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?