by Thomas Pynchon
"Each will have his personal Rocket."
Towards the end of World War II
, the Germans unleashed their secret V2 rocket
program and sent hundreds of rockets screaming towards London
. A few months after these bombs began falling in London, British Intelligence
discovers an odd coincidence regarding an American soldier
named Tyrone Slothrop
. Slothrop has taken to marking his sexual conquests on a map of London. Oddly, the marked points on the map happen to coincide
identically with V-2 rocket impact sites. It turns out that, as an infant
, Slothrop was the subject of a rather strange Pavlovian
experiment which was never concluded properly, and it is suspected that this conditioning imparted some latent abilities upon Slothrop. This discovery will set Slothrop on a journey across war-torn Europe
, searching for the mysterious Rocket 00000
Yeah, and Moby Dick
was about a whale
Truth be told, Gravity's Rainbow defies any conventional
summary, and, indeed, any conventional review. It is often observed that most people don't so much review the contents of the novel as the experience they had in reading it. The focus is often on how long it took to read it, the stigma
that is associated with it, or how difficult it is to read. And this is a difficult
book. It took me about a year of off-and-on reading to complete it... This is not to say that I did not enjoy it, just that I needed to be in a certain mood to read it. It's one of those books that simply demands an attentive reading, and that was not always possible for me.
is extremely complex and convoluted. It snakes around, quickly and deftly tackling various subjects without staying in any one place for very long at a time. It's mind numbingly dense
, peppered with words, concepts, and ideas that are vague
. One of the things I enjoyed most was picking through the elaborate text, researching and cataloging the interesting passages or historical references that salt Pynchon's text. Depending on how you approach the novel, a passing familiarity with the many subjects that Pynchon mentions (such as Pavlovian psychology
, or German
history between world wars) might be rewarding.
The style of Pynchon's writing is also a bit difficult, as he will often adapt
the style to fit the situation he is describing. It can be daunting to read, as he will often shift the narrative without any warning or break out into movie-script format in the middle of a chapter. Anything is possible. Perspectives can suddenly switch from one character, time, or place to another in mid-sentence. Often, the narrative
takes on the style of the character it is describing (until the narrative shifts to another character or place, thus shifting the style yet again). He makes extensive use of flashback
s, often shifting perspectives at the same time so that the flashback is "told" by someone other than the person having the flashback... There are a lot of tangent
s too, as Pynchon doesn't shy away from exploring language or narrative style, but he (eventually) returns to a few main threads.
itself is oddly structured. The first section of the book is a particularly chaotic
mix of styles and plotpoints. It reminds me of the first week of class or sports practice, where the teacher
will inundate their subjects with work to weed out the unworthy. In any case the plot is extremely fragmentary
. I often found myself straining to keep the narrative straight, but every time I thought I had it figured out, something new popped up and knocked me on my arse
. You might even be able to argue that there is no discernable plot, but I think there is an overall structure to the story, albeit not a linear
one. Indeed, its difficult to say what Gravity's Rainbow is about. It's a very large and complex novel, tackling a wide array of theme
s, ideas, and concepts ranging from the issue of control
to "love's bitter mystery," usually exploring the theme from several different perspectives. Naturally, a work that is this complex will mean different things to different people, and there is certainly enough material here to accommodate everyone. There will be a longer selection of quotes below, but on page 727, Pynchon speaks of one of the main characters in the novel - the Rocket
But the Rocket has to be many things, it must answer to a number of different shapes in the dreams of those who touch it ... Each will have his personal Rocket.
(some editing and emphasis added) And such it is that you will have your personal interpretation
s of what Gravity's Rainbow is all about (if you think it is about anything). This book is many things and will answer to a number of different shapes in the dreams of those who read it.
The cast of characters is enormous, as is the variety of settings. I suppose the main character is Tyrone Slothrop, who is probably the most likable character
of the lot. His misadventures also make for the most readable
and fun reading this book has to offer. From his picaresque
adventures as Rocketman
to his mid-air pie fights with fighter planes, Slothrop's romp across post-war Europe
is the most entertaining portion of the novel. I particularly enjoyed the portion of the novel in which Slothrop wanders into "a coastal town near Wismar
" and is coopted to play the Pig-god Plechazunga in a reenactment of town history
. Basically, for a while after this, Slothrop is running around in a Pig
costume. It is an amusing episode
, one of several.
Again, this can all be somewhat daunting
. There are times when it just gets to be too much and it seems like the text is absolutely nonsensical
. I had a lot of trouble towards the beginning of the novel, I think, because I was straining to make too much sense
of everything. I eventually gave up and started just letting the novel be, and I suddenly found it taking shape. That, to me, was the secret to reading this novel.
Take, for instance, the infamous Byron the Bulb. Towards the end of the novel, Pynchon suddenly makes a 10 page digression chronicling the life and times of a sentient light bulb (named Byron). These sorts of tangents tend to give some people the hives
. To me, Byron the Bulb is a microcosm
of the entire novel (among other things laid out in ErisDiscordia
's writeup above); Byron's story is not all that different from Slothrop's and I found the entire passage riveting (in part because I wasn't trying to make sense of it in the context
in which it was brought up).
