18 October, 2008

I have completed Gravity's Rainbow. Where's my paycheck?

So on Tuesday night, at the tail end of a feverish throat infection, I finally finished the 887 tiny-print pages of Thomas Pynchon's 1973 novel--the one that the Pulitzer Prize committee refused to award (despite its nomination) for being "unreadable, turgid, overwritten, and obscene." I began the book way back in April, at the beginning of my last serious, feverish illness, and it's taken me this long to slug my way through it. To be fair, I wasn't reading it from June until the beginning of September because I was reading other books for class and because I was on vacation, but to be honest, just because I was reading other books and just because I was on vacation shouldn't have stopped me from being able to continue with Gravity's Rainbow. The fact that it did is only proof of how difficult the novel is; it was impossible, at least for me, to commit my mind to anything else while struggling through Pynchon's world.

I'll attempt a plot synopsis here. American private first-class Tyrone Slothrop is doing military research and engaging in sexual hijinx while in England during the second World War (which is in its final year). As an infant he was sold by his parents to controversial behaviorist Dr. Jamf (think Pavlov and his dogs) for erectile conditioning experiments in exchange for financial security. The bizarre experiments became a humorous national news anecdote due to the intended response (infantile erection), though the stimuli were never made public. Two or three decades later, the various paranoid British and American coconspirators who have been recruited to spy on Slothrop's mysterious (yet extremely mundane) whereabouts begin to realize that his supposed sexual frolics correspond directly to German rocket blasts that strike London several days after his trysts, falling into a perfect graph of a classic Poisson distribution. I don't even know what that means exactly, but eventually through various mishaps Slothrop ends up as a spy in Germany investigating the history behind an advanced, enigmatic super-rocket developed by lonely geniuses from an exterminated South African-German tribe. While spying, he becomes a flamboyant drug mule who dresses like an astronaut/superhero and goes by the moniker Rocket Man. Shit hits the fan, and the world descends into madness as he escapes across the German countryside with a sow companion at the very end of the war.

I hope that makes sense to you because that's the best I can do. With something like 400 characters, most of them only vaguely, tangentially connected to Slothrop, engaging in detailed, directionless subplots while digressing into lengthy, rambling soliloquies, the novel frequently made no sense to me at all. While each one of the 500+ individual scenes/rants/images/routines/conversations/insights were interesting/clever/beautiful/comic/well-crafted/insightful, the sum of these multivarious parts was incoherent and dull. I won't even attempt to deny that Pynchon is an absolute genius and an extremely talented writer--his grasp of vocabulary, linguistics, history, rocket science, wordplay, geography, human behavior, and every single thing in between is mindblowing--but I have no shame in or trouble admitting that I have no idea what the point of Gravity's Rainbow was or what idea or affect I was supposed to take away from it. Is it pacifist? Yes. Is it paranoid? Yes. Is it self-mocking? Yes. Is it relevant? I'm not sure. Despite thousands of brilliant ideas and moments, the overall book itself is surprisingly forgettable, rarely if ever reaching the reader (well, me at least) on a personal, meaningful, or life-changing level.

And I was expecting something like that by the end. Some heart-shattering moment of clarity--maybe even just a page or two--in the climactic final chapters. But that moment never came, nor did a climax.

I know this isn't much of a review, but in my opinion it's as scatterbrained as the book itself. Do I regret spending so much time trudging through this? Not at all; at times I had very much fun with it. Would I recommend it to anyone else? Not without the aid of a comprehensive reader's guide (and they do exist). And perhaps not even then.

1 comment:

katie said...

So I'm taking from this post that I have no real reason to read Gravity's Rainbow. I kind of thought that beforehand, but I'm really glad you stuck it out to make sure. But then again, even while typing this, I'm thinking about how much I want to read it anyway.