MJ Nicholls's Reviews > Gravity's Rainbow

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
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May 28, 2012

bookshelves: dropped

I tried sixty-nine pages for the purposes of the Group Read (a Group Read of Gravity’s Rainbow on Goodreads—a GR of GR on GR, or GR3) but tentatively closed the novel thenceforth. My first thought (I am an intellectual) was WTF?! This has over twenty five-star ratings on the first page?! Then I had to concede I simply don’t like Pynchon’s writing style, period. William raised this point in his review of The Tunnel—you’re helpless against an author’s crystalline prose if you simply can’t stomach his particular talent for arranging squiggles. My problem with the first sixty-nine pages? I found his style awkwardly literary, stuffed with showboating passages of verbose insulation (as though caulking the enormous fucker)—I felt the style basically worked against the efficiency of the sentences, i.e. he seems to be taking unnecessarily circuitous routes to describe whatever acronym-riddled antics were happening (as far as I could make out, sub-Catch-22 shenanigans mixed with equally dated black humour) so the reader has to unpeel each little Pychonian prawn as though inside lies some twinkling epithet of significance. Also, the point of view shifts from the ice-cold third-person narrator to the internal states of the dozen or so interchangeable characters with equally stupid names for no particular reason I could fathom for those sixty-nine pages. I was impressed by various passages but I couldn’t commit to another 834 pages . . . there simply wasn’t enough cohering for me in the style, and books that warm up around page 467 are not my bag. I tried The Crying of Lot 49 earlier this year and found the dude such a postmodern relic. I mean, Foster Wallace can do this standing on his head but also offers a devastating emotional wallop into the bargain. William H. Gass writes funnier bawdy limericks and songs too. Anyway. I’m sure he’s brilliant but I really don’t care, I have other boyfriends.
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10/07/2013 marked as: dropped

Comments (showing 1-46 of 46) (46 new)

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message 1: by Ali (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ali I'm sure this won't get you to try again, if for no other reason than that his writing style doesn't change much throughout the book, but similar to your defense of The Tunnel on William's review, I feel the need to step up in slight defense of GR:
I fucking hated the first part. Maybe I'll gain some new insights on its greatness when I reread for Brain Pain, but that is by far the most painful part of the book to read. As you saw (probably; I don't know about your edition, but mine was 760 densely packed pages, and 69 of those would have been more than enough for me to see this), dozens of characters appear and disappear almost at random, most of which would have no significance to the rest of the book. The rest are important, but even some of those don't appear until hundreds of pages later. Part Two is when it picks up steam and becomes a lot more lucid. There are still moments of dense, nigh unreadable prose, but they are more often than not interspersed with more decipherable parts, unlike part one, which is one giant mass of unreadable prose with a few glimpses of clarity here and there.

Still, this is a very fair review, and you don't heap scorn on those of us who liked the book and accuse us of pretending to like it to look smart, or use the word "pretentious", so it gets a vote from me.

Perhaps next time, I should consider making my comments shorter than the reviews to which they're posted? I've just begun to notice my verbosity on here, but can't stop myself from writing rambling comments because I feel that every word is necessary to making my points clear. I was going to theorize about why this would be the case for five hundred words or so, about how perhaps because I can read long comments so quickly and have no experience with what it's like to read them with sight (although yanking the Braille display out of its drawer and plugging it in might give me an idea), on a subconscious level I expect everyone to read as quickly as I do, but realised there was no way anyone was going to read or respond to all of that, so there would be no point to writing it, although it occurs to me that I just wrote down the essence of what I was going to say anyway, giving someone a chance, if they wanted, to read and respond to it, not that they would, since most of them probably stopped reading this comment after seeing all the commas and no full stops, unsurprising, really, if I were, wel, not me, and could see, and saw all that, I would either skip it entirely or skim read and post something like "lol" or "I agree d00d", as a humourous juxtaposition to the insane length of this comment, no matter how much I liked me and my comments, the first I referring to the me who is not me, assuming, of course, that by some series of coincidences, I and me met and became Goodreads friends (which, in turn, is assuming that this other me would somehow have made it onto Goodreads and found me), and somehow failed to notice the striking similarities between us, with the exception of the other me being able to see, assuming that there were any similarities, for who's to say that this me who is not me would have grown up in my exact life situation and, by upbringing, schooling, book-reading, etc, become similar to me in any way, in which case, wouldn't we then be different people and not copies of each other, as I previously thought several hundred words back?

