V. by Thomas Pynchon

V.I can’t really explain what made me pick up ‘V.’ by Thomas Pynchon from the library shelf three weeks ago. It’s likely to have been a combination of recently seeing a trailer for the film adaptation of ‘Inherent Vice’ and coming across an old article in The Guardian by Ian Rankin about Pynchon as well as the weird and wonderful cover design of this Vintage Books edition. Moreover, although I’ve read a lot of enjoyable and thought-provoking books in the past few months, it’s been a while since I’ve read something that has properly challenged me. 

I had wondered if reading ‘V.’ would be similar to my experience of reading ‘Cloud Atlas‘ by David Mitchell which I failed to finish a couple of years ago. It turned out to be pretty much the same. I was fine for the first 150 pages and then I hit a wall. I persevered for another 100 pages or so before accepting that I wasn’t going to finish it.

Essentially, there are two main characters, Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil. Profane has been discharged from the Navy in the 1950s and spends a lot of time with a bunch of other characters known as the Whole Sick Crew. His story is gradually intertwined with that of Stencil who is on a quest for the mysterious ‘V.’ whose identity remains a mystery. I quite liked the chapters about Profane but I got completely lost reading the chapters about Stencil.

In my blog review of ‘Cloud Atlas’, I said “The positive thing I can say … is that it is an imaginative, ambitious, sprawling tapestry of a novel which shows off Mitchell’s talent for writing in several different styles.  On that level, I can admire it… from a safe distance.” My feelings about ‘V.’ are very similar. Both are densely written, kaleidoscopic novels. However, while ‘Cloud Atlas’ has a difficult structure, it is at least a visible one in that there are six stories which are resolved in reverse chronological order. ‘V’ doesn’t have a clear beginning or middle and I concluded around the 250 page mark that the second half of the book would be equally incomprehensible too.

After I put ‘V.’ aside, I discovered an excellent WikiHow article with some wise instructions about ‘How to Read a Thomas Pynchon Novel‘. My mistake was in failing to follow Step 3 which is “Sit down to read it”. ‘V.’ is not a book to read whilst commuting with two or three train changes. It’s a book I should have added to my “Books I will only read if I break both of my legs” list instead. While I had started reading ‘V.’ with what I thought was a relatively open mind and accepted that I wasn’t going to absorb every theme or nuance, I hadn’t prepared myself enough for the total absence of plot or structure or just anything I could meaningfully grasp on to.

Although ‘V.’ is Pynchon’s debut novel, it may not be the best one to start with. If I ever do revisit Pynchon’s work – which is unlikely to be in the very near future – I will probably tackle either ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ which is considerably shorter than ‘V.’ or ‘Inherent Vice’. I figure that if it’s possible to adapt ‘Inherent Vice’ into a film, then it must at least have a marginally clearer story arc than ‘V’.

Have you read any novels by Thomas Pynchon? What was the last book you failed to finish?

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “V. by Thomas Pynchon

  1. walttriznastories

    Pynchon is a fascinating author yet complicated. I recently read his book, Mason & Dixon, and find it hard to separate fact from fiction.

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  2. Time Magazine wrote of Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V:

    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?

    I loved it, but then I am torn between Tristram Shandy or Ulysses as being the greatest novel ever written. A warning, however: Inherent Vice is terribly American (Los Angeles noir, if you will) and isn’t a work to judge the author by.

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  3. I loved your review of V. I too tried to read it many years ago, having read “The Crying of Lot 49”. Pynchon was all the rage at the time, as was “V”. I suspect most of these admirers never started or finished it. I had the same problem with Ulysses (although for different reasons). Recently, being considerably older and better read, I have put both “V” and “Ulysses on my TBR list. In this regard, the readable “Moby Dick” (another classic most people say they read, but haven’t) and Don Quixote are also added, but I will get through these. I still have my doubts about “V”, particularly after your review. I could not get going on “Cloud Atlas” as well.

