Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On the Occasion of Finishing Gravity's Rainbow: A Conversation With Tom Pynchon

It's finished. I can tell you that much. And not to be melodramatic, but it really does feel like the end of an ordeal. Finishing 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.


  1. Congrats on finishing the book. This book is high up there on things that intimidate/scare me. Emphasis on the word things... not just books. I think I would put Gravity's Rainbow right below Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance.

    Ok but in all seriousness, I really liked the way you reviewed this. It seems like it would be impossible to give it a traditional review, as the book is anything but.

  2. awesome review. Gravity's Rainbow remains high on my list of books to tackle, but i only finished Infinite Jest, what...six, seven months ago? I'll give myself a couple more years before hitting this one.

    My favorite Gravity's Rainbow story is from one of my old college professors. First time he tried reading it he hated it so much that he threw it out - but first duct taped the entire book so that no one else would ever be able to read it.

  3. Congratulations on reaching the end! I don't think I'll ever read Gravity's Rainbow, honestly. And though I loved how you "reviewed" the book -- clever, creative, entertaining, informative -- your comments have pretty much confirmed for me that I'm ok with my choice. So thanks! Maybe I'll go pick up Infinite Jest instead.

  4. Congrats on making it through. I love this review and laughed out loud while reading a number of times (which was a little embarrassing, since I'm sitting in public and all).

    Like Erin, I don't think I'll be picking up Gravity's Rainbow so I want to thank you for that. I think you've saved me many frustrating nights.

  5. Congratulations for completing the novel and for a great inter/re view.
    I don't think this is a book I will pick up either

  6. Tee hee. And now you're reading The Art of Racing in the Rain...almost 180 degrees of difference there. Don't get me wrong, I loved Enzo's story (here's my review. But, still, what a turnaround! I can't wait to hear what you think of this one.

  7. Very funny post. I have never spent much time thinking about GR, but I had it in the back of my mind that I would tackle it at some point. After reading your review, I think I need to leave well enough alone and cross this one off the list. I have trouble with disjointed narratives and this one sounds like a doozy.

  8. My favorite scenes typically involve Tyrone Slothrop (incidental anagram: sloth or entropy) and his eating all those awful candies at the behest of the British woman he was seeing and her elderly mother or grandmother? And when he ends up in France after its liberation and begins his trek around post war Europe searching for god knows what. I liked the various persona he needed to affect (such as The Rocket Man, The Russian Officer in Tchitcherine's garb, and The Pig Hero (which the latter is an especially amusing episode).

    I think you had the right idea with respect to going into reading this novel. It can't be read from a traditional standpoint. It begs you to take bits and pieces you find agreeable but it's impossible in the truest sense to love the holistic whole; it doesn't want to be contained.

    My first go round with it I was at a complete loss for words. It was the first big work of experimental fiction I ever attempted. I gave up after 100 pages and tried some of Pynchon's more "accessible" fair, with which I faired far better. Returned to GR, and enjoyed the first 100 pages most of all, when I think the narrative is probably least out of control / most comprehensible in a linear way. The adenoid reference required some effort but made sense and was a strange image. Pirate Prentice's banana pancakes, and all that phallic imagery. Plus the first line: "A screaming comes across the sky . . ." -- brilliant.

    Ultimately, my assessment is: Pynchon shouldn't be passed over for fear, but for tastes. IF you don't like fiction that gets experimental there is plenty of Jonathan Franzen to go around.

  9. I hear you on the difficulty (and ultimate reward) of reading GR. It took me three attempts (and successfully making it through Finnegans Wake) to finally get through it, but I'm glad I finally did. A lot of it I didn't understand, but what I did, I liked a great deal. I got a bit trapped by the paranoiac in myself and my review reflects that a bit.

    I actually just finished up Inherent Vice and liked it great deal, but it seemed so slight after reading GR and Crying of Lot 49.

  10. Funny to compare your post with this one, both from this week:

  11. @Brenna - Thanks for the congrats. You're right - this is anything but a traditional book.