Tl;Dr version: Write more shorter.

message 2: by MJ (last edited May 28, 2012 09:14AM) (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls Thanks for the exasperatingly (and entertaingly) obese comments, Ali. I always enjoy them immensely and if I wasn't so obsessed with trying to pack so much reading and writing and reading into my day I would respond in a similarly voluminous and hilarious way with many circumlocutious bends (hang on I'm doing it now . . . must stop and bring this sentence to a close!) and lexical twists and flourishes (stop! stop!) and oh I can't be bothered now . . .

It does strike me as unusual you would five-star a book 1/4 of which you found unreadable and the read of which drifts in and out of lucidity. After reading Witz I've given up the act of patiently slogging through marshes of confusing density unless I'm absolutely smitten with the style (like Gass), so if it really warms up 211 pages in, I probably won't be trying this again. (Except for the meaningless honour of having read a Fucking Huge Cult Book Everyone Else Loves or FHCBEEL).

message 3: by Nate D (last edited May 28, 2012 09:35AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nate D Maybe this is just driving nails into the coffin, but I might actually like parts of part one more than anything else in the book. Like all the offbrand Pavlovian bits, and the general weirdness shuffling in and about and around the White Visitation. Plus I generally like and relate to some of the supporting cast (Jessica and Roger, fr'instance, even Pirate) more than to our actual protagonist, I think. But I do find the whole is grafted into an interesting and worthwhile construction.

I wouldn't really rate this as one of the better work-to-payoff ratios in the Pynchon catalog though (V and Against the Day are more my preferences)

message 4: by MJ (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls I hate to say it but this book seems to have received an unwholesomely massive and collective benefit-of-the-doubt from its yeysayers. I can see what people enjoy in his writing, though, plenty of his sentences are bejewelled marvels.

Drew It took me a long time to get through the first 100 pages or so; Pynchon expends a lot of effort trying to introduce all the characters, and I'd agree that many of them come off as interchangeable. But I found that that same section looked a lot better after I'd read the rest of the book and already knew all the characters. Or most of them.

That said, it is definitely sort of cruel to make a reader read seven or eight hundred pages and then go back and reread the first section just to be able to appreciate it.

Stephen M It's interesting because I loved the first 100 pages, but now that I've moved ahead another 20, I've hit a bit of a road block. I know that it won't take much longer to get past the first section and I just need to power through it.

I'm not sure what it is exactly that I loved so much about it, but it the descriptions are something else. Plus all the psychology references are great.

What kind of benefit of the doubt do you think it's getting? I felt like I was with it the whole time (except for Pirate through the toilet part, that was bizarre).

Drew I can't speak for MJ, but I'd say it's a lot easier to forgive things you don't like if a book is really long. There's more space for it to have the amount of good stuff required for anyone to give it 5 stars, and it can make you like it that much while still having any number of flaws and faults. Whereas a short book has to have no wasted pages in order to get that sort of reaction.

Nate D I have this tendency to leave people to their reactions and not try to convince them otherwise, but this time, let me briefly say why this works so well for me: to me, dense prose works effectively, and rarely seems excessive, because Pynchon is always simultaneously expressing a very cohesive set of ideas and several threads of action. The density is needed to juggle the unusually high concentration of content. Admittedly, this isn't always plainly evident, but it's there often enough that you'll start to notice many, many convergence points pretty soon, and it starts getting more fun and justifiable, I suppose. But the main reason Pynchon is such a favorite (besides that DFW and others could barely exist with out him), is that so many parts of his books are always spinning back to the front of my mind and informing my life. He touches upon so many things that he's been coded into my whole thinking by now. I'm sure this doesn't happen to everyone, but it did for me in ways that few other authors have managed, and I love him for it.

message 9: by Ali (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ali "I skipped the first part after a while and asked my sister what happened."

