Bram's Reviews > Gravity's Rainbow

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
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's review
Aug 03, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: 2009
Read in August, 2009

I think reading and reviewing this book requires taking on some extra baggage because it...well, I don't actually need to explain why or else Gravity’s Rainbow wouldn't have this baggage in the first place. It's Gravity's Rainbow, and that makes me feel like I need to read it, preferably without thinking too much about why exactly I feel this way. But at the same time I feel like I should avoid it so I don't look like a damn hairdo, which I'm told is British slang for someone who “tries too hard” (to look cool, hip, intellectual, etc). Anyway, I decided that the draws of the former outweighed the risks of the latter, and I read it. But first I had to be mentally prepared. Because unless you possess a level of genius utterly alien to me, approaching this book requires that you take a moment to assess your reading goals. Specifically, you need to ask yourself some fundamental questions about the ways in which you are capable of deriving pleasure. The whole idea of a pleasurable reading experience is so subjectively malleable as to be rendered almost meaningless. For some, pleasurable means sticking to a plot structure, character ensemble, and prose style that's well within one's own capabilities, while also being offered thrills that lie on a primarily primitive and visceral level. For some it means making your brain sweat, drawing a little blood, grasping outside of your intellectual reach, and building up some serious (but less overt) tension to provide for powerful releases and enduring satisfactions. And for most of us, it usually means doing a little (or a lot) of both, occasionally in the same novel, depending on x number of mitigating factors in our non-reading lives. Sometimes we want to push ourselves and sometimes we just want to casually, facilely enjoy ourselves.

At the moment, I'm at a place in my reading life where it seems like the more I give in blood, tears, and neuronal overheating, the more pleasure I'm capable of deriving from literature (assuming all this work is actually worth it on the other end). Now I know a passing personal fad when I see one, and even if certain not-too-far-off responsibilities weren't looming, I don't think I could find the energy, desire, time, heart, balls, chutzpah, whatever to continue tackling books like this for any extended period of time. So I'm trying to harness the obsession that's currently ruling my free time and put that cruel Blicero-esque master to work.

So anyway, despite the baggage, I went into reading this with pretty realistic and tempered expectations. I recently read Pynchon’s startlingly mediocre early short stories and was also beginning to question my initial infatuation with The Crying of Lot 49. In truth, I was hoping I wouldn't love it too much or hate it (I more or less succeeded here). Reasons: I didn’t like the idea of being a full-on contrarian with claims of overwrought suckiness (while making sure to prove in my review that this opinion wasn't due to blatant comprehension inabilities), but I also couldn't make this a gushing splooge-fest for reasons nicely summed up by Goodreads Jessica: "Guys who are really into GR are like those overly-earnest guys who're way too into Tom Waits. It's this weird, jealous, intense kind of passion that can seem pretty incongruous with its object, and can make you (or me, anyway) not want to participate in this creepy cultishness." Now, simply admitting that I was concerned about all of this is likely betraying a repulsive and frightening narcissism that this website seems intent on drawing out. Yes, Goodreads is messing with me…and reading a long book about paranoia sure doesn’t help.

Another general issue Gravity’s Rainbow has me mulling over is: how legitimate is it to construct a book that includes hundreds of allusions the vast majority of well-read, well-educated people will be unable to grasp without a serious study of the text and outside sources? To be honest, I'm not really sure where that line is, if there even is one, or if (assuming it's there) Pynchon crossed it. Thankfully, grasping all (or even most) of the allusions doesn't appear to be necessary to enjoy the hell out of the book and have a good idea of what's transpiring. And for this reason, I'm leaning toward a belief that Pynchon did not cross the line (if it exists). For what's better than a book you can enjoy the first time through and perhaps even more (or better yet, for new and different reasons) on subsequent reads?

