A Paranoid Companion to Thomas Pynchon: The Early Stories and Novels
Chapter 2: The Unity of Pynchon's Allegory of the V
Thomas Pynchon’s early works--the short stories “Entropy” and “Low-Lands” and the novels V, The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow--function as a cohesive unit illustrating the allegory of the V. “Low-Lands” and “Entropy” serve as an introduction to Pynchon’s vision, showing the themes that come to dominate his novels. V (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) comprise a three-volume “history” of the world since 1859. It is a chronicle of the signs and symptoms of the V, the decline of humanity in the modern world.10
“Low-Lands” was Pynchon’s second published short story. Written when he was twenty-two, “Low-Lands” reveals two of the major concerns later worked out in his novels. The first is Pynchon’s predilection for finding his version of truth in subterranean and labyrinthine locations. For example, in “Low-Lands,” the hero, Dennis Flange, has a house filled with
priest-holes and concealed passageways and oddly angled rooms; and
in the cellar [were] innumerable tunnels, which writhed away radically
like the tentacles of a spastic octopus into dead ends, storm drains,
abandoned sewers and occasionally a secret wine cellar. (86)11
Pynchon finds the secrets of the V in hidden and terrifying places. The heroes of his novels find what they conceive to be truth in “oddly angled rooms” and literal and metaphorical “sewers.” In Gravity’s Rainbow, the toilet leading to the sewer is an extended metaphor of the unconscious mind of twentieth-century America. As Pynchon plays with the scatological image of the toilet, it becomes the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland, and its flushing gets to be the vortex of the V, a version of the vortex of water that drowned the Pequod in Moby Dick.
In “Low-Lands” Dennis Flange at first declines the challenge symbolized by the subterranean spaces of his house, preferring instead to remain on the surface. In the course of the story, however, Flange eventually delves below the surface and takes up residence underground. In Flange’s case, as in the case of Benny Profane in the sewers of V, the movement from the surface to the underground is both literal and metaphorical.12 He joins the tiny, beautiful gypsy Nerissa in the “low-lands” below the surface of a public dump where they create a new life together. In a similar rejection of superficial reality, Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow takes up symbolic residence underground when he enters the netherworld of “the Zone,” ostensibly post-World War II Germany but also the subconscious mind of the late-Modern (perhaps the too-late- Modern) world. In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas leaves the realm of ordinary reality when she stumbles upon the “underground” of the Tristero’s secret mail system, W.A.S.T.E.
In “Low-Lands,” the urge to discover some kind of deep, numinous reality below the surface of appearances becomes the source of the paranoia in the novels. Because nothing is what it seems, including language, we get another major theme of the novels that second-guesses the first: modern man’s propensity to mistake symbolic constructs for the “reality” they are supposed to represent. This habit specifically includes modern writers’ obsession with metaphor. In “Low-Lands,” Dennis Flange is fascinated by a particular metaphor that distorts his perceptions. Flange “had read or heard somewhere in his pre-adolescence that the sea was a woman, and the metaphor had enslaved him and largely determined what he became from that moment” (89). Flange joined the Navy as a result of his attachment to this metaphor, and later, when he meets Nerissa, he imagines the sea in her eyes. The ending of “Low-Lands” is ambiguous: one cannot tell whether Flange has indeed found a new and better life or if he is just carrying out the delusion of his old metaphor. Similarly, in Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop searches for a principle--symbolic at first and later hopelessly literal--behind the V-2 rocket and becomes fragmented all over Europe. And in The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas follows the muted post horn, a metaphor for silenced communication, and loses her sense of herself.
“Low-Lands” signals the beginning of Pynchon’s parody of metaphor as life. In each of his early novels, Pynchon’s heroes lose their identity in symbolic structures they confuse with life. In the novel V, Herbert Stencil pursues the V-metaphor as if it were real and loses his life. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop is in love with “the Word”--the logos--and fails to realize that symbolic structures created by the mind to comprehend “reality” are not the same as the apprehended experience they are designed to explain. Thus, systems of symbols assume a life of their own, independent of the experience they are supposed to represent. Getting lost in the interaction of symbols means mistakenly treating theoretical models (fictions) as if they were allegorical truth. Only what fits the symbolic model can be real. Experience that does not fit the model cannot be real. This sort of closed reading or interpretation asserts that words equal things, that symbolic structures are the same as the experience they represent. For Pynchon, this mistake is one of the symptoms of Modern thought.
