Gravity's Rainbow is the hardest literary thing I've ever done. And, frankly, one of the least pleasant. But that doesn't mean there isn't some fun to be had. Because writing a traditional review of this book would be an exercise in futility on the scale of trying to get an interview with the famously reclusive Thomas Pynchon himself, here's this instead: A combination of the two.
What if Pynchon really cared what people — me specifically — think about his novel? What if he wanted to figure out if he'd succeeded? (Let's pretend he doesn't know he's won the National Book Award in 1974.) What if there were an opportunity for a reader (me!) to spout off to Pynchon about his frustrations with the book? So, what follows is an imaginary conversation between Tom and me about my experience reading the most difficult book I've ever read.
Thomas Pynchon: So, why did you decide to read Gravity's Rainbow?
Me: Well, Tommy, in my mind, there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who have read Gravity's Rainbow, and those who haven't. I used to be in the latter category, now I'm in the former. It feels good, I can tell you that. But to answer your question, it's been a book I've always wanted to read, especially after David Foster Wallace cited it as one of his influences. It's been on my shelf for years. And when I blogged in March about my one to-be-read book, I realized GR was mine. So, I started.
TP: You started in March? And just finished now?
Me: Yep, I started in late March. It took me literally an entire baseball season to read this thing. Six months. It even went to Berlin and back with me — so that was fun, to be in the city where part of the novel is set. But, yeah, it took awhile.
TP: I've already gotten the sense that you weren't much a fan. Any chance the inordinate amount of time it took you to read my book contributed to your dislike?
Me: Oh, I don't doubt that's true. Through the guidebook I had to help me along the way, I understood that, as a prototypical example of the post-modern, there was no linear narrative, and ideas, characters and literary devices circled back and forth and danced around each other. When I remembered and understood a connection, I was thrilled. But more often than not, I'd forgotten how one or two of the 142 (it seemed) characters were related and what each of their stories were.
TP: Yeah, I'll grant you it's a difficult novel from that standpoint. And purposefully so. But what else made it difficult for you?
Me: Well, Tom, it seemed like fairly frequently you took explicit pleasure in aggravating your readers, solely for the purpose of aggravating them. David Foster Wallace, in regards to the difficulty of Infinite Jest, once explained that you had to toe a fine line between aggravating readers and giving them enough that was entertaining and understandable so that they'd keep reading. He admitted his editor was a big help in this. Where the heck was your editor? Where was the voice of reason that could've told you that 20 pages relating the story of a lightbulb named Byron that has nothing to do with the rest of the narrative is a poor idea? To me, your book is 80 percent reader aggravation and 20 percent entertaining. I mean, I do understand that readers of GR are not supposed to understand everything the first time through; that many of the sections/jokes/references/connections are better understood with a second read. But if you piss off a reader so much during a first read that he'll never go through a second time, haven't you failed?
TP: I suppose that if I cared what my readers thought, I might concede that. But isn't it pretty clear that I don't? I mean, there are sex scenes where people eat poop in there!
Me: Yeah, you're definitely right about that — there is some really, really sick stuff. S&M, incest, pedophilia, beastiality...and lots and lots of just normal sex. I'm not easily offended, but a lot of that goes back to my earlier point about reader aggravation: Was all that necessary?
TP: Probably not, but it was fun to write! Haha. Okay, so we're sort of circling the main thrust (hehe..) of the novel. What's your take there?
Me: Well, let's see: So our main character, inasmuch as there is one, is American serviceman Tyrone Slothrop, hanging out in London in 1944 as German rockets rain down on the city. He has an unusual condition whereby he gets an erection in the spot a rocket is going to land, before it lands. I learned from my guidebook that this notion of backwards cause and effect is called hysteron proteron. This is a common theme throughout the novel, and occurs frequently. So Tyrone goes to France, and is taught about rockets. But he's paranoid that he's being manipulated. So he escapes into the Zone (war-torn Germany) to look for one particular rocket and find out about his affliction for himself. He has many adventures in many different disguises. Does many drugs. Has much sex. Between this loose narrative, a huge cast of characters on both sides of the war all converge is some way or another on the rocket. And everything from Kabbalistic mysticism to incredibly detailed rocket engineering are discussed along the way. That about cover it?
TP: Very, very basically, yeah. You should read it again.
Me: Okay, I'll get right on that — right after I win the lottery, pitch in the World Series, and swim around the world.
TP: You're laying the sarcasm on pretty think there, fella. Okay, so what will be your one, enduring memory from reading this novel?
Me: Well, other than how difficult it was, I will definitely remember Tyrone. And I'll remember some of the jokes. But I think I'll always remember the drug-induced hallucination near the beginning of the novel in which Tyrone perceives himself to be flushed down a toilet. Specifically, I'll remember the line that leads off that section: "You never did the Kenosha Kid." That line in particular is a good representation of the novel as a whole. It would probably makes sense in some inside-joke context if I read the novel again, but on a first read, it was just an interesting line that left me searching for meaning...and not finding it.
TP: Well said. So, are you going to try any of my other books?
Me: Hey, thanks, Tommy. Well, I have Against the Day and Inherent Vice on my shelf. Maybe anyone reading this (if they're still with us) could chime in about the relative quality of those novels?
TP: Okay, I have to go see a man about a horse.
Me: Alright, take care fella.