Thomas Pynchon – Gravity’s Rainbow

Title: Gravity’s Rainbow
Author: Thomas Pynchon
Year: 1973

Is it possible to read and understand what at first glance seems to be an uncontrolled explosion of impressions, narratives and characters, all bundled up in a seemingly random order between the covers of an 800 pages thick novel? And, more relevantly, is it possible to review such a book? I’ll do my best.

In short, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is about the American lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, whose sexual activities in London during the Blitz are discovered to predict the exact locations of future V2-rocket strikes. As the story moves on, Slothrop heads to France and then Germany to find the rocket with the special serial number 00000 (which shouldn’t exist according to German nomenclature) and the even more mysterious Schwarzgerät, which is supposed to be its payload.

However, the narrative is highly digressive (sometimes to such an extent that it’s difficult to keep track of where a sentence or paragraph actually started) and saying that Gravity’s Rainbow is mainly about something in the story would be grossly unfair. Still, the reader meets a lot of characters (over 400 named ones, according to Wikipedia), but most of them are part of small detours or anecdotes, and the story is quite wide-ranging as well.

In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon makes use of different styles for different episodes, which means that one episode might be told in the present tense using a stream of consciousness with very colloquial language, and the next one might be very deep philosophically speaking and use mainly formal language. There are also lots of silly songs and limericks interspersed through out the novel.

The biggest problem with this book is adjusting to the style, to accept that it’s impossible to understand what’s going on and instead focus on the various episodes and let understanding come of itself later (if at all). Only after roughly 500 pages did I start to truly appreciate the book, but I’m very happy I didn’t give up.

Gravity’s Rainbow has earned a reputation as being difficult and that’s quite easy to understand. It was discussed as a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but was turned down because it was “unreadable, turgid, overwritten and obscene”, all four of which are possibly true in at least some regard. Here is a passage to give you a glimpse of what this means (note that this is one sentence except for the beginning, which I included for completeness):

Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one—something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw, almost too frail, there’s too much shit in these streets, camels and other beasts stir heavily outside, each hoof a chance to wipe him out, make him only another Messiah, and sure somebody’s around already taking bets on that one, while here in this town the Jewish collaborators are selling useful gossip to Imperial Intelligence, and the local hookers are keeping the foreskinned invaders happy, charging whatever the traffic will bear, just like the innkeepers who’re naturally delighted with this registration thing, and up in the capital they’re wondering should they, maybe, give everybody a number, yeah, something to help SPQR Record-keeping… and Herod or Hitler, fellas (the chaplains out in the Bulge are manly, haggard, hard drinkers), what kind of a world is it (“You forgot Roosevelt, padre,” come the voices from the back, the good father can never see them, they harass him, these tempters, even into his dreams: “Wendell Willkie!” “How about Churchill?” ” ‘Any Pollitt!”) for a baby to come in tippin’ those Toledos at 7 pounds 8 ounces thinkin’ he’s gonna redeem it, why, he oughta have his head examined…”

So, if it’s 800 pages and incomprehensible, why do I like it? There are a couple of reasons. First, the language is always unique and sometimes brilliant. It’s refreshing to read something I’m sure I’ve never read before. I realised this very early and thus tried to save a couple of quotes. Here is one of the more lucid passages:

The Meggezone is like being belted in the head with a Swiss Alp. Menthol icicles immediately begin to grow from the roof of Slothrop’s mouth. Polar bears seek toenail-holds up the freezing frosty-grape alveolar clusters in his lungs. It hurts his teeth too much to breathe, even through his nose, even, necktie loosened, with his nose down inside the neck of his olive-drab T-shirt. Benzoin vapors seep into his brain. His head floats in a halo of ice. Even an hour later, the Meggezone still lingers, a mint ghost in the air.

