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Cover of first edition
|Published||1963 (J. B. Lippincott & Co.)|
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Cover of first edition
|Published||1963 (J. B. Lippincott & Co.)|
V. is the debut novel of Thomas Pynchon, published in 1963. It describes the exploits of a discharged U.S. Navy sailor named Benny Profane, his reconnection in New York with a group of pseudo-bohemian artists and hangers-on known as the Whole Sick Crew, and the quest of an aging traveller named Herbert Stencil to identify and locate the mysterious entity he knows only as "V." It was nominated for a National Book Award.
The novel alternates between episodes featuring Benny, Stencil and other members of the Whole Sick Crew (including Profane's sidekick Pig Bodine) in 1956 (with a few minor flashbacks), and a generation-spanning plot which comprises Stencil's attempts to unravel the clues he believes will lead him to "V." (or to the various incarnations thereof). Each of these "Stencilised" chapters is set at a different moment of historical crisis; the framing narrative involving Stencil, "V.", and the journals of Stencil's British spy/diplomat father threads the sequences together. The novel's two storylines increasingly converge in the last chapters (the intersecting lines forming a V-shape, as it were), as Stencil hires Benny to travel with him to Malta.
The Stencil chapters are:
This chapter, set among the British community in Egypt toward the end of the 19th century, consists of an introduction and a series of eight relatively short sections, each of them from the point of view of a different person. The eight sections come together to tell a story of murder and intrigue, intersecting the life of a young woman, Victoria Wren, the first incarnation of V. The title is a hint as to how this chapter is to be understood: Stencil imagines each of the eight viewpoints as he reconstructs—we do not know on how much knowledge and how much conjecture—this episode. This chapter is a reworking of Pynchon's short story "Under the Rose", which was first published in 1961 and is collected in Slow Learner (1984). In the Slow Learner introduction, Pynchon admits he took the details of the setting ("right down to the names of the diplomatic corps") from Karl Baedeker's 1899 travel guide for Egypt. Stencil's reconstruction follows the same basic conflict as "Under the Rose", but it gives the non-European characters much more personality.
Only marginally part of the Stencil/V. material, this chapter follows Benny and others, as Benny has a job hunting alligators in the sewers under Manhattan. It figures in the Stencil/V. story in that there is a rat named "Veronica" who figures in a subplot about a mad priest — Father Linus Fairing, S.J. — some decades back, living in the sewers and preaching to the rats; we hear from him in the form of his diary. Stencil himself makes a brief appearance toward the end of the chapter.
In Florence in 1899, Victoria appears again, briefly, but so does the place name "Vheissu", which may or may not stand for Vesuvius, Venezuela, a crude interpretation of wie heißt du, translating into who are you in the German language, or even (one character jokes) Venus.
Kurt Mondaugen, who will appear again in Gravity's Rainbow, is the central character in a story set in South-West Africa (now Namibia) partly during a siege in 1922 at which one Vera Meroving is present, but most notably in 1904, during the Herero Wars, when South-West Africa was a German colony.
Fausto Maijstral, Maltese civilian suffering under the German bombardment and working to clear the rubble during World War II writes a long letter to his daughter Paola, who figures in the Benny Profane story; the letter comes into Stencil's hands. The letter includes copious quotations from Fausto's diary. Besides the place name Valletta, V. figures in the story as an old — or possibly not-so-old — woman crushed by a beam of a fallen building.
In this chapter V. is entranced by a young ballerina, Mélanie l'Heuremaudit. The story centers on a riotous ballet performance, almost certainly modeled in part on the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. The performance centers on a virgin sacrifice by impalement. The young ballerina fails to wear her protective equipment and actually dies by impalement in the course of the performance; everyone assumes her death throes simply to be an uncharacteristically emotional performance.
As the Royal Navy mass on Malta in the early stages of the Suez Crisis, Stencil arrives with Benny in tow, searching for Fausto Maijstral. (As always, Kilroy was here first, and Pynchon proposes a novel origin for the face: that Kilroy was originally a schematic for part of a band-pass filter.)
The last chapter is a flashback to Valletta when Stencil, Sr. was still alive. After World War I he is sent to Malta to observe the various crises going on involving the natives and their desire for independence. He is implored by Maijstral's wife (who is pregnant with Fausto) to relieve him of his duties as a double agent because she fears for his life. Stencil, Sr. meets Veronica Manganese or V and implicitly has sex with her (she is now largely made up of artificial limbs). It is revealed they had trysted in Florence after the riots. He finds out that Fausto is having an affair with her as well.
Linus Fairing is also working as a double agent for Stencil, and when he leaves for America, having tired of the life of a spy, Stencil's purpose for being in Malta is null.
V releases Stencil from her auspices and Maijstral as well.
Stencil sails off into the Mediterranean and a waterspout blows the ship up into the air, then down into the depths, not too dissimilar from the conclusion of another American masterpiece, Moby-Dick, also a sailor's story.
TIME wrote "In this sort of book, there is no total to arrive at. Nothing makes any waking sense. But it makes a powerful, deeply disturbing dream sense. Nothing in the book seems to have been thrown in arbitrarily, merely to confuse, as is the case when inept authors work at illusion. Pynchon appears to be indulging in the fine, pre-Freudian luxury of dreams dreamt for the dreaming. The book sails with majesty through caverns measureless to man. What does it mean? Who, finally, is V.? Few books haunt the waking or the sleeping mind, but this is one. Who, indeed?"
In 2012 it emerged that there were multiple versions of V. in circulation. This was due to the fact that Pynchon's final modifications were made after the first edition was printed and thus were only implemented in the British, or Jonathan Cape, edition and the Bantam paperback. The fact was forgotten soon after in the U.S., so most US editions, including the newly released eBook, follow the first printing and are therefore unauthorized versions of the text, while the British editions, which follow the first edition printed by Jonathan Cape, contain Pynchon's final revisions.