Monday, May 31, 2010

Halfway Over Gravity's Rainbow

If you've ever been tempted to tangle with Thomas Pynchon's masterpiece, Gravity's Rainbow, don't let me dissuade you. But be warned: You're in for a challenge.

I started the book two months ago after my post about That One, Ultimate To-Be-Read Book. And I'm only just now to about the halfway point -- 360 pages in. So, to understate a bit: It's been slow going. It's no real secret that Gravity's Rainbow is difficult, notoriously so -- up there with Ulysses on the list of most inaccessible novels ever written. But why?

I've read and thoroughly enjoyed other "difficult" novels, most notably Infinite Jest. But Gravity's Rainbow is in a class by itself. In Infinite Jest, the difficulty was mainly due to the fact that Wallace jumps around so frequently by scene and in time, that the reader gets easily disoriented. But that's part of the fun, and it's never hard to understand what's happening on a section-by-section basis. You can sort of sit back and enjoy the prose and worry later about how a section or anecdote or extended joke fits into the novel as a whole. Everything sorts itself out eventually.

On the other hand, Gravity's Rainbow makes Infinite Jest look like a Twilight book. Pynchon frequently digresses several times within a single scene, jumping back in time, relaying a very bizarre dream, or just simply spending a page or two in totally random description. I've got my guide book to help me -- it nicely summarizes each section and annotates Pynchon's obscure references (from German corporations to African history to Pavlovian conditioning). But as hard as I try, I often find myself drifting and glazing, only to "come to" half a page later and have no friggin' clue what he's talking about anymore.

The plot (and I use that term loosely) itself about an American serviceman in World War II who is schlepping around Europe near the war's end to try to find out why he becomes sexually aroused right before a V-2 rocket explodes. And that's the normal part of the book. I'm tellin' you, from drug-induced dreams where a character is flushed down the toilet to scenes involving sexual practices that would make Ron Jeremy blush, this is far-and-away the strangest, hardest, most glutton-for-punishment book I've ever read. 

There are a few sections (and I mean ONLY a few) that are straightforward narratives where a character is being chased through an underground rocket lab or playing a drinking game with a British officer to try to bleed him for information. And those actually are a lot of fun to read, and often laugh-out-loud funny. They've kept me going. But the book, so far anyways, is just too hard to derive much pleasure. I've heard the fun of reading Pynchon is in the re-reading, and I have read through a few scenes from the beginning of the novel a second time, and they do make a lot more sense. But, reading the whole thing again? Whew - not sure about that. I'm definitely going to finish this first read, though, and when I do, maybe I will grab a Twilight book, just to wash my brain out!  

So what is the most difficult book you've ever read? Why was it difficult? Did you finish?

22 comments:

  1. Well,The Corrections was tricky to get into but after the first forty pages,I got the hang of it. I haven't been able to read any of Franzen's other novels but I respect his writing(not to mention I think that he got a bum rap from Oprah there).

    I was inspired to give Ulysses a try,after reading about Sylvia Beach,whose book shop went to such lengths to promote James Joyce and his work,but that book is the King Kong of difficult reads,so it might be a good long while before I tackle that hurdle. Reading Dubliners was hard enough!:)

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  2. I will have to give some thought to your "difficult book" question, but I just have to say that reading your review makes me wonder about books like this . . . where does "inaccessible genius" end and "poorly written" begin?

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  3. lol! I totally agree with you - Gravity's Rainbow really does make Infinite Jest seem like a Twilight book.
    The Crying of Lot 49 is actually THE most difficult book I have ever read (for some reason I found it more difficult than Gravity's Rainbow), and the first time around, I really didn't understand why it was so popular. It made me feel stupid since I just didn't get it.
    Then I reread it, despite the lack of enjoyability the first time around, and while I still glazed over occasionally, I definitely enjoyed it. And felt like I "got" it.
    So I agree with what they say - it's in the rereading!

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  4. After thinking, I have decided maybe I haven't read any of the really difficult books yet. But I have also decided that reading The Sound and the Fury was like floating down a river backwards with blinders on (especially the first section). I fought it for a little bit, but once I decided to just go with the flow I found that, though I might not be able to figure out what was passing at the moment, I could look back and make sense of what had already passed . . .

    Under the Tuscan Sun may not have been a "difficult" book, but it was difficult for me to finish. Read bit by bit, over a loooooong amount of time, it made for delicious vignettes. But taken all at once, it just seemed boring.

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  5. Dante's inferno. I got about 10 pages in and decided i need to buy a companion of some sort to help me out and finish it. Having said that, I have so many other books I want to read more that I don't know if I'll ever actually get around to reading it!

