Sunday, July 7, 2013

Gravity's Rainbow

Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Read: 13 November 2011 to 7 January 2012
4 / 5 stars

Holy crap, y'all. This book. This book! Thomas Pynchon's brain is a national treasure (albeit a kooky one), as it takes some mad skill to combine a smorgasbord of seemingly unrelated components -- among them: a giant adenoid, a metric butt-ton of intersecting conspiracies, applied physics (complete with equations that made me feel like a dimwit!), cannibalism, World War II, entropy, Plasticman, the occult, Pavlovian experiments, Mickey Rooney, light-bulb legacies, obscure '40s cultural references, disgusting English candies (is that redundant?), characters breaking into goofy songs with a frequency befitting musical theatre -- and throw them all together with a staggeringly cohesive and coherent result that's also a language-lover's dream.

My previous encounters with Pynchon are limited to one of his shortest works (The Crying of Lot 49), his newest offering (Inherent Vice), and a handful of short stories from a long-ago college lit class. I'll admit, while I've always enjoyed hanging out with the brainchildren of literature's most enigmatic figure, I was motivated to conquer Gravity's Rainbow for purely egotistical reasons: Many tackle the daunting tome but few reach the finish line, and I wanted to rank among the few who can count this post-modern insanity among their bookish conquests. I owe the Pynchon Wiki a great many thanks for deciphering some of the more arcane allusions tossed into the mix, otherwise I wouldn't've known what the hell was going on in more than a few instances and would have most likely abandoned the effort.

The two months I spent wading through Gravity's Rainbow were, indeed, punctuated by bouts of confusion and frustration. I can't remember the last time I did this much research on a book that wasn't required reading for a class. Nor can I recall a time when a work of fiction had me rereading passages and pages two or three times to make sure I knew which way was up. If not for perusing reviews by veteran Pynchon enthusiasts who offered assurances that one is not supposed to understand every nuance of this book the first time around, I probably would have thrown the novel across many rooms at various points. I came into this adventure thinking that it couldn't be that difficult and was thoroughly humbled within 20 pages.

But damn if this didn't return every drop of my hard work with a truly rewarding reading experience. Sure, I was consulting a dictionary or some kind of encyclopedia every couple pages, and the breakneck discursiveness of the narrative did have me running in circles every so often. But! The inherent difficulty of this reading experience forced me to pay attention to every single word in the almost-800-page book. Demanding that kind of effort and focus absolutely made it easier for me to appreciate the kind of unusual talent that birthed this terrible and unconventional beauty. And you know what? I felt brilliant every time I understood an off-the-cuff historical reference (why, yes, I DO know why Prince Edward abdicated!) or genuinely laughed hysterically over one of the countless clever turns of phrase that made every "Just what the hell is going on here!?" moment worth the headdesking.

Pynchon's wordsmithing prowess is on full-force here (and is why I feel a little dirty giving this a paltry three stars), which is what kept me hurdling headfirst through the more-than-sometimes murky depths of his magnum opus. His penchant for veering completely off the topic did mean that I've forgotten more details than I've retained, but Pynchon's ability to polish a sentence to the point of making it seem effortlessly constructed more than compensated for that. Besides, I don't feel too badly about my inability to retain every excruciatingly minute detail because, from what I understand, half the joy of this book comes from the reread, which is partly why I couldn't justify slapping four stars on it after our first tango, especially when so much escaped my notice. Anyway. Any book that can be chock-full of made-up songs, hidden poetry and some of the most laboriously set up puns ever written appeases my inner language nerd enough to forgive any (fleetingly, in this case) less-than-enthusiastic feelings that cropped up during our long-term acquaintance. The exhaustive scope of the vocabulary Pynchon has at his command is on par with that of both his general knowledge and this book's terrain. Hell, even the nature of my readerly reactions -- outright laughter, near tears, gagging fits -- ran the gamut of physical responses.

While the stream-of-consciousness approach definitely got a little burdensome at points, it really did add so much to the story. Watching where some of these characters' minds wandered to made them seem so human and believable, which kept me caring about what was going on even when I didn't know what was going on. Pynchon does tell the story from lots of vantage points, often allowing one character to draw conclusions about another, but he also lets the reader in on what's really happening with the hundreds of people populating the story. The way that the choir of voices weaves dozens of individual plot threads into a rich tapestry of intersecting madness justifies every instance of wandering narrative.

Finally (because I'm getting tired of writing and want to go back to reading), the humor with which Pynchon writes is an absolute treat. I've never seen a writer get so much comical mileage from a well-placed "Really?" There are some flat-out ridiculous directions that the plot takes but it's really the writing itself that tickled my deranged sense of humor the hardest. I did get a serious kick out of Pynchon's preoccupation with kazoos, harmonicas and bananas, too. It made me want to start a marching kazoo band of my own, mostly because I've got a soft spot for making my own magically obscure allusions. (I'll settle for an adequate photo of the MST3K cereal novel, though.)

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