I have absolutely no idea what to say about this wonderful book, but I am going to try.
I picked up Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, one of those monsters some call a ‘magnum opus’, off the internet three months ago. I’ll be totally candid, I’d been told it was hard to read, but interesting, ‘high-brow’ even. I always find that kind of novel fun, because I like to form my own opinions on ‘must-read’ books. Books like this can lend themselves to flexing some novel knowledge when they come up over a beer. But, 500,000 words later, I feel I understand less about the novel than when I started. When I say ‘the novel’, I don’t mean this novel, I mean all novels. Pynchon breaks rules in Gravity’s Rainbow that I didn’t know existed until I saw them undone.
Are you allowed to simply not introduce a character? Is it OK to spend several pages introducing one as Franz, before later launching into a – brilliant, just by the way – many tens of pages long chapter about a man named Pokler, only to leave the reader to discover in an even later chapter that they were the same person all along? Can you write a scene where men in a white van castrate a racist army officer in a pig suit, accidentally? Even, for the fun of it, is an author able to get away with being so constantly and deliberately unpleasant?
Apparently, you can do all of these things in a novel, and win prizes and acclaim doing it. In the process, you may even succeed in telling an interesting story.
Gravity’s Rainbow is not, strictly speaking, a narrative in and of itself. It is an experiment in exposition. Pynchon plays with what he’s told the reader, dripping information here, implanting a bizarre image there, and it is us who have to piece together the mishmash of his thoughts from the chaos.
In this process, it is expected, even desirable to Pynchon it seems, that things do not add up. Gravity’s Rainbow is some of the funnest meta-fiction I’ve ever read, and this is a key example. Pynchon enjoys indulging in randomness, peppering it with references to the stochastic nature of life. He dunks the reader in confusion, exploring characters who can’t seem to understand anything, while explaining nothing. Nothing gets confusion across more cleanly than simply confusing people, right?
Full of metaphors with multiple or zero meanings, Gravity’s Rainbow breaks the fourth wall by pretending that there is no fourth wall.
I came upon this idea by asking myself a provocative question – what would I think of Gravity’s Rainbow if it was the first novel I ever finished? I thought “Well, I guess I would just think this is what novels are.” By extension, I really wouldn’t have found it very remarkable.
In preparing this review, I struggled to come up with a concise way to think about an extremely un-concise work, but for me that Gravity’s Rainbow subverts expectation for the sake of fun, rather than drama, is the key.
Pynchon uses every trick he can to subvert, play with, and in the end, utterly wreck any traditional understanding of the author-reader relationship. He relies on the fact that readers have come to expect certain conventions from authors, and he relentlessly fucks with those expectations.
Even the way he does this is unusual. In seeking to do this, Pynchon doesn’t send the plot a new direction, or leap into a new theme, or introduce a new character, or even simply switch up his narration (though he does), something any bright young student of postmodern fiction might first think is crucial to that sub genre of maximalist chaos fiction. Instead, he simply does away with the idea of a narrative as central to a novel.
Beginning, middle, end, introduction, complication, conclusion, Gravity’s Rainbow simply doesn’t have them, at least not in the way other novels do. Characters aren’t introduced, simply exposed. Events just sort of happen, sometimes we see them, sometimes characters remember them, sometimes they are alluded to, sometimes they are sung about, but never are they explained. How important they even are is never clearly implied, and left to us to decide. The reader watches the events of the novel voyeuristically, while Pynchon rants his life away, throwing together their thoughts, his style of exposition so different to what I’ve read in the past that this is the eleventh version of this sentence I’ve written, with ten different post-‘his style of exposition is so … ‘ adjectives lying in the discard pile.
This is not to say the book has no narrative. It does, but an overarching narrative just isn’t the novel’s main point. This is a trend I noticed reading Infinite Jest too, a book often compared to Gravity’s Rainbow. Rather than a single overarching plot, the book is many stories, intertwined with one another. It is completely full of hilarious, bizarre, interesting, tragic, and disgusting plots, many of which, when broken down, themselves actually tightly follow a traditional formula, even if Pynchon tries to hide this behind a wall of cryptic memery and eclectic narration style.
That said, Infinite Jest has a much more serious tone, and it’s chaos feels more layered, deliberate, and engineered, compared to Pynchon’s gleeful splashing of literary paint. Some of it comes out dark, but it feels as if the novel’s central theme is the absurd, and the dark aspects of the novel were tools in achieving absurdity. Conversely, David Foster Wallace uses absurdity as a tool, revealing the darker themes that were part of his vision for the novel – though Infinite Jest has distinctly hopeful moments, I still view it as on the darker side, though that is a thought for another day.
Gravity’s Rainbow’s eclectic stories do not always come together, and they certainly never do so for the sake of tying up loose ends. When concluding a yarn serves the purpose of continuing to interest Pynchon while he shoots up drugs and keeps on typing, he does so, but if not, it falls away. This is something else that makes the novel unique. Parts of the story come together before the end, but others are abandoned, never returned to, having once seemed crucial to its progression, and none of it feels engineered this way – Pynchon simply seems to have lost interest.
I’m reminded of an interview with Jason Alexander, who plays George Costanza in Seinfeld. He recalls working with Larry David, and how story lines in the show would simply evaporate. “A conflict would happen, and then it’d just get left there”, he said he would go to Larry, and asked what was going on, Larry simply said “it wasn’t funny anymore”, when pressed by Alexander, who said “But it needs to wrap up”, he just doubled down, saying “I just don’t care, it stopped being funny”.
Maybe I’m the first – and perhaps I’ll rightly be the last – person to compare Thomas Pynchon to Larry David, but his relentless pursuit of the funny is very like Pynchon’s pursuit of the interesting. If something stops being fun, Pynchon often just lets it fall away. Roger Mexico’s thread of the novel, which feels abandoned in favour of concluding Weissman and Enzian’s stories instead, is a good example of this.
This is not to say Pynchon breaks rules for the sake of it. When the interesting involves clean narrative, he lets it happen, when it involves using a stream of consciousness to explain a character fleeing through a toilet, and the struggles of having a piece of shit stuck up their nose, for the reason he is being chased to never be revealed, he lets that happen too.
Pynchon appears, at times, to have forgotten anyone would ever read Gravity’s Rainbow, and also seems to have decided that that’s the best way to write. Personally, I love it. If a novel is a piece of art, designed to explore human thought, it can do it in a tight, traditional, dramatic way, or it can do it in a diverse, wild, imaginative way, and I love getting a great taste of both.
So what elements of human thought does Gravity’s Rainbow use its crazy style to tackle? Well, it’s really complicated, and you should read the book. But, in short, Rocketman, Franz Pokler, The White Visitation, the Schwarzkommando, and Slothrop all had something in common – they were trying to figure out what the fuck was going on in the world around them, and why, if there is a reason, anything happens at all.
In the process of processing this question for himself, alone in front a typewriter, Pynchon’s insane imagination whisks the reader into the depths of the absurd and hysterical. From a town taken over by army dogs, to a sentient light bulb that is being hunted, and so must escape the grid, to a pie fight in a hot air balloon, to human experiments, and to genuinely unsettling scenes of brutality and deviance.
So, would I recommend this book? Well, you need a stomach for it, but if you’ve got one, you won’t forget it any time soon.