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  6. @lady t - Yeah, I think Ulysses is the standard by which all other difficult books are judged. However, after struggling with Gravity's Rainbow, it's hard to imagine how ANYTHING is tougher. ;)

    @Kathy - I love "inaccessible genius" vs. "poorly written" - well said! I think one answer to that questions is shelf life. People still seem to read Gravity's Rainbow (first published in 1973) fairly regularly. Another answer is intent - with the help of my guidebook, it's clear that there's a method to Pynchon's madness, it's just difficult to discern on a first reading. Good call on The Sound and the Fury, also - I enjoyed it, but it hurt my brain!

    @brizmus - Nice! First-hand evidence that Pynchon is better on re-reading. That heartens me a little. I'm still not sure I'll ever read GR again, but at least I can be secure in the knowledge that if I do, it'll be much more enjoyable than this time around.

    @mummazappa - Dante's Inferno's a good one too - I remember being mystified by the bits and pieces we had to read in a college class. So many obscure references....

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  7. For me, the one that stopped me in my tracks was Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewsky. I bought it based on some vague praise I heard somewhere and the fact that it was the greatest *looking* book I'd ever seen. Really nicely put together.

    I read about ten pages before deciding it would be a shame to deprive my bookshelf of its beauty for even a second longer.

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  8. Naked Lunch! I so wanted to like it, having loved Kerouac and Ginsberg, but I was just not into it. This post inspires me to get to Gravity's Rainbow...eventually...so, thanks. Sometimes I think there are no really difficult books, just books for different tastes. Then I think about Ulysses.

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  9. I haven't been able to get more than a couple of pages into J.M. LeClezio's The Book of Flights. The writing is brilliant -- some of the best I've read, ever. But narrative drive is almost totally absent. I don't want to give up on it though, because I think that it will reward a careful reading. I'm just waiting for the time and appropriate mindset.

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  10. @Shawn - Ha - nicely put. I've heard Only Revolutions is miserable. Did you try House of Leaves at all? That's how I'll choose to remember Danielewski!

    @linda - Good call on Naked Lunch. I've never tried it but read a page here and there, and nothing made any damn sense! As a friend put it, "it's one, long heroin trip."

    @Devon - LeClezio, to me, just represents another Nobel that should've gone to Philip Roth. ;) So I'd have difficulty reading him whether or not he's actually difficult!

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  11. I loved Gravity's Rainbow. It's one of my favorite books (http://trippingabout.blogspot.com/2009/11/one-grand-eruption.html).

    Just discovered your website via Reading Ape. Your list of your top five characters from the last 20 years is eerily similar to my own. I, too, live in Chicago. Enough with the coincidences.

    As for the book I've tried over and over again: American Pastoral by Roth. Three times the failure. I can't figure out why.

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  12. For me it's also Gravity's Rainbow. I'm here because I just finished reading "The Road" not a hard read at all. As I put that back on the bookshelf I had to face that motherfucker of a book that definately beat me. I just looked, I was 108 pages in when I set it down last (maybe two or three years ago, not sure). The bookmark still there, as an admission of defeat, a marker of where to begin again, or maybe just salt to rub on an open wound. So when I did that, what book next moment, I looked for a moment at this failure and decided to google the phrase "Gravity's Rainbow hard to read" and this is one of the sites I've come across. Well it's a little comforting to know I'm not alone, and actually it seems in the norm. Of course I still hate the thought that I couldn't get to the end of a book, not so much because it bored me, but as I just couldn't follow it. The last time that happened I believe was with Frank Herbert's (I think) "The Lazarus Effect", but I was only in grade 4 at the time, so that one doesn't bother me, . . . much. Part of me still wants to read it, though I'm pretty sure I still won't get what Pynchon was on about. But at least I could feel like I made it to the end. Just as a kind of endurance test passed or something. Still, is it worth it? Why would I be doing it, subjecting myself to such torture? Just so I could say I'm one of those few who did? I'd be embarrased to talk about it even then, to be one of those who read it to feel smart, even though it's all nonsense in my brain. And if I do attempt again? Do I pick up where I left off at page 108, or begin again fresh. I'm of two minds. One mind says you have to start at the beginning because it was too long ago and you would have forgotten it all. The other says it was incomprehensible anyway, so why suffer those 108 pages again. Of course if I do start again from the beginning (if I start this book at all again) I may keep two bookmarks, so I can see if I beat my first attempt, and see if the first part makes any more sense the second time through, or perhaps hurts less since not understanding a damn thing is at least now perhaps forgivable and not my fault. Anybody else with this dilema, to make a second go or just sell the damn thing and hopefully never think about it again?

