf and warped by the humid air of many European cities. His journals, his unofficial log of an agent's career. Under "Florence, April, 1899" is a sentence, young Stencil has memorized it: "There is more behind and inside V. than any of us had suspected. Not who, but what: what is she. God grant that I may never be called upon to write the answer, either here or in any official report.”1
It’s actually Herbert Stencil who’s speaking here—he always refers to himself in the third person. Sidney Stencil did his intelligence work for the British state in the decades just before and after the turn of the 20th century. Though he wasn’t as eccentric as his son would be, Sidney’s philosophy was an offbeat one:
Stencil gritted his teeth. Oh, The Situation. The bloody Situation. In his more philosophical moments he would wander about this abstract entity The Situation, its idea, the details of its mechanism.
He had decided long ago that no Situation had any objective reality: it only existed in the minds of those who happened to be in on it at any specific moment.2
As this passage indicates, the V. narrative pays a visit (in fact more than one) to Sidney Stencil’s time, the late 19th / early 20th centuries. Herbert Stencil suspects V. is a woman, quite possibly his mother, and his quest for her sends him rummaging around in the past. In fact he uncovers, in a clutch of strife-torn times and places, a bewildering range of ‘Vs’ whose relation to each other is uncertain. They include a number of women (Victoria, Vera, Veronica) who may or may not be the same person, a rat also given the name Veronica by a deranged Catholic priest, an uncharted country called Vheissu, a bar called The V-Note, the list goes on. Although Herbert’s quest is often dark in tone, even somber, it’s not without humour:
At half past one the phone rang. It was Stencil.
”Stencil’s just been shot at,'“ he said.
Private eye, indeed. “Are you all right, where are you.” He gave her the address, in the east 80’s. “Sit down and wait,” she said. “We’ll come get you.”
”He can’t sit down, you know.” He hung up.3
Herbert’s odd way of speaking is amusing but it distanced me from him; I identified more with V.’s other protagonist Benny Profane. As Pynchon intended that his reader do, I suspect—a balance is thereby struck between the esoteric fascination of Stencil’s quest and the human interest of Profane’s picaresque “yo-yoing”, his aimless wandering up and down the east coast.
Benny Profane, and some of his louche friends, we get to know before meeting Stencil the younger. It’s also in Chapter One that the letter V first makes its presence felt—unaccompanied by that all-important full stop:
Underfoot, now and again, came vibration in the side-walk from an SP streetlights away, beating out a Hey Rube with his night stick; overhead, turning everybody’s face green and ugly, shone mercury-vapor lamps, receding in an asymmetric V to the east where it’s dark and there are no more bars.4
SP is Shore Patrol, and one of the many biographical details Pynchon, who’d served about two years in the US Navy (‘55 - ‘57), put into his debut. This early and enigmatic appearance of the eponymous letter is typical of the author’s (in)famous allusiveness, and of his penchant for subtleties—like narrative foreshadowing and esoteric symbolism—which have intrigued and fascinated his many academic readers5 (in particular) for well over half a century.
Where we are, in this opening chapter, is East Main Street in Norfolk, Virginia, en route to a bar called the Sailor’s Grave. When we are is Christmas Eve, 1955. We’re accompanying Profane—“a schlemihl and human yo-yo” and the closest thing V. has to an avatar for its author—as he indulges a festive whim to haunt old haunts.
Like Pynchon at the time of the novel’s appearance (1963), Profane is an ex-sailor in his twenties. As the book begins he’s wandering through the eastern states, fresh from a stint working on a road crew. This last is another element drawn from the author’s life—Pynchon had done such work in summer in his Long Island hometown of Oyster Bay, where his father was road commisioner6.
Benny Profane’s a drifter, as not a few young men were in the postwar years. He’s living the kind of deracinated, unstructured existence that figures so heavily in the Beat literature of the 1950s. Pynchon has confirmed that the groundbreaking Beats were a key influence for him and his writing contemporaries. This from his introduction to Slow Learner, a collection of his early stories (all but one of them written and published prior to V.) that appeared in bookstores in 1984:
At the simplest level, it had to do with language. We were encouraged from many directions—Kerouac and the Beat writers, the diction of Saul Bellow in The Adventures of Augie March, emerging voices like those of Herbert Gold and Philip Roth—to see how at least two very distinct kinds of English could be allowed in fiction to coexist. Allowed! It was actually OK to write like this! Who knew? The effect was exciting, liberating, strongly positive. It was not a case of either/or, but an expansion of possibilities. I don’t think we were consciously groping after any synthesis, although perhaps we should have been.
