“V.” at L: Pynchon’s First Novel Turns Fifty

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Alexander Nazaryan in The New Yorker:

Penguin recently announced that Thomas Pynchon will publish his next novel, “Bleeding Edge,” this fall. Set in Manhattan’s “Silicon Alley,” it will mark Pynchon’s literary return to New York City, where he has not ventured since his début, “V.,” published fifty years ago this month. In the intervening years, Pynchon has journeyed far and wide: Southern California (“The Crying of Lot 49” and “Inherent Vice”), Northern California (“Vineland”), Chicago (“Against the Day”), the American colonies (“Mason & Dixon”), and pretty much all of Europe, Harvard Square, Namibia, and Siberia (“Gravity’s Rainbow”).

The world, too, has changed a little since Benny Profane chased alligators through the sewers of Manhattan. Medgar Evers was killed three months after the publication of “V.,” and J.F.K. five months after that. Then R.F.K. and M.L.K. There was the rise of acid and pot, the riots of Newark and Detroit.

Despite all of the places he’s travelled, despite the near-infinite reach of his fiction, there is nevertheless a tendency, I find, to think of the media-averse Pynchon as hermetically sealed in a vat of his own ideas, puns, and fears. His famous paranoia has to it a pervasive, timeless quality, equally suspicious of all creeds and systems, of individuals and corporations alike.

But to read “V.” today is to experience Pynchon anew. Blast through the multilayered densities of “Gravity’s Rainbow,” “Mason & Dixon,” and “Against the Day,” and you have a young Cornell graduate, an engineer from Long Island, writing with an earnestness you might not have expected, about a world he could never recover. And though we think of Pynchon as the progenitor of postmodern irony, the novel’s central theme, as uttered by the jazz saxophonist McClintic Sphere, is one of sly but unmistakable sincerity: “Keep cool but care.”

I should confess that I have no idea what “V.” is about—and I have read it twice. It may be about Benny Profane, a hopeless schlemiel who, having been discharged from the Navy, bounces around New York City with a comically harmless gang called the Whole Sick Crew, spending a good amount of time in the aforementioned crocodilian pursuit. Or the novel could be about Herbert Stencil, the son of a prominent British consular official, Sidney Stencil, who had “died under unknown circumstances in 1919 while investigating the June Disturbances in Malta.” Stencil’s entire existence is focused on the hunt for V., a classic novelistic quest-without-resolution (in fact, V. might be fiction’s greatest example of a MacGuffin). V. may be a person, or may be a place, though it could also be neither: Pynchon calls it, at one point, “a remarkably scattered concept” and, at another, “the ultimate Plot Which Has No Name.”

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