Thomas Pynchon has been able to fall asleep for the last 50 years knowing his first novel was V. It stands as a testament to his talent that this first foray into the world of long-form prose arrived neither apocryphal nor underdeveloped. Pynchon came out of the batter’s box with a home run on his first swing.
V. tells a story beyond the capabilities of traditional narrative. It focuses on the lives of Benny Profane, a war vet who wanders New York City searching for meaning, and Herbert Stencil, an intellectual on his own quest—he seeks a mysterious woman, V., described in his father’s diary. Profane’s journey largely happens on and under city streets. Stencil wanders and swerves the open road.
Pynchon studied engineering physics at Cornell University, briefly interrupting his tenure there to serve in the U.S. Navy. While at school, he attended lectures taught by Vladimir Nabokov, whose own playful prose style influenced him. Like Profane, Pynchon returned from service a wanderer and a polymath, his experience as a vet-come-home punctuating his novel with realism and honesty.
Fans regularly proclaim Pynchon as the father and most intricate designer of postmodern hip lit. There’s something to this. The writer name-checks and digresses more than any writer since Kerouac, with his wanderlust ramblings. Pynchon proves more verbose than Vonnegut or Salinger too. I mention these specific writers because their themes turn up in V., as protagonist Benny Profane searches, like Sal Paradise or Holden Caulfield, for place and identity. Consider, too, Stencil’s quest for the mysterious V., the feminine presence in dad’s diary. Pynchon sends us down rabbit trails of socio-cultural-historical sound bytes mixed with paragraphs of smirky humor. Presto! We get On the Road written by the type of intellectual who solves the New York Times crossword in three minutes flat.
What does V. have that other early post-war literature lacks? It emphasizes the creation of a sort of modern mythology. Digressions of both idea and narrative here prove hard to track and understand at times but the mode of storytelling stretches far back from the postmodern era. Joyce first did it for the moderns with Ulysses, writing a Homeric odyssey for a generation in which heroism lay dead. V. reads as equal parts Odyssey and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (Homer can hardly be considered a straight-line storyteller himself … and Ovid’s work splashed and ran haphazardly, headed here and there in its efforts to encompass all the stories the Greco-Romans ever told.) The old Greek and the old Roman told their stories to feel a bit more entrenched in the world aswirl around them. Fast forward to 1963 America, and it becomes apparent Pynchon set the same goal for himself.
V. reminds us that we never really made it that far away from ancient polytheism. Benny Profane walks the streets of New York City alternating between spells of Erotic and Bacchic revelry. As wanderer back from the war—an archetype as old as written words—Profane lacks a Penelope or homeland where he might end his voyage. Herbert Stencil finds his quest for the Holy Grail undercut with the eternally unknowable.
Proponents claim that postmodernism’s purported edge on other viewpoints is its emphasis on deconstruction, a dismantling of preconceived notions and theisms. But V. insistently reminds its readers, with impressive amounts of foreknowledge, that the search will stick even if the destination doesn’t. To claim humanity and not be looking for something more, whatever that more might be, comes as a contradiction in terms.
Since publication of Pynchon’s novel in 1963, its curious displacement has darkened many brows. It arrived just as the U.S. made its way out of the miry bog of World War II to enter murky Cold War swamplands. An assassin shot President Kennedy dead just a few months after V. hit the bookstores. Cue the Vietnam War, Watergate and the loss of any starry-eyed confidence in the West’s so-called peacemakers. Fast forward to today’s Wars—Terror, Iraq, Drugs, Marriage—and V. seems even more prophetic today than on first arrival. Was Pynchon right? Will we keep searching for meaning in a world that gives us less of it every year? Have we all become Benny Profane in the sewers of New York City, hunting alligators in the darkness as a last-ditch effort to make sense of ourselves?
But then we find Pynchon’s other trademark difference amongst the postmoderns—he handles our lostness with expected anxious paranoia … but with an equal helping of frivolity. His characters and his sentences seem bent on proving that even though the world may be more nonsensical than Alice’s Wonderland, there’s no reason we can’t have fun trying to make it through.
Profane and the whole sick crew blunder along, plagued by drunkenness and misunderstanding, but shot through with a likable humanity remote to the characters of Hemingway and his morose compatriots. Stencil’s many historical asides include casts and crews of (slightly) toned-down Dickensian grotesques. Dickens wrote characters, with all their eccentricities, just outside reality. Pynchon creates characters that seem all the stranger for just how easily they might really exist.
In V., you can find Pynchon’s Cheshire Cat use of language, the larger-than-life people and the symphonic plotting in his other notable works, such as The Crying of Lot 49 or Gravity’s Rainbow. What you can’t find in any other Pynchon novel is V. (For that matter, none of the characters in V. can find her either.) Stencil’s quest turns up a number of suspects, including even a hidden country, but V. remains in the end mysterious, a muse.
The quest for V. contributes largely to what makes the novel postmodern in the first place. V. serves as a metaphor even for characters who aren’t, at least on any surface level, searching for her. How? She may be this person or that, that country or this … but she is always a sign the journey’s complete.
V.’s 50th anniversary arrives a landmark for many reasons. The novel introduced a true, lightning-strike talent who changed the literary landscape. Pynchon’s name has only grown in stature since V.’s release, and his 1960s novels hold more foresight and understanding of our new millennium’s teen years than most books coming out today.
In V., Pynchon assured readers that even in the hyper-real world he wove across history and the globe … a world robbed of so many traditional means of self-comprehension … a search for truth, beauty and love still lay ahead. He wrote V. to prove our human story hasn’t ended yet.
We all keep looking for V.
Mack Hayden is a writer and cultural obsessive. For all he knows, he catches a glimpse of Thomas Pynchon daily.