Initially, the difficulty of reading Gravity’s Rainbow centers on the disorienting nature of character and plot introductions, as Pynchon places you into scenes and conversations with no instructions or compass. After the first section, this disorientation (almost certainly intentional) starts to melt away, but I can imagine that most aborted reading attempts justifiably occur long before the 200 page mark. More than with any other book I've read, this one appears to have been designed for rereading. I know authors and critics throw this concept around quite a bit, with many people claiming, like Nabokov, that reading only begins with rereading. Ah, to have the luxury. But in this case, I think it's true. If I were to go back to the beginning armed with a solid grasp of the convoluted characters and plot, I'd think I'd be able to piece together aspects to which I was nakedly subjected the first time around.

Pynchon's ability to create an evocative setting with an infectious mood is pretty amazing. The decimated 1945 London he cooks up is mesmerizing and provides the perfect backdrop for Roger and Jessica’s passionate, doomed love affair. He flawlessly balances feelings of reality and bizarreness here and there’s also this great just-at-the-edges-of-my-mind-but-out-of-reach-familiarity thing going on. Kind of like when you get nostalgia for something you've never experienced (but have studied or heard about or whatever). These were the things that kept me plowing through the early stages of the book. Well, in addition to all of the references (6!) to my favorite actor, Cary Grant, who’s even impeccably impersonated by Slothrop via Pynchon’s perfectly placed commas.

The first section is both the easiest and hardest to navigate. Pynchon seems intent on having the readers experience the dislocation of the characters, many of whom don’t really understand the whats or whys of the situations in which they find themselves. At the beginning of a book, I expect to be a little lost when dealing with the many character introductions, new setting, etc., so this is easier to take. Later on, when we move away from major characters for the umpteenth time to meet someone new and tangentially-related, this can be a little more taxing. I’m used to having information in a novel presented in certain ways, even in the most unconventional books I’ve read, but Pynchon seems hell-bent on blazing his own narrative path. One early 20-page stretch delivered the wildest emotional rollercoaster ride I’ve ever experienced in fiction: first I was thoroughly disturbed by the S&M re-telling of Hansel and Gretel, then moved by the lushness and sorrow of the dodo slaughtering, and finally laughing hysterically (on the T, embarrassing) during the “Disgusting English Candy Drill”, in which Slothrop is subjected to various horrible British ‘candies’ by a little old lady. Seriously, the dodo-bird scene is one of the greatest pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered and it also sets up one of GR’s major themes: the Elect vs. the Preterite, a concept which surfaces throughout the book to signify the powerful vs. the powerless; those ‘passed over’ vs. those killed in war; the Man vs. the Counterforce; et al. Strangely, I am unsure whether this book itself is Elect or Preterite—was Modern Library right to exclude it from top 100 books of 20th century? Or is the quote from The New Republic on the back cover correct? The most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II. This question of what is lasting and remembered literature, hinted at with subtle brilliance in 2666, is something I find fascinating.

One practice that sets Pynchon apart from other writers is his incorporation of metaphors from nearly every branch of science—often very difficult ones (referring here to metaphors and branches of science). Since he doesn’t do much in the way of explaining, this can be a significant source of frustration. But it allows us science geeks to finally justify the hours spent studying organic chemistry. Actually, justify is much too strong a word. But I really enjoyed seeing Tchitcherine’s penchant for attracting counterrevolutionaries described in terms of molecular bonding capability, or seeing Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle used to describe the relationship between analgesia and addiction. Only from Thomas Ruggles Pynchon. I was also delighted, to my surprise, by much of the postmodern winking—from the few but potent direct addresses to “you” (the reader), to a discussion of difficult avant-gardism vs. pleasing simplicity that, although couched in a musical argument, was undoubtedly a direct commentary on the merits of Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon also can’t help himself from summarizing and distilling GR within other stories, such as that of Byron the immortal light bulb (whose experiences mirror Slothrop’s) and the plot to a drug-induced film entitled “Doper’s Greed”. There are probably many more commentaries on the book that I have either missed or forgotten—another rereading bonus, I’d bet. Perhaps most effectively, Pynchon plays around with the concepts of Pavlovian stimuli, and he relishes eliciting responses (especially sexual arousal) that will inevitably be accompanied by ethical unease, disgust, or shame. This writer-to-reader flirtation with the “ultraparadoxical phase”, wherein positive stimuli become inhibitory and vice versa, is one of the most brilliant aspects of the book.

