It will soon be V. season for me. Almost every December, I re-read Thomas Pynchon's fabulous first novel. I have read it more times than any other book. It begins:
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.
The first two words of the novel account, in part, for the time of year I choose to reread it. But another reason is that around this time, I tend to have more time on my hands; Pynchon repays longer reading sessions than other authors. V. is the perfect book for reading while lying on the floor in front of a wood fire with a snifter of cognac on a cold December day.
Pynchon has a reputation for being a difficult author, and I suppose this is true (though V. is certainly an easier read than Gravity's Rainbow, and partly for that reason, a superior work). Difficulty within reason, though, is no reason to avoid a book--especially not one as rich as Pynchon's first.
Why do I love it so?
I love V. because I never get to the bottom of it. As many times as I've read it, I still pick up something new from each reading. And its plot--or rather, the resolution of its plot--is ambiguous, thus inviting different interpretations with each perusal.
I love it for its ambition; the story ranges all over the globe over a sixty year period. It's a big book of big ideas. It deploys a huge vocabulary, but playfully, not pedantically.
Mostly I love its intelligence and energy. Wow: somebody actually wrote this. The human mind is an amazing organ--even more amazing when I consider that Pynchon was in his early twenties when he finished writing this book. He gives me the impression of knowing almost everything about almost everything, and I find that comforting--which is an odd word to use to describe Pynchon's fiction. In fact, I've read lots of Pynchon criticism, and I don't recall anyone else describing him in those terms. But as I turn the pages, I feel the author's presence. Thomas Pynchon is the most vivid character in the book for me, and I like having him sit with me in the living room with the fire and the cognac, feeling a space between my ears growing warm as he tells me about all the things he's seen and all the things he knows.
"Once upon a time Thomas Pynchon was my world." Scott Eric Kaufman wrote that, and I know just what he means. Over time, the daily fascination I once had with Pynchonia has been replaced by other obsessions. But the end of the year is a time to sum up and to dream ahead--and there is no better book than V. for both. I can't wait to start it again.