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Gravity's Rainbow
by Thomas Pynchon

Overall: 9
Readability: 1
Intelligence: 10

Towards the end of WWII, the Germans unleashed their secret V2 rocket program and sent hundreds of rockets screaming towards London. A few months after these bombs began falling in London, British Intelligence discovers an odd coincidence regarding an American soldier named Tyrone Slothrop. Slothrop has taken to marking his sexual conquests on a map of London. Oddly, the marked points on the map happen to coincide identically with V-2 rocket impact sites. It turns out that, as an infant, Slothrop was the subject of a rather strange Pavlovian experiment which was never concluded properly, and it is suspected that this conditioning imparted some latent abilities upon Slothrop.. This discovery will set Slothrop on a journey across war-torn Europe, searching for the mysterious Rocket 00000...

Yeah, and Moby Dick was about a whale.

Truth be told, Gravity's Rainbow defies any conventional summary, and, indeed, any conventional review. It is often observed that most people don't so much review the contents of the novel as the experience they had in reading it. The focus is often on how long it took to read it, the stigma that is associated with it, or how difficult it is to read. And this is a difficult book. It took me about a year of off-and-on reading to complete it... This is not to say that I did not enjoy it, just that I needed to be in a certain mood to read it. It's one of those books that simply demands an attentive reading, and that was not always possible for me.

Pynchon's prose is extremely complex and convoluted. It snakes around, quickly and deftly tackling various subjects without staying in one place for very long at a time. It's mindnumbingly dense, peppered with words, concepts, and ideas that are vague and esoteric. One of the things I enjoyed most was picking through the elaborate text, researching and cataloging the interesting passages or historical references that salt Pynchon's text. Depending on how you approach the novel, a passing familiarity with the many subjects that Pynchon mentions (such as Pavlovian psychology, Qabalah, or German history between world wars) might be rewarding.

The style of Pynchon's writing is also a bit difficult, as he will often adapt the style to fit the situation he is describing. It can be daunting to read, as he will often shift the narrative without any warning or break out into movie-script format in the middle of a chapter. Anything is possible. Perspectives can suddenly switch from one character, time, or place to another in mid-sentence. Often, the narrative takes on the style of the character it is describing (until the narrative shifts to another character or place, thus shifting the style yet again). He makes extensive use of flashbacks, often shifting perspectives at the same time so that the flashback is "told" by someone other than the person having the flashback... There are a lot of tangents too, as Pynchon doesn't shy away from exploring language or narrative style, but he (eventually) returns to a few main threads.

The plot itself is oddly structured. The first section of the book is a particularly chaotic mix of styles and plotpoints. It reminds me of the first week of class or sports practice, where the teacher or coach will inundate their subjects with work to weed out the unworthy. In any case the plot is extremely fragmentary. I often found myself straining to keep the narrative straight, but every time I thought I had it figured out, something new popped up and knocked me on my arse. You might even be able to argue that there is no discernable plot, but I think there is an overall structure to the story, albeit not a linear or traditional one. Indeed, its difficult to say what Gravity's Rainbow is about. It's a very large and complex novel, tackling a wide array of themes, ideas, and concepts ranging from the issue of control and paranoia to "love's bitter mystery," usually exploring the theme from several different perspectives. Naturally, a work that is this complex will mean different things to different people, and there is certainly enough material here to accommodate everyone. There will be a longer selection of quotes below, but on page 727, Pynchon speaks of one of the main characters in the novel - the Rocket:
But the Rocket has to be many things, it must answer to a number of different shapes in the dreams of those who touch it [...] Each will have his personal Rocket.
[some editing and emphasis added] And such it is that you will have your personal interpretations of what Gravity's Rainbow is all about (if you think it is about anything). This book is many things and will answer to a number of different shapes in the dreams of those who read it.

