ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE FACTS ON FILE COMPANION TO THE AMERICAN NOVEL
V. by Thomas Pynchon
“Suppose truth were a woman…”
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
All readers undergo a voyage to discover hidden meanings — a voyage which is also a passage of self-discovery. Like most meta-fictional narratives, Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V. (1963) is about the act of reading itself and the possibility of self-reading.
Never has reading seemed so lugubrious. The plot concerns Stencil, the son of a now-deceased British foreign officer, who, accompanied by eponymous “schlemihl” Benny Profane, half-heartedly searches for the elusive “V.” — who might be a woman, a thing, a concept, a sewer rat, or nothing at all. Stencil is a reader, broadly understood: he attempts to interpret the meaning of an initial. Reading is here a process without progress and without terminus: Stencil never succeeds in identifying the initial’s referent. As his name implies, Stencil can only trace the outlines of that which he seeks; his search is, to a certain extent, a fruitless yearning for truth.
To put an end to the process of reading would be to lose one’s human spontaneity. For this reason, “V.” must never be found. If “V.” were found, Stencil would become indistinguishable from an inanimate object. The search for “V.” is the only thing that distinguishes him from a thing: “His random movements before the war had given way to a great single movement from inertness to-if not vitality, then at least activity” . Both Profane and Stencil are terrified of the world of objects. They fear its stasis, its contagious inanimateness. The inanimate objects that populate Pynchon’s narrative often resemble human beings, such as the beer tap that is shaped in the form of a “foam rubber breast” . Human beings, conversely, are themselves often functional and machinelike: eg., Benny Profane’s jaunts resemble the idiotic up-and-down movements of a yo-yo; Rachel’s words are described as “inanimate-words [Profane] couldn’t really talk back at” , etc. All of the “characters” in the novel are threatened by the lifeless world of things. Stencil needs to search for the inaccessible in order to separate himself from the inanimateness of objecthood, in order to avoid freezing into a thingly state: “He tried not to think, therefore, about any end to the search. Approach and avoid” . If “V” were found, it would be necessary to lose it again and reinitiate the search.
Readers are implicated in this impossible quest, involuntarily placed in the position of code-breakers. Like Stencil, they obsessively ask themselves, “Who, then, is V.?” Because the identity of “V.” is never completely given, the solution to the code seems to withdraw abyssally into darkness. Without an answerable meaning, the “alien hieroglyphic[-]”  seems to exist on its own terms. The book’s center, it would seem, is not some intentional content that would lie behind or beyond the code, but, rather, the code itself. The cipher itself is illuminated, not its meaning. The point of interpretation is no longer to identify a transcendental meaning or theme, but rather to sift through the fragments and details of the narrative, the ill-fitting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The unanswerable question, “Who, then, is V.?” incites us to return to the forgotten or neglected world of appearances. Bluntly stated, the disconnected pieces of Pynchon’s narrative are what is essential, not the “whole” to which they would belong.
Pynchon’s novel is an anti-adventure story about the plight of reading. It challenges us to interpret something-the initial “V.”-without thinking in terms of a whole: the particular clues in the story do not relate to the context of the universal. Any interpretation that thinks in terms of the universal, in this context, is doomed to failure. V. concerns the failure of reading and self-reading. Stencil’s obsessive yet ultimately grim and joyless quest is to discover his own provenance (the search for “V.” is, to a certain extent, the search for his own father, der Vater in German) and therefore to discover his own identity. And yet there is no definitive conclusion to the process of self-reading; therefore, there is no definite self-understanding. Stencil’s identity is determined by the impossible which he seeks: “[H]e was quite purely He Who Looks for V.” . If this process had any finality, he would be nothing at all-that is to say, nothing more than a thing, one thing among others.
The task of reading, then, must remain an infinitely provisional task. Brenda remarks to Profane in Malta: “`You’ve had all these fabulous experiences. I wish mine would show me something.’/`Why.’/`The experience, the experience. Haven’t you learned?’/Profane didn’t have to think long. `No,’ he said, `offhand I’d say I haven’t learned a goddamn thing.'” . Stencil and Profane are led on an issueless quest-as are those of us who follow them. The absence of anything like a decipherable meaning forces us to think about why we read: the book reveals our desire to discover order in chaos, to impose structure and coherence on entropy, to implement systems where there is none.
According to the metaphorics of V., the search for meaning is more vital than the meaning that is sought. Such is the significance of the non-questions that populate the book-questions that are unshelled of the interrogative form: “What are you afraid of” ; “Do you like it here” , etc. These questions without questions remind us that, when approaching this book, we must pose questions without hankering after results. The question is its own answer.
P.S. The novel has a sterile, lifeless prose style.
Dr. Joseph Suglia