Before tackling GR, one of my main concerns about Pynchon was what I perceived to be a lack of personal human insights to balance all the other stuff—philosophical and scientific allusions, gorgeous prose, compelling metaphysics…basically everything else I need or want in a book. Gravity’s Rainbow does deliver some of this, most prominently with the Pökler storyline, but these truly human and revealing moments are rather few and far between. For me, this is where the one star deduction comes in. Telling us many times that Slothrop was sad to lose Tantivy or Katje isn’t the same thing as making us feel it. Isn’t that writing 101? I have no doubt that Pynchon can (and occasionally does) aim for character insight and evocation, but for whatever reason he frequently chooses not to. Our loss. Still, I’ve developed a bit of a Pynchon addiction and it's weird because the buzz isn't that great, but I compulsively take another hit anyway. Actually, let me rephrase that—the buzz is occasionally fantastic but usually short-lived, and frequently the let down/hangover is rather rough and nauseating. But outside of my favorite Modernists, I've never read anyone who can zing me quite the way he does on occasion.

While technically the ending presents us with the ultimate climax, the last bit of the book felt appropriately anti-climactic. In the final 100 pages or so, Slothrop starts to disappear (literally?) and the “plot” sort of peters out after reaching a high point of coherence and intrigue part way through the 3rd section, which also contains some of the craziest shit I’ve ever read. Indeed, Gravity’s Rainbow makes Infinite Jest and 2666, to compare it to other postmodern monsters on which it had no small amount of influence, look conventional by comparison. How can we be expected to piece it all together? One of the least sympathetic characters in the book, Pointsman, is obsessed with Pavlovian cause-and-effect and therefore is searching for something that the more likeable stand-in Roger Mexico rejects in his analysis of events that he determines to be pattern-less and Poisson-distributed. Extrapolating from this, is Pynchon suggesting that we shouldn’t try to make too much sense out of this entropic book, which may simply be filled with random happenings rather than any connected or logical series of events? Or is that just a red herring, a false trail to divert us from some greater meaning?
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Reading Progress

07/13 page 108
07/16 page 183
23.58% "beyond 'beyond the zero'"
05/20 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-28 of 28) (28 new)

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message 1: by brian (last edited Aug 02, 2009 03:55PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

brian   damn fine review, bram.

you articulated much that i felt but couldn't put into words. there were transcendent moments (yes! the dodo sequence was in-fucking-credible), but there was a human element lacking throughout that lessened the reading experience. i suspect this was deliberate kind of brechtian ploy; nonetheless, i was frustrated, as you noted, by pynchon's attempts to 'tell' us that characters experienced sadness or despair rather than let us feel said emotions through them.

message 2: by Bram (last edited Aug 02, 2009 04:13PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Thanks brian. Yeah, I think that the lacking human element is intentional (the Pokler scenario more or less convinced me), but it doesn't change the fact that it makes it less enjoyable overall (for me at least). In a book this long, I need a little more to hang onto. It's almost as if he set out to prove he could write something aesthetically pleasing and unique enough that it wouldn't matter...and I think he was decently close to pulling it off.

message 3: by brian (last edited Aug 02, 2009 10:03PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

brian   more power to the readers/thinkers/scientists/etc who can truly geek out and enjoy GR for purely aesthetic/philosophical reasons... like you, i cannot. i require a large human element to my narrative fiction. it bothers me at times that i cannot appreciate a story in the same way i can, say, a rothko painting, but it's the way i'm built. it's why, of all the pynchon i've read, against the day is the only i've truly loved. there's a single page early on in that mammoth novel in which pynchon tells the story of a small ball of electricity (!!!) that moves me more than all of GR.

Megha Excellent review, Bram.

