V., Thomas Pynchon, J B Lippincott Company, 1963, 492 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Having just been released from the Navy, Benny Profane is content to lead a slothful existence with his friends, where the only real ambition is to perfect the art of "schlemihlhood," or being a dupe, and where "responsibility" is a dirty word. Among his pals--called the Whole Sick Crew--is Slab, an artist who can't seem to paint anything other than cheese danishes. But Profane's life changes dramatically when he befriends Stencil, an active ambitious young man with an intriguing mission--to find out the identity of a woman named V., who knew Stencil's father during the war, but who suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.
So I made it through the first novel by Thomas Pynchon, also the first I have read of his novels. If you have never read it and you look at the Goodreads summary above, it looks straightforward enough. It is not!
I felt lost for quite a while; lots of characters and two time lines that pay little attention to letting you know what happened when. There are a ton of wikis for V. on the web but I did not use them that much. After all, a new reader in 1963 had no wikis, so I pretended I was one of them. Eventually I fell into whatever groove there was to be had and went along for the ride.
The parts about Benny Profane and the Whole Sick Crew take place mostly in New York City in 1955. All very beat sensibility and Cold War ennui. Quite an unsavory bunch they are. Even though the European/North Africa parts were way more confusing, I liked those parts better. They had a spy thriller essence to them and several incidents took place in Alexandria, a city I have a fondness for from reading Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. It is nice to have somewhere to feel at home when one is reading a chopped up, confusing story.
In the end, I felt it had been worth my time to read such an iconic book by an author revered by so many. I am actually looking forward to reading more Pynchon. His style reminded me of Michael Chabon whom I love. Also I found echoes of certain Beat authors I read in my 1950s lists.
One other thing: I was reading V. concurrently with Norman Mailer's Presidential Papers. Both were published in 1963 and the parallel ideas and sentiments and views about America at that time in both books were startling. I don't know if the two knew each other or ever hung out, but for sure they were reading the same stuff and thinking along the same neural pathways.
I have about 10 books left on my 1963 reading list and I am getting weary of the year, but V. was a breath of fresh air and a harbinger of things to come. The same thing happened when I was reading the 1940s and 1950s lists. About midway through each decade, I began to feel a shift with the older styles falling away the new ideas and concerns popping up.
I created My Big Fat Reading Project with the idea that I could learn about the whole big picture of the years I have lived by reading the important books of each one. I am thrilled over and over as I keep finding this turning out to be true.
(V. is available as a Perennial Classics paperback reprint by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)