My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Moby-Dick—an epic, mock-epic, and Great American Novel—is supposed to be a difficult book, and it is. Its gigantism bursts the bounds of novelistic form, its essayistic divagations on cetology delay the development of the linear narrative for the book’s entire midsection, its ambiguous symbolism makes it both necessary and impossible to interpret the whole novel as a coherent allegory. On the other hand, there is no one chapter or page of Moby-Dick where the simplest question of what is happening at the story’s most literal level cannot readily be answered. Moby-Dick may be difficult to interpret, but it is not actually difficult to read.
Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow is an epic, mock-epic, and Great American Novel, like Moby-Dick. Unlike Melville’s readers, though, Pynchon’s readers can go for pages at a time without one clue as to what is going on with the plot, setting, or characters. The novel cannot be comfortably read without also consulting at least Steven Weisenburger’s Gravity’s Rainbow Companion and Michael Davitt Bell’s “Some Things That ‘Happen’ (More or Less) in Gravity’s Rainbow.”
While Pynchon’s novel is difficult to read on other grounds besides sheer confusion—some will be offended by its preponderant scatology, for instance, while others will simply be repelled by the length—this page-to-page or sentence-to-sentence bewilderment is the biggest obstacle to reading what has been called the most important American novel written after the Second World War. What is the nature of this difficulty? Why might it have been necessary? What is the meaning of this novel, and is it really so great?
Gravity’s Rainbow, it should be said, is happy to answer most of these questions—this is a novel that offers more images of itself than any Instagramming teen. Our introduction to the protagonist, Tyrone Slothrop, comes with an almost page-long mock-Homeric catalogue of the detritus littering his desk; 50 pages after that, we are treated to a similar if shorter catalogue of the erstwhile contents of his stomach as he vomits in flashback in the men’s toilet of a Boston ballroom.
Critical references to Melville (or Joyce) aside, T. S. Eliot—albeit with his politics turned inside out—is the presiding deity of Pynchon’s fictional cosmos, and in these implicitly reflexive moments we are informed that Gravity’s Rainbow is the survey of a waste land: a quest for significance among ruins, an investigation into physical disjecta of all sorts for signs of grace or redemption. Given the incoherence of our scatterings, how could a novel about them be coherent?
Another difficulty-mandating feature of Gravity’s Rainbow is paranoia and its opposite. You may notice I have not summarized the novel’s plot. Reader, I wouldn’t know how. The main conceit you have probably already heard about: the landing pattern of V-2 rockets in London toward the end of World War II is somehow correlated to the erections of an American army officer working for British intelligence, the aforementioned Lt. Tyrone Slothrop. Eventually, Slothrop grows aware of his privileged relation to rocketry and ends up, largely in spite of himself, on a quest through what the novel calls “the Zone”—the chaos of formerly Nazi-occupied European territory in the immediate aftermath of the war—for the secrets of a certain rocket 00000 and its special components.
Moreover, Slothrop is ever about to discover a vast conspiracy of business interests, themselves enacting a fatal technological determinism set in motion by the chemical synthesis of plastics, that has led him to his doomed quest and that is ultimately responsible for the war as well as for the emerging and stultifying postwar settlement:
Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ‘n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.
Around this central scenario Pynchon arrays a completely mystifying set of plots and counterplots—the logic of their interrelation never becomes entirely clear. Some prominent strands of the narrative include the following:
—the intellectual ambitions of Pointsman, a Pavlovian psychology researcher trying to perfect conditioning techniques;
—the love affair between statistician Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake, whose love seems to be all that can save him from being psychologically consumed by the war;
—the Pökler family, consisting of a rocket engineer father manipulated by the German government, a leftist mother protesting that government, and a daughter who may or may not have survived the camps;
—Greta Erdmann, pornographic film actress and mother/groomer of Bianca, a child-victim who becomes the novel’s symbol of how fascism has corrupted and destroyed innocence;
—the peregrinations of a Soviet agent named Tchitcherine, a man initiated into mysticism while administering a territory in Central Asia and now on vengeful search for his Herero half-brother;
—the mission of Oberst Enzian, who is Tchitcherine’s Herero half-brother, one of a select company of Hereros who survived Germany’s genocide of their people to become rocket engineers during World War II;
—the evil designs of the novel’s villain, Weissmann or Blicero, former lover of Enzian, current lover of a young man named Gottfried, and the master of rocket 00000.
