|Proof of purchase. I bought my present copy of Gravity's Rainbow back in 1997. It still has the receipt in it.|
That day came in late-summer and, while reading other things as well, I finished the novel about two weeks ago. Though I still own many paperbacks dating from my youth, my original copy of Gravity's Rainbow didn't survive for some reason. I now own a classic Penguin edition of the novel, which has sat neglected on my bookshelf since 1997. I know this because the receipt of my purchase from Books-a-Million in Dothan, Alabama sat inside the yellowing pages of the paperback. Seems strange to finally read a book I purchased 21 years ago, but that's the deal. I guess I always knew I'd get back to it eventually.
Being much older with this reading now, I had forgotten much of the book since the last time I read it in the 1980's. General impressions are that the prose is dense and complex but also beautiful and poetic at times. The book is funnier than I remembered. The amount of sex in the book was more than I recalled. The themes and the characters seemed more pronounced and understandable this time around. Overall, I am glad I made this effort, though I probably won't be reading it again.
Gravity's Rainbow begins in Europe near the end of World War II and follows an odd assortment of characters through a meandering narrative arc well into the aftermath of the war. What the book is "about" is difficult to nail down. There is no solid story line, rather, the work weaves in and out of multiple characters, interactions, perspectives, ideas, themes, and events to create an overall effect on the reader, one that is filled with ambiguity and little resolution. The story is best thought of as a kaleidoscope that just sort of morphs into ever-new considerations, most of it ultimately dissolving into quirkiness and even neglect.
That sounds less satisfying than Gravity's Rainbow actually is. At times, Pynchon's writing is as good as anything I've come across in western literature. He is obviously a master of prose. Like Ulysses, it is best not to take the work too seriously, even though Pynchon is wrestling with a lot of serious ideas about our postmodern condition. Moments of humor (slapstick, one-liners, satire, absurdity) abound throughout the work. Gravity's Rainbow deals with diverse subjects and uses multiple writing techniques to explore: the impact of international corporations on individual free will, the relationship between business and warfare, the paranoia induced by modern life, the intermingling of sophisticated and crude culture, and even the supposed relevance of the Tarot, seances and other occult schemes within techno-corporate reality.
But this mix of ideas and influences has vast implications. Again like Ulysses, it is possible to delve deeply into Pynchon's prose. He works in hundreds, if not thousands, of references to all sorts of cultural phenomena and historical events. I don't pretend to grasp the book in anything other than an amateurish fashion, just appreciating it on its surface. I am unconcerned to how deep the rabbit hole of this narrative goes, other than to appreciate the fact that it is densely packed prose. My reading this time around was a much more casual one. The novel is fully entertaining without understanding Pynchon's seemingly endless capacity for minutia.
As such, I will only discuss the most rudimentary aspects of the work in this review. There are several "major" narratives woven together in Gravity's Rainbow but I will limit myself to how I experienced the book and the aspects of it I focused on the most. This is nothing more than a basic representation of what the book is like. The narrative has dozens of major characters (and hundreds of minor ones) but the central character, for lack of a better term, is Tyrone Slothrope, a US Army lieutenant stationed initially in London. Because Slothrope went through a form of behavior modification and psychological conditioning when he was younger (and even during the course of the novel, perhaps throughout his life) he has an uncanny ability to predict where V2 rockets will strike based upon erections he has achieved during his many sexual exploits around the city. When Slothrope gets laid, a V2 rocket strikes that location within a few days. Every. Time.
Slothrope goes through several thinly disguised identities during the course of the novel as he continues his quest across late-war and post-war Europe to uncover the secrets of a classified German rocket design. He experiences many sexual encounters and, like several other characters, gets high on various drugs (from pot to hash to heroin) whenever possible. Pynchon plays with the tension within Slothrope as he searches for the secret rocket and for a true understanding of his hazy, conditioned past. Simultaneously with this, he remains an unfixed character in that he keeps hiding under disguises. The interplay between his past and his unsettled present makes his character rather nebulous and dynamic. He doesn't evolve so much as he simply morphs due to the changing circumstances of the narrative. It is an interesting examination of what it means to be a 'person' in modern society.
