Gravity’s Rainbow is a post-modern novel set in World War II that revolves around the direct/indirect relation/s of characters from different sides and nationalities with the V-2 and A4 German rockets before, during and after the war. At seven hundred and sixty pages it is no coincidence that this book has led to the second biggest gap in my blog’s history. However, one of the key factors that mainly attracted me to Pynchon’s second novel, and that is also largely at fault for this time gap was it’s famed difficulty. Gravity’s Rainbow is without a shadow of a doubt the hardest book I’ve ever read and, whilst I’ve managed to finish it, I keep thinking if this has just been a test of endurance, brilliance wrapped in an impenetrable book, a bunch of nonsense or a mixture of the three. I’m hoping to find out by the end of the review.
When I began to read this book back in Easter my main concern was that its size may make it a more appropriate candidate for summer reading because I knew for certain that this was going to take some time, but still I chose it because only then did I feel with the strength to tackle such an endeavor. There were other factors playing its part into my decision: the folklore surrounding the reclusive author, the chance to explore a novel that pushed the boundaries of narrative, the reputation of the book, etc.… but the primary driving force was to see if could handle something that challenged me as a reader.
I should put a counter every time I say this in a review because the following phrase is becoming more and more frequent with each review: I purchased this book in my favorite used bookstore. For the extremely affordable price of 2.50 € I got my hands on a second print paperback from the UK dating from 1974 (the first edition was published in 1973 and has very peculiar characteristics). On the second and third pages of the book one of its previous owners wrote his name and most likely purchasing date “Javier Cerame 1976”. Taking into account the time it had and the journey it must have taken, the quality of the book at the time of purchase could be generously labelled as “good”, but thanks to my father’s awesome book restoration skills, he managed to save it from further descent into “fair” quality (for the uninitiated or those that don’t know or don’t care about used books this is the standard to follow to label conditions).
Editorial note: From now on, whenever I buy a book that requires the care of my father I’ll put pictures of the restoration process. Here he is applying methyl to the dented edges of the book. In one of the pictures it can be observed that the back was so damaged that it also required Japanese paper (also called Washi 和紙) to avoid further deterioration and to strengthen it.
Unlike other writers which I’ve reviewed before, I don’t have a long story to tell about how I came to know Thomas Pynchon. I suppose that one of the first mentions that may have passed without much notice on my side could have been one of his cameos in The Simpsons; back then I was not the bookworm that I am today and his presence didn’t register to me until later views in one of many TV reruns. My first fully aware Pynchon experience came in the form of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film “Inherent Vice” adapted from the novel of the same name.
Much like the audience and critic’s consensus I found the movie incoherent and the plot impossible to follow which, despite the excellent performance of Joaquin Phoenix, forced me to give up on the film at the half an hour mark (an issue that I did not encounter with PTA’s previous film The Master where both Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman give stellar performances with a fairly bland-but-coherent script). In hindsight, it seems idiotic investing my time on this book when I couldn’t even digest a 148-minute movie that I knew followed its source novel very closely. Live and learn I guess.
I began reading Gravity’s Rainbow on the 24th of March 2018. I think I knew by the end of the week that I was not going to get this book even if I managed to finish it. I was still willing to go on a limb to see if there was something there and I’d stand corrected, but from the start I began noticing a worrying pattern: nearly every time I finished a section and moved on to the next, I’d forget pretty much everything that I had just read and, to make things worse, out of what I read I’d say around 85% I didn’t understand and 15% would barely give me a general understanding of the situation.
At the beginning of the book the main contributor to this confusion was Pynchon’s character relations, which are fuzzy and desperately asking the reader to make a map (like this one), plus the fact that he really doesn’t seem interested in the background of the characters he introduces and instead shifts his focus on the decisions they make. As a result, the reader is caught up in the middle of the action and forced to catchup for a large part of the book and, since the events turn out to be set during World War Two, this only exacerbates the feeling of confusion. Only until I got to 4/5 of the way did I manage to see (barely) where and why everyone fitted into the overall story, but most importantly realized that the focus was always on the rocket. The characters are just pieces of its schematic and history.
When the role each character plays became a bit clearer, my lack of understanding changed from a who-is-who situation and how are they connected to a more complicated form of confusion mainly due to the way Pynchon choses to tell this story. To best explain it let’s look at the following sequence: Character B is introduced → Character B begins reminiscing about a past experience → Character’s B past experience involves Character C → Character C starts talking about a subject completely unrelated to the events written before introduction of Character B → There is a song by Character C → Character C turns out to be talking about a past relation with character A previously mentioned, but unrelated –or just barely– to character B → But only you’ll find out later when Character A meets Character B.
Easy, right? Well, get ready because Gravity’s Rainbow is full of these type of structures.
A prime example of the above is THE STORY OF BYRON THE BULB (located at the beginning of Part 4: The Counterforce). In it, a completely irrelevant character to the story stops to look at a bulb and we, the reader, get nine pages on the hypothetical life of this bulb if it were sentient and had an agenda (with a song included). Although I absolutely loved the story of the Bulb (which is the main reason why I remember it) for its sheer absurdity, Pynchon goes on so many tangents of this sort with different degrees of complexity and different characters and/or things that it is virtually impossible to follow. Editorial note: One of the arguments that I’ve read to facilitate reading Pynchon is to focus on the whole and not the threads but I was not capable of taking this approach when I was reading the book.
One of the few things in the novel that I got a sense of and that I think is worth exploring is the constant presence of paranoia caused by the settings and the internal madness of the characters; and which is represented best in the novel by the pivotal character, Tyrone Slothrop (a.k.a. Rocketman).
The theme of paranoia is present pretty much from the start, but to me it began to stand out in part 2 of the novel, titled Un Perm’ au Casino Hermann Goering. In this section, the relation between the character of Slothrop (a US Army Lieutenant who has an unexplained link to the rockets and whose actions indicates a form of precognition) and the role he is expected to play in regards to finding the A4 rocket (a new and more powerful version of the V-2 Rocket) is hinted at in the following five Proverbs for Paranoids:
1 – You May Never Get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.
2 – The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.
3 – If they get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.
4 – You hide, they seek.
5 – Paranoids are not paranoids because they are paranoids, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.
When these proverbs began popping up (first one is on page 237) I felt that Pynchon was highlighting something very important for the reader and once I finished the book I realized that nearly every character’s action fits into one of these five proverbs.
Editorial note: Having reached this point in the review I’m getting the feeling that I’ve paid little to no attention to the story itself; unfortunately the issue lies herein as everything I felt needed to be said about the story was and is covered in this post’s first sentence, and I can think of no compelling reason for me to write more about it because there is nothing in the story that really grabbed my attention or made me want to analyze it deeper.
I could be accused of being an unsophisticated reader but I think the truth is that I’m just one of thousands that has tried to read and understand Thomas Pynchon and failed. Out of the three options I considered at the beginning and taking into account the (mostly) blank effect that the novel had on me, Gravity’s Rainbow felt nothing more than an exercise in endurance. This book was too dense for me to grasp and, even though I can clearly see how ambitious it wants to be, I simply could not find much of anything that resonated with me or that I could take away from. It is like being shown an abstract painting. I’m sure the artist imbued it with thousands of designs and meanings but I can’t understand it by myself.
This may be the harshest book review I’ve done so far (it is definitely the hardest) but I’m happy to see that the author is no stranger to them as seen in the clip below. I finished reading Gravity’s Rainbow on the 27th of May 2018. After such a beefy dinner I’m ready for something a bit lighter and that will certainly come much sooner. Until then, and as always, thanks for reading.