A hand reaches from behind the door in a dark apartment, making the peace sign. The arm belongs to a man hiding inside—a man who always seems to be hiding, even when he is in plain sight. It is 1965, in Manhattan Beach, California. The writer Phyllis Gebauer is standing outside the door on a stoop. She is laughing, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. A pink and white pig piñata named Claude hangs over the railing. The man in the darkness is Thomas Pynchon.
The metaphor seems too perfect. Not even J.D. Salinger, who published a single novel in 1951 and two story collections before leaving public view, has captured the obsession of readers as much as the mythos of Thomas Pynchon. Born in 1937 in Glen Cove, New York, a section of Long Island, Pynchon’s family moved to Oyster Bay, where he attended high school and graduated as salutatorian in 1953, at 16 years old. From there he went upstate to Cornell to study engineering, where a friend named Jules Siegel said Pynchon “went to Mass and confessed, though to what would be a mystery.” Pynchon’s father came from a long line of New England Protestants, who arrived in Massachusetts from England in 1630. He got his Catholicism, the faith he was raised in, from his Irish mother. Finally, C. Michael Curtis—longtime fiction editor for The Atlantic—roomed with Pynchon and the writer and singer Richard Fariña at Cornell. Curtis described Pynchon as “very Catholic.”
Pynchon did well at Cornell, but was a “very private person.” After a year of engineering, he began to study English—he had written for his high school newspaper—but left the university during his sophomore year to join the Navy. He spent two years in the military, among them some time on the USS Hank, a navy destroyer ship in the Mediterranean. Slow Learner, Pynchon’s lone story collection, contains his longest consideration of the writing life, including some insights into these early days. While on break from shore patrol duty near the Navy base in Norfolk, Virginia, Pynchon found an issue of Evergreen Review in a bookstore, and was quickly inspired. The magazine had just begun publishing, but early issues included work by Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Vladimir Nabokov, and Henry Miller. Once back at Cornell in 1957, Pynchon began writing in earnest.
Slow Learner is comprised of those early stories as well as a few written after he graduated in 1959. Although given the chance to teach writing at the university, Pynchon instead moved to Greenwich Village, and began writing what would become his first novel, V. That next year, he moved to Seattle to work for Boeing as a technical writer, drafting articles for BOMARC Service News while he was writing his creative work—a parallel path as Don DeLillo at the start of his career. Like DeLillo, Pynchon stopped his technical writing when his first novel was published.
V., released in 1963, was not Pynchon’s first moment of literary success. His early stories appeared in prestigious publications like Epoch and the Kenyon Review, and were reprinted in The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize. Yet the novel is his first sustained, dizzying entry into a canon of writing as arresting as it is odd.
The novel begins on Christmas Eve, 1955, in Norfolk, Virginia. Benny Profane, recently discharged from the navy, is walking down a bustling street. Profane drinks and parties his way through the new year and meets Paola Maijstral, a Maltese woman who works at the Sailor’s Grave, a Norfolk bar. Paola wears a Miraculous Medal around her neck, leading the chapter’s narrator to wonder:
What sort of Catholic was she? Profane, who was only half Catholic (mother Jewish) and whose morality was fragmentary (being derived from experience and not much of it), wondered what quaint Jesuit arguments had led her to come away with him, refuse to share a bed, but still ask him to “be good.”
Profane’s father is later described as “devoutly R.C.”
Much like DeLillo, Pynchon detaches the Jesuit strand of Catholicism from the larger Catholic religion and worldview. The Catholic characters in V. are pious, nostalgic, and superstitious. The Jesuit element is intellectual and rhetorical; to borrow from James Joyce, to be a Jesuit means to be aware of both art and artifice. The Long Island Irish-Catholicism of Pynchon was not incompatible with the literary irreverence he showed as a writer in high school and college. Yet as he grew older, served in the military, and likely became more distant and nostalgic about his childhood, it is conceivable that a born satirist like Pynchon would retain the more faithful elements of Catholicism for his characters, and appropriate the more scholarly elements for himself as author. Pynchon as playful Jesuit seems particularly apt: the architecture of his novels, and even his sentences, are sweeping and syntactically winding.
V.—appropriate to the shape of the title’s letter—splits and never quite converges. Profane’s misadventures are interspersed with chapters that tell the story of Herbert Stencil, a man obsessed with finding the secrets of the titular V. The chapters allow young Pynchon ample room for conspiratorial rambling, as Stencil will follow history down any hole to find V., who seems to be a woman, but who also might be a concept.
