So, I finished Thomas Pynchon’s magnum opus Gravity’s Rainbow on Tuesday, a novel which has garnered a reputation as being one of the most important pieces of American literature written after WW II, but I’ve been delaying the actual writing of my review of the novel because every time I sit down to collect my over-all thoughts of the book, I get lost in a fractured and non-linear series of thoughts about not only Gravity’s Rainbow itself but the myriad topics and themes which the book hints at or straight out lectures on. I still, to this very second, find myself questioning the purpose and placement of every word and punctuation mark in his 776 page story and am trying to place it all within the context of a coherent and sensible tale. I will never succeed. Gravity’s Rainbow marks the first book I have read since Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce that has completely challenged at every turn, my conceptions of what a novel can be as well as strained my intellect to the breaking point by trying to follow Pynchon’s increasingly frantic narrative and digressions. It was easily the most difficult book I’ve ever read in my entire life, but at the end of the day, it was also one of the most rewarding as Pynchon weaves shifting and sweeping tale unlike anything I’d encountered before.
Much like with David Lynch’s film Inland Empire, an attempt to describe the plot of the novel is a difficult exercise and potentially a futile one, as one of the major points of Gravity’s Rainbow was to deconstruct the very foundation of the novel and various plot conventions, but here it goes. Tyrone Slothrop is an American soldier living in London during the German Blitz of WW II. Every time that Slothrop has sex, a German V-2 rocket lands on the house within the next couple of days. A secret British government agency consisting of mystics, psychologists, and statisticians wants to find Slothrop and study him for reasons relating to his potential psychic powers. Eventually, Slothrop’s paranoia gets the best of him when he notices all of the strange people coming in and out of his life. He is eventually sent to Europe where he goes off on a self-proclaimed mission to find a mysterious German rocket known as the Schwarzgerat with the serial number 00000. However, he constantly finds himself side-tracked on a million different side quests on his journey such as drug-running, encountering witches, and becoming involved in other international conspiracies. Perhaps, the most significant side-plot of the novel is that of a Russian soldier and his African half-brother who are looking to kill one another in this WW II landscape while also searching for the mysterious Schwarzgerat.
Like I said though, Pynchon’s plotting is second to Pynchon’s prose (although even that is second to Pynchon’s inventive destruction of everything you thought you knew about how a novel should be written), and Pynchon’s prose is just second to known. He has an ability, through an extensive and poetic diction, to paint even the most disturbing and intentionally offensive scenes in this remarkable literary voice. While I often found myself (in a good way) lost as to how all of these different story threads inter-twined with one another, Pynchon’s marvelously evocative scene-setting and descriptive commentary always painted this complete picture of the action unfolding on screen. Using his stream-of-conscious style straight from the school of James Joyce, Pynchon also has a peerless ability to place me directly in the minds of the characters themselves and place the reader right into their darkest and most vulnerable moments.
Eschewing traditional plot structures such as the normal build and fall towards a climax and resolution that is part and parcel to all of Western literature, Pynchon completely re-invents what to expect from a doorstopper of a novel like this. There are nearly 400 named characters in the book, and about 40 characters that repeat through, twenty of whom that will have the story told from their point of view at one time or another. The story often switches between the points of view various characters without giving the reader a real clue as to when this has occurred, so you often have to be on your toes as to who is telling the story. Similarly, the book attempts to capture the ethereal and psychological elements of its characters through language itself. So rather than saying, these are the characters thoughts, you are simply given the characters thoughts and emotions and expected to piece together it all while wrestling with a narrative that goes forwards and backwards and in circles and zig zags until you give up on a concept of narrative linearity.
Paranoia is the fuel of the novel, and much how Tom Wolfe was able to capture the essential nature of the hippie movement in his seminal The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (which should be the next book I review for this blog), Thomas Pynchon is able to make paranoia come alive til it begins to infest you as the reader. I have a sneaking suspicion, though nothing in the book will ever truly confirm this, that the whole novel was legitimately one schizophrenic, paranoid delusion by the actual Tyrone Slothrop who was not the globe-trotting trouble-maker he was in the novel but simply a man whose mind had snapped in the face of WW II. The novel becomes increasingly disjointed and incoherent and progresses and I feel that is probably a symptom of Slothrop’s paranoia finally getting completely out of hand. At the end of the novel, a rocket strikes a movie theater, and I almost feel as if that is symbolic of the rocket destroying the book (which ends mid-sentence) and the final snapping of Slothrop’s mind.
The novel is frequently digressive and always transgressive in nature. By transgressive, I mean that Pynchon sets out to intentionally shock and offend the audience, and he will succeed. There was a disturbing scene (actually many) that Pynchon described in such vivid and graphic detail that I nearly threw up while reading the book. He is digressive in that nearly half of the book is either Pynchon as the narrator or various characters through dialogue expounding on seemingly irrelevant and in-depth speeches on an innumerable number of topics from classical conditioning, to statistics, to physics, to the technical aspects of rockets, to the Tarot, to popular culture, to whatever topic happens to be Pynchon’s fancy at the moment. I guarantee that by the end of this book, you will know more about several different areas you were unfamiliar with before. My only piece of advice in that regard as to have both a dictionary and an online translator handy as Pynchon isn’t afraid to make considerable use of foreign languages as a bilingual bonus and not explain it to those who don’t speak the language.
There are challenging books, and then there’s Gravity’s Rainbow. While this was easily one of the best books that I’ve read in my entire life from the point of the view of how stimulating it was intellectually and aesthetically, it was also exhausting. I could never read more than 60 pages of it at a time before I need take a break and let my mind rest. Whereas some books allow you to simply let the words wash over you as you soak in the adventure being presented, Gravity’s Rainbow is far more demanding and requires you to parse and analyze nearly every phrase and word in the book. It’s a mental marathon, and at 776 pages, it’s a mental marathon you’ll be at for a good long while. To put this in perspective, it took me nearly a month to read this, but yesterday at work, over the course of a couple of hours, I read nearly 200 pages of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. If you think you would be up for the mental challenge of this book, then I recommend it whole-heartedly. It will test you but when you finish it, you will feel vindicated in a way that few other books can achieve. I only ward away the easily offended as Pynchon will intentionally try to make you mad as well as those who just can’t handle the sheer insanity that this book is made out of. However, I’m glad I went along for this ride, and in a year or so, I relish the opportunity to re-read it and see if I can’t paint a more complete picture of Pynchon’s world a second time around.
Final Score: A+