Against the undeniable power of tradition, we were attracted by such centrifugal lures as Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro,” the wide availability of recorded jazz, and a book I still believe is one of the great American novels, On the Road, by Jack Kerouac.7
V.’s chapters are divided into numbered sections, and in Chapter One’s part II Benny Profane is revealed to be the child of a Jewish mother and Catholic father. I find it curious and fascinating that, in V. and elsewhere, the gentile Pynchon displays what I assume to be quite extensive knowledge of Jewishness and Judaism, along with a fondness for certain words of Yiddish provenance, like schlemihl. For this word (in its alternate form schlemiel) Wiktionary offers the following:
Profane, then, is something of a bungler. Still, he’s not uncharismatic: he has a lazy, midcentury American charm. As a human yo-yo, ceaselessly moving but not really getting anywhere, he doesn’t know what he wants. His visit to the Sailor’s Grave sees him meeting up with his old Navy chum Pig Bodine, a cynical party animal (no pun intended). Pig is still a serving sailor but has gone AWOL. He’ll feature heavily in the novel, especially in flashbacks to Profane’s stint aboard the USS Scaffold. Also at the Sailor’s Grave Profane meets, and becomes the reluctant ‘guardian’ of, Paola Maijstral, an eighteen-year-old Maltese immigrant who’s been doing bar work. It’s a Platonic relationship, mostly. The good-natured Paolo will prove to be one of the book’s central characters. Some of Pynchon’s commentators have noted8 how her name seems to allude to Saint Paul, who, according to the Book of Acts9, was shipwrecked on Melita, present-day Malta. Over the course of the book the small archipelago will slowly emerge as a location central to the V. enigma.
The mind of Benny Profane is untroubled by any medium- or longterm goals. He represents an existential mode characteristic of the period 1945 to 1960–a certain Waiting for Godot aimlessness. His behaviour is in stark contrast to Herbert Stencil’s. The driven Englishman can, I think, be viewed as a symbol for the sciences’ obsessive search for certainty, for absolute truth. Their gnostic project, we might say, borrowing from Eric Voegelin (who I’ll have more to say about). All the ambiguities and paradoxes of that quest, and how Pynchon thematises them, I will consider in subsequent instalments of Songs in the key of V.
Benny Profane incarnates an aspect of the century that isn’t so much the opposite of modern gnosticism as its complement. As his name suggests, Profane’s a stranger to grand things, holy things. At least in this respect he seems to be quite unlike his creator, who, according to a friend, music writer Jules Siegel, attended Mass and confession, at least during his time studying electrical engineering at Cornell University. Siegel was then his dorm-mate and, like Pynchon, a science student, but in premed.
Chapter One, part V sees Profane leave behind his old Virginia stomping grounds (Norfolk, Newport News) to travel with Paola up to New York City, with an eye to hooking up with an old flame. Ms. Maijstral goes to stay with Benny’s ex–a young Jewish woman named Rachel Owlglass, who remains enamoured of Profane. Meanwhile, Benny looks for a job and gets one, hunting alligators in the sewers. Under orders to shotgun ‘em. Naturally the ‘gators, which as infants had been purchased as pets at Macey’s department store and ended up in the sewers when their owners had second thoughts and flushed them, are finite in number—so Profane’s spell of employment is also finite.
It’s in “Nueva York”, as it’s often referred to in the novel, that “wandering Jew” Profane meets Pig Bodine again. He’s initiated into “The Whole Sick Crew”, Bodine’s circle of degenerate, would-be artist friends. Among The Whole Sick Crew’s acquaintances is Herbert Stencil. Profane and he meet but don’t exactly get to know each other. Their destinies are linked, but not that closely. What we have in V. are really two concurrent stories that cross paths in places.
“Profane”, “Maijstral”, “Pig” and “Owlglass” were obviously not chosen by accident, and J. Kerry Grant, in A Companion to V., describes Pynchon as
one of the twentieth century’s great onomastic provocateurs, dangling his characters’ monikers before us in gleeful expectation of our surrender to the hermeneutic impulse.10
The novelist’s use of names like this would seem, on the one hand, to be ironic and comedic, and on the other to be part of what Harold Bloom called Pynchon’s “theosophical allusiveness“11. This latter is a mysterious aspect of Pynchon’s writing that I want to delve into in a forthcoming part of Songs in the key of V12.
Another of V.’s facets I intend to examine is its psychogeography—how the various lands that the narrative visits make their presence felt. I have in mind, too, what I might call the “psychotemporality” of V.: how, in a sense, the novel provides doorways to other times.
Some Private Diagonal is the work of a real human writer, not an AI imposter (The Talented Mr GPT?). Please support the human race in its hour of need.
Pynchon, Thomas, V., originally published by J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1963. My copy is the 2022 Vintage Classics imprint. The quote is found on page 53.
ibid. p. 189.
ibid. p. 131.
ibid. p. 10.
An excellent intro to academic writing on Pynchon, and on V. in particular, is J. Kerry Grant’s A Companion to V., The University of Georgia Press, 2001.
Pynchon, Thomas, Slow Learner, Little, Brown and Company, 1984.
Newman, Robert D., Understanding Thomas Pynchon, University of South Carolina Press, 1986, p. 59.
Acts 27, 28.
A Companion to V., p. 23.
Bloom, Harold, Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Thomas Pynchon, Chelsea House Publishers, 2003, p. 3.