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The Thomas Pynchon Countdown: Gravity's Rainbow

Week three of the Thomas Pynchon Countdown...two books behind us and two books still ahead. Which is to say we're at the peak of our own little rainbow here, heh heh, just a little joke you understand, gotta keep the mood light what with a war on and everything...

Call it 'Operational Paranoia.'Gravity's Rainbow is--I have to say it--probably one of the most perfect novels ever written. Its complexity, its rigidity, its tightly-structured implied formlessness...everything works together to create the experience.

And you will find a lot of books that are referred to, by somebody or other, as "unlike any other." And usually that's bunk.

But with Gravity's Rainbow, not only is it true, but it's also good advice. This isn't a novel you can sit back and just sort of read and then decide at some point whether you're enjoying it or not. Gravity's Rainbow is work, probably moreso than even Ulysses, because Ulysses was at least clear about who the main character was...and what the hell he was doing...

In 1973 Gravity's Rainbow was selected by the Pulitzer Prize jurors as, unanimously, that year's winner. Once the decision was reached it was passed on to the Board of Advisors who overturned the decision, declaring the novel "unreadable." They asked the jury to make another selection, but the jurors stuck to their guns and refused to name another novel. The Board stuck to its guns as well, and no Pulitzer Prize for a novel was given that year.

That little background history lesson there...that pretty much sums up the worldwide reaction to Gravity's Rainbow. There isn't middle ground; there are those who declare it one of the best novels in the English language, and there are those who believe it's utterly incoherent. You really won't find anyone who's read Gravity's Rainbow that says, "Yeah, it was okay. It had its good points and bad points..."

So what is it that causes such severe separation of opinion? Well, I should know, because I've been on both sides now...but it's something easier to feel than it is to express.

Gravity's Rainbow is around 800 pages long, and there is no one consistant plot thread. There are overarching themes, of course, that carry themselves through the book and give shape and guidance to the events described within...but if you ask what the book is actually about you won't get much of an answer.

It begins during the German V-2 blitz on London at the tail end of World War II. And it carries on from there. That's your plot thread. Got it? Now hold it tight...

The first section is devoted to action that unfolds, mainly, in that time frame. These characters move and interract in a world where the explosion of the rocket bomb comes first...followed by the ghostly sound of approach. There is no warning; the warning is the destruction itself.

In this section we meet characters. Lots of characters. And more characters, and more and more, until it becomes almost impossible to determine who the "important" ones are...part of Pynchon's strategy, of course...but very much off-putting for a first time reader. In fact, Tyrone Slothrop, the closest thing to a "main" character that Gravity's Rainbow has hardly appears in the first section at all (blink and you'll miss em, except for the part where he goes head first down the toilet...that'll get yer attention boy howdy)...and you're likely to believe the main character is either Roger Mexico, the helplessly romantic statistician, or "Pirate" Prentice, the British Intelligence officer whose job it is to live other people's dreams for them...but both of those characters disappear at the end of this section and hardly appear at all until the end of the book...

The basic thrust of "plot" is that a map of the V-2 strike-zones matches up exactly with a map of Slothrop's sexual conquests...each conquest precedes a German strike by a buffer of a few days...and the rockets are falling, without fail, exactly where he's been sewing his wild oats...

The name of the game is Keep Slothrop Under Observation, but that's the name of one game, Jackson, not the big game...not the big game none of us can big nobody can even see the pieces at once, letalone move them...

And so they do. They fly him to the Casino Hermann Goering and keep him well fed and well fucked and well observed...they even let him believe he's escaped when he grows wise to their (their?) motives...but eventually they lose track of him...and Slothrop is alone, a man without a country or a way home, a man who works his way through various identities as he tries to work out what, exactly, they want of him...and why his own name keeps showing up in connection with Imipolex G, a patented polymer used in construction of the rocket...

I can't give any advice on how to read this book...except, of course, for the way I read it, which is noticably inefficient. But we'll come to that in a moment...

