Our history is an aggregate of last moments. Thomas Pynchon ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’

I am not sure if I bought Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or was gifted it, either way it has sat on my shelf for years. Haunting me, maybe even mocking me. I remember reading The Crying of Lot 49, but never got around to Gravity’s Rainbow. In my recent dive into the world of audiobooks, I found a reading of it by George Guidall via Open Culture. I thought this might be a compromise.

To be honest, although I knew Gravity’s Rainbow was ‘about a rocket’, I did not really know much beyond that. I wonder if this alongside the size of the book is what held me off. After finishing the novel, I kind of know why I did not know much. It is not a novel easily summarised. Take for example this collection of attempts:

Gravity’s Rainbow reads like a kaleidoscopic fusion of violent history, conflicting socio-political and economic interests, scientific and metaphysical notions, collective and individual fantasies and dreams, that merges fact and fiction, which are created and supervised by controlling systems of various origins, including film industry, where artificial prefigures the real, implementing psychological manipulation to constitute desired perceptions of reality and history.

Source: “Cinematic” Gravity’s Rainbow: Indiscernibility of the Actual and the Virtual by Lovorka Gruic Grmusa

To describe any novel is to do it a disservice, and in some cases, you shouldn’t even bother. Thus, having failed on numerous occasions to describe Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s colossal, parabolic wonderland of a novel, I’ve simply stopped trying. Not only because it is essentially unsummarizeable, but because now, 50 years after its release, it still evades our understanding. (The only 20th century novel less penetrable is perhaps Finnegans Wake, and at times, Pynchon gives Joyce a run for his money.) Now, when asked about the book, I simply tell people what they can expect: rocket physics, sex, coprophagia, pedophilia, giant octopuses/adenoids, riffs on thermodynamics, Pavlovian conditioning, speculative chemistry; secret cabals, Nazi-mysticism, drugs, sea shanties, an acid trip of a last chapter, and a whole lot else.

Source: Beyond the Rainbow by Jared Marcel Pollen

Can Gravity’s Rainbow be difficult and obscure? Sure. Does it contain an unusually large amount of sadomasochism, pedophilia, and coprophagy for a literary classic? Certainly. Does it have a grim view of Western history? How could it not? But Gravity’s Rainbow presents its dark materials with such an unremittingly innocent flamboyance, and wears its prodigious learning with such a democratic exuberance, that it continues to attract not only serious scholars and critics but also enthusiastic fans, a cohort of readers whose relatively small size is more than made up for by its intense devotion.

Source: History Is Hard to Decode: On 50 Years of Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” by M. Keith Booker

Each attempt captures a particular perspective, but never the whole. Interestingly, the rocket is often considered as something of a red-herring. Instead, it maybe better appreciated as a dive into the experience of being paranoid. This is framed around his ‘Proverbs for Paranoids’:

  1. You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.
  2. The innocence of the creature is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.
  3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.
  4. You hide, They seek.
  5. Paranoids are not paranoids because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.

When paranoia is our means of making sense it leaves one wondering whether sense matters. What is and is not fact. As reader we experience this sense of paranoia through the act of reading. As Craig Getting and Andrew Cunningham capture in their discussion:

Sometimes it’s hard to tell when his making something up and when his referencing something real. Similarly it’s hard to tell if an event is actually occurring or if somebody is hallucinating. Also Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a character died or not.

Source: Ep 319 – Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon by Overdue Podcast

For me, Gravity’s Rainbow is a chaotic reflection of a chaotic world. To borrow from Peter Goldsworthy,

Cartoon pictures how else to describe a cartoon world.

Maestro by Peter Goldsworthy

Like Paul Auster with his New York Trilogy, Gravity’s Rainbow is about trying to find a language to describe the world. As with writers such as Samuel Beckett and Joseph Heller, absurdity is at the heart of this language.

