Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Finding V

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Finding V

Article excerpt

Thomas Pynchon's novel V. has been described as everything from "the most masterful first novel in the history of literature" (Poirier 167) to "a riddle that, once correctly answered, never taxes the mind again" (Sklar 90). While it may very well stand as the former, it most assuredly cannot be construed as the latter, if only because the proposition has never actually been tested. Up to now, Pynchon supporters and detractors alike have tended to evade the question "Who or what is V.?" and have assumed it to be either purposely insoluble or simply irrelevant. To the extent that anyone has seriously bothered to tackle the question in recent years, the answer usually resembles that put forward by Edward Mendelson, who sees in it only an elaboration of the simple idea of "the decline of the animate into the inanimate" (6). To this one might well ask: but what of all those inanimate things in the book that have become animate? It is my contention that there is a knowable, unequivocal, and essentially irrefutable answer to the question, and that far from releasing the reader from any further obligation to the work, knowing that answer heightens one's obligation to it.

Here we may begin to see the way in which Pynchon set out in V. not simply to parody forms he was in the end imitating, but rather to challenge basic assumptions and formulae of detective and historical fictions, while at the same time adhering to their most traditional demands. For example, the matter of resolution: since the author has asked the question "Who is V.?," is it not reasonable to expect, to demand even, that he answer it? Certainly most readers of detective fiction would think so. The weakness of much of the genre derives not so much from its unreasonable demands as from its often cheap solutions, wherein solving the riddle (as Robert Sklar suggests) becomes the only intelligible point to the exercise. At the same time, it strikes me that far too many critics - admirers and detractors both - have assumed rather easily that either Pynchon was not obliged to solve his own riddle or he simply wasn't up to the task. Neither point of view is correct. For not only did Pynchon satisfy the basic demand of the form (that is, answer the novel's central question) but, more remarkably, he did so in a way that instead of closing the book, opens it up to nearly infinite reflection on its vast, magnificent, and unmistakable architectural design. Stated more specifically, it is by knowing who V. is, and more specifically still, who V. has become by the "present" of the book, that the reader will be able to make sense of why things are the way they are at that time. Looked at another way, one-half of the novel (the historical episodes) is devoted to solving the riddle of V, while the other half (the contemporary episodes) is devoted to making use of that solution.

That the question of V.'s identity is answerable, and what is more, that Stencil answers it, is very easily demonstrated. In the contemporary episode that precedes the epilogue, Stencil interviews Father Avalanche. The previous night, after speaking to Fausto Maijstral, Stencil had become nearly convinced that "it did add up only to the recurrence of an initial and a few dead objects" (445). But after learning that Avalanche's predecessor on Malta had been Father Fairing, Stencil mutters to himself unequivocally: "Clinches it" (449). Later he adds: "Stencil came on Father Fairing's name once, apparently by accident. Today he came on it again, by what only could have been design" (450). Two days later Stencil is gone to Stockholm to chase what he describes as "the frayed end of another clue" (452). More importantly, he is gone as a character from the book, and we are left with an epilogue whose very title confirms that indeed the story has already reached its end. Yet, simply stated, if the question of V. were not itself also by implication resolved, then the story of V could not in any truly artistically defensible sense lay claim to having reached its ultimate conclusion. …

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