Saturday, December 27, 2008

Reading "Rainbow"

I was tempted to do a one-word review - "Wow" - and leave it at that.  I'm congenitally incapable of brevity, though.  One word may be the proper response to 776 pages of incredibly dense and purple prose, but I feel like I have to keep on digging.

So I finally finished the gauntlet, after several weeks of reading on the train and some late nights at home.  I haven't read any glosses or criticism yet, but I do want to hit up at least some of them to try and get an answer to "what happened here?"  While writing my earlier reaction, though, I did stumble across a guide to first-time readers of Gravity's Rainbow that proved extremely helpful.  It is spoiler-free, and I think it applies well to other dense, convoluted works of literature as well.  One of the key pieces of advice is to try and stay focused on the plot - enjoy the language, but if you feel like it's dragging you down, don't feel like you need to surrender.  I felt like that did free me to a great extent... I doubt anybody would get everything on their first time through the book, so it's more worthwhile to spend that time building up a structure within which to understand the book, rather than shading in all the details.

And what exactly is that plot?  Again, I'm going out on a limb here since I have yet to read any external glosses, but hopefully these will qualify as


The main plot covers Tyrone Slothrop, an American liason to the Allied powers during World War II.  He is based in London, which is under attack from rockets.  It was bad enough early in the war, when you would hear a horrible sound and know that, within a few seconds, incredible death would be delivered upon people somewhere in the city.  Maybe you, maybe someone else - there would not be enough time to take action once you heard the sound.

The situation got worse when V2s began falling.  The most advanced rockets ever created, they broke the sound barrier and moves faster than their noise.  Therefore, by the time you heard the awful screaming sound of the rocket, it had already delivered its payload.  Its sound was no longer a warning but a blessing: the mere fact that your ears were still around to hear the screaming meant that you had escaped.  And, by the same token, someone else had been chosen as a victim.

Here's where it starts to get weird.  The pattern of attacks on London seem more or less random - understandable, since merely hitting the city at all from the continental mainland is a great engineering success.  A colleague discovers, though, that there is a predictor: wherever Tyrone Slothrop sleeps with a woman, a rocket will fall.

Let me divert from the plot here to point out that this will prove to be the largest concern in a book filled to the bursting with themes: sex and death.  Over and over Pynchon riffs on this idea of the linkage between procreation and destruction; pleasure and pain; beginning and ending; private and public.  The linkage becomes even more explicit as the book goes on.  In the second half of the book, we learn of a sinister cabal orchestrating the course of the human race, and they are extremely concerned about establishing and maintaining a system of morality built upon human emotions towards sex and death; such a system will lead to energetic, pliant beings of maximum effectiveness to the state.

At the same time (spoiler alert!) the REASON for the link between the rockets and Slothrop is never really explained, at least not that I caught.  So it goes throughout the book: amazing things happen (or don't), and people react to them, but... it's all empiricism and not deduction, you know?  Pynchon weaves together this really vivid vision of the world that is incredibly rich and detailed that constantly hints at an underlying rationale without ever offering one.

The narrative is incredibly dense, imaginative and creative, but unlike, say, Catch-22, Pynchon at least does us the small courtesy of telling the story in sequence.  Granted, it's nearly impossible to tell whether any given scene "really" happens or not, but even if it's hallucinated, at least the hallucination happens at a point in time, after the previous scene and before the next.  The timeline of the book roughly covers the period from before D-Day until shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima.  Slothrop, a fairly passive figure at the center of the action, is pulled along by events.  From London he moves to liberated France, still under the nominal guidance of ACHTUNG, his unit.  A series of comical events and misunderstandings cuts him loose and he drifts through Europe; at first continuing his old mission under an individual mandate, and then eventually moving because he has no choice.  Along the way he is swept up in the plots and schemes of an astonishing variety of forces, almost none of which you would think of in the context of occupied Europe: the German film industry; the black market (largely driven by corrupt American soldiers); a diaspora of rocket scientists; institutional and rogue Russian agents; witches and magicians; drug dealers; and, most intriguingly for me, the Schwarzkommando, an incredible elite group of African nazi rocket commandos that is opposed by seemingly every force but Slothrop.

The jacket flap of my book says that the book includes "over 400 characters", and I can easily believe it.  What's amazing to me is how many of those characters are fully fleshed out.  Slothrop is the main actor, but he disappears for fifty pages or more at a time, and in his place come parades of players who will never meet Slothrop, but are spiritually bound up with him... and with the Rocket.  Eventually, I came to realize that while Slothrop might be the protagonist, the Rocket is probably the real "main character" of the book.

Ah, the Rocket.  The S-Gerät.  Famous 00000.  This is another thing that you can sort of piece together throughout the book, though an essential mystery remains at its core.  Figuring out the story behind the rocket is enough fun that it's probably worth calling this section out as


So: we all know about the V2 from history class.  V2 and A4 are the same line.  Germany had an incredible science and engineering program, albeit one that was as tied up in bureaucracy and red tape as anything you might imagine out of "Brazil".  Towards the end of the war they had all these great brains working for them, but diminishing materials, so while they could design weapons of incredible destruction, they could not produce them in mass.