Early in the novel, it appears that V. might be Victoria Wren, a Catholic girl who attended convent school and “talked perhaps overmuch about her religion; had indeed for a time considered the Son of God as a young lady will consider any eligible bachelor.” Even so, she “left the novitiate after a matter of weeks but not the Church: that with its sadfaced statuary, odors of candles and incense, formed along with an uncle Evelyn the foci of her serene orbit.” Taken to daydreams, Victoria would spend Mass imagining that “God wore a wide-awake hat and fought skirmishes with an aboriginal Satan out at the antipodes of the firmament, in the name and for the safekeeping of any Victoria.”
Stencil’s search remains unresolved as the novel returns to Benny Profane, who has his own conquest: a job chasing alligators in the sewers of New York City. Profane’s routes lead him down dark corridors and to strange discoveries. He notices the alligators moving uptown into a region known as Fairing’s Parish, named after a Jesuit priest. Father Fairing had ministered during the Great Depression at “breadlines and missions, where he gave comfort, stitched up raggedy souls,” but worried that the city would be full of “starved corpses.” He “decided that the rats were going to take over after New York died.”
Father Fairing hatched the only plan he thought possible: he decided to convert the rats to Catholicism. He descended into the sewers with the Baltimore Catechism and breviary, and “put an eternal blessing and a few exorcisms on all the water flowing through the sewers between Lexington and the East River and between eighty-sixth and seventy-ninth streets.”
Fairing eats rats for sustenance, but also catalogues his attempts at communicating with them. He names a rat Ignatius after the famed Jesuit founder. He attempts to instruct them on the catechism and has theological debates with them about the early Church Fathers. One rat named Veronica had a “soul worth saving.” She wants to become a nun, but the priest “explained to her that to date there is no recognized order for which she would be eligible.” Profane learns these oddball stories and thinks they are apocryphal, but while in the sewers himself, he observes that, in addition to a crucifix, “scrawled on the walls were occasional quotes from the Gospels, Latin tags.” Pynchon includes the Roman Rite of his Mass-going years: “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem—Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, grant us peace.”
Exhausted and dizzy from chasing alligators, Profane contemplates the strange priest: “Excommunicated, most likely, by the very fact of his mission here, a skeleton in Rome’s closet and in the priest-hole of his own cassock and bed, the old man sat preaching to a congregation of rats with saints’ names, all to the intention of peace.” Profane then finds “a wide space like the nave of a church, an arched roof overhead, a phosphorescent light coming off walls whose exact arrangement was indistinct.” The alligator turns to face him: “He waited. He was waiting for something to happen. Something otherworldly, of course. He was sentimental and superstitious.” He says sorry as he shoots and kills the alligator.
The Fairing sequence is an appropriate introduction to Pynchon as a Catholic jester and satirist. We know nothing of Pynchon’s personal faith after his years at Cornell. Both DeLillo and Pynchon were attending college and going to Mass in New York during the same years, but their spiritual lives afterward are a mystery. DeLillo at least offers us cryptic references in interviews, but we can only mine the reclusive Pynchon’s work for clues, and his parodic tone and labyrinthine syntax offer tempting searches. Pynchon’s fiction suggests that postmodern writers raised in the Catholic tradition do not merely dispose of the faith once lapsed. In fact, these writers, who were preternaturally drawn toward both high and low culture, symbol and extravagant metaphor, wordplay and literary performance, found all of these elements in a faith they once practiced.
V. is exactly that—a search—whose absurdities only multiply as the pages progress. When a writer’s faith lapses, the space occupied by that faith does not simply disappear. Catholicism is an architectural faith—literally, in the grandness of its physical spaces, and theologically. If Pynchon appears to have left the practice of his religion—a conjecture, admittedly, about the most-conjectured about author in contemporary American literature—his religion does not appear to have left his work.
The parodist needs a subject, and Pynchon’s subject seems to be our determined, frenetic search for meaning in a world saturated with noise. A young veteran who left heavily-manned warships to write about heavily-manned aeronautics, Pynchon knew our worst inclinations would only find more potent expression as the years passed. His satirical work is drenched in gloom, and we wonder: Are the jokes themselves the meaning?
The power and song of Pynchon’s prose are often lost in his appealing puzzles. In a scene from V., Pynchon includes his fabricated Feast of San’ Ercole dei Rinoceronti: the Feast of Saint Hercules of the Rhinoceroses. Pynchon describes Little Italy: “High over all Mulberry Street that night soared arches of light bulbs, arranged in receding sets of whorls, each spanning the street, shining clear to the horizon because the air was so windless.” His syntax swirls, but follows a careful route. His descriptions are crisp and new. He is fully capable of being sincere.