Like “Low-Lands” Pynchon’s short story “Entropy” offers a similar look at what is to emerge in his novels. This story, published in 1960, three years before the novel V, functions as a blueprint of that novel and shows, to some extent, what he is up to in The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity‘s Rainbow. “Entropy” reveals Pynchon’s concern with what he sees as the perhaps unbridgeable gap between sterile intellect and visceral life--of history, philosophy, and art versus the living moment. Pynchon shows in the story an emblem of the polarity between the Hothouse and the Street that dominates the novel V. In “Entropy,” Pynchon says that the “Hothouse,” the home of Callisto, is “hermetically sealed [,] . . . a tiny enclave of regularity in the city’s chaos, alien to the vagaries of weather, of national politics, of any civil disorder” (279).13 In the novel V, the Hothouse is the world of Herbert Stencil and his father Sidney. It is also the world of Captain Hugh Godolphin, Kurt Mondaugen, and Fausto Maijstral. The Hothouse is the hermetically sealed retreat of characters living in a world of ideas--in an invented past made up of their own versions of history, in degenerate fantasies, and in dreams of annihilation. Shut off from the larger world, the Hothouse is solipsistic, fetid, and out of touch with the larger world outside.
In contrast, the Street of “Entropy” belongs to Meatball Mulligan, who lives in the apartment (and world) below Callisto. Meatball’s Street is the world of the chaotic present. It is noisy, but the noise communicates nothing. Meatball is lost in the present moment. In the novel V, the characters of the Street include Benny Profane, Pig Bodine, The Whole Sick Crew, and Paola Maijstral. Also in V we find the Street of the past, a “Baedeker world” of tourists who wander from country to country touching only the surface of things.
The Hothouse and the Street represent the opposite poles of the larger principle of the V, the allegory of increasing death and dehumanization as the Modern world begins the downward slope of the parabola of “gravity’s rainbow,” the parable of self-destruction inscribed in the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.14 Distinctions, political and otherwise, disappear, revealing a broader concept, the V, the idea of convergence of possibility into certainty, of diversity into uniformity.
We discover in “Entropy” the origin of Pynchon’s symbol of the V. In the story, Callisto dictates his thoughts on the universe to his servile female companion Aubade.15 Pynchon tells us that “Henry Adams, three generations before [Callisto’s] own, had stared aghast at Power; Callisto found himself now in much the same state over Thermodynamics, the inner life of that power, realizing like his predecessor that the Virgin and the dynamo stands as much for love as for power “ (280). Pynchon may have found the title for V--and the concept of the V as allegory--in Henry Adams’s Education. In the novel V, the V is embodied in a female principle of death, the Lady V. In Gravity’s Rainbow, it is the V-2 rocket.
Pynchon also shows in “Entropy” that he has copied Henry Adams’s historical method and that his novels are “historical” in the sense that, like Adams, he rewrites history to deal with events and signs that conventional history tends to ignore.16 Henry Adams’ historical method follows the roots and ramifications of power. This is Pynchon’s fictive approach in all three of his early novels. Explicitly following Adams’s historical method in “Entropy,” Pynchon discovered that the major motif in the history of power is the encroaching of the inanimate on the human world; its corollary is the death of communication among human beings as they become increasingly inanimate. Rendering this in a novelistic world becomes an elaborate working out of the allegory of the V.
When seen in light of Adams’s historical method of following the track of the energy, episodes as seemingly unrelated in the novel V as Benny Profane in the Yoyodyne plant on Long Island and Kurt Mondaugen in German Southwest Africa become related, as we see that structures of power grow more and more interrelated as they inflict that power on an unknowing world. The same sort of apparently unrelated facts in Gravity’s Rainbow, like the development of plastics by IG Farben in Germany and the patterning of behavior by psychologists in England and America, begin to come together--as patterns of meaning and as literally converging structures of power--as the vertices of the V converge into a single interlocked corporate structure.
