Monday, December 23, 2013

At the End of Gravity's Rainbow

After six weeks of determined struggle, I've finally made it to the end of Gravity's Dictionary (the Pynchon postmodern classic, known to most as Gravity's Rainbow). It's one of those books that you don't read so much as live through (or survive), your friends and family meanwhile asking "Where's he been? Oh, wait, right; he was reading that Pynchon thing . . ." and then you emerge from the study door, like Rod Taylor in The Time Machine (1960 George Pal version), wheezing and hypoxic—in tatters, sartorially and psychologically—every brain cell screaming to its neighbors: "I've got blisters on my fingers!"
Rod Taylor (as H.G. Wells) enters the dining
room after returning from the year 802,701,
in The Time Machine (1960).

Certainly one of the more challenging works of English I've ever read (even admirers of the novel have been known to say reading it is "admittedly a slog . . ."; see a book excerpt here), Gravity's Rainbow sets a high water mark for inscrutability, at least among American authors. (We must give a nod to Joyce here.) Pynchon's style is unrelentingly baroque and macaronic, truncheoning the reader alternately with French, German, and English, layering engineering concepts atop scatological neologisms atop organic chemistry references atop acronyms, with frequent (and annoying) recourse to made-up song lyrics (please, Mr. Pynchon, curb your doggerel), switching from mimesis to diegesis the way Lady Gaga changes stage outfits. Of course, it's all good clean fun until someone loses a mind. Some idea of the vexation the book provokes can be inferred from the fact that despite a unanimous recommendation by the Fiction Jury (consisting of Benjamin DeMott, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Alfred Kazin) to award the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction to Pynchon, the larger Pulitzer committee overruled its own fiction judges and gave the 1974 fiction prize to—no one.

Whether Gravity's Rainbow deserves to be ranked among the greatest novels ever written (it has made more than one reviewer's "Top 100" list) is certainly open to debate. Whether it can even properly be called a novel is open to debate. (Well-known NYC book editor Gerald Howard once said of the putative classic it is "not a novel in the generally accepted sense—it is a text, intended for moral instruction.") If you come looking for a plot, you won't find one. There are bits and pieces of story, but in the end, Gravity's Rainbow is about as much an example of storytelling as head cheese is an example of meat. It's more of an accretion of vignettes and daydreams held together with digressions and song lyrics. Should we even bring up the matter of character arc? The main character (the bumbling, oversexed polymath, Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop) simply vanishes around 50 pages from the end of the 776-page book.

Pynchon's classic is not without its serious detractors. One reviewer, Walter Kirn, writing for Slate, took up
. . . the question of whether Pynchon's writings are intended for normal human beings. I don't think they are. They partake of what the Elizabethans called "euphuism"—the pursuit of linguistic complexity for its own sake. As such, they're intended for literary monastics, for the tenured priesthood of paid interpreters that sprang up in colleges after World War II with the help of massive public funding from schemes such as the GI Bill and Pell grants. This professional audience for difficult "texts" created the demand that Pynchon first filled with V. and Gravity's Rainbow, the semiotic monoliths whose mix of scientific imagery, Cold War absurdity, and Joycean allusion provided a kind of full-employment program for a generation of rising postdocs.
One can't help but hear in such shrill attacks the voice of the learned classical-music critic trying to come to grips with modern jazz. Would someone who has known only Haydn and Beethoven be competent to pass judgment on an Ella Fitzgerald scat, or a Keith Jarrett Köln Concert? Shall we criticize Miles Davis for not knowing how to carry a melody? Bill Evans for not knowing how to root a chord?

One critic (Dan Schneider) slammed Gravity's Rainbow for its lack of emotional impact, stating "it’s remarkable to think how utterly emotionally unaffecting the book is." This comes much closer to the mark, I think, because it's hard, actually, to recall a novel in which there are so many sex scenes, with so little passion in any of them. Indeed, Pynchon has a curious gift for creating colorful characters that lack life. The villains are flimsy (and of course it's perfectly okay that we make them sexual deviants, since they are Nazis, after all), the sympathetic characters conspicuously unsympathetic; the hero himself unremittingly bland. Slothrop, Pointsman, Eventyr, Tchitcherine, Mucker-Maffick, and the rest are all not just cardboard characters, but soggy, pissed-on cardboard. They materialize and dematerialize throughout the story like apparitions, wearing their affectations like paper armbands, making the masked extras in Eyes Wide Shut seem complex in comparison. (It's telling, I think, that as celebrated an epic as Gravity's Rainbow is, no attempt has ever been made to bring it to the big screen.)

Ostensibly, this is a book about war (World War II), and yet there are no battle scenes (only a hint of a firefight late in the book, amounting to nothing). All of the personnel are stationed in the rearmost of rear areas, Lieutenant Slothrop's most daring venture being a jaunt through Switzerland in the spring of 1945 (followed by a riverboat adventure that brings him, rather late, to Peenemünde). The V-2 rocket, and Slothrop's allusory erections, are the star of the show. We get to hear a great deal about guidance systems, Poisson distributions, dyes and propellants, the incestuous pre-war relationship between American and European industrial conglomerates; we even get Pynchon's charming account (via a parable involving one Byron the Light Bulb) of how incandescent filament life was balanced against the cartel-set price of tungsten and electric power company economic reality. But we see precious little of the human emotional toll of war that, for example, Tolstoy would have shown us. Even Vonnegut and Heller (with all their hyperbolic, tragicomic absurdism) were able to paint a more vivid, lasting, high-emotional-impact picture of World War II than Pynchon has managed to do in Gravity's Rainbow.

The inevitable comeback is "Well but you see now, that's just the point, isn't it? War is a dehumanizingly banal enterprise, in the end; the bureacratic machinery of armed conflict is fundamentally numbing to the spirit, and you can't really expect . . ."

Oh, but we can expect. Slaughterhouse Five. Catch-22. War and Peace. (Dare I say it? M*A*S*H.) We can expect more, much more, from a war story, even a humorously told one, I'm afraid.

Criticisms aside, Gravity's Rainbow will always have a special place in my heart, if for no other reason than its success in refuting the iron-clad dicta of the NYC publishing elite, who demand that a novel have compelling characters with well-defined character arcs, strong plot and subplots (with well-timed reversals), a timely theme, a well-defined genre, and all the rest—all hog-swill, basically. Somehow, Thomas Pynchon gave the finger to all that, and got away with it. No doubt there are other Pynchons out there right now, nascent meisters of the written word struggling to be heard above the white noise of Amazon ratings, Goodreads reviews, Bookbub "featured book" placements, und so weiter. We can only hope some of them will be discovered—and properly celebrated—while there are still those of us who remember how to read more than 140 characters at a time.