Thomas Pynchon’s “V.”: A Truly Confusing Book That May be Impossible to Understand


Well, I’m not sure how much I can say about Thomas Pynchon’s V. At over 300 pages into the book I very nearly gave up on it. This is not to say I wasn’t enjoying the novel, because I certainly was (once you’ve read and enjoyed Pynchon you find that even at its most dense, Pynchon’s writing is highly addictive and fun to read), it is instead to convey to you, my dear reader, that I simply did not have a clue what was going on in the book. It is so densely layered with symbolism and metaphor that it quickly became, for me, Pynchon’s most difficult novel to follow. For experienced Pynchon readers, this probably makes little sense, as I have read Mason & Dixon and Gravity’s Rainbow. This book became the novel that, in my eyes, Pynchon uses to set up his universe moreso than tell something coherent.

To honestly write about V. is simply to say this: The book was profoundly frustrating; yet I very much enjoyed the themes Pynchon employs and examines. Benny Profane’s hallucinated conversation in Yoyodyne with the artificial human SHROUD was easily the highlight of the book for my tastes. This conversation examined the tendency of humans to act inhuman. SHROUD [and SHOCK] is forever trapped behind glass and subjected to the Yoyodyne Corporation’s endless tests. Yet what does he say to Profane when Profane begins to speak with him?

“What’s it like?”

Better than you have it.


Wha yourself. Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday.

The commentary on the meaning of life (Are we just bags of meat?) and Pynchon’s leftist warning of potential corporate control over all of us is layered throughout each moment of Profane speaking with SHROUD. Later in the chapter, SHROUD points out that we typically fail to see evil due to the fact that we expect it to be outlandish and obvious. Whenever we expect to find evil, we immediately look for “Hitler, Eichmann, [or] Mengele.” Sometimes the things that seem ingrained into everyday life as just something we must live with are the very embodiment of evil, yet we cannot see the forest for the trees. This quite obviously ties back into SHROUD’s warning to Profane. What will everyone be but corporate test subjects?

What has been humanity’s philosophical response to travesty? For Pynchon it has been humanism, but he levels a critique of humanism that brings to mind Derrida:

“To have humanism we must first be convinced of our own humanity.”

Thomas Pynchon, V.

This simple quote packs a ton. There is a western state of mind that so bifurcates humanity from the natural world that our presuppositions go unnoticed. What we take for granted is lost upon all of our minds. If people are able to commit inhuman acts then we must ask first what it means to be human before we can simply call ourselves humanists. We must see what separates us, if anything does at all, from the animals.

This ties into what exactly V. is, as well. Is V. a woman? Is V. a place? Is it anything? V. tends to be whatever the person pursuing it needs it to be. It is based upon a woman who each time she appears has a different prosthetic appendage, which is easily understood as representative of the inhumanity of all humanity.

Yet despite these themes, it was difficult to pull much from this book. I love Pynchon, but I found this novel to be even more convoluted than his normal work. I plainly found it difficult to care one way or another about what was happening to Benny Profane or Herbert Stencil. Everything in V. has a point. It is obvious that is the case, yet each chapter is really out of the blue, causing the novel to feel more like a collection of short stories that begin to converge with one another as the book begins to close.

It was far from my favorite Pynchon, but worth the read, especially to someone who wants to get a firm grasp on Pynchon’s universe.

Recommended to: Those looking to get a firm grasp of Thomas Pynchon’s universe, those who enjoy a character who speaks in third person for the duration of the book, and any fans of Thomas Pynchon who haven’t read this one yet for one reason or another.

Avoid as if it were a letter in the mail from Tom Cotton: The same “avoid as if” applies here that applies to all Pynchon books. Check out any of my previous Pynchon reviews to see if you are described in the “avoid as if” section.


One thought on “Thomas Pynchon’s “V.”: A Truly Confusing Book That May be Impossible to Understand

  1. My sentiments exactly. I love other Pynchon, even at his most difficult (and frustrating), but there was a frustration at points in this book that didn’t seem to pay its debts, at least to me. It’s comforting to see someone else felt similarly. There are early manuscripts of this book at UT, and they are much more laden with philosophy, clearly early drafts by a twenty-something first time novelist. In those drafts, he is very focused on “logical positivism” and the “fact/value” dichotomy. If you google “pynchon moral positivism fact value” it’s the first link that comes up, containing excerpts from a book called “Fictions of Fact and Value” that covers this. It uncovers a bit of where he was coming from as he went into writing GR.


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