Using Henry Adams’s approach to history in his short story “Entropy,” Pynchon argues that entropy is consuming the human world. Pynchon tells us in the story that “entropy” is “the measure of disorganization for a closed system . . . in which everything [is] moving toward the Condition of the Most Probable . . . from differentiation to sameness, from ordered individuality to a kind of chaos” (283).17 Pynchon’s early novels are a chronicle of the “progress” of the V, an allegory of increasing entropy and decreasing human possibility.
In “Entropy” Pynchon shows the circular “feedback” effect of entropy on communication and noncommunication on entropy. It occurs in Meatball Mulligan’s apartment where people are talking but not communicating, and chaos, the last stage before the stasis of entropy, has taken over. Lack of communication allows entropy to rule, and entropy produces uniformity, discouraging original messages of communication. Conversely, communication exists when people attempt to reach out to each other to create understanding. This effort at communication tends to create order, differentiation, and individuality, as well as a sense of mutuality--qualities that were once expected in ordinary human relationships. However, in Meatball’s world communication has failed. For instance, we find that Meatball’s friend Saul, a government communications expert, cannot communicate with his own wife. This irony is compounded when she resorts to violence--the ultimate breakdown in communication--and throws a book on communications at him.
The continual failure of communication in Meatball’s world of the Street of everyday life leads to a cessation of attempts to communicate. People end up locked in their own private little worlds. In “Entropy,” this kind of solipsism is found in a jazz group called the Duke DiAngelis Quartet, whose members decide to think their music inside their heads rather than to play it on instruments. One musician “plays” “I’ll Remember April,” while the rest “play” “These Foolish Things.” When they get this confusion straightened out, the errant musician says to Duke, “Back to the old drawing board,” but Duke replies, “No, man, back to the airless void” (283).
In Pynchon’s “Entropy,” lack of real communication causes entropy in social relationships along with a growing inanimateness--the decline of humaneness--of human beings. Failure to communicate is the rule in V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow. Further, there is an inverse ratio between power and communication: the more power is increased and consolidated, the less communication occurs. However, Pynchon offers a possible alternative to convergence in The Crying of Lot 49, where the struggle of the Tristero to create an alternative postal service becomes a force of dialectical opposition to the increasing monologue (the diminishment of new and original voices) caused by the merger of mass media into a single corporate voice. Here, Pynchon comes close to predicting the creation of the Internet in dialectical opposition to the increasing entropy of traditional media.
In Pynchon’s metaphor of the V, decline in real communication causes people to become more and more like inanimate objects and less and less like human beings. In physics, as Pynchon informs us in both The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow, the connection between these two forms of entropy occurs only at one point: in thermodynamics—the theory of Clerk Maxwell’s Demon. James Clerk Maxwell, a Scottish physicist, invented a thought experiment in which a “demon” would stand at the gate between two separate systems of equal temperature, allowing warmer molecules through the gate to the other system; Clerk Maxwell believed such communication between systems would decrease entropy. Pynchon uses Clerk Maxwell’s Demon as a metaphor for the connection between lack of communication in the human world and the triumph of entropy in a paradoxical chaos of sameness. In such a world, there is no room for humanity, as the small, ordered space that man has carved out in the universe vanishes.
In “Entropy” Pynchon shows two ways of dealing with the natural or man-made decline of our culture. Meatball Mulligan tries to cope with the chaos and noise of the Street as best he can, but this effort leaves him no time to contemplate what is going on. By contrast, Callisto deals with the noise and chaos of the world by locking it out. He has time to think, but he has nothing in the way of experience to contemplate. A key to his predicament is contained in his name. In Greek mythology, Callisto was a nymph elevated to the stars by Zeus to protect her from his jealous wife Hera. Callisto became the Great Bear constellation that sits near the North Pole of the heavens. This position near the frozen wastes of the North is analogous to the final entropy of freezing to death that the man Callisto imagines. It is ironic that, in protecting himself from the outside world, Callisto has ensured his own sterility and inanimateness by creating a solipsistic hothouse away from the flow of life.
