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Thomas Pynchon: V

There is really no point in summarising the plot of this novel, which is far too complex to explain. Suffice it to say that this long novel is not your typical first novel, spanning, as it does, the twentieth century till just prior to the date of publication and covering much of the key historical events of that period, at least those involving the West. There are two main plot lines. The first – set generally in 1956 – concerns Benny Profane and a bunch of hangers-on known as the Whole Sick Crew. Profane is a former sailor – a character based on Pynchon’s navy experiences – and is now a drifter, a character we will find in Pynchon’s later novels. Profane and the Whole Sick Crew live in New York, itself a symbol for the decadence of the age. Profane and Co. talk and drift but barely seem to live life. They are, in short, a lost generation though not a bad generation.

The other main character is Herbert Stencil. Stencil is the son of a former British diplomat and spy, who drowned in Malta. Stencil has found his father’s diaries and, in particular, a reference to the enigmatic V. He is obsessed with finding V and travels the world to do so. Who is V? Stencil thinks of V as a mysterious woman – a princess, a goddess, a whore. Who knows? Clearly, she is a symbol for that unattainable Holy Grail that many people have looked for. Of course, V does turn up – several times. However, we are left deliberately unsure whether she is the real V or not. Stencil and Profane do cross here and there, often in unexpected ways. More importantly, key historical events appear, such as the Suez Canal Crisis and the genocide of the Herero, and are often integral to the story. The criss-crossing of plots and eras, which we will find in his later novels, is also abundant. The key themes – entropy (the Whole Sick Crew), the influence of history and how history is not always linear, the need for a quest, though often futile, living life compared with decadence and that standard theme of what we see is not necessarily what is – as well as Pynchon’s incredible erudition, his seizure of the postmodern mode, which influenced numerous novelists who would follow him, and his ability to create characters who are both believable yet somehow different, make this a very special novel.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by Lippincott