Thomas Pynchon is my literary father. Without his example I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to become a writer. He set me my example, not so much with his style, nor even with his ambition, but with his actual achievement, with the living proof in the several thousand pages’ worth of art he has made over his career.
(And to be sure, a lot of it in those early days was also how the way that reviewers wrote about him pricked at my own blossoming ego, my own starving heart).
Gravity’s Rainbow was the second Pynchon novel I read, but the first that I was aware of, and I christened it a personal landmark before I ever sat down to read it. When I finally did read it, I got little more out of it than a few nightmares and lingering images (the banana breakfast, the Kenosha Kid sequence, the Adenoid, u.s.w.) – which I guess isn’t a bad haul from a first read of any book…but either way it was due for a reread.
I’m about 450 pages in. I would’ve liked to be finished already and have a review up today for Pynchon’s birthday, but unfortunately it wasn’t in the stars. Maybe next year. But I did want to write something about Gravity’s Rainbow, so in lieu of a full-fat review here are some reasons why I think you’d like this book.
You Don’t Like Other Pynchon Novels
Gravity’s Rainbow is the least Pynchon-like of Pynchon’s novels. The usual clutch of Pynchon qualities – you might call them tropes – are either absent or, if they are present, they’re subsumed or otherwise reconfigured into the particular aesthetic at work here. Yes, there are dumb songs – but they often seem scary or desparate or sad here. Yeah, the narrative voice has that knowing Pynchon chumminess on occasion, but more often it lapses into prophetic, apocalyptic, or achingly mournful modes, made all the more foreboding/sad set against those lighter moments. Even the names, though they’re outlandish as ever, seem less jokey and more ominous in their connotations, like someone is desperately trying to tell you something but is prevented from saying it outright.
Some very few books demand a style all to their own, a special, unrepeatable language keyed to the task at hand and nothing else. Gravity’s Rainbow is one such book. Even if other Pynchon novels didn’t sweeten your tea, this one might.
You Like Metal Gear Solid
Isn’t there video footage of a V-2 taking off in a Snake Eater cutscene, or am I dreaming? Pynchon references Metal Gear auteur Hideo Kojima by name in Bleeding Edge; did he ever play Snake Eater, or any other modern Metal Gear game? I know he’s a cool old dude but is he that kind of Cool Old Dude? Did Kojima ever read Gravity’s Rainbow?
Someday somebody, who will either be obnoxious or interesting, is going to write a paper or thesis examining the connections between Kojima & Konami’s Metal Gear games and Gravity’s Rainbow (And maybe you’ll wish that you wrote it…) All the themes of those games are present in Pynchon’s book: the paranoia, an attunement to the metaphysics of war and espionage, the cinephilia, a death-wish fascination with military technology. Pynchon explores these themes on a level that the Metal Gear games don’t reach, but they’re also trying to be a different thing, and if you like what Kojima does at his best, and in particular if you like the vibes of Snake Eater, Guns of the Patriots, or Peace Walker, there is a shocking amount of synchronicity to be found in Gravity’s Rainbow.
You Want a Different Kind of War Novel
Pynchon’s treatment of WWII, the Big Sappy Boy of 20th century wars, is singular. The excellent Pynchon in Public Podcast notes that Gravity’s Rainbow is less about war than it is about the bureaucracy of war – which, of course, means that it is indeed about war. It looks at war honestly, as the For Profit enterprise it actually is: a bloody excuse for cosmic levels of Buying and Selling. And thus in Gravity’s Rainbow, nations aren’t mentioned as often as companies are, institutions, organizations, divisions and subdivisions and sub-subdivisions. The cherubic smiling doughboy wobbling off to war with a crew cut and a fat ass is replaced with an accountant you never see. Romance drowns under a mountain of paper. People die.
So much of WWII is obscured behind genial self-satisfied smoke in wood-paneled VFW bars, or wet-eyed reverence towards Brotherhood or Sacrifice or Bravery or any of the other shoddy toys people’re given to distract them from the very real transaction of their death. Gravity’s Rainbow deconstructs these notions and replaces them with something much truer, and much scarier.
You are a Student of Architecture
You read enough books – you read enough great books – and you start to be less surprised by their greatness. Not less moved, necessarily (but that’s part of it too, rare are the reading experiences today that keep you flat against the couch as if pinned there by a spear of light, reading “The Try-Works” with absolute wonder), but less gratefully shocked at the capability of human genius.
But Gravity’s Rainbow manages to impress. Not by dint of its beauty – though it’s as gorgeous and surprising as a second moon would be – but by the faultless precision, the obsessive engineer’s agony that informs the placement of each individual word, comma, period, every ellipsis…The attention to detail here is such that a single word can become, through carefully planned repetition and recursion, a potent symbol all on its own, with the multiple manifestations, the different faces and attitudes, of the old gods.
Sure, you suspect that some of the more overt symbolism may not work as well – the tarot stuff isn’t always as interesting as you wish it were, nor as subtly interwoven as other elements – but you are sure that Gravity’s Rainbow is a triumph of organization and orchestration.
Image Credit: Landschaft mit Regenbogen 1810 by Caspar David Friedrich. This particular image of the painting comes from Otto Sell’s amazing online Pynchon resource. Make sure to check out the artwork he has there from Marca Merica, which I wanted to include in this piece but were too small to really stick out.