Friday, January 05, 2007

Swallowing the world, or: Sex, paranoia and rockets

Notes on Gravity's Rainbow

So I read Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

And, uh… yeah.

It’s like Jackson Pollock loaded a shotgun with buckshot made out of the Oxford English Dictionary and blazed away. That’s the first thing: it’s writing gone splatterpunk. The second thing is, after 700+ pages you may want to use that shotgun on yourself. It’s like being nose-to-nose with a speed freak shrieking about rockets, war, sex, paranoia, harmonicas, sadomasochism, coprophagia, more paranoia, hallucinations, physics, erections, conspiracies, an octopus, séances, hashish, orgies, anarchy, endless lists and, just for good measure, even more paranoia. There's a scene where the passengers of a hot-air balloon battle off a fighter plane with custard pies. There's endless discussions of rocket science, parabolic arcs, psychology theory, nuclear energy, chemical engineering. There's a family history of a goddamned light bulb.

Nothing succeeds like excess, the adage goes, and excess is Gravity’s Rainbow’s specialty. It’s a book that defies every rule of writing imaginable. It’s maddening, egotistical, obtuse, exhausting, even torturous. That it’s also brilliant is almost beside the point. Almost. If you believe that anything worthwhile is going to involve a bit of pain, well, step right up, the cat-o-nine-tails will a-whistle tonight.

Yeah, it’s a good book. A great book. A pinnacle of the craft of literary fiction. They haven’t trotted out all those superlatives since 1973 for nothing. And I honestly cannot wait to read it again. But a book of this scope demands a commitment that you might save for a significant other. It’s a relationship that you get into, with this Thomas Pynchon character. You might love him with all your heart, but other times you might simply want him to leave you the hell alone. Maybe that’s why he’s so infamously reclusive. The book’s such a great big sticky massive gob of contradictory, complicated, infuriating whatever-the-hell-it-is that Pynchon’s appearing in public would be totally redundant. The only other thing in this world that's a more glorious, exultant mess is humanity itself.

It’s everything. That’s what I first thought when I started. There’s seemingly nothing that escapes its gaze. (Apparently, everything that did escape ended up in Against the Day.) About 200 pages in I wrote “LOOK AT EVERYTHING” on a blue Post-It note and stuck it on the inside front cover of the old Bantam mass-market paperback copy I have (liberated from a used-bookstore rack in Asheville, North Carolina for $1.25). Pynchon can’t get enough of the world. It seems like there’s nothing that he doesn't want to shoehorn in -- he can't help himself. If you want a man trying to play God on a high-wire, Pynchon’s it. There’s nothing too high, too low. To him, the world has already gone to hell, and he’s helping himself to the detritus, and trying to rebuild it in his own image.

“Postmodernism” is one of those empty college-campus phrases that will cease to mean anything by the time that those that coined it have stopping walking the earth. Pynchon’s work is considered to be amongst those other writers of his era – Barth, Vonnegut, Robbins, et al – because language is his plaything, not necessarily a vessel for his story. With Barth, there’s a sense of exuberance, joy; wild enthusiasm in both the possibilities of language and his own capabilities. Pynchon’s approach is desperate, clamoring; he’s obsessed with getting through to you and yet he can’t say enough, he doesn’t know how to stop. And in not being able to say enough, he sometimes says nothing at all. Pynchon is a member of the first generation to grow up under the dark shadow of nuclear power – mankind’s hitherto unprecedented ability to destroy every living thing on the planet. I suppose that’s what the professors mean when they say “postmodern” – the intrinsic sense that the end of the rope is coming, that it’s a long way down. A little desperation in the face of that shouldn’t be all that surprising anymore.

Should you read it? Hell, yes. Pencil in a couple of months, though, and drink lots of echinacea tea. War and Peace is a breeze in comparison. (Seriously.) You come out of it scarred, bruised, dazed. But you won’t trade the experience for anything, because by then you’ll know that nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy.

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