Sunday, June 5, 2011

Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow": Book Review

There's a thousand-plus Amazon reviews, stacks of articles, and shelves of commentaries. What can I add? Unlike most readers, I worked backward before forward into this novel. I'd read "The Crying of Lot 49" in grad school and "Vineland" on my own, but felt incapable of handling "Gravity's Rainbow." Earlier this year, I finished "Against the Day" after months of grappling with its ambiguities and terrible beauties, and then took on the pleasant if as paranoid "Inherent Vice" and next "V." (I reviewed dutifully if tardily these three recently.)

So, I entered "GR" with a past-future perspective on Pynchon's fiction. (I still need "Mason & Dixon" and "Slow Learner," I admit, to finish my quest.) Like "V.", this takes us into German South-West Africa's horrors after WWI. As with "AtD," we follow Central Asian and ice-bound oddities around this same revolutionary period. We get sea-creatures and even a glimpse of the L.A. freeways that "Inherent Vice" follows. And, "Vineland" may get but a nod to a throwaway song lyric name-checking Humboldt County, but as with all of Pynchon, an open-ended, unresolved conspiracy perpetrated by an infernal, alien, yet human-entangled System serves to suppress a Counterforce that traps its rebellion within the same lusts for power and wealth that oppress and motivate and fuel evil machinations of our rulers.

You care about some characters in this WWII epic, and others flit by like cartoons. Horrors add up, as few escape the carnage. Dozens of pages drift pass, data amass into heaps of crushing information, and then, suddenly, illumination flickers and tenderness may beckon--before the plot trundles on over nearly eight-hundred densely packed pages.

Tyrone Slothrop's frenetic quickies, his search for the rocket launch pad in what was Nazi Germany, his own New England family's story gets submerged into this monstrous "sado-anarchist" narrative. That's the whole point. "Those like Slothrop, with the greatest interest in discovering the whole truth, were thrown back on dreams, psychic flashes, omens, cryptographies, drug-epistemologies, all dancing on a ground of terror, contradiction, absurdity." (592; Penguin ed.)

The novel's as off-on as any of his. Acclaimed as his best, I'd counter that "AtD" brings more needed humor into the mix, and keeps by its prose variety and global action a better balance between speculation and entertainment, exciting pursuits and recondite discussions. Taking a backwards leap from his later works to "GR," I'd argue that Pynchon extends the promise of the mysterious "V." here, but that he continued to mature as a writer over the next three dozen years that culminated in "AtD" and the calmer, if as altered, states of "IV." Nobody claiming familiarity with (post-)modern fiction ignores "GR." It rises to the same peaks as his other fiction can, but there's a lot of rocket-talk that remains stalled on the launch pad; ascents of its best passages alternate with lengthy languid waiting periods down at a duller Mission Control. This feature distinguishes all his works, and it's what you must accept.

Here's a dozen of my favorite passages.

Pynchon shows us a London evening as "the light from the street lamps comes in through philodendron stalks and fingered leaves arrested in a grasp at the last straining away of sunset, falls a tranquil yellow across the cut-steel buckles at her insteps and streaks on along the flanks and down the tall heels of her patent shoes, so polished as to seem of no color at all past such mild citrus light where it touches them, and they refuse it, as if it were a masochist’s kiss." (151)

He weighs in on the war, and Why We Fight.
"Everybody you don’t suspect is in on this, everybody but you: the chaplain, the doctor, your mother hoping to hang that Gold Star, the vapid soprano last night on the Home Service programme, let’s not forget Mr. Noel Coward so stylish and cute about death and the afterlife, packing them into the Duchess for the fourth year running, the lads in Hollywood telling us how grand it all is over here, how much fun, Walt Disney causing Dumbo the elephant to clutch to that feather like how many carcasses under the snow tonight among the white-painted tanks, how many hands each frozen around a Miraculous Medal, lucky piece of worn bone, half-dollar with the grinning sun peering up under Liberty’s wispy gown, clutching, dumb, when the 88 fell—-what do you think, it’s a children’s story? There aren’t any. The children are away dreaming, but the Empire has no place for dreams and it’s Adults Only in here tonight, here in this refuge with the lamps burning deep, in pre-Cambrian exhalation, savory as food cooking, heavy as soot. And 60 miles up the rockets hanging the measureless instant over the black North Sea before the fall, ever faster, to orange heat, Christmas star, in helpless plunge to Earth. Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It’s a long walk home tonight." (155)

