Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Moonrat has been kind enough to set a 60,000 word limit for reviews on this blog. I may need all of them. On the other hand, I may just confine myself to “good grief” or even MmmmHmmm. These are all valid responses to Gravity’s Rainbow, which I read because I was participating in Moonie’s readalong. Without the encouragement of knowing I could post “Finished” on Twitter and have people out there who understood, I could not have gotten myself through this novel. Actually, it came out as FIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIISHED, right from my heart.

I can’t even begin to encompass what Gravity’s Rainbow’s about – I know that there’s at least one companion book out there (costing more than the novel itself) to explain it all to you. I didn’t purchase it, as a) I’m a skinflint and b) I like to approach a book at the first reading without context, to experience it as a new meeting of minds. My purchase came with some hype: “The most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II” is the proud boast on the back cover of my copy. I feel a bit like the child who pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes on when I say, as I think I must, “No it’s not.”

It was published far back in the mists of time, i.e. 1973, an era when drugs were cool and books about drugs were just the hottest thing out there. I remember letting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, published at about the same time, percolate into my then teenage brain and thinking wow, this is deep because I don’t understand it. Could it be that Gravity’s Rainbow has the same effect on the reading public? Not that it’s about drugs, directly, you understand. My point, I think, is that getting all awestruck about a book just because it’s difficult to grasp is an erroneous approach.

Well I’m four paragraphs in, and still haven’t said what GR’s about. How Pynchonesque of me. Well, it’s about the V2 rocket, WWII, the Allied occupation of Germany after the defeat thereof, the beginnings of the Cold War in the contest between the USA and Russia to scoop up as much Nazi technology as possible, paranoia, mind-conditioning, espionage, sadism, masochism, power… The themes of Rocket, Sex, Excrement, and Death recur as relentlessly as pornography.

The obvious penis/rocket metaphor is given human shape as Slothrop, a character with so little personality that even the author is compelled to remark on that at one point. Conditioned in infancy, Slothrop is believed by those who control him to be able to indicate an incoming V2 by having an erection; he is therefore trained and sent out into the Zone (which seems to equate to Germany under Allied/Russian occupation but also has a symbolic value) to find a very special version of the Rocket by following his, well, not his nose. And the trouble with Slothrop is, the novel’s much more interesting without him, so you get a brilliant beginning, a long Slothrop Desert in the middle, and a somewhat interesting last section when Slothrop has sort of faded into the scenery. I got so tired of Slothrop’s penis at one point in the Desert that I stopped reading the novel for two weeks.

I haven’t read any other books by Pynchon, so I don’t know if the writing method employed in GR is typical of him, or confined to this book. He tends to shift suddenly from one subject to another, launching himself off a random reference into a new tangent at variable rates of frequency. In the first, and by far the best, third of the book, his tangents have a way of coming full circle, but once Slothrop is released across Europe, Pynchon’s train of thought wanders off with him and never returns, although the last part of the book is, mercifully, a bit more coherent. It also contains plenty of doggerel, snatches of song, and arcane references to secret societies and mysticism.

Still, as disjointed as the narrative may be, there are certainly plenty of unifying images: erections, the Rocket, excrement, inventively imaginative public toilets, drug dealers, prostitutes, and bad taste. Pynchon excels at the latter, and I must admit that the scene where Slothrop, in a hot air balloon, is being chased by a planeload of American military singing filthy limericks is one of the high points of the book. The scene where the characters begin making up disgusting, alliterative foods (menstrual marmalade, ringworm relish and the like) at dinner until the guests begin to vomit is decidedly Monty Python. There is also a very dark side to Pynchon: racism, homoeroticism with a homophobic edge, coprophagy, sadism and pedophilia are not left out of the mix. My local library declines to stock a copy of the novel, and when I tried to get an inter-library loan, it never arrived. If I were Slothrop, I would think that They are exercising censorship…

Well, I could go on and on, but by now you’ve either read the book and disagree with me totally (maybe I’m wrong and it is brilliant), are titillated enough to want to go buy a copy, or have crossed that one off your list. Final verdict? I’m always up for broadening my reading horizons, and it did have its luminous moments, but on the whole I can’t see myself becoming a Pynchon fan. I’m having a hard time attaching a tag to this one, as almost any description in the Book Book lexicon would apply to it: I think I’ll go for overrated, but it would make a great read for anyone interested in 60s/70s thought or trying to loosen up their own writing.


moonrat said...

thank you for the review, my dear. notice how i didn't even try to tackle this one on TheBookBook? i have the worst trouble in conversation (and have for the last 11 weeks) being like "yeah, i'm reading GR. what's it about? oh, it's about... ummm..."

usually i pick one of two tactics:

the literal:

"a guy who gets a hard-on right before a rocket strikes"

the metaphysical:

"the interconnection of war, capitalism, and sex"

(i tailor for my interlocutor, and obviously they're both wrong as much as they're both right)

i gotta be honest--i think perhaps "postmodernism" is not for me. (like how i put it in "quotes" for no "good" reason?)

im so, so glad i've read it though. in that a) it's behind me now, so i never have to do it again, and b) i've done it! so at least i know.

Jane Steen said...

I heartily agree with both a) and b). Although there is a LOT in this novel. I know many people who would love it simply because it is obscure. But as I said, that's no reason for holding it up as "great". I'm a firm believer in clarity and accessibility in literature. The best thinkers are the ones who can put their ideas across in words a child can understand.

And I actually prefer writing that "does not bring a blush to the cheek of the young person", as Dickens said. I don't censor my own nor my children's reading, but I like a little restraint - I am too old and, er, experienced to need the descriptions!

moonrat said...

haha definitely! as someone who works in publishing, accessibility (or at least approachability) is THE only thing!!!!

and yeah. i can think of 3 scenes i could have done without, just off the top of my head.