To Content

V.

V.

1963

Jonathan Lippincott publishes Thomas Pynchon's first novel. It will receive the William Faulkner Foundation Award for best d├ębut of 1963. His editor was Faith Sale, wife of Cornell friend Kirkpatrick Sale and 1958 Cornell alumna. Preceding the publication, some letters between Pynchon and Sale about the editing process.

Advance Copy

"[...] I copied straight out of a World Almanac. Maybe they made a typo. Iaxaca I have never heard of, Oaxaca I have. Since O is pretty close to I on a linotype, my guess is that's what happened. Change it to O. Who cares, nobody's going to read it anyway."

Letter from Pynchon to Faith Sale, dated 1 October 1962.

"J. B. Lippincott Company takes pleasure in sending you this advance copy of what will almost certainly be the most original novel published in 1963. No novel we have put under contract in the last decade (remember To Kill a Mockingbird!) has stirred up as much advance excitement and passion within the house. It has been called everything from "an 'off-Broadway' novel" to "the most important piece of fiction written since 'Ulysses". We have no doubt that this astonishing first novel by an immensely talented young writer will be controversial and much discussed from the moment of its publication in March 1963."

Excerpts from Criticism

History produced this human Yo-Yo. The profane light began with the Victorians' penetration of darkness. Pynchon's favorite explorer, Godolphin, went to Africa to civilize the natives and discovered the cannibal in himself, the need to murder the beauty whose sexual pull made him want to mutilate her. In a spectacular scene he flees to the South Pole and finds, while digging a hole to plant the British flag and reassert his arctic respectability, an African spider monkey all tail, clutch, and cling. The heat of sex is connected with the ice of death. Does one lead to the other because intimacy kills? Realizing he will never escape the destructiveness in himself, the explorer embodies civilization's crucial question: how to keep the monkey off your back? The history of male striving for control can be written in excrement, as Norman O. Brown implied. Pynchon wrote it in his wacky sewer scenes where evil is the devil you can't flush any further away. Three of V.'s characters descend into the urban colon. A Victorian priest preaches in the sewers of New York because he sees people as rats trying to become sanctified. He and his generation could still believe rats had souls. A middleaged man goes through the sewer looking for clues to his mother, V., because life is possible for him only as the endless romantic quest that keeps him too busy to notice the stench. Young Profane is on the sewer patrol just to earn the money for women and food. He embraces his meaninglessness as a value. He makes the directionless flow of crap his life. V. herself is female serenity, the clean, eternal balance of emotional control. She absorbs the force of war, of all male thrusts, as erotic curios, and returns them when as mother she abandons, as protectress she corrupts, as lover she murders, as transvestite priest she damns. She is the destructive, indestructible objet d'art who mutilates her body to adorn it with golden feet and a glass eye. She is always young, always fascinatingly beautiful. One man dreams of her ecstatically as a young machine: "At age 76, skin radiant with the bloom of some new plastic, both eyes glass, but now containing photoelectric cells connected by silver electrodes to optic nerves .... Perhaps even a complex system of pressure transducers located in a marvelous vagina of polyethylene, all leading to a single silver cable which fed pleasure voltages direct to the correct register of the digital machine in her skull." She is Profane's woman, the girl who has lost her virginity to the gear shift of her MG, whose great love is her car or its human equivalent, Profane. V. is a self-contained autoerotic machine. V. is the crucial pivot, the profane fulcrum on which you can survive forever. V. is vulnerability conquered. Life is best as a machine! The degree to which men and women want each other to be ever-ready erotic tools, needing neither tenderness nor love, is one sign of sexual hate. Pynchon is saying that men control their destructiveness through Profane-like passivity and disengagement; that women conquer their vulnerability to men, life, and death by becoming virtual automatons who cannot feel a thing. "Keep cool, but care," someone advises. The only way to contain your destructiveness is to deadlock the two, to be the partridge and pear tree locked in endless, profane life, forever content.

Hendin, Josephine. "What Is Thomas Pynchon Telling Us?" Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon. Ed. Richard Pearce. G.K. Hall, Boston, Massachusetts, United States (1981): 42-50. Article originally published in Harper's Magazine [with the same title] 3 (March 1975): 82-90.

"In V., Pynchon describes culture and reality as a complex coating of the (void of the) real: "We [...] paint the side of some Peri or other [....] We call it society. A new coat of paint [....] She can't change her own color" (V. 461). Godolphin's experience in Vheissu implies that it is only the coats of color that hold culture together and that to scrape off this color would only dispose of the real, which cannot be included in a symbolical or logical framework: "The inert universe may have a quality we call logic. But logic is a human attribute after all [....] What are real are the cross-purposes" (V., 484). It is not possible to assimilate the mysterious structure of the inert universe into culture, whose self-reflexive structure is best exemplified by Mondaugen's paradoxical message from outer space stating that "the world is anything what the case is". In this culture, the only way out is a way in, a medial position in which one can "keep cool, but care" (V. 366), a state of grace facilitated by a "feminine principle" (V., 209) that permeates the book and whose most prominent representatives are Paola and Rachel. Yet it is exactly this contruction and conversion of this female principle into male machines and technologies that underlies the universe portrayed in V."

Hanjo Berressem. "V.: V. in Love". Pynchon's Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text, University of Illinois Press, Urbana/Chicago, 1993: 53-81 (55).