A Paranoid Companion to Thomas Pynchon: The Early Stories and Novels
Thomas Pynchon’s early novels unfold a story of competing interpretations of the end of the “rainbow” of Modernism. The “V” is the primary symbol of an allegory that goes behind the veil of the modern era; or it may be the symbol, in an increasingly meaningless world, of an imposed reading or paranoid fantasy that makes sense out of the world’s nonsense. Pynchon is playing a game with us—a game in which we are asked to choose: Is it the “One” of all-encompassing, transcendental meaning, or is it the “Zero” of meaninglessness painted over with paranoid projections?
Pynchon shows that he is aware of how absurd it is to write novels about heroes questing for truth in a world where truth is unavailable--or nonexistent. One of the earliest Postmodernists, Pynchon foregrounds his role as novelist--as creator of “fiction” and the task of “making sense.” Pynchon shows that he and the rest of us living through the last gasp of the Modern World are caught up in the V. As allegory, Pynchon uses the V to comment on the cul-de-sac into which America has run.
His three early novels--V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)—show a unity of vision that makes them read like one book in three volumes. In Pynchon’s allegory of the V, the “V” is a symbol of what happened to the Western world from about the middle of the nineteenth century to the early 1970s. This arc of the Modern Age is “gravity’s rainbow.” No matter what his ostensible subject may be, Pynchon is always talking about us, about the United States of America. In his conception of the V as a historical explanation (or pseudo-explanation, depending on the novelistic moment), Pynchon reveals his apocalyptic vision of the symptoms and causes of the decline of our world.
In his complex allegory, Pynchon does not fully endorse his own pattern making. Instead, he includes himself among the heroes he creates by showing that historical patternmaking and novelistic plotting may be just as crazy as the paranoid plots envisioned by his characters, even as he shows there might be truth in the paranoia. The V is a symbol of the Void of Modernism. His three early novels are a sustained allegory of the downward movement of the V toward a final annihilation of life—a historical process in which life moves from healthy diversity to a chaos that precedes deathlike sameness and uniformity. The novels ask how this process occurred. How did we manage to suck the meaning out of our own existence? Could it be a conspiracy done to us on purpose? Or is it an inevitable process inherent in the calculus of “gravity’s rainbow,” like the “parabolic” course of the V-rocket, as the trajectory of Modernism, in its rise and fall?
The story of the V is a movement toward entropy. In thermodynamics, complete entropy is represented by Absolute Zero. In his short story “Entropy,” Pynchon uses this concept as a metaphor to represent the movement of the human world toward stasis. After “Entropy” Pynchon turned in V and Gravity’s Rainbow to the symbol of the V to represent this decline into entropy. The letter “V” suggests a diminution through time of human possibilities as life nears the ultimate end point corresponding to the intersection of the vertices of the V. Pynchon also uses the V as a three-dimensional figure, a V spinning like a whirlpool where the forces of life collapse inward in a vortex of inertia and death. In the novel V, Pynchon shows the three-dimensional V in a deadly whirlpool that kills one of the characters, Sidney Stencil. In Gravity’s Rainbow, the whirlpool of the V becomes the symbolic toilet down which the hero Tyrone Slothrop is flushed during a drug-induced dream of Toiletland. 1 Pynchon uses the V in puns and other word games to illustrate the operation of the V as a symbol of decadence.
One of the major symptoms of degeneration illuminated by Pynchon’s allegory of the V is the decline in significant communication. His novelistic world includes hundreds of examples of non-communication, miscommunication, and, if I may coin a term, discommunication--the effort to prevent meaning (truth?) from getting through. In The Crying of Lot 49, the V becomes the V-shape or flaring bell of a wind instrument, the post horn. As a symbol for lack of communication, the post horn has a mute stuck in its bell. According to the novel, the post horn was the emblem of the House of Thurn and Taxes, which operated a private postal system in Europe from 1300 until 1867 when Bismarck bought them out. (This sounds like one of Thomas Pynchon’s fictions, but it’s a true story.) Before 1867 the post horn symbolized the German mail service, carrying written communication throughout Western Europe. The post horn stood for free communication; the muted post horn stands for a frustration, or silencing, of communication. Since communication helps mankind create an ordered space in the universe, lack of communication accelerates the process of the V.
Pynchon indicates noncommunication among individuals by creating characters who speak in clichés, verbal shorthand, and private sign language. In the novel V, a group of New Yorkers called The Whole Sick Crew uses an abbreviated language in which blocks of information can be conveyed by one word or even by a wave of the hand. The group judges each member’s “statements” to be smart or stupid by the way the speaker arranges and rearranges the finite number of prepackaged blocks of words and signs. Pynchon shows that The Crew will eventually run out of combinations of blocks, and communication among them will be dead. When the zero point of noncommunication is reached, The Crew--and, symbolically, the world--will have arrived at the terminal point of the vertices of the V.
