Thursday, April 20, 2017

Gravity's Rainbow - Thomas Pynchon

    1973; 776 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Highbrow Lit; Satire; Contemporary Fiction; American Literature.  Laurels : Co-Winner, 1974 U.S. National Book Award (Fiction); Nominee, 1973 Nebula Award (Best Novel); one of Time Magazine’s “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels for the period 1923-2005; #5 on Buzzfeed’s 25 Most Challenging Books You Will Ever Read”.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s a most extraordinary gift that the young American intelligence officer, Tyrone Slothrop has.  He’s stationed in London, during the closing weeks of World War 2, when the Germans are trying one last, desperate tactic – blitzing London with as many V-2 rockets as they can launch.

    Women find Slothrop disarmingly attractive, and he has no trouble finding plenty willing to go to bed with him.  Anytime, anyplace; it doesn’t matter.  He’s even tacked a map of London above his desk, and pasted colored stars on it, showing where his “conquests” have taken place.  Does the man ever sleep?

    But his British intelligence agents have detected a pattern in those stars.  Whenever Slothrop adds a another one (along with the girl’s name) to the map, within a day or two, a V-2 rocket hits that very spot.  Curiously, Slothrop seems unaware of his “gift”.  So the prudent thing to do is send out a team of shrinks to tail him, to find out exactly how his "talent" works.

    But be very careful, shrinks.  After all, Slothrop is an intelligence officer, and if he catches you following him, it may trigger an outbreak of paranoia.

    Of course, you aren't paranoid if they really are out to get you, are you?

What’s To Like...
    Gravity’s Rainbow is divvied up into 4 unequal parts and covers the time period from December 1944 through September 1945.  The settings are late- and post-war Europe.  There are no chapters, but Thomas Pynchon inserts “breaks” (in my edition, a row of squares) to indicate breaks in scene or time.  These vary in length from 1 to about 25 pages, and provide timely places to stop to give your brain a rest.

    You’ll need these because there are 400+ characters introduced by name (per Wikipedia), a slew of run-on sentences, uncountable plot tangents, and flashbacks galore (plus one flash-forward) with no warning whatsoever.  FWIW, I found it very helpful to read the Wikipedia article on it first, to know which characters are important, and to distinguish between the main plotline(s) and the tangents.

    This may sound like I’m bashing the book, but Pynchon’s writing style, like Kurt Vonnegut’s, is superb enough where he can break all the literary rules and get away with it.  Gravity’s Rainbow is a vocabularian’s delight (I’ll let you look up “smegma” for yourself; it appears multiple times), and I am in total awe of the magic worked by the punctuation used to make those run-on sentences coherent.

    This is not a book for the kiddies; R-rated topics and passages abound.  Wikipedia claims Gravity's Rainbow lost the 1974 Pulitzer Prize because of a couple pages dealing with coprophilia.  There’s lots of sex and drugs, and rockets roll; and metaphysics (séances, tarot cards, etc.) gets a fair amount of ink too.  It helps if you have some command of the German language.  Pynchon inserts lots of songs which, while I didn’t find them impressive, did provide refreshing breaks in the narrative.

    The tangents can be distracting: I still don’t see any relevance about killing dodo birds, a trip down a toilet, lightbulb babies, and some choreography by lab rats.  But they are also well thought-out and interesting, and I enjoyed things like the Rossini-Beethoven debate (pgs. 447-8), and the cameo appearance by Mickey Rooney (pg. 388).   Moreover, there is a tinge of absurdism that runs throughout the story, such as a trained octopus assailant, and hashish-laced hollandaise.

    The book builds to a dramatic ending, wherein a number of threads/characters get resolved, although it would be silly to think that everything in an 800-page epic would be completely tied up.  It goes without saying that this is a standalone novel, with no sequel, and I pity any poor fool who tries to make a movie out of it.

    Her name was Amy Sprue, a family renegade turned Antinomian at age 23 and running mad over the Berkshire countryside, ahead of Crazy Sue Dunham by 200 years, stealing babies, riding cows in the twilight, sacrificing chickens up on Snodd’s Mountain.  Lots of ill will about those chickens, as you can imagine.  The cows and babies always, somehow, came back all right.  Amy Sprue was not, like young skipping Dorothy’s antagonist, a mean witch.  (pg. 334)

    “Beethoven was one of the architects of musical freedom – he submitted to the demands of history, despite his deafness.  While Rossini was retiring at the age of 36, womanizing and getting fat, Beethoven was living a life filled with tragedy and grandeur.”
    “So?” is Saure’s customary answer to that one.  “Which would you rather do?  The point is,” cutting off Gustav’s usually indignant scream, “a person feels good listening to Rossini.  All you feel like listening to Beethoven is going out and invading Poland.  Ode to Joy indeed.  The man didn’t even have a sense of humor.”  (pg. 447)

Kewlest New Word…
Fairing (v.) : (of the weather) becoming fair.  (logical, but I’ve never seen ‘fair’ used as a verb before)
Others : too many to list.

Death has come in the pantry door: stands watching them, iron and patient, with a look that says try to tickle me.  (pg. 61)
    I read Gravity’s Rainbow as a result of a Christmastime-initiated reading challenge, and it took me 42 days to get through it.  I read several “light” e-books as well during that time (you’re crazy if you try to slog straight through the 776 pages), and it helped that my wife is taking an online class on Sunday afternoons, which provided me 3-4 hours of quality reading time every weekend.

    Yes, it is a difficult read, and I had to fight the urge to “skim” through major parts of it.  Yes, there are lots of paragraphs that I still have no comprehension of.  Yes, I’m sure I’d have a better understanding of those passages if I were to reread it, but that’s not going to happen.

    No, I don’t think, as some propose, that Gravity’s Rainbow is the greatest American novel ever.  My vote in that regard would be Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, but you’re allowed to disagree.  Yes, my main feeling upon completing it was a sense of accomplishment.

    But to be clear, I did enjoy reading this book, I do think Thomas Pynchon is a gifted writer, and I will recommend it to anyone who wants to be both challenged and entertained by an epic piece of contemporary fiction.

    Stylistically, I found Gravity’s Rainbow very similar to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I read for an earlier reading challenge, and which is reviewed here.  They are both monumentally challenging, but well worth the effort.

    8 Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you have a book report due tomorrow, and have chosen this book as your assignment.  You’re screwed, dude.

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