    I just failed to finish a book of short stories by a young female writer that the New Yorker says is on their list of best young writers under a certain age. By coincidence she happens to work for the New Yorker. She is not a bad writer, but it was too chatty in style for me (a more intelligent Valley Girl). While not quite like Howard Jacobson, who I can’t tolerate (his excuse is presumably satire), it was too light for me and I am reading some great books (See Peter Matthiessen’s last book “In Paradise” which is masterful). The last full length (a bit of an understatement) novel I did not finish was “The Luminaries”. It was a yarn that kept spinning, to me simply for the sake of spinning. Not a Booker Finalist in my view. Without other alternative great books to read I might have concluded it. Then again, if I was the editor, I would have cut it.

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    • Thank you! Yes, I am a little bit suspicious of the high number of gushing reviews on Goodreads too. I didn’t get on with ‘The Finkler Question’ by Howard Jacobson either and I doubt I will ever read any of his other books. I had mixed feelings about ‘The Luminaries’. I did finish it in the end but I don’t think it’s a good thing for the story to be trapped by its structure.

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  4. “Crying of Lot 49 is readable and worth reading. Entertaining, even. Unlike “V” and “Gravity’s Rainbow” which were neither readable nor entertaining. Just painful and long, in my opinion.

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  5. “Crying” is the only Pynchon novel I’ve ever read twice, but I did enjoy them all up through “Mason & Dixon,” after which I checked out. I wouldn’t rule out revisiting “Gravity’s Rainbow” or “V” at some point, if I had extra time on my hands.

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  6. Your commentary about “Cloud Atlas” is spot-on. I admire David Mitchell, but in that case, the concept was better than the execution. I did, however, really, really, enjoy his (much simpler!) book “Black Swan Green.”
    I read “The Crying of Lot 49” four years ago for a college literature course. I have no. idea. what it was about. I didn’t even realize it was supposed to be satire until someone told me. But if you managed to get halfway through “V,” then perhaps you’ll have better luck. At any rate, there’s no need to rush to read it!

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  7. I sympathise with your “V” experience. I recently staggered through Gravity’s Rainbow – see review on my blog http://despatchesfromtimbuktu.wordpress.com and GR was very hard work indeed – I beat myself into finishing it. I’m glad I’ve read your review of “V” because it was – tentatively – the next Pynchon book in my sights. I don’t want to read Mason etc. too American, and I’m not up for Pynchon and crime : maybe I’m just done with Pynchon?
    Unfinished books? Another David Mitchell (an author I admire & enjoy)but his “Abraham de Zoet novel/Japan defeated me; way too long. And I took one look at the size of the Luminaries and shook my head: no thanks!

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  8. Interesting, I could have sworn that I had read a Pynchon, but a quick look at his oeuvre list doesn’t throw up a single title I can be certain about. Maybe I never made it.

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    • I think long-term memory of a book depends a lot on how well you absorb it at the time. I only abandoned V. very recently and can’t even tell you that much about the 250 pages I actually read so in several years time, I may well forget I even attempted it.

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  9. sylviemarieheroux

    The only one I have is Bleeding Edge. In the end, I thought it was quite fascinating (and funny!) but I had a hard time getting into it in the beginning. Quite complicated and dense, and many of the characters were not likable. The “how to read Pynchon” website makes some interesting points.

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  10. Joanna

    I love that you have a “Books I will only read if I break both of my legs” list. I have many books on that list! I have started a list of “Books I couldn’t Finish” so I won’t forget and be tempted to try again. Carry the One by Carol Anshaw is the latest addition to that list.

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  11. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog post and all the comments about Pynchon. I’m in the same boat as everybody here — I read “The Crying of Lot 49” when I was too young for it and felt completely out of my league. I did finish it, but it put me off Pynchon for a lifetime. And yet, I collect his books in first editions. Some sort of “if I’m not going to read him I’ll collect him” syndrome. I can’t afford a first edition of “V,” though, as it’s beyond my budget. That said, at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair two years ago, I found a first edition in French that was affordable. Doubt I’ll try to read it. My French is decent but not for Pynchon! Thanks for this great post and conversation.

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  12. Yikes! I tried to read Gravity’s Rainbow in grad school. Very heavy going, and I didn’t get far.

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  13. Pingback: While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier and The Last Lover by Can Xue | A Little Blog of Books

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