Such a weapon was the 00000.  Only one was ever made, only one was ever fired, and, incredibly, it doesn't seem to have ever fallen.  Which is impossible, of course.  Almost everyone in the novel is directly or indirectly trying to pursue the rocket.  Some want to know what it meant and what happened to it.  The Schwarzkommando, who were integral in its creation, have gone rogue since the collapse of the Nazi leadership, and are trying to build and launch a copy of the rocket.  The Russians and others are trying to stop them.  The black market has realized that people are interested in 00000 and its attendant details, and are gathering information to sell.  The Rocket has many unusual characteristics, such as being the only weapon constructed with Imipolex G, a new plastic material; as such, it is of interest to international business concerns.  But - and here's where it gets even fuzzier to me - the actual concern is the other way around.  General Electric, Philips, Siemens, IG Farben, and other multinational corporations based in Axis and Allied countries, collaborated before the war, made enormous profits and discoveries during it, and are working to establish a permanent dominance after its conclusion.  The construction of The Rocket is no accident; it is the culmination of elaborate and long-laid plans.  Slothrop and the others are merely ants, crawling along the surface of events that they cannot hope to change or comprehend.

Just how long-laid are those plans?  It turns out that Slothrop's paranoia - heck, the paranoia of the entire human race - are well justified.  Even before he was born, Tyrone was marked by the international cartel for some special purpose.  Late in the novel we learn of the composition of an espionage unit.  It is divided into four departments.  I don't have the book here right now, but I think that department A is something like international relations, war, and politics; department B covers commerce, research, and industry; department C covers culture, archaeology, and media; and department D covers Tyrone Slothrop.  Oh, and Imipolex G, too.  It isn't paranoia if they really HAVE been spying on you since before you were born.

And again, the rub is that I cannot figure out WHY.  I get the impression that even many of the conspirators aren't sure.  The conspiracy combines the best aspects of the X-Files and Brazil; it is an incredibly powerful organization that is torn by inter-departmental warfare, attrition, confusion, delegation, mission drift, poor hiring decisions.  It is an awesome thing, at once omnipotent and fragile, and fundamentally unknowable.

We gather some hints throughout the book about 00000.  It requires some special heat shielding that other rockets did not.  It is carrying an unusual weight payload that requires a special guidance system.  Its construction was intended to be so secret that an elite team of engineers, all strangers to one another, was assembled merely to create it, and then was dispersed.

I wasn't at all sure about what that payload was.  An atomic warhead?  Some sort of time machine?  This novel?  Or, like the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, would we never learn what it was?  Pynchon does reveal the secret in the final pages of the book, and the answer is both very specific and strange: the payload is Gottfried, a young German lover of Weissman and Blicero, two of the Nazi officers overseeing the rocket program.  The prose quiets down near the end and we read the account of Gottfried, willingly nestling into the plastic and metal embrace of The Rocket, as he travels on the final journey out of the Reich, out of the Zone, and into... what, exactly?  I still don't know.  I don't think the Rocket ever falls.  I don't know why.


One fun game to play with any book, but especially with Literature, is to find the one sentence in the book that "sums it up": the one sentence that you can argue encapsulates everything important about the book.  I laughed out loud when I found the sentence in this book, which falls on page 512 of my edition:

"It is difficult to perceive just what the fuck is happening here."

I think that's the first time I've included an obscenity on my blog, but really, that's too priceless to bleep.



A few random reactions:

The actual conspiracy comes into sharper focus as the book moves on.  Page 597 is where we finally read references to the Masons and the Illuminati, including the by-now-familiar observations about the eye in the pyramid on our currency.  Of course, this is of HUGE interest to me, and converted my mood from pleased to positively giddy.  The further I got into the book, the less I found myself thinking of "Ulysses", and the more of "Illuminatus!", Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's sprawling mind-blast of a trilogy.  It seems perfectly clear to me that their book is a rip-off/homage of this one.  If you enjoyed reading Illuminatus! or the Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy, I cannot recommend Gravity's Rainbow with enough vigor.  It's like eating real butter cookies when you've only known margarine before.  It's like watching "The Lord of the Rings" after only having seen "Willow".  I still really enjoy those books, but Gravity's Rainbow is operating on a whole other level.  In fact, GR may make me enjoy those books even more... it opens up an enormous space for others to play around in.

Tangent: this transition is kind of interesting, because I had previously made a similar connection with the other Pynchon novel I've read, "The Crying of Lot 49".  In that book, the conspiracy is right out front: you learn about the Tristero pretty early on, and the entire novel is devoted to teasing out the meaning behind Tristero.  In GR, the conspiracy is just as vast and powerful, but it is more subtle... I was thinking of paranoia very early on, but the conspiracy as such didn't come into focus until I was already well invested in the book for other reasons.  Anyways!  I don't have that much of a point here, I guess, it's just kind of interesting.  CoL49 and I! share more of an overt connection in plot and language (poppy and readable), while GR and I! share more of a connection in structure and concern (vast, sprawling, allusive).

