Sunday, July 27, 2014

Gravity's Rainbow

"A Screaming comes across the sky..."
- First line

- Richard M. Nixon

           It has been an age that I have been locked in mortal combat with this book. I first discovered it when my dad told me about it, and that if I could read it and understand it, I would be able to prove myself in most intellectual arenas against people who do the New York Times crossword in pen. Because he spoke so highly of the book, I took it out of the library one summer in my precocious youth and sat down on the back porch (because in those days we still had a back porch, before sad and upsetting circumstances forced us to do without) and began to read.

           Moments later, and about fifty pages in, I stopped and went, "Why this is simply a World War II novel written in dense and confusing language!" And closed the book, resolving never to pick it up again. This, combined with my earlier attempts to read V. at the local public pool (an attempt which may have been sadly colored by sitting in gum as I read at the local public pool), convinced me Thomas Pynchon was a complete waste of time. I believed I'd tried, seen through him, and that was all there was to it. I didn't need to read any more. I didn't need to know any more. I could safely write him off and never have to read any more ever again. 

               Except...then, on the advice of the usually sage and slightly whacked Steve Jackson Games, who listed The Crying of Lot 49 in their influences in the back of the manual for Illuminati*, I checked out Lot 49, and it was amazing. I still didn't think I was ready for Gravity's Rainbow, and maybe it was just the time that I read it, which was around the same time I'd read Naked Lunch and several other books of conspiracy lit written on drugs, but it was enough to make me turn around. I actually tried reading Gravity's Rainbow again in 2011, but sadly between looming overdue fees and the schedule for my then-budding book blog, I was unable to actually get very far. 

               But finally, after years of false starts and bizarre interruptions, I can finally say that I have read Gravity's Rainbow. And it is one of the greatest, if not the greatest work of American literature, and an all-time favorite of mine. While I cannot recommend this book to everyone, I believe that everyone should at least give it a try, as there is literally nothing else like it. It's a huge, dense, bizarre musical comedy-fantasy-science fiction-thriller that in the end is about absolutely everything, while not actually being about absolutely everything. As I have said twice before with books this month, literally the only thing you have to lose is time, so do yourself a favor. At the very least, it'll be interesting. At the most, it might open you up to some interesting thoughts that you may not have had. But either way, all you'll waste is your time.

More, as always, below.

               Gravity's Rainbow is nominally the story of  Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop. Slothrop is the closest thing to a central character the book has, being as it has four hundred named characters with page time. Slothrop is part of a division called ACHTUNG that monitors V-2 rocket strikes and tries to find some way to predict and stop the rocket strikes before they happen. They do this through both scientific means, such as trying to use the Poisson Distribution to pinpoint where the rockets have landed, and occult means such as examining tarot readings and using remote viewing. Somewhere in between is insane Pavlovian researcher Pointsman, who grabs stray dogs off the street to perform experiments on their salivary glands via intubation, and conditions an octopus named Grigori for odd responses when it sees a specific young woman named Katje. Slothrop is basically no more than a drone, an officer working in a cubicle, when all of a sudden, his office-mate makes the realization that a map on Slothrop's wall of his sexual conquests matches up directly to the Poisson Distribution of where the rockets landed, meaning Slothrop is essentially target-spotting the rockets with his erection. This leads the more occult wing of ACHTUNG, named The White Visitation after the building where they are housed, to monitor him closely using a conspiracy network of his own friends and coworkers. 

And then things, as difficult as this may be to believe, get weird.

                Slothrop is watched carefully by both ACHTUNG, and Katje, a mysterious femme fatale that seems to induce kinky sex wherever she goes and change identity and allegiance almost as often. Characters begin to mysteriously disappear and reappear. A Nazi scientist is having BDSM sessions at a rocket testing site while building the mysterious Rocket 0000, also known as "The Black Device". A man with the power of astral projection into dreamscapes tries to investigate various characters in the hopes of finding something, anything that he can use to tilt the war effort. Long discussions about predestination are had. Characters break out into song. Things cease to exist. And at a certain point, the Red King's Dream plays out in the plot of the book, causing the entire structure to break down due to the absence of a single character, as well as the fragmentation of said character's mind. A sentient, immortal lightbulb enters the plot at one point. In the midst of all of this, Slothrop makes a journey across Germany as things get more and more surreal to try and figure out why these events seem centered on him, and exactly what sinister conspiracy is behind them. Also, there's coprophilia, the most frightening journey down a toilet pipe this side of Trainspotting, and a discussion of psychosexual implications of rocket launches and human sacrifice.

                  In the end, it's an odd commentary on the human condition in the latter half of the Twentieth Century by way of an absurdist sci-fi novel, a jazz-like piece centered around the launch and explosion of a rocket-- and even bookended by that. 