I would mention Katje Borgesius, Geli Tripping, Seaman Bodine, Pirate Prentice, the Argentine anarchists, and many more, but there is a word-limit to these Goodreads reviews. The novel is over-spilling with stories, any of which may or may not belong to the central conspiracy plot, which may or may not all be all in the characters’ heads.
Who is in control? The narrative voice refers only to the portentously capitalized “Them,” which alludes in general to an alliance of state and business actors against the interests of common people but names no one in particular (“‘They’ embrac[e] possibilities far beyond Nazi Germany”). For this reason, the novel is, as critic Richard Poirier explained in an influential early review, deliberately divided between inviting readers to paranoiacally draw too many connections among elements of a story that no one reader can keep entirely in mind and repelling readers by presenting them with what they can only anti-paranoiacally reject as disconnected, meaningless nonsense. (The novel’s original title was Mindless Pleasures.)
This paranoid/anti-paranoid reading practice also extends from the novel’s literal to its symbolic level: again following The Waste Land and its mythic method, Pynchon has overlaid an almost ludicrous number of mystical or metaphysical systems onto his plot, including the Kabbalah, the Christian liturgical calendar, Teutonic legends, Herero myth, the Zodiac, and the Tarot, any one of which may or may not hold the key to the novel’s elusive significance.
There is another political reason for the novel’s difficulty. Pynchon emphasizes that we common people are also, in a sense, Them: “The Man has a branch office in each of our brains,” we read toward the novel’s conclusion; our own manias and psychoses, our own dreams and desires, draw us into the quest for power that puts us in Their hands. One character suggests that the only solution is “sado-anarchism,” or the generalization of recreational sadism and masochism across private life so that public interests cannot so easily manipulate S&M’s forbidden but universal allure. This connects to the novel’s now-dated, now-offensive thesis, in line with the Freudian leftism of the midcentury, that fascism is, as Wilhelm Reich put it, “the frenzy of sexual cripples”—essentially a political projection of the paraphilias, then encompassing even homosexuality. Hence the novel’s once-notorious portrayal of such acts as coprophagia, sadomasochism, pedophilia, and other unspeakable acts.
More importantly for this political psychology is Pynchon’s subjective manner of narration, with the novel’s narrative voice sliding smoothly from third-person objectivity to first-person stream-of-consciousness, from realist scene-setting to wild subjective fantasy, transitions usually occurring in the midst of the novel’s many polyvocal run-on sentences. (I am more than prepared to be corrected on this point, but my impression is that there is not a semicolon in the whole book.) Pynchon’s style can and does encompass everything, every register of language and anything that can be described.
A fourth reason for the novel’s difficulty is its suspicion of culture, elite or pop, as complicit with Them, from the literal economic imbrication of film studios with rocket cartels to the propaganda for fascism, racism, and other forms of oppression by media, whether Wagnerian opera or cowboy cinema. The novel does not exempt itself from this stricture: as Brian A. Oard observes, during the scene where the double agent Katje Borgesius watches a film of Grigori the octopus watching a film of her intended to condition him to attack her, we should realize that we are the next link in the chain of conditioning spectatorship as we read the very words on the page. Pynchon wants our paranoia about how They are controlling our minds to extend to him, to his publishers, to all media.