The transcendent infuses the technical, a characteristic touch Pynchon adds to his fiction, sparingly and often deftly.
"In his electro-mysticism, the triode was as basic as the cross in Christianity. Think of the ego, the self that suffers a personal history bound to time, as the grid. The deeper and true Self is the flow between cathode and plate. The constant, pure flow. Signals—sense-data, feelings, memories relocating—are put onto the grid, and modulate the flow. We live lives that are waveforms constantly changing with time, now positive, now negative. Only at moments of great serenity is it possible to find the pure, the informationless state of signal zero." (410)

As usual, Pynchon articulates the dangers that lurk within such complex networks of unseen energy, as well as visible control, over us.
"Kekulé dreams the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used. The Serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” is to be delivered into a system whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity—-most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide . . . though he’s amiable enough, keeps cracking jokes back through the loudspeaker[....]"(419)

Slothrop as any inquirer into such systems finds himself confused at what will be, a carryover from "V.", Mondaugon's Law: "“Temporal bandwidth” is the width of your present, your now. It is the familiar “At” considered as a dependent variable. The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are. It may get to where you’re having trouble remembering what you were doing five minutes ago, or even—-as Slothrop now—-what you’re doing here, at the base of this colossal curved embankment. . . ." (517)

Hints of ego-loss, of a "sado-anarchist" strangeness emanating from enigmatic lights and transmitted mystery, permeates this odd tale. There's as always a battle between forces of good and evil, and we live in the smoke of the gray global area.
"It means this War was never political at all, the politics was all theatre, all just to keep the people distracted . . . secretly, it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology . . . by a conspiracy between human beings and techniques, by something that needed the energy-burst of war, crying, “Money be damned, the very life of [insert name of Nation] is at stake,” but meaning, most likely, dawn is nearly here, I need my night’s blood, my funding, funding, ahh more, more. . . .The real crises were crises of allocation and priority, not among firms—-it was only staged to look that way—but among the different Technologies, Plastics, Electronics, Aircraft, and their needs which are understood only by the ruling elite . . ."(529-30).
Insert war here. Later in this exchange, Technology defends itself against deification, blaming the human compulsion. The narrator then intervenes: "We have to look for power sources here, and distribution networks we were never taught, routes of power our teachers never imagined, or were encouraged to avoid . . . we have to find meters whose scales are unknown in the world, draw our own schematics, getting feedback, making connections, reducing the error, trying to learn the real function . . . zeroing in on what incalculable plot?" (530) Advice for anyone tackling the equations and sums that Pynchon proposes.

A young German girl takes Slothrop home after the war; he learns of her father's disappearance after resisting the Reich in '42. His stance anticipates the anarchism and humanism of "AtD" as it "touches Slothrop’s own Puritan hopes for the Word, the Word made printer’s ink, dwelling along with antibodies and iron-bound breath in a good man’s blood, though the World for him be always the World on Monday, with its cold cutting edge, slicing away every poor illusion of comfort the bourgeois takes for real. . . did he run off leaflets against his country’s insanity? was he busted, beaten, killed?" (581)

A cameo by one Jesuit, Father Rapier, reminds me of "V." with Father Fairing, and the priest warns of what postwar "unity" will do to us, all linked by technology that impels domination and imposes submission. "Devil’s Advocate’s what the shingle sez, yes inside is a Jesuit here to act in that capacity, here to preach, like his colleague Teilhard de Chardin, against return. Here to say that critical mass cannot be ignored. Once the technical means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good. The word has ceased to have meaning." (548) I think of this medium that you and I share to read my thoughts, collected from a book, broadcast here. But under corporate sponsorship, under curious interdiction, as footnoted far below.

