Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Screaming Comes Across the Page

After two valiant but thwarted attempts, I am finally making some progress into Gravity's Rainbow. No, I'm not done yet, but I wanted to get in a post on it anyways. Much like my time with Anathem, I'm hoping to accomplish several things: jot down my thoughts before I forget them; maintain a record of my evolving reaction throughout the book; and avoid writing one disgustingly long post. In GR's case, I will also essentially be setting down a placeholder writ large, so in case I get derailed yet again, I can at least track how far I got this time and maybe get a head start in the inevitable fourth attempt.

It's worth briefly mentioning why this is so hard for me. I almost always finish books that I start, even mediocre ones. For me to abandon a novel, it generally has to be very boring or deeply unsatisfying. Gravity's Rainbow isn't close to either of those things. To the contrary, it is one of the most amazing, exciting, well-written books I've ever come across. What it is, though, is incredibly dense. I've gotten a bit soft in my post-English-Lit years, and am accustomed to breezing through the pages. In this book, Pynchon demands close attention, and a great deal of focus, in order to penetrate his language and get in tune with the book. So this isn't the sort of thing that you can pick up for a few minutes at a time throughout the day and hope to make any sort of progress: it requires a disciplined approach to reading and an investment in time.

Which is why I (cautiously) hope that this time I can actually make it. I'm reading it on my commute, which means two good one-hour blocks each day with no real distractions or interruptions. I can just focus on it and let myself get swept up by the book. My prior attacks on the book were in looser circumstances, always with the temptation of other, easier books near at hand. I'm learning to adjust my pride and expectations - sometimes, I may just make it through 20 pages in a full hour, but in my earlier attempts I would have blown through 50 pages in a seating, then realized that I hadn't paid attention and didn't know what was going on.

The overall experience is actually really close to reading Ulysses, which was an amazing book, but one that I could not have hoped to finish if I hadn't been reading it for a class. That provided the incentive and structure I needed to stick with it, and the overall feeling of reading both books is nearly identical: very hard, very complex, but incredibly rewarding and surprisingly funny.

Time for some meandering thoughts, within the


Yet another way this is like Ulysses, and Moby Dick for that matter: the way that characters will spontaneously burst into metered song. The songs are funny, tangentially related to the plot, and often quite dirty. It's telling of how convoluted the prose is that the songs are often the most understandable part of the book.

I'm now just past page 300, roughly one third through the book, and so far the biggest concerns I've noticed are paranoia and delusion. Paranoia in particular gets a lot of focus from Pynchon, including (what else?) paranoid songs, the "Proverbs for the Paranoid," and Slothrop's worry about his paranoia. Paranoia is crippling and alienating, as it offers sinister motives for every overture you encounter, but it actually becomes a virtue in this story. Sure, you must be paranoid if you think that there is a binational intelligence force of British and American spies who are tracking your sexual activities - but that doesn't mean that it isn't happening.

Or does it? What makes Gravity's Rainbow especially tricky is the hallucinatory logic it follows. Dreams and imagination are only occasionally identified as such, even when they contain events that are clearly physically impossible. And even if they aren't really happening, they still are "real" in the sense that they occur in someone's mind (Slothrop's? The narrator's? Ours?), revealing anxieties and desires, and that people react to them.

This style will be familiar to people who encountered it, in a much subtler and more subdued form, in the phenomenal "The Crying of Lot 49." Ophelia's night-time city wanderings in particular brought her in contact with strange situations, and for me one of the high points of the book is when she becomes irritated at a group of children and decides to stop believing in their existence. That kind of fluidity between reality and thought constantly lurked just below the surface in 49, unsettling everything and, if you chose, giving you the opportunity to question not just the mystery of the Tristero but whether the clues empirically existed at all. Well, in GR that fluidity has burst above the surface and drenched everything in sight. You can question everything, or you can just enjoy the ride.

This irrationalism is what makes the book so wonderful, in this humble reader's opinion. Pynchon isn't bound by the rational or the possible, and can spin out amazing situations without restraint. Even some scenes that seem like they might have actually happened would not fly in a more conventionally written book; the dream writing of the book gives license to use dream logic and dream imagery. I love the casino party, where all the soldiers are drunk on champagne and high on hash, when a jilted lover drives a Sherman tank out of the forest and starts shelling her ex. Or the gnomish journey underground where Slothrop falls through a trap door and discovers a giant vat of ale, American soldiers singing filthy limericks about coupling with rockets, and a comically obese major who had tangled with an African Nazi rocket commando and takes it out on Slothrop, leading to an "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" style sequence (written more than a decade before that movie!) with flying bullets and drunker and angrier soldiers and warheads and booby traps... it's all amazing, it's all wonderful, and it doesn't make a lick of sense.

And yet, tied to that irrationalism and in some ways justifying it, we have the fact that Pynchon is a really bright guy who loves dabbling in science and mathematics, the most rational pursuits we have. He's even more willing than Stephenson to drop an equation into the prose, or draw a diagram, or meditate on quantum mechanics and ballistic physics. With Stephenson, these things are generally a really cool sideshow, something that's neat and exciting and offers a little tangent from the plot. For Pynchon, they're actually opportunities to get even more artistic and more literary. My jaw dropped when I realized where he was going with a particular flashback scene in the tunnels. He notes the shape of the tunnels, parallel elongated S's, and makes the obvious connection to the Nazi SS. But then he has a character make another connection: yes, it is an important Nazi sign, but at the same time it is ALSO a double integral sign. And what is its significance given the tunnels' role in the V2 project? I'm going to cheat here and quote directly, because it's just so great and I can't do any justice to it:

In the static space of the architect, he might've used a double integral now and then, early in his career, to find volumes under surfaces whose equations were known - masses, moments, centers of gravity. But it's been years since he's had to do with anything that basic. Most of his calculating these days is with marks and pfennigs, not functions of idealistic r and θ, naïve x and y. ...But in the dynamic space of the living Rocket, the double integral has a different meaning. To integrate here is to operate on a rate of change so that time falls away: change is stilled.... "Meters per second" will integrate to "meters." The moving vehicle is frozen, in space, to become architecture, and timeless. It was never launched. It will never fall.


The shifts in tone and emphasis bring me back to Ulysses again. In some ways it feels like the narrator we have here is a mash-up of the various narrators of Ulysses, with "Circe" dominating. A single insane narrator, if you will, or one who's having a bad acid trip. But different concerns and interests float to the top, like physics and business and history, and sometimes he calms down a little while reflecting on things that are important to him.

A quick side note: this book is DIRTY. I think I probably didn't get much farther than 100 pages on my first two tries, because I definitely would have remembered the stuff that happens later. I don't usually feel physically ill when reading about something, but have already come across a couple of situations that do just that. Of course, that won't stop me from finishing - the scenes in question also happen to be very powerful and effective, even if they do make me want to wash my brain out with soap and water.


Wow, that was a super short post given all the time going into its source material... I haven't even touched on the plot! I hope to do one or two more posts before I'm done with this beast, though. Stay tuned or run away screaming as your conscience dictates.

No comments:

Post a Comment