Pynchon also uses this kind of highly creative language to describe the obscene. There are scenes a lot more obscene than urinating on an electric fence which nobody really knows when it’s turned on, but this might serve as an example anyway:

Often enough to matter, the current will be there—piranha-raid and salmon-climb up the gold glittering fall of piss, your treacherous ladder of salts and acids, bringing you back into touch with Mother Ground, the great, the planetary pool of electrons making you one with your prototype, the legendary poor drunk, too drunk to know anything, pissing on some long-ago third rail and nil-minated to charcoal, to epileptic night, his scream not even his own but the electricity’s, the amps speaking through his already shattering vessel, shattered too soon for them even to begin to say it, voice their terrible release from silence, nobody listening anyhow, some watchman poking down the track, some old man unable to sleep out for a walk, some city drifter on a bench under a million June bugs in green nimbus around the streetlight, his neck relaxing and tightening in and out of dreams and maybe it was only a cat screwing, a church bell in a high wind, a window being broken, no direction to it, not even alarming, replaced swiftly by the old, the coal-gas and Lysol, silence.

Here is a another brilliant metaphor, in some ways similar to the style Michael Chabon uses in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union:

Pointsman sees it immediately. But he “sees” it in the way you would walking into your bedroom to be jumped on, out of a bit of penumbra on your ceiling, by a gigantic moray eel, its teeth in full imbecile death-smile, breathing, in its fall onto your open face, a long human sound that you know, horribly, to be a sexual sigh…

In short, what I want to tell you is that I found the majority of the episodes to be really interesting once I let go of trying to understand what they really were about or what relationship (if any) they had to the main story. Pynchon’s language is worthwhile reading simply because it’s not like anything else I’ve encountered before. It might not always be successful, but it’s never boring.

This can be said about the narrative, too.  Some of the episodes are really far-out, including such events as Slothrop under the influence of the constantly recurring drug sodium amytal chasing his dropped mouth harp through the sewers of a hospital, Slothrop trying to recover a stash of hashish form the Potsdam Conference, and later, when the narrative deteriorates further, a brief excursion to Hell and various characters leaving the story by means of a zeppelin. Gravity’s Rainbow is bizarre at times, but this is part of what makes it entertaining.

In addition to what I’ve already said, humour is yet another reason why I like Pynchon. It’s difficult to quote (even though I have tried), but I smiled quite often throughout this novel, and sometimes also laughed out loud. In a way, Pynchon’s sense of humour is similar to Joseph Heller’s in Catch 22, perhaps because both use war as a backdrop, but more likely due to the fact that both authors have a similar sense of the bizarre and ironic. However, if forced to liken Pynchon with any other author, I would probably chose John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar), who sometimes uses a similarly distorted and digressive narrative, but lacks the weird and truly obscene.

In one regard, Pynchon goes a little bit too far to be interesting, though. In Gravity’s Rainbow, there are plenty of fairly detailed scenes depicting unusual sex. I have nothing against sex in fiction and the author certainly bring a new flavour to it, but that doesn’t help, because even though there aren’t that many scenes, they come upon you a little bit like the moray eel attacking Pointsman in the quote above. In short, the book is obscene to the point of being bad at times.

So, what is this novel about, then? Well, I would have to read the book again to tell you that. Looking at it is like gazing into a turbid pond, I can distinguish fish beneath the surface, but they are slippery and very hard to catch; the major theme seems to be free will versus predestination, but saying that is a gross oversimplification and saying I understand Gravity’s Rainbow would be a lie.

I need to end this review before it becomes even more incomprehensible than the novel itself. To sum things up, Gravity’s Rainbow  has some merits: it’s unique, funny, entertaining, inspiring and creative. However, it also has some serious drawbacks: it’s incomprehensible, obscene, too long and too complicated. I’ve never reviewed a novel with such diverging final remarks, but let the four snails I’ve decided to give Gravity’s Rainbow  be an indication of which aspects I emphasise.

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  1. Svante’s avatar

    I’m not bothered by the obscenity at all; the sole problem I have with the novel (and with Pynchon’s writing in general) is that it’s so hard to follow at times, which of course is the point, kind of. I’ll write something about that at Labyrinter once I pick up Against the Day again.

    To anyone else thinking about starting to read Pynchon: begin with The Crying of Lot 49. It’s far shorter and thus more accessible as well, and funnier, too.

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