Gravity’s Rainbow.

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is #23 on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100 and is part of the TIME 100, as well as holding the distinction of being the only book recommended by the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction committeee yet rejected by the Pulitzer Board. It is a transgressive novel, drenched in paranoia, replete with esoteric knowledge of fields from engineering to calculus to military history, with detours into magical realism and Beckett-esque absurdity.

Also, it sucks.

I don’t mean sucks in the sense that mass-market paperback pablum like James Patterson or Janet Evanovich might suck. Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t cookie-cutter or cliched, it doesn’t lack imagination, it is in no way predictable, and it is incredibly ambitious. It is also one of the least enjoyable reading experiences I have ever had. It is difficult to the point of obtuseness, it is repulsive without meaning, it is largely unfunny despite a clear intent to be humorous, and parts of it are painfully misogynistic.

To the extent that Gravity’s Rainbow has a plot, here it is: It’s World War II and the Allies are trying to predict where the German V-2 rockets aimed at London are likely to land. They discover that American Tyrone Slothrop, conditioned from birth in a Pavlovian process similar to the Little Albert experiment, can predict the landing spot of the next rocket due to a peculiar case of hysteron proteron paraphilia: The rockets hit in places where he’s recently had sex. If it’s hard to fathom how that thread can turn into a 776-page opus, fear not, as Pynchon shows great capacity to craft new characters (and discard them just as quickly) and sent Slothrop and the other semi-central actors in the book on various wild goose chases across Europe, frequently involving explicit descriptions of sex, often on the deviant side of the ledger. What Pynchon really needed here was an editor, but in all likelihood, the editor knowledgeable enough to tackle this book didn’t exist.

If you’ve read, or are at least familiar with, Joyce’s Ulysses, imagine a book of that scope and with a similar multitude of allusions, but designed to express modern paranoia in all its forms, from fear of military (and soon nuclear) annihilation to fear of government intrusion to fear of mortality to fear that we lack free will for reasons metaphysical or genetic. It’s all in here, somewhere, if you can find it; I’d be shocked if Pynchon wasn’t a major inspiration for later paranoiac writers like Gibson (Neuromancer), Dick (Ubik) or Stephenson (Snow Crash), and perhaps even Jasper Fforde, who mines dystopian alternate realities for laughs in the Thursday Next series and in Shades of Grey. But unlike those books, accessible for all their erudition, Gravity’s Rainbow is work, work to follow his prose, work to follow the nonlinear plot, and work to follow the references. It’s no wonder most reviews I’ve found of the book, including Burt’s, refer to it as a book with a very high owned-to-finished ratio.

One of the Pulitzer committee’s main objections to Gravity’s Rainbow was its vulgarity, and the book is, in relative terms, pretty filthy, with unstinting descriptions of sado-masochism, incest, rape, coprophilia, and … well, there doesn’t really need to be anything beyond that. Pynchon’s obsession with the functions bodily accentuates the male-ness of the book and narrative but highlights the fact that women in this book are largely there to have sex with the men. There are only two female characters of any depth beyond a few lines. One is Katje, a triple-agent who’s there to seduce Slothrop. The other, Jessica Swanlake (Pynchon loves funny names, but usually just violates Ebert’s First Rule of Funny Names), is there to have sex with Roger Mexico even though he knows she will betray him in the end and return to her fiancee, making her faithless in two relationships. Even the prepubescent Bianca/Ilse character, who might be two different girls, is a temptress, sexually mature beyond her physical development, and available to the adult men in the book, without any indication of approbation from other characters or the omniscient narrator. The term misogyny is frequently used now simply to mean bias against women, or imbalanced treatment, but the word’s original sense, hatred of women, applies as strongly here as in any book I can remember.

If there’s something to praise in Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s in Pynchon’s subversion of the novel’s form. Circular or other nonlinear plots can be entertaining even before we consider their literary purpose. Confusing the reader a little is fine, often part of the pleasure of reading a complex book, as long as there’s some kind of payoff in the end. Pynchon’s ambition here seems unbounded, but boundaries can be as helpful as deadlines, because sometimes you just have to pull back a little to get the thing done. The book is ‘finished,’ in that Pynchon actually completed the manuscript and filed it, giving the book an actual Ending, but it feels incomplete, not least because so many plot strands wither and die without any kind of resolution.

One coincidence that made my reading of Gravity’s Rainbow a little better: I had never heard of the genocide of the Herero people in what is now Namibia by the Germans in 1904-06 before reading about it in the book I read right before this, King Leopold’s Ghost. The Hereros figure prominently here as well, as some Hereros who fought with the Germans against their own people ended up fighting again for the Germans in World War II, with one character, Oberst Enzian (his name a slight pun on gentian), earning a fair amount of screen time. Pynchon alludes to the irony of the members of a tribe nearly wiped out by the Germans fighting for that country in its attempt to wipe out another people in a much broader, more efficient attempt at genocide.

If you’d like a similar take on the book, but with more f-bombs, the Uncyclopedia entry on Gravity’s Rainbow echoes many of my thoughts on the book, including the three-bullet summary at the top. If hating it brings me in for criticism from “pretentious, elitist snobs,” so be it.

