This book attemps to be profound and instead, in my humble opinion, just ends up caterwauling. Maybe it is a product of the 1960s and was interesting and unique and amazing for it’s time, but overall I just found it difficult to follow and not very compelling.
The “modern” time passages involving Profane in 1956 were most compelling and interesting. There is a lot of social commentary about wasted time/energy/youth/intelligence and the quest for entertainment. The Whole Sick Crew is mostly made up of people who could do better, but don’t.
However, interspersed with the chapters about Profane are supposed historical accounts of V (Stencil’s mother), which serve to illuminate the ridiculousness of humanity: in our relationships, quest for political peace; and repitition of behaviors. These chapters highlight portions of V’s life (more on that below) and also side track on other themes/ideas/characters. Overall I did not find these historical accounts to be interesting or compelling; oftentimes they were just redundent. I have comments on each of the places/times below in chronological order (which is not the order in which they are presented in the novel):
Cairo/Alexandria time unknown: We meet the young girl Victoria Wren and her sister as tourists. Victoria has an affair and gains independence from her father. Her support is unknown, but she heads off into the world alone at this point. She does meet Stencil and other spies; she is put on the course of espionage and adventure. We see V’s comb, but none of her other inanimate/body objects.
Florence 1899: Young Evan Godolphin searches for his father Hugh Godolphin and we are introduced to the concept of Vheissu (another V). I read Vheissu as both utopia and the Heart of Darkness (yes, as in Conrad). Godolphin has become completely obessesed with Vheissu and meets up with Victoria who turns him in, but then regrets her betrayal. There are some comical moments and certainly Pynchon is attempting satire on the diplomatic spy world. Certainly this is pre-WWI (in which Evan is disfigured), but at some point after this Victoria and Evan meet again because he is with her in Valletta in 1919 when elder Stencil meets up with them again. This is also when Stencil impregnants V, but we don’t know how/when she gets the baby Herbert back to Stencil. We still see V’s comb, but no other inanimate objects.
Malta/Valletta 1919: Stencil in Malta; this is the epilogue and the final piece that seems to put it all together. We see V here as having both the glass eye and the comb (no fake limbs yet); young Godolphin is her chauffer, and Stencil references his son Herbert (who is 18). V is Veronica Manganese and she is highly embedded with political espionage.
South Africa 1922: We get Mondaugen’s story of decandence. This period is very reminiscent of NY 1956 in the complete uselessness of most of the people. They spend their time worrying about the next party, but do not really care or pay much attention to the political world around them, despite the war literally happening on the front lawn. Mondaugen meets V as Vera and we are first introduced to her removable clock faced eye. Also here is old Godolphin (begging the question of whether he has been continuously in V’s company since 1899 or if they have just met up again in South Africa) and he is still obsessed with Vheissu.
Malta/Valletta 1942: We have Fausto’s (Paola’s father) story. Fausto is very similar to H. Stencil in that he segments himself into eras and has no problem dealing with himself in third person. This story deals with the “Bad Priest” who is (in fact) V and dies on the day of the 13 Raids. We see V as a culmination of inanimate objects; she is not just the cassock as representing the priesthood, but also the ivory comb (which then Maijstral presumably gives to Paola), the fake limbs, and the sapphire belly jewel. I was struck by the repetition in Maijstral’s life. We find out later (but earlier for him) that his first wife (Carla) committed suicide while pregnant and that his second wife (Elena, Paola’s mother) dies during the 13 Raids. It was not clear to me why/how V became the Bad Priest or what made her bad.
New York 1956: By far my favorite pieces of the book were here. In fact, I think the book would probably have held together nicely without the other time/place chapters (which were just distracting short stories). I did think that the fact that the Whole Sick Crew was intertwined in Stencil’s historical quest was a bit too convenient and although I loved Profane’s alligator chase I did not think it was necessary for Stencil to be shot in the sewer. Certainly Godolphin (both elder and younger) are very important for Stencil’s history, but the fact that young Godolphin was the catalyst that turned Schoenmaker into a plastic surgeon and that he is a) a member of the WSC; b) Esther’s lover (and father of her illigitamate child); and c) the means by which Profane and Stencil get funds (by stealing the teeth) to travel to Malta in the end just make it all TOO CONVIENENT and interconnected. We have evidence of V in this section (but she does not make an appearance, having died several years before in Valleta). We discover what happened to Father Fairing (the same priest from Valletta in 1919) by learning the story of the crazy preist who converted rats in the 30s (and happened to name his favorite one Veronica). We also see Paola sporting V’s comb.
Besides all of the confusion with the search for V, there were poignant moments and interesting social commentary. My three favorite quotes were: “All of which went to support his private thesis that correction—along all dimensions: social, political, emotional—entails retreat to a diametric opposite rather than any reasonable search for a golden mean.” and “But why? Have you never harrowed yourself halfway to-disorder-with that single word? Why?” and “Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it: keep cool, but care.”
Yes, there is a lot here and yes, the work can be analyzed in many ways; but ultimately it was not a very interesting read.