    @Ellen - Did you like Infinite Jest? It's one of my favorite books of all time, and is actually a lot easier than GR. I love your professor's story. I have a similar one: A friend of mine also started it three separate times, and after he gave up 120 pages in on the third try, he literally burned the book so as not to be tempted to try again.

    @Erin - Thanks for the congrats! And thanks for the kind words. Definitely, definitely, definitely try Infinite Jest. That book, I loved!

    @Red - Hey, glad I could help. I sort of knew what I was getting myself into when I started, but knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn't have read it either!

    @Suzanne - Ha! I love inter-review - I wish I would've thought of that. Well done!

  12. What a great way to review that particular book; I loved it.

  13. @Rebecca - You're right, it is about as different as you can get. I do like Enzo's story - it's touching. But let's remember, at one point in August, I was reading Harry Potter and Gravity's Rainbow at the same time, so the literary schizophrenia isn't exactly new for me. Nice review, also - I love Enzo's voice so far, too!

    @Thomas - That's sort of how I felt until I started thinking about literary goals for 2010 - and Gravity's Rainbow sort of surfaced as the one book I'd been putting off the longest. This book is the definition of disjointed narrative. The LONGEST section is only about 30 pages, and hardly and sections are continuous from the one before it.

    @Matt - Thank you for thoughtful, extraordinarily well-written comment. I love your penultimate line. You're absolutely right - experimental fiction like Pynchon and DFW, IS a matter of taste. And even if you enjoy experimental stuff, still not all will appeal. I LOVE Infinite Jest - easily in my top 5 of all time. But just totally lumbered through GR - I couldn't wait for it to be over. You're right that many sections of GR are stunning, hilarious and/or brilliant. At the risk of sounding like a Dan Brown fan, it was just TOO hard for me to derive any sort of continuous entertainment from it. I'd start reading an episode and realize a few paragraphs in that I had no idea how this connected, or that it was background, or another drug-induced hallucination, and would almost whine in frustration, knowing that meaning would probably out of reach (if there was any to be had), like my dog whines when he trees a squirrel and can't reach it. And finally, yes, I love the opening line too.

    @Rarelydusty - Thanks for the link to your review - very interesting! I love these lines: "...the characters of this book are searching for something. Whether or not it is actually there, or really matters, is in the eye of the beholder." That's exactly how I felt as a reader.

    @Joel - "Pynchon's novel has proven resistant to restless eyes..." HA! No truer words have ever been written. David Foster Wallace said a good novel should teach you how to read it - and I don't think Pynchon's ever really did, except to suggest you read it again. But your tips on how to read it are making me rethink that. Though I did read carefully, and did go back looking for clues, I never really put enough thought into HOW I should approach each episode. If I didn't understand it right away, I sort of just assumed it'd be a part I was supposed to get. Anyway...thanks for that link - enjoyed it!

  14. You are a better man (or person) than I. Thanks for reading it for me. I don't have the mental skill or stamina for such things. As for The Art of Racing in the Rain, it blew my heart into two million pieces.

  15. This book is on my American project list and I had no idea until now of its reputation LOL Perhaps I should start in now in the hope it'll be read in six months?

  16. Nice witty approach to reviewing Gravity's Rainbow there,Greg. Much too scary for me to tackle but glad to see you take one for the team:)

  17. Greg, I did like IJ, but it's one for a reread. DFW is one of my favorite authors, but I left for Peace Corps halfway through IJ and made the mistake of buying it on my kindle rather than lugging the book along. It really is one you need to be able to hold and write in and flip back and forth in, and I'm planning to reread it when I'm back in touch with my hard copy. Pretty much every halfway house scene in the book killed me, and I think those are the ones that are gonna get me to pick up IJ again.

  18. What a great idea for this review! Pynchon's "Lot 49" is in my to-review pile, and though it was short, I honestly have no idea what it was about. Glad to see it's not just me.

  19. Definitely read Against The Day and Inherent Vice, and also Vineland. I think Pynchon really did come to the conclusion, like you said, that if people don't want to finish his books, the books have failed. Everything after GR is much more pleasant to follow.

