For the past two months, I’ve been on the receiving end of a literary bludgeoning, otherwise known as reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The last month was especially tough going, as the book seems to get exponentially more dense and abstract towards the end. In fact, I’m surprised Pynchon himself didn’t include some kind of mathematical representation of how the book’s difficulty increases over time within the book itself. It’s that kind of book. And now I’ve finally finished it. As it is regarded as both one of the greatest english language books and one of the most challenging, I feel pretty awesome for finishing it. I may even be considered cool for doing so, but I’m not getting my hopes up.
In terms of describing it, I don’t know where to begin. Lets see… Of all the movies and books I’ve seen or read, I’d say in overall tone it’s most similar to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. If it were an original movie, it would, for one thing, be ridiculously long; there would be nothing left on the cutting-room floor. There would be potent and compelling dream-symbolism throughout that would put David Lynch to shame, and half the movie would be devoted to the actual dreams, daydreams, fantasies, flights of fancy, and drug-induced hallucinations of the characters; these mental tangents would be seamlessly integrated and at times indistinguishable from the rest of the movie, and the narrative would jump in and out of these at will. These tangents would also just as likely jump to another character’s conscious or unconscious point of view with no warning or indication whatsoever. There would also be kinks and fetishes aplenty, the likes of which would make David Cronenberg blush. Add in a prevalent sense of paranoia and comic relief as fine as anything by the Monty Python ensemble, and then imagine all of that increasing in magnitude exponentially as the allegorical movie progresses: that is a very, very basic picture of what Gravity’s Rainbow, as a movie, would be like.
There are over 400 characters, but don’t worry; only about 100 or so are important. Characters from Pynchon’s two previous novels, V. and The Crying of Lot 49, also make appearances. As the events of the novel (mostly) precede those of the other two, these characters’ back stories become even richer, and their actions in the other two books become more understandable as well. And just like those previous books, Pynchon takes a broad sample of humanity for his characters, focusing more on the unconventional, the non-glamorous, and the “undesirable:” addicts, dealers, hustlers, prostitutes, anarchists, bureaucrats, disaffected spies, soldiers gone AWOL, mystics, science cultists, dozens of otherwise “normal” people with “abnormal” obsessions, and any number of folks caught up in the machinations of uncaring or outright malevolent forces much more powerful than they are.
With many of these characters, he tries to question the validity of what society deems “normal/abnormal” (and thus the validity of the very act of deeming normalcy). He also tries to show the emotional and psychological effects of living in an industrial society, specifically of having one’s life be determined/ended by the demands of a small, powerful corporate and political elite. As you might guess, many of the characters are or become paranoid as the book progresses. Helping this along is a grand conspiracy underpinning everything, and just like Pynchon’s previous two books, it is strongly hinted at but never conclusively confirmed and is ultimately left up to the reader to determine whether it exists at all.
Ultimately, my favorite thing about the book is its refusal to be forgotten. I will probably be digesting its 750+ pages of dense and powerfully evocative prose for a long time. While I was reading it, I felt like there was no way I could possibly retain even a fraction of it. Now that I think back on it, the wonderful ensemble of loony and (in many cases) tragic characters stands clear in my mind, and I can vividly remember the themes and events of the book in relation to those characters. Now that I think about it, by always bringing everything back to the emotional and psychological effects on/reactions of the characters and by making points be evocative and/or intriguing proportionally to their importance, Pynchon actually did a pretty good job of keeping the whole thing together.
I’ve already applied what I’ve retained from the book. I’ve started reading Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, and early on Mr. Einhorn gives a speech that resonated all the more with me after reading Gravity’s Rainbow, and in my opinion it exemplifies Pynchon’s central premise more concisely and in a more straightforward way than any passage in Pynchon’s own book. Talking about the rough and “uncultured” nature of 1920’s Chicago, Einhorn says:
“But there is some kind of advantage in the roughness of a place like Chicago, of not having any illusions either. Whereas in all the great capitals of the world there’s some reason to think humanity is very different. All that ancient culture and those beautiful works of art right out in public… You see those marvelous things and you think that everything savage belongs in the past. So you think. And then you have another think, and you see that after they rescued women from the coal mines, or pulled down the Bastille and got rid of Star Chambers and lettres de cachet, ran out the Jesuits, increased education, and built hospitals and spread courtesy and politeness, they have five or six years of war and revolutions and kill off twenty million people. And do they think there’s less danger to life than here? That’s a riot.” Gravity’s Rainbow’s most important theme may be this, that the “savagery” of the rough-and-tumble “lower classes” is nothing compared to the savagery perpetrated by the very organizations dominated by the “cultured” elite: wars, started by governments and supplied by corporations.
Sound awesome? Radical? Thought provoking? Mind-effing? It is. All of those. If you haven’t already, read it! You’ll be glad you did, or at least feel very accomplished for finishing the damn thing 😉