However, I never could quite shake the feeling that this novel is mostly style
and little story
, and thus I can't quite bring myself to give the highest rating I can. In terms of style, it is hands down the best thing I've ever read, if a little difficult. Reading something right after you've read Gravity's Rainbow is interesting, because nearly everything seems so very simplistic
. But style for the sake of style doesn't quite cut it. Still, I rate it extremely high because it truly is an achievement
and I believe Pynchon accomplished whatever it was he sought out to do with this novel.
If I were to meet Thomas Pynchon
tomorrow, I wouldn't know whether to shake his hand or sucker-punch him. Probably both. I'd extend my right arm, take his hand in mine, give one good pump, then yank him towards my swinging left fist. As he lay crumpled on the ground beneath me, gasping in pain, I'd point a bony finger right between his eyes and say "That was for Gravity's Rainbow." I think he'd understand.
- How does technology affect the world in Gravity's Rainbow? Like Frankenstein's monster, will our technological innovations lead to our undoing? How is nature affected?
- A common theme in literature is nature's indifference to human affairs. Given, however, the massive destructive power that becomes possible by technology, can nature act as a counterbalance to humankind's destructive nature? Should it?
- Is our understanding of science and causality something that we have imposed on reality in order to explain it?
- How does Pynchon's treatment of post-war Europe compare with the historical truth?
- "Each will have his personal Rocket." What's yours?
- Ya ya, symbolism, ya ya themes, what does it all mean? Does it mean anything? Is there a point to the novel at all?
- Is this the triumph of style over substance? Is that a good thing? Can style over substance work at all? Or does the manic style of this novel detract from it's impact?
- Is the novel actually difficult, or am I just whiney?
The quantity and quality of quotes I could mention is massive, so I'll try to limit it to a few of my favorites. See the "Sources and Further Reading" section below for a more comprehensive selection of quotes. I suppose you could say that there are spoilers
below (inasmuch as GR can have spoilers) so read on at your own risk. Beneath some of the quotes are brief comments...
A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
This is the first sentence in the novel, and it is quite good. It's almost as if Pynchon is telling you that this novel won't compare to anything you've ever read. I doubt this was a conscious
choice on his part, as that would be awfully pretentious
, but it seems to fit anyway.
It is marginal, hungry, chilly-most times they're too paranoid to risk a firebut it's something they want to keep, so much that to keep it, they will take on more than propaganda has ever asked them for. They are in love. Fuck the war.
Who can find his way about this lush maze of initials, arrows solid and dotted, boxes big and small, names printed and memorizedNot Earnest Puddingthat's for the New Chaps with their little green antennas out for the usable emanations of power, versed in American politics (knowing the difference between the New Dealers of OWI and the eastern and moneyed Rupublicans behind OSS), keeping brain-dossiers on latencies, weaknesses, tea-taking habits, erogenous zones of all, all who might someday be useful.
This might be my favorite quote from the book. First, its sort of letting the reader know that the reason he/she doesn't understand what's going on with all the various characters and organizations is because its all so mind numbingly complicated and that you really don't need to. Even the characters don't understand! Second, it struck me because, though it's in reference to the confusing proliferation
of secret governmental agencies in war-torn Europe, it could just as easily be applied to today's technology industry
. It probably applies to any number of things, each having their own set of acrynyms
, and politics
and each ordered in a mezmerizing hierarchy
. I know I sometimes wish I understood the "lush maze of initials, arrows solid and dotted, boxes big and small, names printed and memorized" of my company, that's for sure! Third, the name Earnest Pudding is brilliant. Right out of the Dickensian
naming tradition. Fourth, as always, his language is just beautiful.
Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof it is... so absentee.
Proverbs for Paranoids, 1: You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures. (page 237)
Proverbs for Paranoids, 2: The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master. (page 241)
Proverbs for Paranoids, 3: If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers. (page 251)
Proverbs for Paranoids, 4: You hide, they seek. (page 262)
Paranoids are not paranoids (Proverb 5) because they're paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations. (page 292)
Pynchon has a rather well developed sense of paranoia
and proverb 3 is often quoted (for obvious reasons, it makes a great way to start an arguement), but I find proverb 5 to be just as poignant
If there is something comfortingreligious, if you wantabout paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.
The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.
Wars have a way of overriding the days just before them. In the looking back, there is such noise and gravity. But we are conditioned to forget. So that the war may have more importance, yes, but still... isn't the hidden machinery easier to see in the days leading up to the eventThere are arrangements, things to be expedited... and often the edges are apt to lift, briefly, and we see things we were not meant to....
Like other sorts of paranoia, it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the Creation, a secondary illumination -- not yet blindingly One, but at least connected, perhaps a route In for those... who are held at the edge....
Well, I could certainly go on and on quoting the novel, but I'll leave it at that for now...
Sources and Further Reading
This is an edited version of a review on my website:
More quotes, also from my website:
Also at my website, a series of blog
posts concerning GR:
Gravity's Rainbow - A Web Guide
Another excellent GR source (which proved invaluable when reading the novel and writing this review):
The Illustrated Complete Summary of Gravity's Rainbow
Well, that's it. There is certainly plenty more that could be written about this novel
and the impact it has had on me (or the world for that matter) but I've found that I must stop somewhere, and I choose here. As always, comments, suggestions, breathlesss praise, bitter criticism, etc... are welcome.