Another thing to stand out in the world created by Pynchon was the primacy of the image. I often found myself remembering scenes, rather than any sort of ‘narrative’. Lovorka Gruic Grmusa explains this with reference to the place of cinematography:

Cinematography was the first medium which created the illusion of motion by manipulating and animating still images so that motion-picture photography is perceived as continuous movement, disseminating the creative capacities of the medium and generating immensely original and multifaceted realms that alter existing conceptions of reality. Pynchon unravels these permutations of image manipulation in Gravity’s Rainbow, exposing film as an apparatus and a thematic composition, but what is more, the novel’s cinematic ambience captures the shift in human consciousness at the close of World War II.

Source: “Cinematic” Gravity’s Rainbow: Indiscernibility of the Actual and the Virtual by Lovorka Gruic Grmusa

This discussion of cinematography is not just the way of seeing, but also the endless cultural references.

In the end, on finishing the novel I appreciated the Pulitzer Prize jury concern about the novel. I often found myself one minute loving Pynchon’s turn of phrase, while the next minute cringing at some piece of absurdity. In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Martin Flanagan says,

A good book leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.

Source: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Martin Flanagan

With this in mind, I was left thinking that Gravity’s Rainbow was a great book as it left me thinking about my own thoughts and responses to so much. I can appreciate why people talk about rereading this on a regular basis. It therefore serves as a great source of meditation.


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REVIEW: Gravity’s Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon) by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

3 thoughts on “REVIEW: Gravity’s Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon)

  1. The Truce recounts Primo Levi’s journey after being liberated from Auschwitz. It follows on from If This Is a Man. I have read and watched a lot about World War II, but I had never really thought about what happens afterwards, especially with the divide between the Russians and the Americans. I wonder if one of the differences with something like Erich Maria Remarque’s The Road Back is that there was possibly more movement in World War II? It also made me wonder if Waiting for Godot and Rainbow’s Gravity are not as absurd as they seem?

    Marginalia

    So for us even the hour of liberty rang out grave and muffled, and filled our souls with joy and yet with a painful sense of pudency, so that we should have liked to wash our consciences and our memories clean from the foulness that lay upon them; and also with anguish, because we felt that this should never happen, that now nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out our past, and that the scars of the outrage would remain within us for ever, and in the memories of those who saw it, and in the places where it occurred and in the stories that we should tell of it. Because, and this is the awful privilege of our generation and of my people, no one better than us has ever been able to grasp the incurable nature of the offence, that spreads like a contagion. It is foolish to think that human justice can eradicate it. It is an inexhaustible fount of evil; it breaks the body and the spirit of the submerged, it stifles them and renders them abject; it returns as ignominy upon the oppressors, it perpetuates itself as hatred among the survivors, and swarms around in a thousand ways, against the very will of all, as a thirst for revenge, as a moral capitulation, as denial, as weariness, as renunciation.

    The market of Cracow had blossomed out spontaneously, as soon as the front had passed by, and in a few days it had invaded an entire suburb. Everything was bought and sold there, and the whole city centred on it; townsfolk were selling furniture, books, paintings, clothes and silver; peasant women, padded

    He explained to me that to be without shoes is a very serious fault. When war is waging, one has to think of two things before all others : in the first place of one’s shoes, in the second place of food to eat; and not vice versa, as the common herd believes, because he who has shoes can search for food, but the inverse is not true. ‘But the war is over,’ I objected : and I thought it was over, as did many in those months of truce, in a much more universal sense than one dares to think today. ‘There is always war,’ replied Mordo Nahum memorably.

    I felt my sense of freedom, my sense of being a man among men, of being alive, like a warm tide ebb from me. I found myself suddenly old, lifeless, tired beyond human measure; the war was not over, there was always war. My listeners began to steal away; they must have understood. I had dreamed, we had always dreamed, of something like this, in the nights at Auschwitz: of speaking and not being listened to, of finding liberty and remaining alone.

    They were months of idleness and relative comfort, and full, therefore, of penetrating nostalgia. Nostalgia is a fragile and tender anguish, basically different, more intimate, more human than the other pains we had endured till then – beatings, cold, hunger, terror, destitution, disease. Nostalgia is a limpid and lean pain, but demanding; it permeates every minute of the day, permits no other thoughts and induces a need for escape.

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