The book is divided into four sections, with the third being by far the longest.  Each is labeled with an intriguing quote.  And I'm not sure, but I think that each section ends with a rare reveal from inside the conspiracy.  Section 2 closes with Pointsman's mind disintegrating (ha!) as he tries to spin the Slothrop angle.  Section 3 ends with similarly high-placed people in the conspiracy offering some clue as to what is happening.  And 4, of course, ends with a final look at the actual firing of The Rocket.  Just wish I could remember how section 1 ends... In a way, this structure acts a bit like a cliffhanger, rewarding you for your patience in making it so far, and whetting your appetite with a hint that true comprehension may lie around the bend.

More randomness!

This book would be on the short-list to Chris's Favorites regardless, but what absolutely seals the deal is a truly astonishing scene (in a book full of them!) that features - wait for it - drunken monkeys!  I keep on talking about Pynchon's great sense of humor without really explaining what I mean.  It's all over the map, I guess, kind of like the Marx Brothers or, better analogy, Monty Python.  The drunken monkeys bit is an example of the purely brilliant slapstick he does: the monkeys are contraband cargo on board a pirate vessel steered by a crazy German helmslady; the vessel is also carrying illegal liquor, and several bands of musicians; the monkeys get drunk, get discovered, cause a ruckus, tubas start playing, and the plot spins even further out of control.  Other jokes are far more satirical.  Others are purely literary in the Joyce style.  And a lot is just pure goofiness, with the author giving you a broad and forgiving wink.

Slothrop is a really strange character.  I don't just mean that he would seem strange if you met him in real life; he's strange to have as a character.  I'm never quite sure how I feel about him.  He's kind of lovable in a sympathetic way; he's so passive, and I feel bad about the awful things that happen to him, so my natural appreciation for the underdog kicks into play.  However, most of Slothrop's interactions with other people, particularly women, leave me cold.  His passiveness also means that he regularly receives without giving.  He's helped by countless people, some kind and many horrible, along his quest.  He rarely thanks his benefactors, or helps them except in return for direct aid (the amount of quid-pro-quo in this book is pretty remarkable).  And while he does eventually get a sort of revenge on Major Marvy and the other purely evil characters in the book, it's almost always by accident; he only acts when forced to do so, cream pies notwithstanding.

And there's the name, of course.  "Slothrop."  So perfect, so Dickensian.  The whole book is like that, and Pynchon's gleefulness shines through in each of them: Pirate Prentice, Springer, Thanatz, Tchitcherine.

I feel like I should say this one more time just to be sure everyone is clear: this is an incredibly dirty book.  I can't think of anything else I've read with this much filth in it.  I tend to equate "dirty book" to "book with sex in it," and the level of dirtiness rises in direct proportion to the quantity and vividness of sex depicted.  Well, after reading this, I'll have a hard time thinking of any other book as being "dirty," even such previous mileposts as Illuminatus!  Sometimes, the book reads like a tour de force of fetish, with every predilection anyone has had or could have making its way onto the page.  There is an amazing attention to detail during such scenes, with an unblinking stare at whatever aspect is currently being eroticized, that it left me cold.  I tend to be a really robust reader, plowing through just about anything, but some sections made me feel physically ill or pained, and I would occasionally commit the reader's cardinal skin of skimming ahead to find out when it would stop.

So, yeah.  Consider yourself warned.  This book is NC-17 and would be banned from every nation if it were ever turned into a movie. 

There are two outlets that you can hold onto when it comes to these sections.  The first is the familiar escape of fiction - the author is depicting the actions of a character in a realistic manner, not condoning them, but using them for dramatic purpose.  We shouldn't blame Pynchon for writing this any more than we should blame Renaissance painters for the martyrdom of saints.  The more unique escape is that, thanks to the book's hallucinatory structure, only some indeterminate fraction of these scenes "really" occur.  It often becomes clear halfway through a particular encounter that the laws of the physical universe no longer apply, something even weirder than usual is happening, and whatever filth is occurring happens only in the mind.  The dilemma there, though, is that that's almost worse.  We're seeing the darkest and most disturbing impulses imaginable, and Pynchon is running a pipe into our brains, dripping the sewage through.

Wow, what a down note to end on!


The question of the moment is: "Is Gravity's Rainbow better than The Crying of Lot 49"?  I'll need to re-read and gloss GR to make sure, but at this point my tentative verdict is: GR is technically better and more impressive, but far more demanding.  If, somehow, we could get a ratio of the amount of pleasure derived from a book divided by the number of hours spent reading it, then CoL49 would win.  They're fundamentally different beasts, though.  GR is the sort of book that I can only read once every few years or so, and the reverberations will continue to shake me for a lifetime.  Sure would be nice if I knew what happened there, but I know it was an amazing ride, and one I won't forget.

No comments:

Post a Comment