Herbert Stencil mines through catalogs of information, seeking stories that his father and others had once told about the mysterious figure V who appears in times of mass violence. At the same time, Benny Profane treks through parts of the East Coast, partying, sleeping with women, hunting alligators in the New York sewers, and trying but failing to find a purpose in life. These characters’ stories are told while we also travel back into the past and view V witnessing moments of crisis – a ritual-esque death at a musical performance, the destruction of Malta, and the forgotten Herero genocide.
The mystery of V pervades the text as much as it does Stencil’s mind. Clues and references are dropped throughout the novel – V is often used as the number five in names, patterns of characters’ movements, converging paths, names that begin with the letter itself. Each clue stimulates the mind to find some answer. The reader seeks the purpose of this new reference to relate to Stencil’s journey, but after more and more references come by, their density increasing with the forward movement of the plot, it simply becomes a part of the whole; it is accepted to be a piece of the story and almost ceases to register in the reader’s mind upon further uses.
Yet, here is Stencil, having gone through document upon document, story upon story, and still he seeks out what or where V is. We first see the representation of V in a normal woman witness to a complex assassination. As the stories move on, she becomes less human, until we find her in the bombardment of Malta as an almost mechanized being, crushed under the debris of a demolished building. Constantly witness to and a part of tragedy, violence, and death, V has lost her humanity and is now a mass of parts and machines. V is the personification of America or, more broadly, the postmodern global war-scape. She did not cause the wars or deaths, but as a witness to them has evolved herself to numb the minds of those experiencing them. She is not the government or deep state influences which push these wars onto nations, she is what happens to the world when those bodies succeed.
It is no coincidence that the last time we see her at the end of her linear story is as this mechanized dying being. Afterward, she has disappeared and become a part of the landscape. Personhood ceases to be in the postmodern world. This is where Profane comes into play. A “schlemihl” as the novel calls him, he moves back and forth through America accomplishing nothing – numbing his mind to the greater goings-on through countless parties, meaningless jobs, sexual escapades, absurd theatrical quests. He is unaware of what the world has become because that is how it was planned to be. The higher powers have taken V and dissolved her into nothing just as they have taken Profane (and every other average citizen) and created empty shells, unable to fight against or even comprehend the hell that surrounds them.
Then, with V gone, what is Stencil searching for? There will always be those figures who see through the veil set before us. Stencil, likely hopelessly, seeks V. His tool is story and he sets out using this to piece together the puzzle. He creates himself in the image of others, looks through poetry, journalistic text, and memories of tales his father told. Is there a point though, or are remnants all that remain? It does not matter to Stencil – he sees what the world has become, and even without a personality of his own, he understands that in order to heal the world, this entity must be sought. So he travels from place to place, following every clue he can find just as the reader does near the beginning of the novel. But unlike us, who give up and accept the hints as a diversion, he is relentless and keeps on going no matter how pointless it may be.
V. is a great first novel, yet to me, it lacks the ferocity, beauty, and understanding of Pynchon’s later works. It is astute in its criticism and hatred of the postmodern world, but still too sentimental about the journey towards salvation. It also lacks cohesion, and while many may argue that his future novels are more fragmented, V. seems thematically fragmented whereas the future ones feel purposefully so. While not truly brilliant, it is a necessary novel to understand Pynchon’s whole picture and an excellent stepping stone into the bleaker and more hopeless novels that he has to come.
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