“A screaming thing comes across the sky. It’s a V-2 rocket carrying twelve thousand pounds of symbolism, and it’s coming down on your poor, deluded, postmodern head.”
– Book-a-Minute Classics (ultra-condensed by Glenn Davis)
There was no update last weekend because I spent a great big chunk of the weekend either spending time with family and friends or reading Gravity’s Rainbow for the first time. It is the first book on the 2011 Summer Reading list, which my wife has already blogged about several times. She began the summer with The Once and Future King. I chose to begin with Thomas Pynchon primarily because I anticipated that his would be the most difficult book of the bunch to read, and I wanted to plow through it while I was at the height of self-motivation. As Ellen has already noted, we (she, my little sister, and I) each picked two books, with no particular order set in which we would read them as a group. Our rationale for selecting each one was more or less arbitrary. The top criterion, of course, was that the book appealed to us. Another key criterion was that it should be a book that we might find challenging in some way, and that would therefore benefit from group discussion a little more than something more disposable. For Gravity’s Rainbow in particular, though, I had a few more personal reasons.
The foremost is that several friends of mine have spoken very highly of Pynchon in the past, and he therefore comes recommended by people whose taste and judgment I trust. Another reason — one that is very irrational, natch — has to do with my perpetual insecurity regarding my own education. Whether this is the case or not, it seemed to me when I was in grad school that a majority of my peers had all read and appreciated Pynchon, whereas I had not read a single one of his works. This inferiority complex was only fueled by the degree to which I was perpetually outclassed by my fellow students in classes devoted to William Faulkner and James Joyce. It was actually the latter class, in which we spent a semester doing a deep reading of Ulysses, that indirectly led to me picking Gravity’s Rainbow. Since graduating, I have read a great deal (though never as much as I’d like, but that’s the curse of loving literature — however much you read, it’s never enough), but nothing with the density of Ulysses. The closest I came was an unsuccessful expedition through Nabokov’s Ada, which is still in the back seat of my car, approximately half-finished. For years now, I’ve read and heard about Gravity’s Rainbow, purported to be one of the great American novels. And if not one of the great American novels, it is surely one of the the great paperweights favored by contemporary American hipsters.
To be honest, I have absolutely no idea how this perception took root in my mind, but for what feels like “the longest time,” Gravity’s Rainbow has been one of those books that, when I go to the bookstore, I will circle around on the shelf, perhaps pluck out and heft, weighing the choice between purchasing it or another novel… and then replace, inevitably opting for something else. Something less intimidating.
This summer I drew a line in the sand. No more will I be bullied by the specter of Thomas Pynchon and my own ludicrous, self-pitying conjurations.
On the afternoon of Sunday, June 12th, 2011, I finished this intimidating tome. I have no problem admitting that I did not get everything out of it that there is to get. After all, it was only my first time through, and I did not consult any sort of concordance, even though there are several available either online or in print. Actually, I’m thrilled that I got the gist of the novel without any external aids.
A quick Google search (the humble blogger’s substitute for real, honest-to-pete research) brought up a review written in 1973 by Richard Locke, which was published in the New York Times. In it, he expresses admiration for the craft and scope of the work while acknowledging that it’s a bit difficult to give oneself over to the emotional headspace of the novel. At this point, I’m not sure how much I agree or disagree with his assessment — after all, I’m not as well-versed as Locke with the literary influences and allusions Pynchon draws from. But the last few sentences in that review ring true for me, even though future re-readings may alter my opinion:
His novel is in this sense a work of paranoid genius, a magnificent necropolis that will take its place amidst the grand detritus of our culture. Its teetering structure is greater by far than the many surrounding literary shacks and hovels. But we must look to other writers for food and warmth.
I don’t recall precisely at what point I was stunned — left literally breathless for a few seconds — by the dexterity with which Pynchon had managed to weave together virtually significant theme of literature into the metaphor of the rocket. Are human beings programmed or can they exercise a measure of free will? Are they more prone to destruction or expansion (bombs or escape velocity)? They can mean different things to different people, and they are impossibly complex, both in pure physical terms and in hidden, more philosophically obtuse ways. Sex, death, life, obsession, paranoia — the whole gamut of the human experience, especially as it relates to the rapidity of technology’s advance. The rocket represents a synthetic apotheosis that dominates reality, leaving only one viable option for achieving something real: death.
Part of me is inclined to say that anyone with enough genius to depict such a fallen world and such pathetic characters in such detail must have compassion; that there must be something hopeful in the fact that someone who can see things so clearly can show us our sins, so that we may have a slim chance of changing our vector. The other part of me, though, the one with whom Locke’s review resonated, feels that Pynchon, as he satirically exaggerates his characters’ foibles and dreams for maximum impact, is a shade too pitiless. Too unsparing. There’s a certain nihilism underlying the way that he leaves the reader feeling satisfyingly unsatisfied. I don’t think anyone in the entire novel actually experienced love — either human love or the divine love. Even if you don’t want to deal with the whole theological mess of defining and arguing about God stuff, I think most of the great works of art acknowledge a certain something of grace. As graceful as many passages in this book are, I never got the feeling that I was reading the words of someone of faith. Gravity’s Rainbow is definitely a tragedy, because even a postmodern humanism can’t redeem its characters. I found that sad, but not in the gut-punch way that a story about the failure of redemption imparts. I don’t get the impression that Pynchon makes a distinction between his perspective of a fallen world and a story about a fallen world. If anyone is to be pitied, it isn’t Katje or Slothrop or Gottfried or anyone else in the novel — it is the man of whom each of these characters is an extension, Thomas Pynchon himself.
As I said, this is my initial impression, and it is subject to change. I’d like to read some of his other books and return to Gravity’s Rainbow with time allocated for serious unpacking before delivering what would essentially be a summary judgment.
On the whole, I found the experience rewarding. Even better, I found it to be nourishing. I thrived on the challenge, and I think my own fiction will improve because of it. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest of the reading list.
In case you haven’t checked out Ellen’s blog, here’s the official summer reading list, roughly in the order in which I plan to read the books:
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
The Once and Future King by T. H. White
The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient by Sheridan Prasso
Arabian Nights (edition yet TBA)
In between these books, I also plan to read the first couple volumes of Dengeki Daisy (on loan from my sister) and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which has intrigued me for a while, but which I’ve neglected for no compelling reason. My other “snack” book between main courses is probably going to be First Lord’s Fury by Jim Butcher. I’m a huge fan of Butcher, and after a rocky first volume, the Codex Alera turned into quite a cracking series. I’m also looking forward to Ghost Story, the new Dresden book, but I haven’t decided yet if I can justify spending the money on a hardcover. Hmmm, decisions, decisions… ☕