Right now I’m re-reading V., Thomas Pynchon’s first novel. This is my third or fourth time through the book, which I last read about four years ago. This is one of my all time favorites and I am enjoying it maybe more now than the first time I read it since I have a pretty good sense of the narrative and so can think more cogently about how the part that I am reading fits into the bigger picture. It’s also exciting to find the prose fresh and interesting, and to come across bits of wit or grace in the writing that I missed or forgot and so continue to surprise and delight me. In the words of Paul Thomas Anderson, “The only thing better than reading Pynchon is rereading Pynchon.”
V. is an awe-inspiring feat of imagination. It’s a little easier to engage with than Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon, the super-author’s masterpieces, but I find it much more satisfying than The Crying of Lot 49, which is where a lot of people start when they want to get their feet wet with Pynchon.
Pynchon’s scientifically knowledgeable perspective (he worked at Boeing) informs a work that deals frequently with issues about the nature of technology and its impact on/relation to human beings. The author sees that there is not necessarily an impermeable border between users of technology and the technology that they use. There appear a variety of cyborgs and human beings who have had various “enhancements” made to their bodies.
In the early chapters, two of these characters have switches in their arms. One, Fergus Mixolydian, “the laziest living being in Nueva York” has a switch that senses when he is asleep and triggers the television to turn on and off, making him “an extension of the TV set” (56). The second is Hugh Bongo-Shaftsbury, an English spy in Alexandria between the world wars, who chillingly declares himself “an electro-mechanical doll” (80).
Chapter IV, “In Which Esther Gets a Nose Job,” begins and ends with a sexual liaison involving the plastic surgeon Shale Schoenmaker (Schön is beautiful or handsome in German) and one of his patients, a young Jewish woman named Esther who is unsatisfied with her stereotypically lumpy nose. In the middle Pynchon tells the story of the doctor’s entrance into his field, which is followed by a brutal step-by-step description of Esther having her “hump” removed (chronologically prior to the two becoming intimate).
Schoenmaker’s history and Esther’s operation are, for me, two of the most indelible scenes in the book. The doctor finds plastic surgery after serving as a mechanic working on airplanes during the first world war. He becomes infatuated with a pilot, Evan Godolphin, who is eventually shot down in a dogfight. To paraphrase this passage would not do it justice:
“The end came soon enough. One rainy afternoon toward the end of the battle of Meuse-Argonne, Godolphin’s crippled plane materialized suddenly out of all that gray, looped feebly, dipped on a wing toward the ground and slid like a kite in an air current toward the runway. It missed the runway by a hundred yards: by the time it impacted corpsmen and stretcher-bearers were already running out toward it. Schoenmaker happened to be nearby and tagged along, having no idea what had happened till he saw the heap of rags and splinters, already soggy in the rain, and from it, limping toward the medics, the worst possible travesty of a human face lolling atop an animate corpse. The top of the nose had been shot away; shrapnel had torn out part of one cheek and shattered half the chin. The eyes, intact, showed nothing” (98-9).
The aviator’s face is rebuilt using a technique known as allograft, wherein inanimate materials are inserted into living tissue. Godolphin, with a new visage of ivory, silver, and paraffin, appears excellent in the hospital, but his expectations are low. He points out another patient whose new face has basically melted and proclaims that he has perhaps six months before he will be in as bad shape as before the surgery. Schoenmaker, driven at first by anger at the doctor who did this and a desire to aid others like his beloved, pursues a medical career with an aesthetic bent.
Then there is Esther. The description of her surgery is detailed enough to make you nauseous:
“Inside the nose again with another burden of anaesthetic, Irving’s hypodermic was inserted between the upper and lower cartilage and pushed all the way up to the glabella—the bump between the eyebrows” (105).
A detached chronicle of some precise snips and saws follows the numbing needles, with a sexual subtext given to the operation by Schoenmaker’s assistant Trench and Esther herself, who is aroused throughout and afterward.
As I wrote before, these are just two of many examples in V. of a dystopian meeting of the human with the technological. Evan Godolphin and Esther are historical cyborgs, not future-dwelling androids, and the man made changes to their bodies, tragicomic if not outright dystopian, are wholly aesthetic and aimed at fitting in. A lot of science fiction uses hypothetical scenarios to explore the implications of technology, or warn against the potential for progress run amok. Godolphin and Esther are tragicomic variations on Frankenstein’s monster–unnatural hybrids who are still only people caught up in the currents of their age. These two stories of embryonic posthumans being tumultuously born look to history to consider how technological developments, rationally devised products of scientific work, are often thoroughly mixed up with human urges toward violence and desire.
Cited in this post:
Pynchon, Thomas. V. London: Vintage Books, 2000.
V. was originally published in 1963.