You have family members you can discuss books like Gravity's Rainbow with? That idea is nearly inconceivable to me. I wish I was that lucky. My entire family has read, at an estimate, five and a half books, and I don't speak to them anymore. Since I'm thinking about it, I really never have book discussions with anyone outside of Goodreads, because the things I read are obscure enough that no one I know has heard of them, and the people I know who read extensively have tastes which are completely incongruent with mine, so I haven't read the books they want to discuss, with a number of exceptions in the single digits, and even then, no one wants to hear my opinions of their favourites, because often they're rather scathing, so combined with the fact that people in general don't talk to me, my literary social life outside of Goodreads is a baron wasteland of Hunger Games, the Fifty Shades Trilogy, and similar fair. That's why I have Goodreads. It's so refreshing to mention something like Against the Day, or even to post a quote from it, and (a) see reactions other than "What's that? I've never heard of that book before." and (b) Have someone sincerely read the quote and discuss it with me, rather than looking at the long sentences and big words, assuming it's boring, and never mentioning its existence again other than to write a reply equating to "You read weird stuff lol!"

message 10: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Puma I'm barely 100 pages into this one, but I'm feeling your pain.

message 11: by MJ (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls Drew/Stephen: I would agree with that. After reading the first 200 pages of The Tunnel I knew it wouldn't receive anything less than five stars. I don't think you can expect any 600pp+ novel to be without insufferable moments.

Nate: See I was looking forward to all that, but I felt no connection to the writing at all. I can forgive a lot if the style makes me tingly.

Ali: lol, I agree dood

Mike: I hope you get past the pain stage and get into it. (Although secretly I'm hoping you don't so I have an ally in Pynchon failure).

s.penkevich I can totally understand your reaction. I was tempted to abandon this during part 1 as well, it is just overly frustrating and confusing for the sake of confusion. I'm glad I stuck with it though, and looking back from the mid-point, I rather miss the feel of part 1. Just not the confusion.

I will, however, try some Glass as per your recomendation over Pynchon. Any book of his you would advise starting with?

message 13: by Yolande (new)

Yolande "You have family members you can discuss books like Gravity's Rainbow with? That idea is nearly inconceivable to me." To me too. The moment I start talking about a book, any one of them runs for the hills.

message 14: by MJ (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls Mr Penkevich: The Tunnel is the best one (of two) I've read. I think you'd find it thrilling given your patience and love of epic monsters.

Yolande: I can discuss books with my sister but no one else. I recently learned my dad was a closet reader in his youth but gave it up when he cashed in his hope for humankind. I hope I'll always want to read, even when I'm balding and forty and haven't achieved any of my life goals.

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis MJ wrote: "even when I'm balding and forty and haven't achieved any of my life goals. "

You've got me nailed to the tree. And I'm still reading. Hope springs over-forty.

message 16: by Yolande (new)

Yolande Maybe if I had a sister. As it is I have two brothers and none of them read. At all.

message 17: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Puma MJ wrote: "even when I'm balding and forty and haven't achieved any of my life goals. "

Surely, after so vast a period and with increased baldness threatening a Friar Tuck look, you'll, at the very least, have read everything in the Dalkey Archive.

message 18: by MJ (last edited May 29, 2012 09:47AM) (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls Yolande: I was on your side until a cursory glance at your homepage shows you've listed Twilight and The Hunger Games as favourites. Oh. Em. Gee.

Mike: I'll happily wear thigh-chafing green tights at forty if the Dalkey keep churning 'em out. I think Nathan is with me on this.

s.penkevich MJ wrote: "Mr Penkevich: The Tunnel is the best one (of two) I've read. I think you'd find it thrilling given your patience and love of epic monsters.

Yolande: I can discuss books with my sister but no one ..."

Thank you, I'll be sure to check that out!

message 20: by Yolande (new)

Yolande MJ - Actually, I haven't listed anything as favourites yet. That seems to be an automatic GR thing. I can completely remove them from my shelf and pretend I never read or heard of them ever before. I don't care. My favourite author is Virginia Woolf and I also think that Anne Rice's Vampire chronicles are far better than twilight. I should probably create a real favourites shelf. In my defence, I've read a few YA novels but if I ever started reviewing I would not review such books. Besides, since I want to work my way through every century of noted literature, starting with the middle ages, I have stopped reading those types. I shall mimic Philip Sydney's title "Defence of Poetry" and call this my defence of actually being someone who reads and values sophisticated literature, despises the mainstream and refuses to be a readerly disappointment! I am laughing at myself for that last statement :) As a postscript (no, more?) MJ, you are exactly my type of reader. You had me at "dislikes people who understand Derrida" and I was like follow! Now! I am now out of metaphorical breath and since I have never said this much on an internet site before, my nerves are accordingly shot.