At the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon even develops the fiction that we have not been reading a novel but watching a film in a movie theater in the final seconds before our nuclear annihilation. Film, Pynchon explains at one point, is just another manifestation of the calculus in the northern spirit that has led to the destructiveness of rocketry:
There has been this strange connection between the German mind and the rapid flashing of successive stills to counterfeit movement for at least two centuries…
Despite a reputation for introducing such pop-culture items as western movies and superhero comics into the literary novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, if it’s working, should induce a painful suspicion about how such mass-produced entertainment, very much including Gravity’s Rainbow, is meant to condition us in a world of war. I have to imagine that the reclusive Pynchon is disgusted with some of his would-be literary legatees, who have converted his skeptical treatment of pop culture into simplistic celebration.
Finally, the novel must be difficult because, as every guidebook and critical study notes, its governing rhetorical trope is the hysteron proteron, or the reversal of cause and effect. Just as you hear the “screaming…across the sky” of the V-2 rocket only after it has landed, so is all understanding subsequent, after the fact, which means that you cannot understand anything you are actually experiencing. Pynchon’s professor at Cornell, Vladimir Nabokov, once remarked that you cannot read a novel but only reread one: this is doubly and triply true of Gravity’s Rainbow. Every section begins in medias res with a backstory only coming gradually or implicitly, until by the section’s end you actually have enough information to read what you have in fact just read. A simple example: the novel casually deploys the symbolism and technical vocabulary of the Kabbalah throughout its whole length, yet the Kabbalist system is only clearly explained for the reader on page 768. It is a frustrating effect, but an eerie one. It leads the novel to read, in Harold Bloom’s words, like the work of one “who always seems not so much to be telling his bewildering, labyrinthine story as writing a wistful commentary upon it as a story already twice-told, though it hasn’t been, and truly can’t be told at all.”
All of this difficulty, however, presents a familiar political problem that beset earlier generations of experimental artists. I mentioned that Pynchon’s novel is The Waste Land with its politics pulled inside out. Eliot could write difficult poetry with a clean conscience, since his poems’ difficulty invited an elite readership to shore up their culture’s collapsing hierarchies. Pynchon, though, takes the side of those whom he addresses, using a Puritan theological vocabulary, as “the preterite”—all those lost, unsaved, unredeemed, the detritus of all official systems of salvation. But who represents “the preterite” in this novel? Who among the truly lost—those who can’t borrow A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion from a university library, for instance—could even read it?
About the 1940s but of the 1960s, Gravity’s Rainbow cannot help but identify the counterculture as its collective protagonist. It is not that Pynchon is unaware of the proto-fascist tendencies of the pre-WWII counterculture—his references to Wagner and interwar popular occultism and the Wandervogel movement make that clear—but the “Counterforce” that develops in the novel’s final quarter is made up of witches and drug dealers. Their rebellion takes the form of a psychedelic rudeness that works by violating all systems of cleanliness in the novel’s only clear moment of triumph: the would-be cannibalistic feast of the elite that Roger Mexico and Seaman Bodine disrupt with the grotesque inventiveness of their language.
Gravity’s Rainbow, set in Europe, is a Great American Novel because it criticizes America (or, in the orthography of the period, AmeriKKKa) in the name of universal emancipation. Unlike its sexual politics, the book’s racial politics are up-to-date, for instance. (What in Gravity’s Rainbow does not come from The Waste Land’s unreal city surely comes from Invisible Man’s paint factory.) Pynchon identifies racism as the projection of everything in himself the white man rejects:
Shit, now, is the color white folks are afraid of. Shit is the presence of death, not some abstract-arty character with a scythe but the stiff and rotting corpse inside the whiteman’s warm and private own asshole, which is getting pretty intimate. You see many brown toilets? Nope, toilet’s the color of gravestones, classical columns of mausoleums, that white porcelain’s the very emblem of Odorless and Official Death. Shinola shoeshine polish happens to be the color of Shit. Shoeshine boy Malcolm’s in the toilet slappin’ on the Shinola, working off whiteman’s penance on his sin of being born the color of Shit ‘n’ Shinola.
