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.