By Thomas Pynchon, 1973
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
If you ask the literary community, Gravity’s Rainbow is among the major literary events of the twentieth century. It’s the postmodern or at minimum post-World War II answer to Joyce. The book’s shadow might be longer than anything else with the “postmodern” label. The one with hundreds of characters and absurdly long sentences and mind-boggling tonal shifts, the one that’s been labeled “unreadable” and “pretentious” and “obscene” but not often “boring.” Nominated for a Pulitzer but robbed of it by virtue of obscenity; since no such prize was given for literature that year, we can maybe call it a shadow winner. Boosters of the book can take solace in the fact that it was granted a National Book Award and nominated for a Nebula; beloved by the “literary” and “genre” crowds alike. Any way you look at it, not a bad set of achievements.
Before we get into the analysis, a little background, both on Pynchon and his influence. Pynchon’s known as a recluse, which isn’t quite accurate – he gets out as much as everyone else, he just detests the press, so very few photos exist of the guy. In fact, when he won his National Book Award, he had the comedian “Professor” Irwin Corey accept the prize on his behalf. What we know is that Pynchon spent some time in the Coast Guard and worked as a technical writer for Boeing. The latter seems to have influenced his prose style, which is notable for its mathematical rhythms. Pynchon had already made a name for himself when this book came out – his debut V was a success, and the Crying of Lot 49 remains well-loved – but the size and ambition of this novel was unprecedented in his earlier work. Furthermore, he helped codify what some would call a “systems novel,” which scholar Frederic Jameson defines as novels concerned with the “character of the social life of so-called advanced countries today.” Good examples include David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Percival Everett’s Erasure, and Jonathan Franzen’s the Recognitions. They tend to look at this character critically and tend to fit under the postmodern umbrella. Pynchon didn’t invent the systems novel. You could argue they’re as old as the national identity itself, and more concrete examples include Ulysses and the Recognitions and probably Moby-Dick. Still, Pynchon helped bring the style into prominence and undoubtedly influenced at least Wallace and DeLillo.
Starting on Gravity’s Rainbow is always tough for me. This is partially because it kicked off my fascination with the megalithic postmodern novel and is probably the whole reason why I got into big books in the first place, and partially because its reputation for complexity is entirely justified. Normally I’d put a plot summary here, but Gravity’s Rainbow is the sort of book that laughs at efforts to quickly recap it. Suffice it to say that Gravity’s Rainbow centers around the efforts of Tyrone Slothrop, soldier in World War II, to find a mysterious German rocket that might have the power to warp reality. Still, that’s just the beginning of a novel that invokes mythology, history, satire and slapstick, alongside literary traditions like elaborate symbolism and characters doubling other characters. All this with silly songs interjected spontaneously. If this wasn’t enough for you already, Pynchon’s prose is gorgeous and full of manic energy. Sort of like driving down a twisty mountain road; plenty of gorgeous vistas to enjoy, but you never forget how high up you are or how perilous the road is.
The best place to start with this novel’s complexity is to get into its tone. The tone of this novel shifts with such frequency and such deftness that it’s hard to place Pynchon at the center, hard to discern how he feels and what we’re meant to take from it. For instance, early on in the novel Pynchon follows an episode about keeping a hold on empathy in wartime with one of protagonist Tyrone Slothrop diving down a toilet in search of his harmonica. I’m fond of relating that switch to Pynchon neophytes, but stranger still is how a description of a pinball’s trajectory turns into a heavy-duty analysis of power relations that by some sorcery retains the energy of the pinball description. People discuss Pynchon’s paranoia so frequently it’s become a cliché, but his tone is so complex that it’s hard to tell if he’s endorsing, spoofing, or simply describing the paranoia he depicts in this novel and attributes to a both pre- and post-Watergate America. His characters are paranoid – Slothrop sees a conspiracy around every corner – but they’re also insane, as illustrated by Slothrop’s habit of running around with a cape and Viking hat. “Rocket Man,” he calls himself in that outfit, and I can’t listen to the old Elton John song the same way. So it’s hard to tell whose side he’s on, or he’s on any side, or if sides even matter in this book.
Now, the trick with Gravity’s Rainbow is that people tend to love and hate it for the same reasons. Either Pynchon’s a genius writer of clear sight and massive vision or he’s so focused on breaking down his systems that he’s forgotten about the inner workings of character. Either his sentences are linguistic wonders to behold or they’re a clever guy trying to show off his cleverness. There’s not a lot of middle ground with this guy, and I think that’s how he likes it. He sure isn’t inviting it. The guy’s prose style is, I’ll admit, an acquired taste. The sentences wind around so thoroughly, sometimes slipping from one character’s consciousness into another as they move forward, that you could get lost reading them. What I prescribe to the detractors of his prose is they let themselves get lost. Gravity’s Rainbow is a long book with a lot of moving parts, and not all of it will make sense at first; the novel begins in the midst of a missile attack, so chaos is only to be expected. Pynchon’s all about producing an effect on you, and no self-respecting writer would write about a missile attack in calm and even tones. The chaos only settles periodically, but I promise you, the whole thing will make more sense as you read more. It’s big and digressive and some of the digressions might not seem to be in there as much more than comedy, but once you understand this book’s terms, you’ll see what he’s doing and why. You have to accept the fact that it doesn’t give up its secrets immediately. Things don’t begin to tie together until, oddly enough, the plot starts to disintegrate toward the end.
Pynchon’s characters are a little hard to defend, since the common claim that they verge on caricature is hard to argue. Make no mistake: Tyrone Slothrop is one of the great comedic protagonists in our literature, but what sort of depth does the guy have? Is there anything more to this guy than a goofy name and a series of ridiculous costumes and a penchant for playing bagpipes? I’ll admit that, in a way, he’s an allegorical figure; Pynchon might be tipping his hand with that when he equates Tyrone with the tarot card of the fool, or he might just be messing with us. Like I said, it’s hard to tell with this guy. My argument in the defense of Pynchon’s characters is this: they might seem grotesque to us in the real world, but they’re not meant to inhabit the real world. They’re meant to inhabit Pynchon’s world, and their actions make a lot of sense when considered as a part of Pynchon’s world.
Besides, I don’t think well-rounded character is the only mark of a good novel. It’s a reliable mark, and it helps us invest in character, but that’s not your only way in. Does Pynchon write characters with the depth of Virginia Woolf or Ernest Hemingway? Maybe not, but it’s a short list of novels that successfully invoke as many emotions and tones as Gravity’s Rainbow does. It’s an even shorter list of writers who can write more gorgeous and energetic language than Pynchon. Not every writer can excel at everything, and there are trades I as a reader am willing to make if I’m stared down with greatness. Pynchon comes up with an opening sentences like “a screaming comes across the sky” and I’m a happy reader. I’m willing to forgive the character thing because Pynchon can write passages like:
It’s been a prevalent notion. Fallen sparks. Fragments of vessels broken at the Creation. And someday, somehow, before the end, a gathering back to home. A messenger from the Kingdom, arriving at the last moment. But I tell you there is no such message, no such home — only the millions of last moments . . . nothing more. Our history is an aggregate of last moments.
See, there’s your reward. Gravity’s Rainbow has a reputation as a difficult book, and that reputation has overshadowed a lot about it. But all great writers of demanding fiction give their readers something to connect with, and Pynchon is no exception. Even if it’s tough to follow Pynchon’s winding plot thread, this is still masterful, lively writing in action. So come with your brain turned on, but at the same point, forget about those expectations about what fiction “should” be and let yourself be amazed.