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

Yes, yes, yes! I agree with you guys! I'm impressed by the wealth of knowledge, the complexity, the craftsmanship of Gravity's Rainbow, but it was kind of a chore to plow through... arid and uninvolving. I read it several years ago, and now I realize that I only finished it to chalk it up as an accomplishment. Nowadays I am far less patient with emotionally/psychologically barren literature like this...

message 6: by Kim (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kim Sometimes I, too, feel that Pynchon is meant for the young and studious. Great review, Bram.

message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

This is a great review Bram.

I keep thinking I am going to go back and re-read this book since I read it as a younger, less patient, slightly less evolved form of the man I am today. With serious control issues...not just with my literary endeavors. But fuck it if I cannot get over the purely formal splooge fest splattered across the pages of this book. I don't know if I have mellowed enough with age.

Anyway. Brilliant review.

message 8: by John (new)

John Let me add my voice to the Praise Choir. You cut through the smog of received notions regarding this work. For whatever it's worth, I'll add that I *don't* wholly agree about the book's emotional content, I find it psychologically intense, moving at a number of key junctures. But I've always thought Slothrop makes for a weak center, a figure whose understanding of what's been done to him matters less & less.

message 9: by Bram (last edited Aug 03, 2009 07:57AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Kim wrote: "Sometimes I, too, feel that Pynchon is meant for the young and studious. Great review, Bram. "

Funny you say that Kim because I thought about adding something about how there may be only a small window in each person's life for this book. It may not be the same time period for everyone, but I would bet money that I'd hate this book if I read it 5 years ago or 10-15 years from now. I got caught up in the ecstatic prose (as I've been wont to do lately) enough that I enjoyed it.

Thanks for the kind words guys!

message 10: by Bram (last edited Aug 03, 2009 08:10AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram John wrote: "Let me add my voice to the Praise Choir. You cut through the smog of received notions regarding this work. For whatever it's worth, I'll add that I *don't* wholly agree about the book's emotional..."

I think we may actually be more in agreement than it seems John. There are so many little, transient parts that suddenly became gripping (and then disappear forever). The dodo scene is my favorite of these along with the Poklers' storyline, but even Greta and Bianca's brief and creepy roles moved me somewhat. I completely agree on Slothrop being a weak lead though. I'm fine with having a passive "hero", but I wish I could have felt some of the emotions Pynchon told us he felt. I wonder if Pynchon intentionally set out to get us emotionally involved with minor characters but to have no attachment to the lead. Quite the literary game...and intententional or not, I think he pulled it off. The hint here would be the gradual and eventually literal disappearance of Slothrop during what is usually the climax/resolution of a book.

brian--good to know about Against the Day. Maybe I'll go with that one next...or Inherent Vice. Speaking of which, how's it going?

Another thing I've been mulling over--this book was written during the Vietnam War and there are many obvious and subtle references to ongoing situations despite the novel taking place at the end of WWII. Perhaps many of these issues, no doubt highly compelling at the time, are lost on me from an emotional/psychological standpoint. I'm aware of the history...but I didn't live it, so I don't really have a personal sense of/reference to the Vietnam and Cold War mentalities.

message 11: by Bram (last edited Aug 03, 2009 10:55AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Haha, thanks Brian! Yeah, I'm sure I could get many more of the allusions if I picked up the companion. I shied away from it because I heard it was also gargantuan. True?

message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

Where did you hear that "hairdo" is slang for a try hard?

message 13: by Bram (last edited Aug 04, 2009 06:57AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram I heard this from my fiancee who was studying in London during the spring. Perhaps I unintentionally skewed the meaning or it's not as common as I was led to believe? Anyway, if it's not a real slang term, it should be.

message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm sure it's real and that have the meaning right, I'd just never heard it before and was intrigued.

message 15: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Fantastic review Bram. I read Gravity's Rainbow when I was nineteen, and I think Kim is right, you need to be young and studious to tackle this book and read it with glee. At this point in my life, I wouldn't tackle it again.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio brian wrote: "there's a single page early on in that mammoth novel in which pynchon tells the story of a small ball of electricity (!!!) that moves me more than all of GR.