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    1. I find if you get into Pynchon's bio a little it makes it a whole lot more interesting....Cornell engineering/lit majors, works as a technical writer for Boeing and worked on Minuteman ICBMs used in Vietnam. So, in my very simplistic reading (one originally from an ex-Pynchon friend from the time), Pynchon is exorcising his guilt in helping to make the ICBM through the character of Slothrop. GR is his confession, and if you read it as a parable where Nazi Germany in GR is a veiled cover for America in the 60s with Pynchon writing as if the Nazis had somehow carried over into present-day America aka Werner von Braun, then it helped me at least to want to explore the vast areas of knowledge he marshals in the book. There's LOTS more around the periphery of GR (CIA use of LSD on college campuses to experiment with mind control, etc), I highly recommend "Inside the Mind of Thomas Pynchon" doc on you tube
      Lastly, it is kind of a "head" book in the 1973 sense--its every word and character and digression shouldn't be fretted over. Pynchon apparently was a big consumer of very fine weed in writing this and that's a tip off...just let it wash over you and pick up things along the way. The imagination and the ideas it provokes, not to mention just flat out gorgeous, impeccable writing, are what to strive for...p.s. i read a chapter and then go through the guide, makes for a nice break in the activity!

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  13. Greg - Strange parallels in our existence. My favorite book is Infinite Jest, and I've been slogging through GR, many times throwing it on the floor, falling asleep or realizing I had no clue what I just read: like looking over interesting hieroglyphs that have no meaning to me beyond aesthetics. (Same experience with Ulysses.)

    I have a jazz musician friend, and we debate endlessly about technical facility vs. the ability to communicate ideas. Pynchon seems to me the jazz musician strictly playing for other jazz musicians, and if you don't get it, screw you.

    On the other end of the spectrum for me is Philip K. Dick, who late in his career seemed to entirely lose his ability to construct sentences, yet he had the wildest, most fascinating ideas. Both are infuriating in their own way.

    Not sure how I'll feel when I reach the end of GR. I've been listening to an audiobook for the second half of it, and for some reason that's helped a lot with my comprehension. At the end of Infinite Jest, I immediately went back and reread the spectacular first chapter - a summit the rest of the novel never quite ascends. However, I don't think I'll have any desire to slog through Pirate Prentice's banana breakfast scene again, since at this point it seems to have beyond-the-zero to do with anything important in GR.

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  14. Most difficult book: Finnegan's Wake. No contest.

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    1. It's Finnegans Wake. Gravity's Rainbow is a damn cakewalk compared to this.

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    2. Agreed Joyce is in a class by himself like Shakespeare Pynchon is an academic Joyce was a high artist Probably the last we'll see

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  15. im page 30 at this point of Gravity's Rainbow and Im not finding it incredibly difficult to pave through(please know that im not bragging but im just early into the book), but then again im only on page 30 and I know it's going to get much more difficult within the next 50 pages. I guess what I enjoy about it so far though is the complete mystism and imagery attached to the characters and setting. Sure, I don't exactly know what's going on but that's half the fun of Pynchon!!

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  16. Started it yesterday, am now 140 pages in, and loving it! And finding it tough going. It's a tough book, but pynchon's incredible hold on prose is absolutely breathtaking, every single page littered with incredible sentences, like gems, but the story itself is jangled and murky. But, Good God, this man can write, words flow like water, liked crazed but perfect jazz... Reading other books is like taking a sedate drive in a decent family car to a relaxed, summery park... reading GR is like being taken on a screaming, magic-mushroom laced hell-ride in a Maclaren F1, engine howling and roaring, straight down to the lair of the Dark Lord - it's exhilarating, terrifying, and sometimes you just want to put up your hand and say; I'd like to go home now, please.

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  17. Unfortunately/Fortunately, the ONLY way to stay sane is to read a companion book along with GR.

    I read a GR section, then the companion description, then reread the same GR section.

    That way I wasn't spoiled by the companion, and had the 'satisfaction' of trying to understand what just happened, knowing that when I inevitably failed, the companion would save me at the end.

    This of course means you end up reading the entire book twice

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  18. Zak Smith drew an illustration for each page of Gravity's Rainbow, all of which are indexed on a website called the Modern Word. The drawings don't necessarily make the book any clearer, but it's elucidating to see how an artist visualizes Pynchon's prose-- I was also surprised by how many of the sentences and phrases depicted stood out in my memory despite often having felt like I was skimming over a lot of the book as I read it.

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