                  I suppose what I like most about the book would have to be the sheer complexity and density in its pages. Every time I've read the book, it feels like a completely different book to me, because I discover something different each time based on how I feel and where my head is when I read it. I've stumbled across passages I could have sworn weren't there the last time, and passages I've read in the past I sometimes can't find at all. Each page is packed full of an astonishing amount of detail, unfurling in more reference and vivid description the more one knows about exactly what the hell Pynchon is talking about. Which isn't to say one can't also get enough out of the book from the surface of it, but while the surface is one layer, the book piles layer upon layer of detail and reference from the most obscure psychological techniques all the way up and out through comic books and the philosophies of divination and determinism. And yet, somehow, unlike the works of Umberto Eco or other authors that pile on the complexity, Pynchon doesn't make the reader feel like they're missing anything. While there are some things that require more information than one probably has, at the same time, it doesn't feel like it's completely impenetrable, and some things can be gained from context or just reading the passage and filing away looking up some of the concepts presented for later. 

                  I also like the structure. When I refer to it as "Jazz-like", I should probably explain how I think of jazz. For me, jazz is a piece of music where it has a central theme, but around that central theme are constant improvisations and spirals that fly dangerously out of control sometimes, but all connected to those central themes. While I could use any particular style of music**, the sometimes random-seeming passages and wild tangents jazz occasionally takes puts me more in the mind that it's a jazz piece. At the center of the book are Slothrop and the V-2 rocket. Everything else spins off of this, from wildly unrelated-seeming passages discussing linear time, to scenes of attempted bestiality and consummated coprophilia, to examination of Slothrop's ancestors and descendants and their exploits as well. The book is divided into four main "Movements" ("Beyond the Zero", "Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering", "In The Zone", and "The Counterforce"), each movement broken up into subsections or "episodes" involving the various characters and asides. But no matter how far-fetched or unrelated any given passage will seem, they always come back to Slothrop and, through him, the V-2. In fact, the book is even bookended by the same thing: A V-2 launches up into the air, then impacts and explodes upon the earth, creating a parabolic trail, the titular "Gravity's Rainbow". This gives the book a lot more cohesion than at first it seems it has, and allows the reader to cling to something, a guide-line that allows them deeper into the book. It also makes it seem like all of this has more of a point.

                        And finally, I like the way the book tackles its themes. It's a book that attempts to be about everything, and to a certain degree, it succeeds. In presenting itself as an absurdist travelogue through the war and indeed the philosophies being thrown around during the twentieth century, it makes a lot of the things it tries to get down very palatable. It's an insane novel, make no mistake, but the concepts are easier to swallow than most would make them out to be. Through the completely absurd narrative, Pynchon manages to tackle such wide-ranging subjects as absurdism, theories about time, conditioned responses, war, Nazi occultism, racism, the possibility that all of reality is a dream, and many more. In fact, whole essays can and have been written on the subjects Pynchon covers, a wide range for what's essentially an absurd, hallucinatory novel. It makes what it wants to talk about very palatable and actually, despite being a book where a woman engages in kinky sex with a man followed by a supposedly unexpected coprophilic episode***, handles a lot of its themes very subtly and with very little menace towards its readers.

                         But of course, it's the matter of menace towards its readers that brings me around to not recommending it. Gravity's Rainbow has a reputation as being a nigh-impenetrable maze of letters and sentence fragments written by a man who was at times high while he wrote his book. Pretty much all of this is true, and Pynchon admits he wrote some sections on acid. It's one of the few books where there's a learning curve-- and a pretty steep one at that-- that isn't a complete omnishambles and atrocity like Ulysses. And there's nothing I can say to defend it. It's dense, crazy, and mind-screwy at almost all points. I think it's part of the charm, though I've heard people say it's simply obfuscating for obfuscation's sake, and to be fair, as one can see from the start of the review, I agreed with them once upon a time. But it's like anything difficult-- video games, music, books...all you'll be wasting is your time, and if you persevere and push through it hard enough, there are some genuinely cool things that get introduced. At the very least, it succeeds at being highly original and not telling a story anyone's thought of before. 

                     So in the end? Read this book. I won't recommend buying it, I wouldn't dare ask you to spend money on something you'll either like or throw across the room, but you can at least give it a try. You might decide it's not for you. You might dig it. Hell, it might make you think about things a little differently (hopefully not about me, but differently nonetheless). As I continue to repeat this month, all you have to lose is your time. So give it a try.
Now, everybody--

- An introduction to Epics Month as we discuss what an "epic" is, and how I applied the criteria to the comics I plan to review.
- The start of Epics Month with Preacher by Garth Ennis

- The Sandman by Neil Gaiman et. al.
- Lucifer by Mike Carey and Peter Gross et. al.
- The Invisibles by Grant Morrison et. al.

*A card game where, when someone leaves the table, you all gang up on them and plot against them. It's in the rules. I'm not even joking.
** Laurie Anderson once wanted to make a Gravity's Rainbow opera. Pynchon responded that she had his permission "as long as it was for only one instrument, the banjo". Anderson took this as a polite "no". I took it as Pynchon wanting to see his book turned into a banjo opera. That's how you know you made it as an author, your work becomes a banjo opera. Why do you think JK Rowling keeps writing books? No banjo opera. Also, did I mention "banjo opera" is fun to type?
***This episode caused the judging committee for the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction to just give up and refuse to award anyone that year, as they came to a split decision.

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