message 21: by Nate D (last edited May 29, 2012 11:38AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nate D I think the deal is that unless you set otherwise in your profile, Goodreads just makes a list of things you gave 4 or 5 stars to, starting with the most popular, and displays it as favorites. It's the "starting with the most popular" bit that's getting you here. But you can set your own shelf of choice to appear there instead.

message 22: by Yolande (new)

Yolande Yes, I'll get right on that.

message 23: by MJ (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls Yolande: Great! Although I actually do like people who understand Derrida. I fear and respect them. I'm willing to overlook your reading and five-star rating of Twilight as a temporary insane blip and look forward to your Philip Sydney exegeses and assorted Middle Ages hijinks.

message 24: by Yolande (new)

Yolande I know, I actualy want to read more Derridean theory than the bits we studied, at some point. I love lit theory. I just thought it was really funny for a profile. For the rest, thank you, thank you. I considered my rating of twilight etc. compartementalised among YA's. Not really an overall

message 25: by Yolande (new)

Yolande ...rating - shoot, pressed a wrong button there.

message 26: by Drew (new) - rated it 5 stars

Drew House of Leaves has a nice little fake interview/conversation with Derrida that I found highly amusing. I'd type it out here, but a friend's got my copy of the book.

message 27: by MJ (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls Drew wrote: "House of Leaves has a nice little fake interview/conversation with Derrida that I found highly amusing. I'd type it out here, but a friend's got my copy of the book."

Is House of Leaves worth all the palaver? As I understand it, it's that completely humorless and self-important form of experimentalism.

message 28: by William1 (new)

William1 Oh my friend. We are on the same page here. This book is unreadable, period. See what I mean when I say I must have 40 or 50% coherence on the first reading. Below that I am lost and bored. It's hard to believe the same man wrote the uproarious Mason & Dixon. Go figure....

message 29: by Drew (new) - rated it 5 stars

Drew MJ, the review of it that I like best is Nate's; it's fair and concise and may give you the best sense of whether you'd like it or not.


He says it succeeds "just fine on a number of levels." Operative phrase "just fine." I'm not sure that any aspect of it is singularly good, or even just singular. But it's entertaining and a little bit creepy; I really liked it.

Nate D Yeah, I enjoyed it. It's not all that funny besides in metatextual ways, but I wouldn't call it humorless, and its hard to take a nested typographic/spatial horror story narrated by Borges and being footnoted by a kind of parodic Brett Easton Ellis as all that self-serious. Also, it introduced me to a lot of things (experimental genre tropes, broken typography, disputed authorship) that I would later enjoy in other forms. It is totally possible that it could be another of those books you'll have no use for, having already delved far deeper into all of those areas, though.

message 31: by MJ (last edited May 30, 2012 01:50AM) (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls William: Ah, so you'd recommend Mason & Dixon? I am willing to try a third time with Pynchon if he plays nice.

Drew/Nate: I'm used to typographical/footnoted experimentalism coming with humour and the sort of Beckett-like flow of internal consciousness . . . i.e. BS Johnson et al. HoL seems to be an attempt to mainstreamize all the pomo hijinks of the sixties onwards, though I suppose it wasn't a massive seller. Still feels like he's cannibalising all the ideas of past masters and making more money than they ever did. Which annoys me. Plus the Z in his name is an affectation that makes me wince. "I am Zorro!"

message 32: by Stephen M (last edited May 30, 2012 01:55AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Stephen M Yeah, House of Leaves is just a clustercuss of pomo trickery. It gets a little over the top.

Oh, yes, BS Johnson! Albert Angelo has been burning a hole in my bookshelf. I'll probably get that one in after GR.

message 33: by Nate D (last edited May 30, 2012 06:47AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nate D My suspicion is that House of Leaves will certainly annoy you, MJ. It's as you said -- 2.5 times the GR ratings of Pale Fire, whose structure it has fairly obviously co-opted into something resembling popular (ie genre) fiction form.

As far as Mason and Dixon goes, I have a hard time imagining liking it without some Pynchon investment, but this seems pretty in-dispute.

