Thomas Pynchon writes insane books. That is, the books themselves will not exhibit psychotic qualities and attack your family, but rather they tell dozens of stories at once, all involving somewhat insane, eccentric characters with varying degrees of impulsiveness and detachment from the world and culture around them. This, combined with a structure and style that is equally unique, dark, sarcastic, and humorous, makes for an interesting read. V. is Pynchon’s first novel, and it debuts this definitive (if “wild” is definitive) writing style which he would retain and develop further for his future works.
V. centrally depicts the stories of two men, one Benny Profane, a “schlemiel” for whom life happens noncommittally, and Stencil, who has made it his own personal quest and reason for living to search for some mysterious “V.,” possibly a woman, using every available clue from whatever odd and imaginative corners of the world Pynchon could conjure up.
There are a considerable number of flashbacks in addition to the chapter segments on Profane, Stencil, and a collection of bohemians known as The Whole Sick Crew, who sort of waste away somewhere in New York. One member, Winsome, points out that, “You cannot point to any one of the Crew and call them well,” and gives a short summary of each of them. Slab, an artist with great talent, has one weakness: he obsesses over cheese danishes and therefore paints such wonders as Cheese Danish No. 52. Winsome then discovers defenestration, the act of throwing something out of a window, and, straightening his tie, prepares to defenestrate once and for all, but is caught in mid-air, and sent away to a box.
There are too many side-plots with similar degrees of craziness to recount here, though, so I will give one example of how the two main storylines cross. Stencil at one point goes into a sewer on a lead from a journal of a mad priest named Father Fairing who lived in a sewer and preached to rats. Each rat had its own name, and was a potential meal for Fairing, which was a justifiable loss in return for spiritual nourishment. One of the rats, whom he names “V.,” he describes as odd, rebellious, and attractive to him. By some other chance, Profane had found a job shooting alligators in the sewer with thanks to three Puerto Rican kids named Tolito, Jose, and Kook. As he fired a shotgun round into the darkness, he accidentally hit Stencil, who was down there on the search for V., but neither of them knew much about it because Profane had not met Stencil yet. Their stories, however, were beginning to come together even at that early point in the novel.
The importance of the letter V, aside from being the name of some mysterious woman with many disguises, is that it is the unifying concept to the madness of the novel. Both characters’ paths eventually cross at the apex of the metaphorical V., even after numerous adventures and clues used from stories spanning two generations. V. is a brilliant first novel, but is by no means easily approachable. It is certainly readable, but I was advised after reading it to read The Crying of Lot 49 first, to get used to Pynchon’s style, which seems to be a good path to take; some chapters needed to be reread. But in the end, ready or not, reading V. was an excellent idea.