The publication of V., winner of the prestigious William Faulkner Foundation’s award for the year’s best first novel (1963), signaled the arrival of a major American novelist. While a few readers find Thomas Pynchon’s work to be as elusive as the author himself (an intensely private person who has allowed little biographical information to surface), others marvel at his labyrinthine plots and astounding erudition. The range of Pynchon’s writing, including The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the short-story collection Slow Learner (1984), and Vineland (1989), invites inevitable comparisons to François Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Vladimir Nabokov, securing Pynchon’s place among the top echelon of contemporary male writers.
A common criticism of Pynchon is that he is a difficult writer. It is this difficulty, however, which makes novels like V. and Gravity’s Rainbow so rewarding to read and reread. Pynchon’s texts are not easily comprehensible, because he intends to do nothing short of reinventing the way people interpret their experiences.
Much of the difficulty of V. stems from Pynchon’s focus on the epistemological uncertainty of human experience in modern times. His character, Antarctic explorer Hugh Godolphin, laments his inability to penetrate the surface of Vheissu, describing the unknown land as a tattooed woman whose skin “would begin to get between you and whatever it was in her that you thought you loved.” Tourists, he feels, only want the surface of a strange land, while an explorer wants to reach its heart. Godolphin’s revelation that he has been to the South Pole and has witnessed “Nothing” echoes Marlowe’s discovery in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899,...
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