Slothrope's quest serves as a loose thread stitching together a myriad of other narrative elements, some one-off episodes, others parallel subplots that gradually wax and wane in importance as the story unfolds. The novel is told in four parts, each with many "episodes" (short chapters). The first part, 'Beyond the Zero,' introduces most of the major characters and explores themes of free will, Pavlovian behavior modification, the possibility reverse time flow (given the accuracy of Slothrope's erections syncing with future rocket attack locations), and the sexuality of the rocket itself.
In part two, 'Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering (French for "A Furlough at the Hermann Göring Casino"),' Slothrope is 'assigned' to the French Rivera and learns of the secret German rocket produced, in part, by a couple of major international corporations. Slothrope becomes increasingly paranoid that he is being monitored. He escapes and, disguised, ventures across war-torn Europe. In part three, 'In the Zone', Slothrope searches for more information regarding the secret rocket throughout the various military zones established by the allies in post-war Germany. Slothrope adopts the disguise of 'Rocketman' and his life continues to be fueled by sex and drugs as it is gradually revealed he has been experimented upon since he was an infant.
Finally, in part four, 'The Counterforce', the various narrative elements surrounding the principle characters are expressed in a variety of writing styles, certain characters are experienced and expressed as hallucinations and gradually Slothrope simply dissolves out of the narrative, fading, neither alive nor dead, he simply vanishes from the novel entirely.
Gravity's Rainbow presents several challenges to the average reader. Much like in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, there are a large number of characters with varying emphasis being placed upon them. Sometimes the "major" characters shift into the background in favor of "minor" ones and the narrative seems to meander through material non-essential to the primary story line. Even the main story itself keeps disappearing and reappearing over the course of the novel, hiding behind the entertaining but seemingly unnecessary details of subplots that come and go. At any moment, Pynchon will shift perspective within a episode and it is often unclear that we are now seeing things through the eyes of a completely different character from a few paragraphs previously. For this reason the narrative is not linear or concrete, rather it is plastic and flexible. A lot of what happens is simply in a character's mind and isn't "real" at all. This results in some potentially confusing passages. For example, at one point the story becomes invested in a light bulb as if it were an actual character and we read a long section from the light bulb's perspective.
Then there is the challenge of the often shocking nature of what happens in the work. There are episodes of brutal violence, along with various forms of fetish sex, torture, and even some pedophilia. Many readers will find some sections objectionable due to the graphic content, but none of it is gratuitous. Each time Pynchon pushes the limits of what is decent and what is obscene, it is to further the story in a manner that would not be possible without the details and happenings of these events. It is worth noting that the novel was selected for Pulitzer Prize consideration in 1974 but led to such divisive debate within the Pulitzer Advisory Board (some felt it was the most brilliant novel of the century, others found it completely unreadable and obscene) that no book received the prize of literature that year.
Then there is the "Broadway musical" aspect to the novel. There are many episodes scattered throughout the work where the characters suddenly break into song and dance. These are miniature stage-like performances that, while revealing further aspects of the characters and the narrative, are also purely silly and indicate the light, humorous undertone of the novel's otherwise grim and critical nature. It is best to take Gravity's Rainbow as a largely absurd, humorous and entertaining book that just happens to reflect upon aspects of our post-World War II condition.
One primary theme of the novel is the impact of major corporations on the perpetuation and conduct of the war itself. Pynchon seems to be saying that, rather than politics (which is rarely mentioned in the novel), war is capitalism by other means. Several fictitious corporations are mentioned in connection with the German V2 rocket program. Slothrope's quest for a specially designed rocket involves knowledge of materials and technologies developed by corporations which drive the military pursuits of the war as well as threaten the individuality of a few of the characters, turning them into mere pawns of larger systems - a common postmodern literary theme.
As I already mentioned, as weird as all this sounds, Pynchon's prose is often incredible. He employs a variety of writing techniques to great effect. He frequently incorporates the styles of other writers and even from films. In my reading I was most impressed with some of his transitions between episodes. He sometimes ends an episode mid-sentence from the perspective of one character or event only to complete the rest of the sentence in the next episode from the perspective of a completely different character or event. In this manner, among other means, he keeps the narrative loose and dynamic and, perhaps, he is indicating the simultaneous and similar aspects of life itself among otherwise unconnected personas.
