(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

At the end of 1955, Benny Profane drifts off the street and into the Sailor’s Grave, a Norfolk tavern, and finds his old shipmate Pig Bodine. Pig had abandoned his military duty. He had abandoned ship, driven crazy by Pappy Hod, whose wife, Paola, had left him to become a barmaid at the Sailor’s Grave.

After a wild New Year’s Eve party, Profane and Paola take a bus to New York. Profane begins to worry that Paola is becoming dependent on him, so he dumps her off on Rachel Owlglass, his occasional girlfriend. Freed of Paola, he travels across town on the subway until he meets the Mendoza family, who helps him get a job hunting albino alligators under the streets in New York’s sewer system.

Meanwhile, Rachel pays her roommate Esther’s financial debt to Dr. Schoenmaker, the plastic surgeon who had performed Esther’s nose job. Esther’s surgery had reminded the doctor of his original motivation to practice reconstructive surgery. As a mechanic in World War I, Schoenmaker’s hero, the ace aviator Evan Godolphin, had a horribly disfiguring accident. A quack surgeon experimented with grafting ivory, silver, and other inert matter into Evan’s face. This material later decayed and destroyed the young, once-handsome Godolphin’s appearance.

Haunted by his father’s death in Valletta in 1919, Herbert Stencil materializes in New York in 1956 at a party thrown by the Whole Sick Crew. He is tormented by a passage in his father’s diary that refers to a mysterious “V.” When he reads this passage, Stencil begins his quest for V.

It is now 1898. Sidney Stencil, Herbert’s father, is in Cairo when British spy, Porpentine, is assassinated here. Sidney soon encounters Victoria Wren, a beautiful young tourist with a penchant for espionage. They are both in Florence one year later when Hugh Godolphin and his son, Evan, are drawn into a revolutionary conspiracy and an absurd plot to steal painter Sandro Botticelli’s Venus.

The theft fails, but the enigmatic figure resurfaces in a story Herbert hears in the Rusty Spoon, a place frequented by the Crew. According to...

(The entire section is 873 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Pynchon’s first extended work of fiction focuses on two disparate plots. At the center of the first of these is Benny Profane, a self-styled schlemiel, a veteran of the Navy who spends his time going up and down the East Coast (in the novel his movement is called “yo-yoing”) between New York City and the naval base at Norfolk, Virginia. Profane’s life has no real purpose, and he has no deep attachments to anyone; his parents are never mentioned, and his girlfriends come and go. He takes only jobs that are by their nature temporary. At one point he is a night watchman in a crazy kind of computer laboratory; at another he is part of a crew that roams New York’s sewers at night, shooting the alligators that have been flushed down when they grew too big to be pets. His friends are a group who call themselves the Whole Sick Crew; like him, they have no sustaining purpose in life.

The other continuing thread running through V. has to do with a mysterious woman who began appearing around the time of a crisis in East Africa before World War I, known in history as the Fashoda affair, which seemed likely to bring about an armed conflict between Great Britain and France. The woman has many names (Veronica, Victoria, Vera), all beginning with the letter V. She appears in other places, as well, first in German Southwest Africa at a time of native rebellion, living among a besieged group of Europeans in a fortified farmhouse. She is present when a group of South Americans in Italy is planning a revolution in their homeland, and still later she is the lover of a young ballerina in Paris between the two world wars. Finally she appears on the Mediterranean island of Malta during World War II, at a time when the island is subject to intense bombing by the Italian and German air forces.

V. metamorphoses from a seemingly innocent English girl with a fascination for violence into a cosmopolite whose ethnic origins are obscure and who seems to feed on violence done to herself as well as to others. In the German redoubt she is German herself, but in her later manifestations her origins and her real nature are unclear; one mad priest in New York even believes that she manifests herself as a rat living in the sewers beneath the city. Over the...

(The entire section is 923 words.)