Everyone has at least one piece of literature they are congenitally afraid of picking up. Be it the fear and trembling of page count, plot synopsis, or personal distaste for protagonists in the whaling industry, we all have literary tomes haunting us.
What lent Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. this premonition of self-abuse was less about the miasma of opinion encircling the author’s name than my own latent fear of entering a fiction that offered no exit—no reward.
Critically rendered as “invariably lengthy” and “composed of a series of bizarre adventures or episodes in which the central character is involved, then removed and flung abruptly into another,” V. seemed to challenge narrative forms established so painstakingly by authors of the 18th and 19th centuries in order to insist more earnestly upon slight-of-hand hijinks.
If the function of fiction is to create space in which the self may be wrestled into various Truth-revealing maneuvers, what relevance is found in the pages of a postmodern fiction whose characters end up only where they began, “yo-yoing” into the reader’s mind just to smack back into the author’s palm?
Jean-François Lyotard, key constructor of the icky term “postmodernism,” named this condition between tepid reader and intimidating text “the agitated zone.” According to Lyotard, it is here that the soul and a piece of art pretty much see-saw up and down looking for that feet-dangling balance where the reader’s fear of total disorder is offset by the novel’s ability to recalibrate our sense of order in new ways. The reason postmodern pioneers like Pynchon often come with the aesthetic proviso “This might hurt a little bit” is because of their unprecedented willingness to force the reader into a state of incessant agitation. And yet, as Lyotard suggests, “this agitation is [the soul’s] health and its life.” .
In brief, Pynchon’s V. follows one Herbert Stencil who in finding himself waking daily to a life of disconnect and meaninglessness commits himself to uncovering the riddle of his father’s death; only that the riddle’s sole clue is one letter, V, scribbled in his dead father’s journal. By erecting a network of complicating cabals and loose ends around himself Stencil’s existence is given the motive of mystery; a sort of purpose-through-paranoia philosophy that propels the narrative across various time periods and locales such as the alligator-infested sewer system of New York City and eventually the island of Malta.
Yet the inevitable cost of depending upon a self-constructed mystery for one’s meaning is that in reaching any certainty you surrender your purpose. This is fiction’s response to the unfortunate sum of the modernist equation: knowledge will not save us. It became the postmodernist task to locate significance in an equation whose answer had already been disproven.
Herbert Stencil is aware of this paradox, and so, “He tried not to think, therefore, about any end to the search. Approach and avoid.” And so the role of both reader and fictional character—identifying V.—must remain permanently out of grasp for the story to continue.
Pynchon’s decision to construct a piece of fiction that traces the consequences of this paradox—the necessity of incoherence for one to function coherently—leads us to the heart of Lyotard’s agitation. The primary obstacle of postmodern literature is that the reader must surrender his notions of aesthetic purpose and narrative order.
But why read literature that purposefully saps our ability to organize material into cohesive pieces that may be mined for meaning? Why willfully engage a piece of art whose most elemental aspects are in opposition to the observer’s intuition to intuit? Postmodern fiction’s resistance to categorization offers crucial insight into how we readers have trained ourselves to observe things. In both life and literature we seem built to make sense from nonsense even when it is intentionally nonsensical, only somewhere amid the synapses we’ve lost the joy of being blindfolded.
“What is most appealing about young folks, after all,” Pynchon observes in a rare moment of autobiography, “is the changes, not the still photograph of finished character but the movie, the soul in flux.” If up till now the task of the reader has been, as it was for me, to perceive patterns within literature from which meaning can be wrought, the reformed fiction of Pynchon forces pause upon our deductive impulse in order to create a space where we spin inward to see how we read. Only this pause is not the lucid freeze-frame from which a coherent glimpse of the world may be observed, but rather the warbled pause a 1992 VHS videocassette player might provide: twisted streaks of a story stopped against its will and obscured by the grey-blurred bars of contrast staring fixedly at the viewer.
It’s an agitating enterprise, but one well worth the discomfort.
Denny Kinlaw is currently studying for his MLitt in the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews. His interests include American Literature and the intersection of literary theory and theology in the work of David Foster Wallace.
 Plimpton, George. “The Whole Sick Crew,” in The New York Times. April 21, 1963.
Pynchon, Thomas. V. Harper Collins: New York, 1963.
 Lyotard, Jean-François. “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” The Inhuman. Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1988. 100.
 Stencil is first described as aimless in NYC with an amoebic entourage entitled “The Whole Sick Crew” that hosts characters like Fergus Mixolydian, “the laziest living being in Nueva York,” and Slab, a “Catatonic Expressionist” whose work is considered “the ultimate in non-communication.” Ibid. 52.
 Ibid. 51.
 Pynchon, Thomas. Slow Learner. Little Brown & Company: New York, 1984. 8.