Some of the sincerest and most pointed moments of V. are the various narrators’ pontifications on lost faith. When Victoria Wren returns in a later chapter, we read “her entire commitment to Roman Catholicism as needful and plausible stemmed from and depended on an article of the primitive faith which glimmered shiny and supreme in that reservoir like a crucial valve-handle.” The “article” described is Wren’s acceptance of the Trinitarian mystery and belief. Paola’s father, Fausto, “did nothing so complex as drift away from God or reject his church. Losing faith is a complicated business and takes time. There are no epiphanies, no ‘moments of truth’”—only a natural response to the devastation of World War II. In his attempt to make sense of the madness of his search, Herbert Stencil offers a partial theory:
Truthfully he didn’t know what sex V. might be, nor even what genus and species. To go along assuming that Victoria the girl tourist and Veronica the sewer rat were one and the same V. was not at all to bring up any metempsychosis: only to affirm that his quarry fitted in with The Big One, the century’s master cabal . . . though V. might be no more a she than a sailing vessel or a nation.
The mysteries of V. are never solved, in part because the goal of the search is not linear but experiential. A search for postmodern sincerity is a dangerous game, especially one played with a master such as Pynchon, but his Catholic years create a tantalizing paradox. The fact remains that one of America’s most heralded and complex contemporary novelists was not merely once a practicing Catholic, but one who remains fascinated with its theology, its ethical questions, and even its religious orders. His initial breakthrough as a writer occurred during a decade of Catholic intellectual and artistic innovation. Pynchon admired Marshall McLuhan and played similar games as Andy Warhol—albeit with different mediums. Their shared religious interests and influences suggest that there are certain traits of Catholicism—its coupling of grandeur with the corporal and visceral; its offering of a complex theological map for a world that seems increasingly absurd—that makes it strangely appropriate for a postmodern world.
The answer, as it often is with Pynchon, is less important than the question, and the question is often hidden. In 1984, as part of the publication push for Slow Learner, Pynchon wrote an essay for The New York Times Book Review. “Is It OK to Be a Luddite?” is a whimsical take on the historical and legendary background for our colloquial usage of the term and offers Pynchon the opportunity to argue that we should best consider Luddites as an economic, populist revolution, rather than a band of maniacs.
Yet it is an essay published there nearly a decade later that is more enticing. The book review’s editors asked a handful of contemporary writers to consider the seven deadly sins. Gore Vidal took on pride. Mary Gordon investigated anger. John Updike, unsurprisingly, examined lust. Thomas Pynchon was asked to ponder sloth.
Pynchon begins by talking about the profoundly influential thirteenth century priest, theologian, and saint, Thomas Aquinas. He quips that Aquinas was a bit harsh in labeling sloth as a capital, or mortal, sin. “Writers are considered the mavens of Sloth”—with procrastination being part of the profession. Acedia, the Latin word used by Aquinas for the condition, means sorrow, “deliberately self-directed, turned away from God, a loss of spiritual determination.” Considering the social and literary history of America, Pynchon sees the concept of acedia as shifting “from a spiritual to a secular condition.”
Modern America—the audience for which Pynchon writes, and about whom he has often written—is defined by sloth. “Acedia,” he argues, “is the vernacular of everyday moral life.” Modern sloth is “despair bought at a discount price, a deliberate turning against faith in anything because of the inconvenience faith presents to the pursuit of quotidian lusts, angers and the rest.” Pynchon wonders if anyone cares:
Unless the state of our souls becomes once more a subject of serious concern, there is little question that Sloth will continue to evolve away from its origins in the long-ago age of faith and miracle, when daily life really was the Holy Ghost visibly at work and time was a story, with a beginning, middle and end.
Pynchon’s tone is difficult to discern here. The ultimate trick of the literary jester is surprise; we expect comedy, which makes sincerity easy to miss. For a writer often considered a paranoid satirist who laughs at the world, Thomas Pynchon finds much in it to lament. His fiction is a confluence of his Catholic contemporaries. Within Pynchon’s complex plots and eccentric characters, we find McLuhan’s theories of the electronic world, Walter Ong, SJ’s perception of our place within the sensorium, and Warhol’s sacral, contemplative core beneath his performative absurdity. Pynchon offers his readers a psychotropic Catholic vision, making us feel much like Oedipa Maas at the end of her quest in his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49—attending an auction that will hopefully contain the revelation of history’s secrets, and watching the auctioneer “spread his arms in a gesture that seemed to belong to the priesthood of some remote culture; perhaps to a descending angel.” In Pynchon’s fiction, God may or may not be revealed, but the spectacle remains.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an excerpt of Chapter 4 of Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, courtesy of Longleaf Press and the author, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.