In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon presents a different kind of shorthand, the jargon of the military and of technology, but the downward spiral of the V again holds true. Pynchon loads the novel with acronyms and alphabet abbreviations (NAAFI, S.O.E., TDY, P.W.E., BBC, SHAEF, OSS, OWI), some familiar but many obscure, to the point that the reader often cannot follow what Pynchon is talking about. The confusion is deliberate. Pynchon seems to want the reader to experience confusion in trying to make sense of his representation of modern (non)communication in order to remind us of the confusion we face every day in our own lives. Paradoxically, in this Orwellian world, the amount of significant communication conveyed in these shorthand words is less than with ordinary words because, as words made up of other words that are already symbols, initialisms and acronyms are one step further removed than common words from the “reality” they are designed to represent.
In Pynchon’s allegory, the V also symbolizes the diminishing level of human interaction in the late-modern world. Pynchon’s characters do not communicate, and they cannot love. The few characters capable of love are constantly thwarted. Oedipa Maas, the heroine of The Crying of Lot 49, is willing to try to love, yet she loses her lovers and her ability to seek love when she pursues a grand cabal she thinks she has discovered. This failure of human interaction is represented in Gravity’s Rainbow in the fraudulent love affair between Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake, and in the solipsistic quest of the novel’s hero, Tyrone Slothrop, to discover the significance of the V-rocket.
Pynchon’s characters often prefer inanimate objects to human beings. This preference endorses anti-life forces and hastens the triumph of the V. An example of such gross materialism is Rachel Owlglass in the novel V. Rachel’s conversations with Benny Profane, the schlemiel-hero of V, consist solely of references to things. Rachel is in love with things in general and with her automobile in particular. Benny eavesdrops on a scene where Rachel is washing her MG while speaking love words to it. She fondles the gearshift knob and calls the car “stud.”
The love of the inanimate goes further, to the point that characters incorporate the inanimate into their own bodies. Fergus Mixolydian, a member of The Whole Sick Crew in V, has had a pair of wires connecting to his television set installed in his wrist. When his consciousness falls below a certain level, this apparatus turns on the T.V. Fergus has become an extension of the television. Similarly, the Lady V., the major character in V, is seen replacing her eyes, navel, hair, and teeth with glass, gold, sapphire, and plastic prosthetic devices. Pynchon shows that this increasing inanimateness, especially when it imitates life, is a mockery of life. In the allegory of the V, the forces of life surrender to the non-living inanimate.
A variation on the theme of growing inanimateness is the tendency of people to treat themselves and others as objects. There are numerous scenes of perversion and brutality in Pynchon’s early novels, and these all seem to spring from the refusal of the characters to acknowledge their own humanity and that of others. Pynchon shows how seeing others as objects locks the characters inside their own fetid fantasies, leading to solipsism, decay, and spiritual death--the triumph of the V. In the novel V, treating oneself as an object of private fantasy is shown by the symbol of the mirror. Mirrors reflect the characters’ autoeroticism. In Gravity’s Rainbow, human beings are made into the objects of other people’s sexual aberrations. Those who are objects of such fantasies have a double role, as participants and spectators. Pynchon stresses the spectator role of his characters in their own lives. In the novel V particularly, instances of voyeurism abound, and Pynchon makes explicit the characters’ function as voyeurs. Moreover, Pynchon takes advantage of the reader’s inherent position as eavesdropper and Peeping Tom to implicate us in the downward process of the V.
The world of the V has neither normative values nor spiritual meaning. Only empty forms survive, as in the perverted Catholicism of Victoria Wren in the novel V. Educated in a convent, she developed a nun-like temperament but devoid of moral and ethical perspective. Her religious sensibility moves in bizarre and fanatical directions, seeing Christ in all her lovers and attending Black Masses to stimulate her “religious” feelings. Another aspect of this empty formalism in V is shown through a Navy seaman called Pig Bodine. The Neanderthal Bodine claims to have a code of conduct. It tells him he should go after officers’ wives instead of the wives of fellow enlisted men; it also says to repay a favor when your buddy does one for you. Like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Pig Bodine follows a code that is a residue of responses left over after the values on which it is based are long forgotten, but in the void that is the world of the V, Pig Bodine’s code is a positive relief.
