St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

I usually keep notes on my year’s reading as I go, but I just realised it’s turning into a monster list. I figured I should start breaking out some of the longer entries into their own blog posts, especially as I haven’t been writing much about movies lately, so here’s the first one in a series of short posts about interesting books.

The UK paperback cover of 'Gravity's Rainbow' (Vintage/Random, 2012)

This year I set myself the task of reading at least one difficult book I’d been wanting to read for a while. To make sure I didn’t try to weasel out of it, I made myself do it first. Gravity’s Rainbow has been on my to-do list since I was a teenager but multiple attempts over the years haven’t taken me past about page 50 of this 770-page novel. I find all of Pynchon’s novels challenging, but this is his most notorious. I didn’t find it any easier this time around. I’m in awe of just how clever and funny Pynchon’s writing can be, despite which it’s still bafflingly dense and unstructured. I’m also astounded, as everyone else is, by the sheer breadth of Pynchon’s knowledge of things he was never there to witness himself. Some of his specialist knowledge can be attributed to his past work and experience, but not all of it. Not by a long shot.

It’s easy to say this novel is satirical, that it’s about the paranoia and foreboding under the shadow of the V2 rocket during the closing days of the Second World War, but those readings don’t take into account the scope of a novel that (Wikipedia tells me) has 400 named characters, most of whom only appear once. Nor is this Pynchon’s only difficult novel — I found Vineland and The Crying of Lot 49 equally dense, if shorter. I don’t think it’s a literary flourish. I think this is just how Pynchon sees the world — as a constant deluge of information that might be related or might be random. He can’t not try to wrap his head around everything, every fact, every pop song, every scientific principle, every non-player character. It’s bewildering to meet people day after day who you don’t ever know if you’ll meet again. Every day is more and more names, more facts, more history and culture, all of which tie together in strange and unpredictable and sometimes sinister ways.

Pynchon himself has never been quite as tight-lipped as he is reputed to be. In 1984 he wrote this in an essay for the New York Times called “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?“:

Since 1959, we have come to live among flows of data more vast than anything the world has seen. Demystification is the order of our day, all the cats are jumping out of all the bags and even beginning to mingle. We immediately suspect ego insecurity in people who may still try to hide behind the jargon of a specialty or pretend to some data base forever “beyond” the reach of a layman. Anybody with the time, literacy and access fee these days can get together with just about any piece of specialized knowledge s/he may need. So, to that extent, the two-cultures quarrel can no longer be sustained. As a visit to any local library or magazine rack will easily confirm, there are now so many more than two cultures that the problem has really become how to find the time to read anything outside one’s own specialty.

The world is just too big to wrap our heads around. If I saw the world like Pynchon does, I’d be overwhelmed by it too. It’s ominous and nightmarish to spend a month lost in a sea of sinister trivia. Maybe the only reason my brain can function at all is by shutting out the things I don’t want to know (I’m terribly vague about faces and names, for example). What would it be like never to shut out anything? Read Gravity’s Rainbow — you’ll begin to get an idea.