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Book review: “V.” by Thomas Pynchon

Oh, this was a frustrating book for me — V. by Thomas Pynchon.

Frustrating because I couldn’t take it all in.

I got — understood — enough of V. to know that it is a great work of literature. And I got enough to know how much I was missing.

This is a book that wrestles with the great issues. With free will, and faith, and love, and existential dread, and more.

pynchon --- v.Pynchon exhibits a profound understanding of the ways people relate to themselves and to others. And a profound ability to sketch a life story or a personality flaw or a yearning or a vision with the eye of a poet or sculptor.

There are moments in this novel that are hard to forget or stop puzzling over. For instance, the nakedly cruel, nakedly vulnerable death of the character known as the Bad Priest.

Or Benny Profane, the sort of Everyman of the book, hunting albino alligators in the sewers of New York City — through the underground “parish” of a mad (he had to have been, right?) Jesuit who worked for years to convert the rats there.

Or the German engineer channeling in a dream the routine genocide, violence and rape of a Boer trooper hunting blacks in the land that became South Africa.

Or all the novel’s Vs — Veronica, Vheissu, the V-Note, Victoria, Valletta, V-2 rockets, even a street with

mercury-vapor lamps, receding in an asymmetric V to the east where it’s dark and there are no more bars.

Or all the yo-yo references.

Or a young woman named Brenda telling Benny, “Don’t be sad,” and Benny responding,

“Brenda, we all are sad.”

Or the Malta tavern with a dancing floor and bar that

lay up a wide curving flight of marble steps lined with statues in niches: statues of Knights, ladies and Turks. Such was the quality of suspended animation about them that you felt come the owl-hours, the departure of the last sailor and the extinguishment of the last electric light, these statues must unfreeze, step down from their pedestals, and ascend stately to the dance floor bringing with them their own light: the sea’s phosphorescence. There to form sets and dance til sunup, utterly silent; no music; their stone feet only just kissing the wood planks.

Or the eyes of one priest-like Signor Mantissa:

His eyes were streaked and rimmed with the pinkness of what seemed to be years of lamenting. Sunlight, bouncing off the Arno, off the fronts of shops, fractured into spectra by the falling rain, seemed to tangle or lodge in his blond hair, eyebrows, mustache, turning that face to a mask of inaccessible ecstasy; contradicting the sorrowing and weary eyeholes….[The eyes] reflected a free-floating sadness, unfocused, indeterminate….

Or the narrative that jumps, shifts, buffets, jars forward and back through the years — and the wars. 1890 and 1955, and 1899 and 1919, and 1937 and 1898. And across the globe: Florence, Antarctica, New York, Malta, South Africa, England.

Or all the priests. All the sins. All the sacraments.

This is a novel that needs to be read twice or more.

I hope someday to tackle it again.

Patrick T. Reardon

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