Next up: The University of Chicago Press was kind enough to send me a copy of Richard Stark’s Parker, originally published as Flashfire and the basis for the Jason Statham/Jennifer Lopez film in theaters now.

Bridge of Sighs.

I started Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs ready to joke in my writeup that, in book reviews, “ambitious” is merely a euphemism for “long.” I’ve read the five novels that precede this one on Russo’s bibliography, including the amazing, Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, and while I think his books are smart, funny, and deep, I did not consider them “ambitious.” Bridge of Sighs, as you have probably guessed by now, is a work of great ambition, a sprawling modern epic with multiple foci, exploring themes of love, betrayal, mortality, meaning, and hate across more than fifty years in a small, dying town in upstate New York.

That town, Thomaston, is the birthplace of the two men at the center of the book, narrator Lou C. (“Lucy,” a nickname he never wanted or liked) Lynch and his on-and-off childhood friend Bobby Marconi. Shifting among three narratives, Russo tells their stories, weaving them together and tearing them apart, using Lucy’s own memoir-in-progress for the history of Lucy, Bobby, and their incredibly different families; jumping to the third person for the present-day perspective on Lucy’s strained marriage to his high school sweetheart, the almost too-perfect Sara; and Bobby, now a world-renowned painter living in Europe and contemplating the nearing end of his career and his life while he fights an undetermined health issue.

Russo eschews the easy plot device of having everything look perfect on the surface, only to shock the reader by showing how imperfect everything is; he makes it clear from the start that Lucy and Bobby are both damaged people, and lets the gradual revelations of major events from their childhoods provide the surprises, tossing in a little narrative greed as he goes. You don’t actually find out what happened between Bobby and his father until roughly 90% of the way through the book, but you can start to create and fill in an outline just by watching the evolution of their relationship. Lucy presents himself at the start as a married father and successful local businessman, but how successful and how happy are questions that open up as the story develops. Complicating his history and tying the two estranged friends together is Sara, who came from a broken home of her own, adopted the Lynches as a surrogate family as she dated Lucy, but found herself drawn to the raw, emotional Bobby when he reappears for their senior year of high school.

The contrast between the safe, steady affection between Sara and Lucy and the seething rage that emanates from Bobby is a central theme for Russo, who never seems to favor the measured (or bottled up) Lynch style over the open, dangerous emotions of Bobby:

It was amazing, when you thought about it, how effortlessly hate slipped into the space reserved for love and vice versa, as if these two things, identical in size and shape, had been made compatible by design. How satisfying a substitute each was for the other.

But rather than mire the story in a love triangle, or a tragic romance, Russo folds that into the comfortable ground of the yearnings of kids in a small, failing industrial town – Thomaston’s main industry, a tannery, slowly heads for extinction all while polluting the river and raising the town’s cancer rates – for something more than the hamlet can offer them. In Bridge, however, Russo moves those sentiments around; sometimes it’s the kids racing to get out of Dodge, but as often it’s their parents hoping their children leave for something better, all while they try to figure out a way to survive financially in a local economy that keeps shrinking. Lucy’s father, a hopeless optimist, loses his milkman job to modernization, only to buy a corner market as A&P locates the town’s first supermarket out by the highway. That corner market becomes the central hub of action as the kids go through junior high and high school – taking the place of the diner that lies at the heart of most Russo novels – but the work the Lynches put into it, and the role it ends up playing in their lives, symbolizes the work required to keep a marriage of two seemingly incompatible people together, even in unfavorable circumstances.

Another theme, perhaps coming from Russo’s own advancing age, is one of regret even for a life lived well – a “road not taken” question that Bobby and Sara in particular end up facing, although Lucy has his own questions about what might have been and even his mother and uncle (the roguish Dec, a classic Russo character) end up in the act. Sara’s parents seemed very two-dimensional, but I thought they might represent Russo’s unflattering takes on two extreme life paths – her angry, faithless, emotionally distant father on one side, and her unsatisfiable, self-serving, emotionally stunted mother on the other – that, I suppose, help explain why Sara is so grounded, so clear, and so able (mostly) to be happy with where she is and what she has.

If I have a criticism of Bridge of Sighs, it’s that Russo’s trademark humor is so much less in evidence. If Straight Man is his funniest work, this is probably his most serious. The gags are often little verbal jabs, rather than the slapstick and broad farce that characterizes his earlier novels:

After all, it wasn’t just people in big cities who had big dreams. Wasn’t her father himself a perfect example? Though he considered himself an urbanite, he’d grown up, as her mother had delighted in reminding him back when they were still living as husband and wife, on Staten Fucking Island.

I laughed, but hey, if you haven’t been caught in traffic on the Staten Island Expressway, that might not be quite so funny.

I’m barely doing the serious side of this book justice, however; it’s deeper and more literary than even Empire Falls, even if it’s not quite as exhilarating a read. The prose is classic Russo, as are the many full-fleshed characters, the setting, and the very realistic dramas that drive the book. If it’s a little less witty than normal, he has at least made up for it through his ambition.

Next up: I finished Dave Jamieson’s Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, which I would certainly recommend to those of you who collected cards in your youths or are simply interested in baseball history; and have just barely begun Abdelrahman (or Abdul Rahman or Abd el-Rahman) Munif’s Cities of Salt­, which appears on the Novel 100 list at #71.