I have already mentioned his exquisite prose style, poetic, humorous, shifting from third-person to various first-person perspectives without warning the reader. A great example is when the character of Pirate Pentrice, an intelligence officer known for his banana breakfasts in the novel, has a shared fantasy about being condemned to hell with Katje Borgesius, a sadomasochistic woman who has several lovers throughout the course of the narrative. Pynchon offers this brilliant passage when Prentice first realizes where he is – this is a great example of the author’s mastery of prose.
“Without expecting to, it seems Pirate has begun to cry. Odd. He has never cried in public like this before. But he understands where he is, now. It will be possible, after all, to die in obscurity, without having helped a soul: without love, despised, never trusted, never vindicated – to stay down among the Preterite, his poor honor lost, impossible to locate or redeem.
“He is crying for persons, places, and things left behind: for Scorpia Mossmoon, living in St. John’s Wood among sheet-music, new recipes, a small kennel of Weimaraners whose racial purity she will go to extravagant lengths to preserve, and husband Clive, who shows up now and then, Scorpia living only a few minutes away by Underground but lost to Pirate now for good, no chance for either of them to turn again…for people he had betrayed in the course of business for the Firm, Englishmen and foreigners, for Ion so naïve, for Gongkylakis, for the Monkey Girl and the pimps of Rome, for Bruce who got burned…for nights up in partisan mountains when he was one with the smell of living trees, in full love with the at last undeniable beauty of the night…for a girl back in the Midlands named Virginia, and for their child who never came to pass…for his dead mother, and his dying father, for the innocent and the fools who are going to trust him, poor faces doomed as dogs who have watched us so amiably from behind the wire fence sat the city pounds…cried for the future he can see, because it makes him feel desperate and cold. He is to be taken from high moment to high moment, standing by at meetings of the Elect, witnessing a test of the new Cosmic Bomb – ‘Well,’ a wise old face, handing him the black-lensed glasses, ‘there is your Bomb…’ turning then to see its thick yellow exploding down the beach, across leagues of Pacific waves…touching famous assassins, yes actually touching their human hands and faces…finding out one day how long ago, how early in the game the contract on his own life was let. No one knows exactly when the hit will come – every morning, before the markets open, out before the milkmen. They make Their new update, and decide on what’s going to be sufficient unto the day. Every morning Pirate’s name will be on a list, though it fills him with a terror so pure, so cold, he thinks for a minute he will pass out. Later, having drawn back a bit, gathering heart for the next sortie, it seems he’s done with their shame, just as Sir Stephen said, yes past the old shame and sacred now, full of worry for nothing but his own ass, his precious, condemned, personal ass…” (page 544)
But, despite all this angst, Pirate and Katje become practitioners of Nietzsche (my interpretation) and decide to dance of the edge of the abyss. “And they do dance though Pirate never could before, very well…they feel quite in touch with all the others as they move, and if they are never to be at full ease, still it’s not parade rest any longer…so they dissolve now, into the race and swarm of this dancing Preterition, and their faces, the dear, comical faces they have put on for this ball, fade, as innocence fades, grimly flirtatious, and striving to be kind.” (page 548)
Gravity’s Rainbow is a massive, complex, yet absurd and whimsical story mixing multiple serious themes, an enormous cast of quirky characters, expressed in language play and a loose narrative that shifts and frequently simply dissolves. Thomas Pynchon crafted a novel that is clearly distinctive and representative of the late-hippy 1960's-1970’s, when it was written. It captures the zeitgeist of the time in a way as crazy as the Vietnam-war era itself. While a challenge to read and pushing the limits of public acceptance in terms of sexuality and drug use, Gravity’s Rainbow is nevertheless rewarding to those with patience and persistence. The narrative is more of an experience than a concrete story, often disorienting, much like the world at the time it was written, and perhaps even more so like the world today. In that sense it is a rather prophetic work – a prophecy about how identity and meaning, calamity and ambiguity work in our world today.