I finished the novel V. by Thomas Pynchon a week or so ago. I’ve now read all of his novel length works except for Bleeding Edge, but I won’t be able to muster any intelligent commentary on them. That will happen, if ever—and likely not even then—after I read them a second time. It took me a while to master the art of just accepting the fact that comprehensive narrative understanding is not the point, that the point is immersion into a tumult of fleeting, divergent and yet somehow intertwined narratives in which the part is the whole, and the whole but a ghost.
Like life itself, there’s too much to unpack, and no place to put it anyway. Scenes whistle past as time impales us. History is a riverbed, dried and cracked, strewn with the debris of whatever blitzkrieg modernity just ransacked the region, turned its profit, and left it for dead. We are bright-eyed explorers of this broken realm, drunken on the illusion there’s something to find here. Distended machinery parts sparkle in the sun, raven feathers drop from the sky, and an engorged human eye watches our every move through the periscope of a submarine sunk fathoms deep into sand. The owner of this eye concurs, there’s nothing to be found here. Nothing but us.
What I like about Pynchon is that he’s right. There’s no bottom in these novels, no bedrock. And this is the modern, (or post-modern), plight. We are grounded in nothing greater. Our greatest intellectual achievements have left us stranded in an increasingly dehumanized and artificial environment. But somehow, in the midst of this garish terrain, a part of me emerges that I cannot reduce. A depth appears. This part of me comprehends that the negative image to Pynchon’s paranoid, rollicking carnival is a place suffused with light. That place lives in us. Reading Pynchon is like looking over the edge, and just when that sense of falling threatens, and my stomach flutters, I remember this is a dream. It is one place I can fly.
A wonder of Pynchon’s writing is the subtle connectivity that looms invisible behind the work: we sense it here and there, in worlds’ broken and bereft where no greater meaning may obtain, but correlations supervene over chaos nonetheless. Consider this passage about the German radio scientist Mondaugen:
Mondaugen was here as part of a program having to do with atmospheric radio disturbances: sferics, for short. During the Great War one H. Barkhausen, listening in on telephone messages among the Allied forces, heard a series of falling tones, much like a slide whistle descending in pitch. Each of these “whistlers” (as Barkhausen named them) lasted only about a second and seemed to be in the low or audio-frequency range. As it turned out, the whistler was only the first of a family of sferics whose taxonomy was to include clicks, hooks, risers, nose-whistlers, and one like a warbling of birds called the dawn chorus. No one knew exactly what caused any of them. Some said sunspots, others lightning bursts; but everyone agreed that in there someplace was the earth’s magnetic field, so a plan evolved to keep a record of sferics at different latitudes. Mondaugen, near the bottom of the list, drew South-West Africa, and was ordered to set up his equipment as close to 28°S as he conveniently could.
The categorization of these sferics is a taxonomy of the inexplicable, the formal distinctions suggesting a comprehension of phenomena that ultimately reduces to nothing at all. These signals could be utterly random, or they could be precisely ordered by forces we just don’t understand. This is the madness Pynchon offers. What are they, then? It is into this breech, I think, that the light in me pours. Like any great work of art, Pynchon’s novels allow us to inhabit them differently, based on who we are, and somehow, for me, the baroque and broken spectacles he creates offer an abode for the unformed knowing in me to take shape, if only for an instant.
When faced with the perpetually flowering madness of nothing at all, I discover a ground.
Isn’t life a little like this? The mystic acknowledges deeper meaning in those very places and patterns that the modern sensibility has simply skipped over, or else usurped for the purpose of pleasure, idolatry, and a fleeting sophistication. Mondaugen attempts to do his work recording the sferics from a German estate in South Africa that has become a non-stop carnival—Fasching, as Pynchon describes it, a very real German celebration prior to Lent in which eating, drinking and merriment precede the pending sacrifice and vigil. But what if there is no pending vigil to ground this celebration? What if there is only the unbroken excess of orgiastic pleasure, wine, food, and the odd bit of sport from the rooftops of the estate, where onlookers watch clumsy colonial biplanes strafe the natives? The picture Pynchon paints is absurdly hollow, but somehow, as I said, the negative image of this is the fullness of life’s meaning. I don’t know how it happens, but it happens.
Pynchon’s novels dissolve into a sort of mist. There is the sense of an arc, and with a bit of focus on your own experience as a reader, certain elements may be unearthed and brought to the light. Those may be a bit different for each of us, but if five hundred of us noted our impressions, certain elements would likely emerge. That said, to get anywhere we might have to agree on which passages to explore. The incident above with Mondaugen, while rich with commentary, is but one thread of a five hundred and fifty page work. How does this passage relate to the whole? There are certainly thematic linkages to other passages in the novel, for sure, but ultimately this novel is neither about Mondaugen, nor not about Mondaugen. And herein lies the dilemma. For those hoping for the evolution of a classical protagonist, or the resolving of some mystery, it just doesn’t happen really.
In the failure to over-simplify, and the tendency to elevate certain human conditions to the extremes, Pynchon makes room for the exploration of what’s really at play here: the soul of the modern world. Has modernity reduced us to the level of automatons? What is the role of love and compassion, ultimately, in our societies? And what good is a world of unchecked technological pursuit if the essence of what it is to be human is somehow left behind? My heart has answers to these questions even if my mind does not, and when I read Pynchon, my mind is distracted enough for my heart to share its wisdom with me. This, for me, is the beauty of his work: there is a space for me to enter.