  20. @Sandy - Just finished The Art of Racing...Wow, you're right - quite the emotional wallop, and jusssst a tad different than Gravity's Rainbow.

    @Jessica - Well, if it takes you six months, too, you'll make me feel a lot better about myself! ;)

    @lady T - Thanks! I'm happy to take that one for the team - but the team owes me!

    @Ellen - Ah, yeah - the halfway house scenes were just crazy. I loved the tennis academy scenes, personally. But really, I loved the whole thing. And you're right - it would be all but impossible to read it on a Kindle and derive anywhere approaching the same amount of enjoyment as the flesh and blood book.

    @Melody - I've heard Lot 49 is one of Pynchon's more accessible books, but then again, anything is easier than GR. Good luck!

    @Jeff - Glad to hear an endorsement for Against the Day and Inherent Vice. I know Pynchon has his fiercely loyal followers, and it can't be for no reason - so I really do want to try something else by him, and I love the premise behind Against the Day, and the fact that Inherent Vice is relatively short. ;)

  21. Reading this was like having someone dare me to read Gravity's Rainbow. And I'm not even kidding when I say that I'm actually starting to sweat because now I feel like I must read it.

  22. I don't agree that there are only TWO kinds of people in the world: Those who have read Gravity's Rainbow, and those who haven't. How about a category for those who keep trying, but don't get very far?!!! Well I suppose they'd be in the "haven't read it" category. But I had no idea there was a Guidebook! However, since I went so far as to purchase the annotated guide to Ulysses and couldn't get past the first chapter (the guidebook was more extensive than the book), I don't think I'll try GR (again) either. Like Sandy, I will just be happy that you finished it for us, and be satisfied with your excellent and thorough review!

  23. Hey Greg,

    I also wanted to mention I'm reading William Gaddis' J R right now, another novel commonly regarded as difficult. I think I'll use my halfway point update to describe my attitude about this sort of fiction more fully.

    Also, DO read "Inherent Vice" -- all the the lunacy of "Gravity's Rainbow," "V," and so forth, but much more engaging / mind-wrap-around-able. I'm gearing up to read "Against the Day," but that probably won't be for a good while yet, because I'm way too preoccupied with other verbose writers I've not yet gotten to.

  24. The thing that helped me get into Gravity's Rainbow after a few miss-starts was keeping a piece of paper and writing down the names and a short description of characters when they'd lasted a few pages or seemed like they'd be important. I drew lines between them and made notes on the more important relationships. It's an ugly mess, but having things in a visual format really let me keep track of things better.

    All in all, I liked the book. But not until a few days after I finished it and parts of it sunk in for me. XD

  25. I'm a couple hundred pages away from finishing this book and am finishing it for the sole purpose of saying I've read this book. I enjoyed the first 100 or so pages, but the rest has just been gradually more and more frustrating. I've literally been pissed off about reading this book the past few days. I don't understand why he couldn't just continue on in the same style/manner as the first 100 pages. For context, I've read and enjoyed V and The Crying of Lot 49. Really disappointed that this one has been such a disaster. After enjoying V so much, I will still try his other books - but I don't think I'll ever agree with the critics who say this is the greatest Post WWII American novel.

  26. what if i told you that roman polanski is thomas pynchon and he is traffiucking children with CIA FBI help and his books prove that he is the son of mass murderer of millions genrikh yagoda who was also publishing under the name b. traven. and romans son jj abrams wrote about about it all in a book called ship of theseus they fucked themselves by publishing their crimes xD

  27. Nice review. Spoiler warning: I’m surprised more people don’t mention that the “protagonist” Slothrop disappears long before the novel ends, bizarrely turning into a “crossroads,” or the tarot Fool, or the astrological sign of Pisces, or something. Plus the fact that the rocket fired in Pirate Prentice’s dream, at the end, has turned into an atomic missile that is about to land on us, as we sit huddled in a theater having watched the film that is the book in the last few minutes before the world ends. I love me some Infinite Jest too, but it’s Gravity’s Rainbow that gives me chills when I think about it, all these years later.