What I can say is that Gravity's Rainbow is a cold, steely, inhuman sort of book at first glance...but its rigid structure hides a very human heart that reaches out for you and is really, truly just waiting for you to reach for it in return...cuz when you do, donchaknowit, you find that connection and you realize that what Pynchon is doing is not hiding at all...but making it more clear than anyone's managed to make it before...

The characters are real. The situations are real. This is reality, and Gravity's Rainbow is a snapshot of such a vast tract of reality at once that it's nearly impossible to comprehend...what you need to do, maybe, is just focus on one piece at a time...grab onto one of the hundreds of characters and just follow him or her home, live with them for a while, get to know them...

I've heard of people who keep running logs while they read this book. They notate desires, goals, connections, alliances. They draw charts, colored arrows and know the drill.

I don't believe that's the way to read Gravity's Rainbow. I think it's best to catch as catch can...I think the alliances and connections that you've forgotten early on are rewarded in a re-read because you know what's going to come of them...

What I did was this: I read the book almost all the way to the end, pretty much hating it. Because...well...I couldn't keep anything straight. The characters kept appearing and disappearing and referring to things I didn't understand...every so often Slothrop would pop back up again and that was okay because I knew him and he was funny but then he'd put on a pig costume or something and disappear and where was I now?

But then, a year or so later, I picked it up again. And read. And read. And was absolutely, painfully in love with the book. Because the first time through I had actually absorbed knowledge of the's just that Master-of-Misdirection Pynchon was keeping me from understanding that.

So the next time through when I had some foreknowledge of what was coming, it made me that much more appreciative of the truly masterful ways in which he brought them about.

Is this the way to read it? I don't know...maybe. Perhaps Gravity's Rainbow is a novel to be re-read, and not read. Perhaps that's Pynchon's strategy. Perhaps it's unintelligable on purpose. Perhaps...

Or perhaps this is what happens when passion and precision meet...because all too often in art it's one or the other (who doesn't agree with me here foax?) and seeing them both at the same time in the same's Clark Kent...a-and Superman...a-and they're shaking hands!

It's hard to write about Gravity's Rainbow without falling into its innocently paranoid forgive me this entry...this indulgence of mine...forgive me for falling into Pynchon's trap, and especially forgive me for loving every inch of it.

5 Stars

About this entry


In an essay called "Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction," Jonathan Lethem claims that SF blew its chance in the 70s to bring down the genre walls between mainstream and SF when Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama won the Nebula Award instead of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Gordon van Gelder wrote an article about the subject here.

Very nice review, by the way. I've wanted to read the novel for awhile now, but it's very intimidating to even pick up, let alone read.

By Austin Ross
November 06, 2006 @ 11:37 pm

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I think I've seen that quote sounds familiar.

Quite why Gravity's Rainbow is so commonly linked to sci-fi, I don't know. It has sci-fi elements, of course, but it's much closer to war fiction or historical fiction than fact, it could just as easily be filed under erotica as it could's all in's just that the book, as a whole, is so all-encompassing that it sort of HAD to be in there.

Then again Pynchon always has some sci-fi in his books...even Mason and Dixon, which takes place in colonial America has a mechanical talking duck...

But Vineland, which is next week's entry, is the most overt. I can think of at least two crucial scenes and probably a dozen less important ones...not to mention the many direct nods to Star Wars, Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Vineland will also spawn (I'm certain) a quieter, more realistic essay...whereas what I wrote above is basically more about the feel of Gravity's Rainbow than the content...

So stay tuned for next week. I 'd never tell anyone not to read Gravity's Rainbow, but for you Austin, I think Vineland might be your better starting point.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
November 07, 2006 @ 12:42 am

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One of my classes was cancelled today, so I decided to spend the remaining time reading the first two chapters of Vineland... I can't say much about it, as I've only read the first two chapters, but it's already unusual. Gonzo might be a good word to describe it.

By Austin Ross
November 08, 2006 @ 5:15 pm

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