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis House of Leaves: This is what I should have picked up last September for a light bit of reading rather than the rather dull Neal Stephenson's new one, Reamde. HoL won't rock your socks off but is just about the right dosage for a metagoofist when s/he wants a beach "read." I think he's got some talent. And then pissed off all of his fans with his next book Only Revolutions.

Pynchon: If yer willing for another go at him I'd suggest Against the Day. It's a genre mash-up. And you'll need only a few pages to get your sea-legs (airship-legs, right). I cracked the Pynchon code with Inherent Vice and then found Against the Day as easy to read as any genre he was parroting, but with better prose. Prior to that V, Gravity's Rainbow, and Mason & Dixon had all left me numb and stymied. I had pressed on with Pynchon because I took him as god, and eventually he became god.

message 35: by Drew (new) - rated it 5 stars

Drew Yeah, Inherent Vice was the first Pynchon I finished...but not the first one I started.

message 36: by MJ (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls I'll put on the House of Leaves to-read pile and Against the Day on the must-read pile. Deification to follow.

Nate D I have an unreserved love of Against the Day. That thing you said about DFW's ability to hit emotional resonance through the complex mechanisms? Pynchon has admitted that sometimes leaves his characters at the mercy of his plot design, to their detriment, which arguably happens in GR, but Against the Day is where he totally nails it.

message 38: by MJ (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls Brilliant. Oh, it's over 1000 pages. Er, brilliant. *hides from big book*

message 39: by Stephen M (last edited May 30, 2012 01:32PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Stephen M I'm thinking of trying to get through the rest of Pynchon chronologically, since I've been good to that so far. It's a lot of reading.....

The sheer size of AtD has me a bit worried about my motivation though.

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Nate wrote: "I have an unreserved love of Against the Day. That thing you said about DFW's ability to hit emotional resonance through the complex mechanisms? Pynchon has admitted that sometimes leaves his chara..."

I like the mechanistic nature of mega-novels, but you are quite correct, Nate, that there is a singingness to his characters in AtD.

To unharsh those thousand pages, some (not me) have complained that it could/should have been some 5 distinct novels and Tom was just rushing to get all of his material out the door before lights out. Me think not so much. But you'll get 5-novel credit for it.

And story...it's almost nothing but story, except for all of its other excellent qualities.

And, MJ, your review here of GR is pushing it up to my read-really-soon pile. That kind of dense nuttiness is, oddly, missing from Take Five. And I miss it.

message 41: by MJ (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls OK, I'll add it in five separate editions to up that month's book count. You're not enjoying the dense nuttiness of Take Five? As I recall there's no shortage.

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis No, I am enjoying it. Mostly Simon's beautiful logorhea. But it is not as densely packed, narratively, as it could be. Linguistically it's a riot. Not a single GR member has as much skill at the pun as Mr Mano. I'll looking to see if there is a bunch of overlapping structural and thematic material here, architectonicly . I've only just lost the sense of taste. Also there's that redemption question which with Mano is of sincere literary interest to me.

So, yes, only one nutty thing happens at a time.

Rayroy To sum up Thomas Pynchon in two words I would say he's a paranoid genius,and could of done anything like be neurosurgeon, but he choose to write and to not only write but to write fiction by his own rules, his books forever, like Gravity's Rainbow, will leave intellectuals awestruck and baffeled, even as we approach an age that abandons intellectualism.

"Amercian voices, country voices, high-pitched and without mercy"

message 44: by knig (new) - rated it 2 stars

knig MJ, I'm batting your corner.

message 45: by knig (new) - rated it 2 stars

knig Nate D wrote: "I have this tendency to leave people to their reactions and not try to convince them otherwise, but this time, let me briefly say why this works so well for me: to me, dense prose works effectively..."

Holy Mackerel, Nate. I'd love to know how part one of this quadrivium informed you. You might yet be the only person in the universe whos made sense of it instead of using is as a voodoo cushion for sticking pins in.

Nate D Ha. I dunno. It was my first Pynchon years ago and I struggled through because there were so many incidentals that seemed perfect.

Then, when I wrote that comment, I was reading it for the second time after reading nearly all other Pynchons, and I was really taking my time and enjoying unraveling the density, and just re-reading parts that weren't immediately obvious, so I was far more attuned to the rhythms than before. '

Granted, it was slow and I only re-read Part I before drifting away again. But it was really enjoyable like that.

I would definitely say it's not his best, and not good starter's Pynchon, though.

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