Saturday, 7 July 2012

Review: V. by Thomas Pynchon

V. chronicles the pursuit, by various unconvincingly named characters, of the titular letter. V. seems to stand for something – Valletta, or Victoria, or Veronica, or V2 rocket, or anything else that begins with a v – but we never really know. The quest, if it may accurately be described as such, is followed through a shifting mis-en-scene of cities and time periods.

Pynchon's set dressing for these scenes is impeccable, all fragments of Italian, tourist landmarks and period references. But they are only this, only guided tours through unreal places, and, if the reader dawdles a little and stops paying attention to what the guide is saying, the stage setting can be seen.

The artifice is, of course, Pynchon's aim. An element of forgery hangs over his cityscapes, because they are deliberately set in 'Baedeker land', not real life. They are collections of objects and things, thrust together. The superficiality of the Baedeker approach to life interests Pynchon. There are depths of humanity to be glimpsed in some chapters, most notably in the callousness of the German ex-patriots in the Namibian section as they discuss the glory days of the Herero genocide. But such glimpses are true of most tourist experiences, when one sees a squatting beggar in a famous piazza in front of a famous palace, or glimpses a family cooking dinner through a window as you stumble down the wrong alley looking for some cathedral or museum.

Most of the emotive power in the novel comes from Pynchon's understanding of things. A dichotomy between the animate (humans, animals etc) and the inanimate (rocks, televisions, bombs) is introduced early in the novel, not with any great seriousness. The boundaries of the two categories fluctuate constantly: when Esther gets a nosejob, when Fausto deconstructs a priest, when Profane decides that people are things, or a barkeeper decides that her bar-taps are breasts. The things are endowed with a great deal of humanity. Pynchon knows that the detritus of people's lives can be profoundly emotive, but in a far more understated way than their hysteria and their heart-to-heart conversations.

The novel can be seen as a collection of detritus, an assemblage of flotsam from the shipwrecks of dozens of lives. It is stuffed with titbits and bits, with proper nouns and acronyms, stray nouns and lists of nouns. Pynchon has a way of creating characterful eccentricity out of very little, and manages to real off such lists almost effortlessly.

“Of their dash across the Continent in a stolen Renault; Profane's one-night sojourn in a jail near Genoa, when the police mistook him for an American gangster; the drunk they all threw which began in Liguria and lasted well past Naples; the dropped transmission at the outskirts of that city and the week they spent waiting its repair in a ruined villa on Ischia, inhabited by friends of Stencil – a monk long defrocked named Fenice who spent his time breeding giant scorpions in marble cages once used by the Roman blood to punish their young boy and girl concubines, and the poet Cinoglossa who had the misfortune to be both homosexual and epileptic”.

Pynchon fills his novel with this kind of manic energy. It entails a kind of sadness: Profane and his friends are too jaded and cynical to enjoy the astounding vitality and exuberance of their adventures.

As the quotation shows, the bulk of this eccentricity is carried through naming: places, people (associated with roles: the monk and the poet), things. The total effect for 500 pages is almost overwhelming. The reader's mind becomes clogged with stuff. Pynchon's stage sets are a masterclass in effective recycling, like WALL·E in Pixar's film, who builds teetering, tottering towers out of trash. Previous styles, scraps of history, brief but compelling biographies and narratives are Pynchon's materials. He gathers them, compresses them into little bricks of his own, and creates skyscrapers.

See more on V. at the V. wiki

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