Whoa! I gotta read more Pynchon, stat!

message 17: by Bram (last edited Mar 19, 2010 07:09AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Thanks, Damian--and good luck with reading this beast. Luckily, just when you suspect there are no interesting or well-developed characters or plotlines to be found, Pynchon will veer off with some fascinating side story; the best of these are found in Parts 3 & 4, I think.

message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

aw. i happen to love tom waits.

fantastic review... i've been toying with the idea of picking this up and this is a pretty persuasive argument to do so, even considering the elements that you didn't prefer. thanks.

message 19: by Tod (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tod Brilliant review. Way too long. ;-P

Pynchon has created a gigantic teeming intricate masterpiece designed to fall apart in your hands.

The balls!

The Mighty Balls of Thomas Pynchon!

Chris Yeah, you nailed it. The plot is just entertainment filler. There is so much deeper meaning that it's overwhelming... but I think the biggest message is that "technology makes us paranoid, and rightfully so". But profound elements of the plot still seep through: I recall a passage late in the book where everyone on Earth had a rocket manufactured for them just like the one destined to kill Slothrop, an eery 1984-like mind control schematic... "dont speak against us or we'll blow you to pieces"

Caryn Thanks for that review Bram. It was very helpful. I'm now on about page 250, in part 2 and am not sure I'm gonna make it through this beast.

Part One was as you say, difficult, but easy, in that all of the little vignettes of new characters floated from one to the next like a free-association or a stream of conscience run-on sentence. (I've been hammered for those my whole academic career. That's the way my brain twirls too! Ha! This I can get! This pool I can swim in!) He was beautifully able to tell a lifetime in a few paragraphs or pages and then move on to the next.

Now in part 2, so far, the vibe is just very depressing. I just finished the S&M-ish golden showers (and more) scene with Pudding and Katje: I found it terribly sad. I it may not have meant to be sad, but it was. It was not even gross, (well, OK, it WAS, but...) the overall result was pity.

Additionally, I keep feeling like I should be moved or shocked at the villainy the suggestion of the extent of evil and destruction THEY, the shadowy powers-that-be, the MIC may be cooking up. But after reading 'The Shock Doctrine' , 'Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man'; after living through 2001, & 2008, and subsequently finding out even SOME of what's behind the Wizard's curtain of our revolving-door Corprotocracy;... Well, in 2013, I'm finding it hard to be shocked. Reality has proven to be worse than even Pynchon, (so far) could have imagined.

I will give it another go/keep going for now, but As you said, I may have missed my window of opportunity to really appreciate this book.

Your review was very grounding and again, thanks.

message 22: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Thanks for a thoughtful comment, Caryn. Pynchon had just reappeared on my radar when I saw your post, as I'd recently stumbled on the information about his new book coming out in September. Set in 2001, maybe it'll even take on some of the recent-ish events you mention. Incidentally, I've had a copy of 'Confessions of an Economic Hit Man' around for a few years and still haven't gotten around to it. Maybe I'm afraid it'll be too depressing?

Good luck as you continue; I think there are a few more sad/disgusting scenes to come, but there is one of the more human side stories as well. Anyway, I won't try to persuade you one way or the other!

Caryn Thanks, Bram. I got into it again last night and found myself in 'THE ZONE'. Definitely flowing easier now, (although I do have to stop and look up some of the scientific allusions - this is the kind of brain-twist I can love). Don't know why, the whole of Part 2 was so sad for me. The Zone seems a bit brighter and purposeful so far.

I'm still mulling over Slothrop's paranoia. Is he crazy or is he not!? (So far, I don't think there is supposed to be a yes/no answer to that). How much could Pynchon have known or was he guessing at the extent of the cold war psychological experiments that the CIA, (and no doubt the KGB and others) were doing in reality. Now unclassified and all over the web, but possibly through some channels available that Pynchon may have found (?). There is that one horrifying chapter in 'The Shock Doctrine' about the Canadian Dr. Cameron and his drug and mind experiments that completely wrecked the people's (subjects) minds and lives; and there's the Adam Clayton BBC video "The Power of Nightmares", (it's on Youtube). ((Same guy that did "The Century of the Self" - great!)) May have to review that.

'Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man" is by far, not a literary gem. Perkins is not even that likable. It's the information of how and why this vast shadowy network of hegemony operated, (or still does) that, you're right, IS shocking - while at the same time, you'll find yourself saying "Of course! That makes sense. That meshes perfectly with what we see on the news, what we KNOW". No tin-foil-hat conspiracy at all. Just a handful of very very powerful people working together to advance their interests, with NO conscience of their effect on other people/lesser people/preterites. Throughout the book, Perkins makes excuses for himself and his dastardly deed, (which conversely, makes him rather unlikable), but also explains how those very very powerful people ALSO excused themselves of any wrongdoing( / evil!). It's worth the read, quick and accessible and it will and won't astound you. So, bringing it back to GR/Pynchon: I think it's possible that someone with T. Ruggles' P.'s weird/trippy/effing-GENIUS of a brain may have been able to read the signs and put the puzzle together way back then, when most of us couldn't.

Yes, I will DEFINITELY pick up his new book!

Chris He's definitely not crazy; GR is more science-fiction than literature. He was sexually conditioned at a young age to become aroused by rocket-fire. All the side chapters indicate that other people are aware of his importance, and they're paranoid themselves. No one's quite sure what the rocket designers are up to (except Katje), but they know it's bad. Clues are revealed toward the end about what's really going on.

Caryn Thanks, Chris: Yeah, I didn't think he was crazy, but then again; Personally, I have a small but distinguished collection of tin-foil-hats, m'self! Good to hear this from you! I have found a good strong second, (third) wind in 'The Zone'. I was in tears last night reading (and additional research) about the Herera.
I'm finding discussion throughout, very helpful to keep me with this, so Thank You for your comment.

Caryn Finished yesterday morning, (Sat.). Spent much of the day returning to look up different things, 'Did I remember that Pokler scene correctly?', '"sephiroth"? Is that somehow where the odd name 'Slothrop' comes from'?...'Is he somehow akin to one of the aspects/gates to God one has to conquer or navigate' in order to succeed to God, to the Center?, 'Did Slothrop really shag young Bianca or was that some wild fantasy?...etc.

Still feeling a bit hung-over from that wild voyage so I'll prolly have many more questions and comments after a few days when it digests properly.

It struck me in the middle of 'Byron the immortal and sentient light-bulb' that all of the S&M sex is somehow representative of the larger picture: The relationship of Elite and Preterite; then BAM! Thanatz explains it all for you.

"Why will the Structure allow every other kind of sexual behavior but that one? Because submission and dominance are resources it needs for it's very survival. They cannot be wasted in private sex. In ANY kind of sex. It needs our submission so that it may remain in power. It needs our lusts after dominance so that it can co-opt us into it's own power game. There is no joy in it, only power. I tell you, if S and M could be established universally, at the family level, the State would wither away."

In the end (after this, my first go-round with the book. Maybe it will change later); I really don't think Pynchon is trying to challenge us, nor really trying to entertain us, lead us up or down the garden path. I think he just writes. He just writes what he writes and can't stop himself. I don't feel like the story was 'crafted', organized in any specific way to lead a reader or confuse a reader. I don't know if he even thought of us at all. He just IS what he IS. Reading this felt like a rare glimpse into the mind of a real bonafide crazy genius. (Sounds so hokey using that word, but in this case, IMHO, truly applicable).

Have to return the book to the library tomorrow, but I know I'll have to just go buy a copy too. This is one I'll be questioning and looking things up in for years.

message 27: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Congrats on finishing, Caryn! You should gather up all these great thoughts/comments and post them in a review.

message 28: by John (new)

John Waller A Amazon review said the black cover ed has typos, is it true?

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