In the absence of moral restraint or fear of punishment, the 3 a.m. fantasies of the V-world do not remain private affairs behind closed doors. These fantasies are projected onto the outside world, becoming living nightmares for whole populations, as represented in Gravity’s Rainbow by Hitler’s death camps and the German V-weapons of World War II. The incredible release of energy in the service of insane fantasies in the twentieth century encodes for Pynchon a message that our power has turned against us and is hastening our destruction. Pynchon’s concern with the massive release of energy toward our own annihilation is derived from Henry Adams’ The Education of Henry Adams, which Pynchon refers to explicitly in his short story, “Entropy.” Adams wonders at the incredible power of the dynamo and ponders man’s ability to control its power. The symbol of the dynamo appears in all three of Pynchon’s early novels in the name of Yoyodyne, a super-cartel specializing in instruments of destruction. The name Yoyodyne is a combination of the “dyne,” a unit of force or power, and the “yo-yo,” Pynchon’s symbol for the repetitious, random motion of chaos in the universe. It is the last stage of motion before the stasis of absolute zero. In the allegory of the V, Yoyodyne is the emblem of all structures of power favoring death. Although Yoyodyne is a fictional corporation, Pynchon shows similar corporate structures that actually exist or have existed in the past-- such as Krupp and IG Farben in Germany, Shell International of Great Britain, and General Electric in the United States--with the same destructive qualities as Yoyodyne. (Perhaps these days, we might add the names of Halliburton and Bechtel.)
Advances in science and technology utilized by these corporate structures may also be seen as part of the V. In Pynchon’s fiction, the expansion of science into the realm of mind manipulation (such as Pointsman’s Pavlovian experiments on human beings in Gravity’s Rainbow), mind-controlling drugs such as LSD-25 in The Crying of Lot 49 and Oneirine in Gravity’s Rainbow, and in the creation of synthetics (such as the plastic Imipolex-G that substitutes for human skin in Gravity’s Rainbow and the synthetic human called SHROUD in V) all lead to the destruction of the human mind and body.
A final point in this introduction to the allegory of the V in Pynchon’s early novels involves the proliferation of innumerable versions of reality. All of these interpretations cry for attention, and none of them adequately explains what is going on. For example, in the novel V, one character, Herbert Stencil, considers only those facts that fit his own “outline” of reality. Facts beyond his “stencil” do not exist. In the short story “Entropy,” there are dual, polarized versions of reality--the “hothouse” world of Callisto, the idealizing philosopher and historian sealed off from the world and living in the past, versus Meatball Mulligan (progenitor of Pig Bodine, Benny Profane, and Tyrone Slothrop), clueless in the present moment with no sense of past or future.
It is in Gravity’s Rainbow that Pynchon offers the greatest number of versions or interpretations of reality. There are believers in the laws of probability; cause and effect enthusiasts; proselytizers of various religions; pushers of drug hallucinations; and psychics, spiritualists, spies, and street people. All of them are trying to talk at the same time, each putting forth a pet theory about what is really going on. Locked in their own private hermeneutic, they fail to hear the interpretations of others; except on occasion, when they might hear an interpretation that agrees with their own. When this happens they band together as fans and form a cult.
These versions of reality seem to distract people from the possibility that the universe is meaningless, a Void on which we paint our own designs.2 Pynchon places at the center of the universe in the novel V the country of Vheissu, whose raiment is a glittering skin covering an eternal void. The hidden land of Vheissu may be the zero at the heart of Pynchon’s allegory of the V. If this be true, the downward spiral of the V unfolds the emptiness of existence. If so, the secret is that there is no meaning.
A clear symbol of the “painted veil” over the Void is presented in the novel V when the would-be art thief Mantissa is unable to steal Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” from the Uffizi because he fears that if he cuts the painting from the frame, the horrible Void of the “real” world will be revealed beneath the world of art.
In Pynchon’s early novels, it is an open question as to whether life is inherently meaningless or whether the meaning has been drained from the world by Modernism. If the latter, is it an accident, or is it a conspiracy? Pynchon refuses to decide, offering instead plots that might be “plots,” in which various protagonists search for clues as to who or what Manichean force might be causing the destruction. Do things just happen, or do they happen for a reason? On the one hand, Pynchon implies that a paranoid hermeneutic is preferable to meaninglessness, and that an imposed allegorical meaning is more comforting than the Void. On the other hand, Pynchon gives real weight, through his use of historical facts, to the possibility that the V is, indeed, a plot whose agents are trying to destroy the world, whether they know it or not. This is the complex dialectic of the Zero and the One in Thomas Pynchon’s allegory of the V.
1 Slothrop in Toiletland may remind the reader of the insane dream of Balso Snell in Nathanael West’s novella.
2 Pynchon’s version of this notion of meaning painted on the canvas of a meaningless universe is like Shelley’s sonnet:
Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colors idly spread--behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted it--he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendor among the shadows, a bright blot
Upon the gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.