A Soviet Marxist debates the ghost of a German engineer:
"“The basic problem,” he proposes, “has always been getting other people to die for you. What’s worth enough for a man to give up his life? That’s where religion had the edge, for centuries. Religion was always about death. It was used not as an opiate so much as a technique—it got people to die for one particular set of beliefs about death. Perverse, natürlich, but who are you to judge? It was a good pitch while it worked. But ever since it became impossible to die for death, we have had a secular version—yours. Die to help History grow to its predestined shape. Die knowing your act will bring a good end a bit closer. Revolutionary suicide, fine. But look: if History’s changes are inevitable, why not not die? Vaslav? If it’s going to happen anyway, what does it matter?” (715)

Such exchanges float up and away, and the story never allows much room for their points to sink or swim amid the insistent tidal wave of words. This can frustrate a reader, but it does prove the need for close attention, for you never know in the narrative when such insights will invade, before they fade again into dense darkness of thousands of surrounding sentences.

Resistance seems futile, however, to verbal or ideological assaults against fragile resisters.
"Well, if the Counterforce knew better what those categories concealed, they might be in a better position to disarm, de-penis and dismantle the Man. But they don’t. Actually they do, but they don’t admit it. Sad but true. They are as schizoid, as double-minded in the massive presence of money, as any of the rest of us, and that’s the hard fact. The Man has a branch office in each of our brains, his corporate emblem is a white albatross, each local rep has a cover known as the Ego, and their mission in this world is Bad Shit. We do know what’s going on, and we let it go on. As long as we can see them, stare at them, those massively moneyed, once in a while. As long as they allow us a glimpse, however rarely. We need that. And how they know it—how often, under what conditions. . . ." (727)

Finally, the story's arc falls as does the rocket's trajectory that arches over this novel. You find, as in "Inherent Vice," that the conspiracy's rigged against you and anyone else who tries to pursue the mystery too far. "Gravity rules all the way out into the cold sphere, there is always the danger of falling." (737) The war ends and we all know who wins, but the true enemies in this novel appear as hidden as those in the rest of Pynchon's strange, encyclopedic, manic, affectionate, and perplexing pages.

P.S. In appropriately eerie fashion, I found this site once and luckily bookmarked it, for it never appeared again despite four searches on four different engines, with a test-phrase to summon from this vast text, "Tracy watering in frustration." Gravity's Rainbow.pdf

P.P.S. In shorter form, of course, this was posted to Amazon US & 9-10-10.


Tony Bailie said...

I've been hovering around Pynchon for a while now but not taken the plunge. This always looked to be the most interesting... thanks for pdf link. Can browse it now at my leisure... although still not sure if I have the time or inclination to immerse myself totally just yet.

Fionnchú said...

Tony, I wandered into Pynchon over decades now and then. I'm glad I waited to finally read "Gravity," as the earlier "V." and later "Against the Day" prepared me better.

I still favor those two, in reverse order, as the best places to enter TP's po-mo void, and as for "Inherent Vice" (which I hear is to be filmed!), it is very accessible (if only by comparison!) but more gently touches upon themes that the three main novels I mention here dig into. "Lot 49" I read long ago, and that may help as a primer; I want to re-read "Vineland," which again is an easier entry into TP.

Hope this all makes sense, speaking of an infamously "challenging" writer. There are wiki commentaries online that I highly recommend; I used these beginning with "AtD" and I needed them! "GR" I found to my surprise less engrossing than "AtD"-- I'm curious about your reactions. Lots of time invested, but worth it.

LittleIsis said...

Hey, sorry to be off topic but Tamerlane suggested I interview you. I'm interviewing several more people for the faith vs. unbelief series I started. Click on this link for the first part of the interview. And then I'll send you follow up questions. Thanks!

Fionnchú said...

Lil' Isis, thanks for the survey; I completed the 10 questions and I look forward to more. Best to you and Tamerlane and colleagues. I'll be delighted to add to your great discussion at Religiousity part 2 and part 1