Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon – Part 2
If one with Pynchon’s apocalyptic view of western society and his desire to write about it were to devise a novel on the subject, what form would suit his story best? In broadbrush form, it should probably consist of episodic segments using arcane terms, everything bouncing from place to place geographically, back and forth in time. Since life on planet earth has grown absurd, then the story should benefit from wry, edgy humor. Characterizations would be grossly exaggerated to fit this model of absurdism, and since these characters personify such absurdity, they would be depicted with little depth, the author dwelling on the manic, purposeless surface of everyday life. Occasionally, the insertion of grim, acerbic all-too-real philosophic passages would render such absurdism most trenchant.
Gravity’s Rainbow incorporates each of these traits, and I believe that’s why Pynchon chose the post-modern form. I suspect he didn’t intend to further this form of literature; rather he appropriated the then-embryonic form to suit his vision for the novel he chose to write.
As alluded to before, Pynchon apparently had, at least in his early years, an ability to assimilate both the exotic language of science and technology and the equally esoteric language of the various schools of mysticism that have proliferated over the ages. Used in tandem in Gravity’s Rainbow, these have the effect of padding the terminology of science with that of exotic spirituality. In his hands, this launches his characters into a story of a humanity spiritually bent toward excess of all sorts, and death in the form of self-destruction:
“As some secrets were given to the Gypsies to preserve against centrifugal history, and some to Kabbalists, the Templars, the Rosicrucians, so have this Secret of the Fearful Assembly, found their ways inside the weatherless spaces of this or that Ethnic Joke.”
In Pynchon’s hands humor becomes ribald, sophomoric. That shouldn’t be seen as an impediment in this novel, though; the more inane and childish the humor, the more his vision of an absurd humanity gains flesh:
“There is some excitement amidships. The Russians have thrown back a tarp to reveal the chimps, who are covered with vomit, and have also broken into the vodka…Some of the chimps are docile, others are looking for a fight.”
“And now, libeling,” Margherita with a rare and somewhat phony, smile, “let’s hear ‘Animal Crackers in My Soup’!”
“’Super Animals in my Crack,’” hollers a humorist from the crowd.
Page after page of this comes to a halt before:
“What the leaflet neglected to mention was that Benjamin Franklin was also a Mason, and given to cosmic forms of practical joksterism, of which the United States of America may well have been one.”
Humor, then, counterbalanced by abject reality or depictions of institutionalized paranoia, allows the ground under our feet to shift, and we slip into Pynchon’s form of literary chaos.
But any drunk or doped faux-writer could accomplish something of this sort. Is Pynchon one of these? Hardly. He knows his way around literary technique. Clearly he knows how to use the post-modern form – what it can and can’t do. He stretches the form perhaps beyond reasonable limits; still, he’s consistent in its use, and its effect on this reader’s sensibilities becomes consistent.
Among other clever uses of language, he compresses dialogue tags with narrative snippets and stage directions, adding to the book’s intensity:
“Well now—“ at which point Närrisch comes walking into them.
“You’re really hot, Rocketman, wow,” Krypton lying in back offering ankle and taped cocaine bottle go to Shirley with a smile.
This then is Gravity’s Rainbow in a pair of nutshells. But does it work? Is it literature? Debate argues the case on both counts, even some thirty years after its publication.
While I have to admire certain aspects of Pynchon’s efforts here, and while I recognize his ability to make such mental scramble consistent in its effect, it’s difficult to follow. It’s work, not fun. Consistency is not coherence, and it seems not to matter if one skips a hundred pages ahead in a story line that offers a glacial pace and overwhelming, largely senseless detail.
And so we come to the question of accessibility. This work, along with James Joyce’s and others, will always be lauded by some, simply because their convolutions are technically well crafted and manage consistency. Some will also say that art should have no social import; its presence in an artistic form is enough. Regarding Gravity’s Rainbow, then, I have to ask: If not for a world set on its ear by the stupidity, depravity, and senselessness of the early twentieth century, why would one write such a novel?
It’s good (and part of the reason literature exists) to challenge readers, to confront them with unexpected style and structure, but if such work is so daunting in its inanity as to put off those who might otherwise read it, then even its presence as art should be challenged.
That’s why my rating remains: 3.5 of 5 stars.
Causes Bob Mustin Supports
Native American culture. Education. Creative writing.