Dismissing Old Left economism, Pynchon sees the drive for empire as an autonomous psychic need of the white man:
What’s a colony without its dusky natives? Where’s the fun if they’re all going to die off? Just a big chunk of desert, no more maids, no field-hands, no laborers for the construction or the mining–wait, wait a minute there, yes it’s Karl Marx, that sly old racist skipping away with his teeth together and his eyebrows up trying to make believe it’s nothing but Cheap Labor and Overseas Markets… Oh, no. Colonies are much, much more. Colonies are the outhouses of the European soul, where a fellow can let his pants down and relax, enjoy the smell of his own shit.
And this northern death drive—allegorized in opposition to Mediterranean cheer in a debate about the relative merits of Beethoven and Rossini that runs through the novel—is at the origin of America, as villain Weissmann/Blicero (both names adding up to white death) explains to the sacrificial white lamb Gottfried:
“America was the edge of the World. A message for Europe, continent-sized, inescapable. Europe had found the site for its Kingdom of Death, that special Death the West had invented. […] Now we are in the last phase. American Death has come to occupy Europe.”
Slothrop, “Providence’s little pal,” descends from the Puritans—his ancestor, William, came over on the Arbella, the ship bearing John Winthrop, though William, a dissident among the elite, stood up for the preterite (the novel’s system of allusions doubling Slothrop with JFK suggests a more historically proximate example of a dissident elite done in by Them). Yet what could be more faithful to Puritanism, to John Winthrop himself, than such a jeremiad? Only a disappointed lover could turn into such a castigating prophet: why rail so furiously against the New World unless you really were expecting a City on a Hill?
And to place all one’s hope for revolt in the preterite among the elite—which is to say, the counterculture, or what Pierre Bourdieu has called the dominated fraction of the dominant class—seems politically naive. On one level, Pynchon knows this; it is not as if his Counterforce amounts to much. “They” control the horizontal and the vertical, the whole grid, while we, like Byron, the immortal Romantic light bulb that is Pynchon’s allegorical image of the modern artist, can only persist, with total knowledge and no power. Leni Pökler reads the writing on the wall during Germany’s abortive revolt against fascism: “AN ARMY OF LOVERS CAN BE BEATEN.” But what other hope does his novel hold out?
That the novel does hope, though, and hope so earnestly behind its cynicism, redeems it. For all Pynchon’s silliness and scatology, there is genuine anguish and tenderness at the heart of Gravity’s Rainbow—otherwise it would be more unbearable than it is. I think of the great scene where Roger and Jessica enter a church on Christmas Eve and listen to a hymn whose macaronic lyrics (shades, yet again, of Old Possum) portend a peace among humanity:
Come then. Leave your war awhile, paper or iron war, petrol or flesh, come in with your love, your fear of losing, your exhaustion with it. All day it’s been at you, coercing, jiving, claiming your belief in so much that isn’t true. Is that who you are, that vaguely criminal face on your ID card, its soul snatched by the government camera as the guillotine shutter fell…
“They are in love,” Pynchon famously writes of Roger and Jessica. “Fuck the war.”
But the carapace surrounding this novel’s wounded heart, not unlike the plastic shroud that sheaths Gottfried inside rocket 00000, can be terribly impenetrable as well as impressively experimental. To be honest, I don’t remember a major novel the reading experience of which I enjoyed so little in any sense of “enjoyment,” even those senses that may be applied to the other difficult books I’ve read over the years.
If Harold Bloom hadn’t preceded me in the following disclosure, I would be too embarrassed to admit it, but I do prefer The Crying of Lot 49, which achieves much of what Gravity’s Rainbow does at one-eighth the length and with a more persuasive, sympathetic, and humane protagonist. I unreservedly recommend Lot 49; I more hesitantly recommend Gravity’s Rainbow, with the warning that its difficulties, while impeccably justified, are not all or always rewarded, at least not on a paradoxically impossible first reading, and that sado-anarchism and mindless pleasures were not always thought to be the only recompense offered by epics, mock-epics, or Great American Novels.