Gravity's Rainbow

Thomas Pynchon
Gravity's Rainbow Cover

Now everybody--


Pynchon on The Simpsons

There is something about February through June. Every year, I read the "heaviest" books out there in these months. Last year it was James Joyce's The Dubliners, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. In 2013, I figure to tackle some Pynchon, and Nabokov's Pale Fire .

So I decided to kick this year's heavy reading season off with the granddaddy of all postmodernist maximalist books, Gravity's Rainbow.

Why not? It's been 20 years, give or take, since I read it.

It turns out that the only difference between then and now is that The Simpsons spoofed the reclusive Thomas Pynchon. Other than that, the book has lost none of it's power. Nor, unfortunately, has it become any easier to follow. Which is why it is still considered a postmodernist masterpiece.

If you have not read it, prepare for a bit of a ride. It takes works, especially in the opening section, Beyond the Zero. Pynchon does not introduce you to characters, one after the other. Instead, his narrator jumps from character to character, scene to scenes abruptly. So it takes a while for the major players to coagulate into real people. And the plot becomes clearer. But be forewarned: when the plot finally emerges, things get even weirderer than the early hallucinatory scenes. And a bit more brutal at times.

Our humble protagonist, the American slob Tyrone Slothrop is stationed in London near the end of WWII. Germany is lobbing V-2 rockets across the straights in a last-ditch effort to cripple Britain. Add Slothrop begins to suspect, paranoid style, that he is being tailed.

But, as Joseph Heller pointed out, "Just because you're paranoid don't mean they're not after you."

Because they are after Slothrop. Why?

It turns out that Slothrop's sexual liaisons map precisely to the locations that V-2 bomb strikes. And mad scientist Pointsman grows obsessed to explain the phenomena. And thus has Slothrop committed to an insane asylum, St. Veronica s, which actually a front for the secret organization "The White Visitation" that is trying to leverage psi -- or psychic powers -- into weapons that the military can use.

Weird enough for you? Well, it gets even stranger. After being discharged, Slothrop begins a rampage through Europe beginning in the Hermann Goering Casino in the newly liberated French Riviera. Which is where Slothrop falls in love with the spy Katje. Who was a former lover of the creator of the V-2 rocket, the sadistic German scientist Blicero. Who is fashioning a V-2 rocket with the serial number 00000 made out of a new plastic polymer created by German genius Jamf, Imipolex G, that Slothrop remembers smelling as a child. Because, it turn out, that Jamf was experimenting on baby Slothrop. While working for a US military contractor. And this memory causes Slothrop to investigate the connections between the German company and American. And he uncovers a likely plot that shows that corporations are behind the war. And they are running them solely to make money...

Slothrop as Rocketman

Okay. I'm up for air. =) Here I go again...

And it the conspiracy is not enough for you, Slothrop falls in with some dope dealers. Who have stumbled upon a stash of Wagnerian costumes. And a girl from the party gives Slothrop a Viking helmet, from which she removes the helmet, and a cape. And, from then on, Slothrop, rapidly disintegrating into madness, becomes a Don Quixote-like super hero "Rocketman." Who is spends his life devoted to truth, justice, and finding rocket 00000.

Okay. Okay. I'll stop. Because that is only about half of the plot. And tracing only Slothrop. So there is no way to reliably summarize a plot so crazy and wild. One needs only to appreciate. And wonder at the fertile, psychedelic demented genius in Pynchon.

He spins conspiracies that make Glenn Beck seem sane...

Throughout, Pynchon's language is evocative. And nearly as convoluted as the plot. He uses run-on sentences in a cadences reminiscent of Ginsberg's seminal Howl. And, like the Beats, he piles symbol upon image upon alliterative sound to weave a wall of language that can at once draw one in and, should you lose concentration for a second, leave you lost, turning back five pages until you rediscover the last time you were following Pynchon's main thread.

Here is a relatively simple example from the beginning of the Book's third section, The Zone:

"So generation after generation of men in love with pain and passivity serve out their time in the Zone, silent, redolent of faded sperm, terrified of dying, desperately addicted to the comforts others sell them, however useless, ugly or shallow, willing to have life defined for them by men whose only talent is for death."

There is, no doubt, power in this book. It is challenging, on par with Ulysses, and Woolf's The Waves, but far less head-scratchy than Finnegans Wake.

My 2013 Take on Gravity's Rainbow

.... See more at Leo's Blog.