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About the Author
Thomas Pynchon was born in 1937. His books include V, Gravity's Rainbow, Vineland, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day, Inherent Vice, and Bleeding Edge.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:May 8, 1937
Place of Birth:Glen Cove, Long Island, New York
Education:B. A., Cornell University, 1958
Read an Excerpt
In which Benny Profane,
a schlemihl and
Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia. Given to sentimental impulses, he thought he'd look in on the Sailor's Grave, his old tin can's tavern on East Main Street. He got there by way of the Arcade, at the East Main end of which sat an old street singer with a guitar and an empty Sterno can for donations. Out in the street a chief yeoman was trying to urinate in the gas tank of a '54 Packard Patrician and five or six seamen apprentice were standing around giving encouragement. The old man was singing, in a fine, firm baritone:
Every night is Christmas Eve on old East Main,
Sailors and their sweethearts all agree.
Neon signs of red and green
Shine upon the friendly scene,
Welcoming you in from off the sea.
Santa's bag is filled with all your dreams come true:
Nickel beers that sparkle like champagne,
Barmaids who all love to screw,
All of them reminding you
It's Christmas Eve on old East Main.
"Yay chief," yelled a seaman deuce. Profane rounded the corner. With its usual lack of warning, East Main was on him.
Since his discharge from the Navy Profane had been roadlaboring and when there wasn't work just traveling, up and down the east coast like a yo-yo; and this had been going on for maybe a year and a half. After that long of more named pavements than he'd care to count, Profane had grown a little leery of streets, especially streets likethis. They had in fact all fused into a single abstracted Street, which come the full moon he would have nightmares about. East Main, a ghetto for Drunken Sailors nobody knew what to Do With, sprang on your nerves with all the abruptness of a normal night's dream turning to nightmare. Dog into wolf, light into twilight, emptiness into waiting presence, here were your underage Marine barfing in the street, barmaid with a ship's propeller tattooed on each buttock, one potential berserk studying the best technique for jumping through a plate glass window (when to scream Geronimo? before or after the glass breaks?), a drunken deck ape crying back in the alley because last time the SP's caught him like this they put him in a strait jacket. Underfoot, now and again, came vibration in the sidewalk from an SP streetlights away, beating out a Hey Rube with his night stick; overhead, turning everybody's face green and ugly, shone mercury-vapor lamps, receding in an asymmetric V to the east where it's dark and there are no more bars.
Arriving at the Sailor's Grave, Profane found a small fight in progress between sailors and jarheads. He stood in the doorway a moment watching; then realizing he had one foot in the Grave anyway, dived out of the way of the fight and lay more or less doggo near the brass rail.
"Why can't man live in peace with his fellow man," wondered a voice behind Profane's left ear. It was Beatrice the barmaid, sweetheart of DesDiv 22, not to mention Profane's old ship, the destroyer U.S.S. Scaffold. "Benny," she cried. They became tender, meeting again after so long. Profane began to draw in the sawdust hearts, arrows through them, sea gulls carrying a banner in their beaks which read Dear Beatrice.
The Scaffold-boat's crew were absent, this tin can having got under way for the Mediterranean two evenings ago amid a storm of bitching from the crew which was heard out in the cloudy Roads (so the yarn went) like voices off a ghost ship; heard as far away as Little Creek. Accordingly, there were a few more barmaids than usual tonight, working tables all up and down East Main. For it's said (and not without reason) that no sooner does a ship like the Scaffold single up all lines than certain Navy wives are out of their civvies and into barmaid uniform, flexing their beer-carrying arms and practicing a hooker's sweet smile; even as the N.O.B. band is playing Auld Lang Syne and the destroyers are blowing stacks in black flakes all over the cuckolds-to-be standing manly at attention, taking leave with me and a tiny grin.
Beatrice brought beer. There was a piercing yelp from one of the back tables, she flinched, beer slopped over the edge of the glass.
"God," she said, "it's Ploy again." Ploy was now an engineman on the mine sweeper Impulsive and a scandal the length of East Main. He stood five feet nothing in sea boots and was always picking fights with the biggest people on the ship, knowing they would never take him seriously. Ten months ago (just before he'd transferred off the Scaffold) the Navy had decided to remove all of Ploy's teeth. Incensed, Ploy managed to punch his way through a chief corpsman and two dental officers before it was decided he was in earnest about keeping his teeth. "But think," the officers shouted, trying not to laugh, fending off his tiny fists: "root canal work, gum abscesses. . . ." "No," screamed Ploy. They finally had to hit him in the bicep with a Pentothal injection. On waking up, Ploy saw apocalypse, screamed lengthy obscenities. For two months he roamed ghastly around the Scaffold...
