V – Thomas Pynchon

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Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V is a brilliantly eccentric mindscrew.

Benny Profane is a former navy sailor searching for work and meaning in New York, while his eccentric acquaintance Herbert Stencil obsessively hunts for anything he can find on V, an enigmatic woman mentioned only once in his father’s journal. The stories these characters are implicated in stretch from the high seas to South Africa, from Venice to Malta, from the British Egypt to the island of Malta. And that’s not even mentioning the mythical kingdom found at the South Pole. Chapters are often narrated by a member of Profane and Stencil’s nebulous web of friends, such as Profane’s girlfriend Rachel Owlglass and the plastic surgeon Shale Shoenmaker. The two protagonists are occasionally drowned in this diversity of viewpoint characters and settings, although it’s likely that Pynchon was going for this effect, and besides, the things that happen in this novel are fun.

Like the job Profane gets hunting crocodiles in New York’s sewers. Or the Catholic priest who preached to the rats in those sewers during the Depression. Or that Antarctic civilization I mentioned in the above paragraph, reminiscent of that prehistoric city from The Mountain of Madness. Or the scheme to steal Botticelli’s Venus painting in a hollowed tree. Or Profane’s conversations with a radioactive dummy during his job as a nightwatchman, where the inanimate objects replies are written without quotation marks. Or Yoyodyne, the weapons developer that originated as a toy company. Or the revelation that dentistry replaced psychoanalysis just as psychanalysis replaced the confessional, or that tourists live in their own world, or that inanimate objects have a sinister antagonism against organic beings. The Stencil plot and Profane’s friends provide Pynchon with a framework to throw together as many ideas as he could in a coherent order. Book people talk about Pynchon as though he were a human zen koan, but after reading V I’m convinced that he’s the sort of person who’d read Cracked, or at least Mad Magazine.

In this book Pynchon achieves what I once believed was impossible, he manages to have his characters burst into song without it being awful. Think about it, when you’re reading some nice prose fiction and all of a sudden those nice block paragraphs devolve into italicised lines, your eyes glaze over and you internally debate skipping to the next proper part of the story or risk wasting your time scanning dodgy poetry. Whether it’s Oompa Loompas crooning about how much some grotesquely injured child sucks, Frodo Baggins climbing onto a table to babble about the man in the moon, or the Sorting Hat reminding you why he’s only ever taken out of storage once a year, no character in fiction should ever be allowed to sing. Except in Thomas Pynchon. I guess the reason he gets away with it is that his lyrics are actually good. The first song is sung by a busker and the second by drunken sailors as they rush to suck beer out of taps shaped like women’s breasts – if the reader’s disbelief can handle that it can handle everything. My favourite song is Winsome’s musical autobiography, set to the tune of Davy Crocket, which is honestly unsuitable to be reproduced on the internet.

This book will overwhelm you, no matter how old you are, so anyone could read this book, but on the other hand it does contain sex and violence, so maybe only people over eighteen should read V. The rapid setting changes may appeal to fans of Italo Calvino

sIf on a Winter’s Night. Amateur detectives and conspiracy nuts will enjoy the tangled net of associations Stencil weaves around a single letter, and desolate youth stranded on the job market will identify with Profane’s listlessness. Anyone who wants to sound smart by boasting that they’ve read an intimidating book would be well advised to pick this one up, and anyone who has read the fourth Harry Potter will be able to complete it.

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