The frozen region of Callisto as symbol—a star in the Great Bear Constellation--is like Hugh Godolphin’s gaudy dream of Vheissu in Pynchon’s novel V. It is a dream of annihilation realized in the frozen wastes of Antarctica. This image of annihilation as freezing to death is repeated in Gravity’s Rainbow as the last V-2 rocket, numbered 00000, is fired due North toward the (what used to be frozen) North Pole.
Pynchon reveals another preoccupation in “Entropy,” one that works against the dominant theme of decline into sameness. It is the notion of incomplete determinism, the idea of randomness, which Callisto finds through his consideration of Gibbsian physics and its connection to equations of probabilitites. For Callisto, this random factor “pushed the odds to some unutterable and indeterminate ratio which he found himself afraid to calculate” (283). The laws of probability—the odds—allow freak events to take place. This random factor is capricious, bringing aberrations that appears as catastrophes—or miracles. Pynchon’s V ends with a random catastrophe: Sidney Stencil is killed, apparently without reason, when the boat which he is riding in is smashed by a freak waterspout in the Mediterranean off Malta. Gravity’s Rainbow has a long section on incomplete determinism and the laws of probability in which Roger Mexico records and calculates the statistical distribution of the random, deadly hits of the V-2 rockets falling on London.
The question of whether these really are random events that just happen, or planned by a malevolent agent out to get us is posed in all of Pynchon’s novels and is an essential element in the paranoia of his characters. The elements of the V-principle contained in “Entropy” and “Low-Lands” recur throughout Pynchon’s novels: the polarities, entropy, lack of communication, the surprises wrought by incomplete determinism, Henry Adams’ historical method of following the movement of power, paranoia, and the pursuit of hidden meanings beyond the visible.
Pynchon’s three early novels—V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow—can be viewed together as a paranoid history of the Western world in the Modern Age. This history has precursors, but for Pynchon the power he traces begins to take observable form in the world of Darwin and of European Imperialism in the latter part of the nineteenth century. We see the results in the Lady V at the end of the nineteenth century in the novel V, Tyrone Slothrop in World War II Europe in Gravity’s Rainbow, Benny Profane in the 1950s in V, Oedipa Maas in 1960s California in The Crying of Lot 49, and in Gravity’s Rainbow Richard M. (Nixon) Zhlubb in America in 1972, the novel’s unofficial end of the Modern Age. Pynchon’s three-volume investigation of what went wrong with the world alternates between the recent symptoms and the historical causes of the decline symbolized by the V. In “Entropy” Pynchon depicts the symptoms in the world of Meatball Mulligan and examines the causes through the intellectual Callisto. In the novels, Pynchon shows the symptoms through Benny Profane’s story in V, Oedipa Maas’s quest in The Crying of Lot 49, and Slothrop and Zhlubb’s America in Gravity’s Rainbow. The explanation of the downward slide into entropy represented by the V occurs in the stories of the Lady V. in V; Lieutenant Weissmann, and Kurt Mondaugen in V and Gravity’s Rainbow; and Bloody Chiclitz and his aerospace company Yoyodyne in V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow. The sailor, Pig Bodine, appears in V as the ex-shipmate of Benny Profane and in Gravity’s Rainbow as the friend of both Tyrone Slothrop and Roger Mexico. (Bodine is also featured in the story “Low-Lands,” as a friend of Dennis Flange.) Thus, many of the same characters appear in each of the novels, and the unveiling of their stories dramatizes the history of the V.