The cast of characters is enormous, as is the variety of settings. I suppose the main character is Tyrone Slothrop, who is probably the most likable character of the lot. His misadventures also make for the most readable and fun reading this book has to offer. From his picaresque adventures as Rocketman to his mid-air pie fights with fighter planes, Slothrop's romp across post-war Europe is the most entertaining portion of the novel. I particularly enjoyed the portion of the novel in which Slothrop wanders into "a coastal town near Wismar" and is coopted to play the Pig-god Plechazunga in a reenactment of town history. Basically, for a while after this, Slothrop is running around in a Pig costume. It is an amusing episode, one of several.

Again, this can all be somewhat daunting. There are times when it just gets to be too much and it seems like the text is absolutely nonsensical. I had a lot of trouble towards the beginning of the novel, I think, because I was straining to make too much sense of everything. I eventually gave up and started just letting the novel be, and I suddenly found it taking shape. That, to me, was the secret to reading this novel.

Take, for instance, the infamous Byron the Bulb. Towards the end of the novel, Pynchon suddenly makes a 10 page digression chronicling the life and times of a sentient lightbulb (named Byron). These sorts of tangents tend to give some people the hives. To me, Byron the Bulb is a microcosm of the entire novel (among other things); Byron's story is not all that different from Slothrop's and I found the entire passage riveting (in part because I wasn't trying to make sense of it in the context in which it was brought up).

However, I never could quite shake the feeling that this novel is mostly style and little story, and thus I can't quite bring myself to give the highest rating I can. In terms of style, it is hands down the best thing I've ever read, if a little difficult. Reading something right after you've read Gravity's Rainbow is interesting, because nearly everything seems so simplistic. But style for the sake of style doesn't quite cut it. Still, I rate it extremely high because it truly is an achievement and I believe Pynchon accomplished whatever it was he sought out to do with this novel.

If I were to meet Thomas Pynchon tomorrow, I wouldn't know whether to shake his hand or sucker-punch him. Probably both. I'd extend my right arm, take his hand in mine, give one good pump, then yank him towards my swinging left fist. As he lay crumpled on the ground beneath me, gasping in pain, I'd point a bony finger right between his eyes and say "That was for Gravity's Rainbow." I think he'd understand.

Footnotes from Beyond the Zero:
As I made my way through Pynchon's dense prose, I wrote a series of blog posts cataloguing various things I found interesting or researched. Note that many of the quotes mentioned in these posts will be mention later in this review.

Gravity's Rainbow - A Web Guide: A great help in contextual research A good source for Pynchonalia
Spermatikos Logos: Excellent Pynchon site, with a good Gravity's Rainbow section.
The Illustrated Complete Summary of Gravity's Rainbow: An attempted summary of the novel, filled with Flash animations and original artwork.
Paper Pynchon: Brilliant.
Gravity's Rainbow - Book a Minute: Ultra-condensed review by Glenn Davis Buy it here!

The quantity and quality of quotes I'd like to mention is massive enough to necessitate a page of its own.

Further Discussion:
  • How does technology affect the world in Gravity's Rainbow? Like Frankenstein's monster, will our technological innovations lead to our undoing? How is nature affected?
  • A common theme in literature is nature's indifference to human affairs. Given, however, the massive destructive power that becomes possible by technology, can nature act as a counterbalance to humankind's destructive nature? Should it?
  • Is our understanding of science and causality something that we have imposed on reality in order to explain it?
  • How does Pynchon's treatment of post-war Europe compare with the historical truth?
  • "Each will have his personal Rocket." What's yours?
  • Ya ya, symbolism, ya ya themes, what does it all mean? Does it mean anything? Is there a point to the novel at all?
  • Is this the triumph of style over substance? Is that a good thing? Can style over substance work at all? Or does the manic style of this novel detract from it's impact?
  • Is the novel actually difficult, or am I just whiney?

A "Gravity's Rainbow" Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon's Novel by Steven C. Weisenburger
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
V. by Thomas Pynchon

book cover

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