V. Chapter Two – The Whole Sick Crew

Chapter 2 uses the setting to move the narrative over to Rachel Owlglass in a generally subtle way. This is perhaps in part to tie the novel more closely together early on given its disparate elements and the larger jumps that are to appear as the narrative progresses. The effect is compelling, small though it may be. The element that stands out to me the most in this chapter is, surprisingly, not the clues about V. or Stencil’s history. I say surprising because I recall this was what captivated my attention the first time I read the book (or, more accurately, the time I finally read the book all the way through). Certainly the chapter heads in that direction by giving Stencil a major position in the middle of the chapter and it’s introduction to the Whole Sick Crew. The mystery is undeniable. Nevertheless, Rachel’s role as den mother to the Whole Sick Crew was what really drew my attention this time through.

Rachel’s role is established right away in the chapter through her care of Esther Harvitz and her confrontation with the predatory Schoenmaker. This role puts her relationship with Profane in a whole new light as well. If, as Benny says in chapter 1, the word love doesn’t mean anything, then the Rachel’s demeanor seems to make Benny out to be a more wayward member of the Crew. Rachel is a caretaker and one is led to wonder how well Benny is able to take care of himself (in a different way than Esther though). It is also notable that Rachel is very different in this chapter than she is in Benny’s reminiscence of her in chapter 1. There are connections, but the emphasis has changed in a significant way thanks to the change in narrative perspective.

Rachel’s confidence also stands out in this chapter and it comes through at the start of the chapter. The narrator notes it in her very walk:

“There is no way to describe the way she walked except as a kind of brave sensual trudging: as if she were nose-deep in snowdrifts, and yet on route to meet a lover . . . Her high heels hit precise and neat each time on the X’s of the grating in the middle of the mall. Half a year in this city and at least she had learned to do that. Had lost heels, and once in a while composure, in the process; but now could do it blindfolded. She kept on the grating just to show off. To herself” (44)

Rachel is clearly both confident and motivated. This is a feature that has not been directly referenced to a female protagonist in Pynchon’s short stories. The last sentence in the quotation emphasizes this because it is for herself that she shows off. While her walk is described as if she is going to see a lover, her showboating is not outwardly directed. Instead, it’s internal and for her own benefit. The city street has a different function here than it does for Benny in chapter 1 as well. Now it is not the path of a journey receding into nothing. Instead, it’s a challenge. (Perhaps this difference is because Rachel is in motion and navigating that journey?)

A few other brief points before I wrap this post up: There is a significant amount of thematic foundational work happening in this chapter both for the novel and for Pynchon’s work in general. For example, the mirrors in Schoenmaker’s waiting room and the idea of reverse time pair up nicely with themes in Against the Day and Gravity’s Rainbow. The argument Rachel and Slab have over Rachel’s tendency to rescue Esther from financial doom also caries a critique of capitalism. Echoes of this tone can be heard in Vineland.

Next week: Stencil’s quick-change routine.

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