The link between the Lady V. and the world of Darwin and European Imperialism in the nineteenth century, and the America of Benny profane in the Fifties, Oedipa Maas in the Sixties, and Richard M. Zhlubb in the Seventies is the career of Lieutenant Weissmann of the German Army. He first appears in V, arriving in 1922 in Southwest Africa under German imperialist rule. His consort is the Lady V., whose name is now Vera Meroving. Weissmann and the Lady V., along with Kurt Mondaugen, play out a scene of decadence and death in the German colony before returning to their native city, Munich. Weissmann next appears in Gravity’s Rainbow as the military director of the V-2 rocket project at Peenemunde and as the man who fires the V-2 against London. Weissmann’s legacy of the V-2 is carried to America by bloody Chiclitz, future president of Yoyodyne. It is through Chiclitz that Weissman’s legacy of death is carried to America (to be united, as Pynchon does not mention, with our own legacy of death, the atomic bomb). When Benny Profane in V and Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49 inadvertantly become involved in the structure of the V, they both encounter Chiclitz and Yoyodyne.
In addition to the interconnection of characters and themes in the three novels, Pynchon has connected the first and third novels, V and Gravity’s Rainbow, through a series of puns and a common metaphor. The titles of V and of Gravity’s Rainbow can be seen as a pun in which V is “V-1” and Gravity’s Rainbow, which is about the V-2 rocket, is “V-2.”
Further, in Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon continues the pun of the Lady V. as a beast of “venery” to show that GR like in V pursues the structures of the V. In V Herbert Stencil imagines the Lady V. as “ambiguously a beast of venery, chased like the hart, hind, or hare, [and also] chased like an obsolete, bizarre, or forbidden form of sexual delight” (V 50). Pynchon uses the two meanings of the word venery, in which venery is the practice of hunting and the pursuit of sexual pleasure or indulgence. In Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon puns on the first meaning of venery through the extensive use of venereal terms, the naming of groups such as “a covey of quails” or “an embarrassment of riches.” Pynchon’s invention of venereal terms in Gravity’s Rainbow includes such groups as “a prevalence of love-in-idleness,” “a silkenness of girls,” and “a pornography of blueprints,” among others (GR 22, 204, and 224, respectively). The pun on the second meaning of venery, the pursuit of sexual gratification, is implicit in the sexual conquests of Tyrone Slothrop and the phallic shape of the rocket itself.
Thus, in a variety of ways, Pynchon announces that the three novels are closely related and that they can be read as a three-volume work dealing with the same themes and many of the same characters, comprising a fictional history of the end of the Modern Age.
10 Reading Pynchon’s early works as a whole allows the reader to see the coherence of his vision that may not be so easy to discern if the works are considered separately. This approach answers critics who find Pynchon’s writing needlessly obscure or empty. For example, one of the first critics of Pynchon’s work, Richard Kostelanetz, referred to Pynchon’s “metaphorical reality” as “nonsensical multiplicity,” The New American Arts (New York: Horizon Press, 1965) 215.
11 Thomas Pynchon, “Low-Lands,” New World Writing #16.
12 It might be more accurate to say that nothing is merely “literal” in Pynchon. He is always conscious of the way words slide from one kind of meaning to another, and his constant use of puns points to it throughout his early works.
13 Thomas Pynchon, “Entropy,” Kenyon Review (Spring 1960).
14 In 1966, Don Hausdorff observed that “the Hothouse sense of time is one which recreates the past into its own narrow purposes by virtue of fraudulent nostalgia. As defined here, it could very well signify the political Right, with the Street representing the political Left. In “V.,” she or it, the Street and the Hothouse and their range of meanings converge.” “Thomas Pynchon’s Multiple Absurdities,” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, VII, 1 (Autumn 1966) 266.
15 Aubade’s name seems to be a pun on the song or poem greeting the “dawn” of a world characterized by entropy.
16 Don Hausdorff noted that “Adams, in fact, offered a description-prescription for historical method that sounds very much like an analysis of Pynchon’s ‘form’ in V: ‘. . . the historian’s business was to follow the track of the energy; to find where it came from and where it went to; its complex source and shifting channels; its values, equivalents, conversions . . .’” (259).
17 An excellent analysis of the concept of entropy in the fiction of the 1960s including Pynchon’s can be found in Tony Tanner’s City of Words, Chapter 6, “Everything is Running Down” (New York: Harper and Row, 1971).
15 Aubade’s name seems to be a pun on the song or poem greeting the “dawn” of a world characterized by entropy.