Reading Group Guide
It's Christmas Eve, 1955, and ex-seaman Benny Profane--"a schlemihl and human yo-yo"--is back in Norfolk, Virginia, with some old Navy buddies and Paola Maijstral, the enigmatic barmaid from Valletta, Malta. By January, he and Paola are in New York City with a group of wastrels self-styled The Whole Sick Crew; and Profane roams the streets and the sewers (hunting alligators) of a city that seems to just bounce him back in forth. In the meantime, Herbert Stencil--questing son of a dead British Foreign Office man--has been, since 1945, hunting for the utterly mysterious V., an unknown (perhaps unknowable) woman whom Stencil knows only from an entry in his late father's journals--"Florence, April, 1899 . . . There is more behind and inside V. than any of us had suspected. Not who, but what: what is she." And he knows, he has intuited, "that she'd been connected . . . with one of those grand conspiracies or foretastes of Armageddon which seemed to have captivated all diplomatic sensibilities in the years preceding the Great War. V. and a conspiracy." By January 1956, Stencil's search has brought him to New York City, where his and Benny Profane's paths inevitably cross. From that point of crossing, Thomas Pynchon's first novel takes readers on a wild and wonderful tour of the twentieth century and of contemporary America. Record-company and armaments executives (Roony Winsome and Clayton "Bloody" Chiclitz) jostle on these pages with British spies and Nazi rocket builders (Eric Bongo-Shaftsbury and Kurt Mondaugen), dentists and plastic surgeons (Dudley Eigenvalue and Shale Shoenmaker) rub metaphoric elbows with street gangs andjazz musicians (the Playboys and McClintic Sphere). And all the while, the world has either run down into meaninglessness or is run by a vast conspiracy that imposes a single absolute meaning on everyone.
1. To what extent can V. be read as "an analysis" of the decadence of the 1950s and, by extension, of the decadence of all of twentieth-century western culture?
2. In what ways is Benny Profane a "schlemihl" and a passive victim of circumstances? What are the causes and consequences of his repeated, frequently self-professed victimization? As a "human yo-yo," how is he the plaything of his culture and of history?
3. What are the nature and purpose of Herbert Stencil's quest? What does Pynchon mean when he writes that "Stencil was in time to be the century's child"? How does Stencil's search for V. reveal the decadence of European colonialism and of twentieth-century western culture?
4. Who are the various women who bear the initial "V"? What do these women represent? In addition to these women, what other persons, objects, places, and concepts are associated with the letter? How does the letter "V," as the novel's title and central symbol, effectively focus all of the primary motifs in the novel?
5. How does Pynchon illustrate the concept of entropy--the deterioration of all systems to a state of absolute inertness in which all creative energies have been dispersed? What characters and situations are most pointedly associated with entropy? What "rescues" from decay and deterioration do various characters put forward, and with what results?
6. What are the layouts and goals of the novel's various labyrinths or mazes, of either space or time? What do Profane, Stencil, and other characters discover about themselves and about history as they navigate their labyrinths?
7. What do Chiclitz, Schoenmaker, Winsome, and Eigenvalue represent? How are they related to the British Foreign Office men, Nazi officers, and other professionals who figure in Stencil's quest?
8. In what ways--and to what degree--do Profane, Stencil, and others attempt to create order out of disorder? Is any one character's approach in this regard more successful than those of the others?
9. Herbert Stencil's father says, "Suppose, sometime between 1859 and 1919, the world contracted a disease which no one ever took the trouble to diagnose because the symptoms were too subtle--blending in with the events of history, no different one by one but altogether--fatal." How would you describe that disease? How may V. be read as Pynchon's diagnosis of it?
10. Rachel thinks of the people in Dr. Schoenmaker's waiting room as only one group of "a transient population of the imperfect, the dissatisfied." In what ways do you think Rachel's perception describes all the characters in the novel?About the Author
Born in 1937, Thomas Pynchon is the author of V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow, Vineland, and Mason & Dixon.