Madeleine's Reviews > Gravity's Rainbow

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
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Sep 14, 12

bookshelves: head-in-the-clouds-nose-in-a-book, 2011, 2012, our-libeary, maybe-it-s-time-to-live, richard-python, tooting-my-own-muted-horn, blogophilia
Read from November 13, 2011 to January 07, 2012

Edit, 14 Sep. 2012: So. I've been thinking and talking about this book literally all year now while my Pynchonian love has been growing exponentially. Four stars it is for this maddening, wonderful, frustrating and surprising masterpiece of American literature because it has done nothing but endear itself to me the more I dwell on it. I'm leaving my review as I wrote it in January because I'm fucking lazy, okay? the vast majority of it is still true.

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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 wikipedia 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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Reading Progress

11/13/2011 page 22
3.0% "I am not ashamed of my slow progress thus far. Pynchon, you humbled me in less than one dozen pages."
11/19/2011 page 51
7.0% "Every one page read in this book is like three in any other. I am genuinely enjoying the effort, though." 2 comments
11/28/2011 page 97
13.0% "I feel brilliant every time this book makes me laugh. Please do not ruin the illusion for me."
12/01/2011 page 121
16.0% "The Disgusting English Candy Drill is helping to make my job inversely palatable today."
12/02/2011 page 158
20.0% "As much as I'd love to chomp off hundred-page bites at a time, there's so much to ingest here that taking bigger portions would be madness."
12/05/2011 page 191
25.0% "Safely in part-two territory with my sanity intact."
12/17/2011 page 343
44.0% "Weirdly proud of how banged-up my copy's getting. Battle scars? Perhaps."
01/05/2012 page 684
88.0% "As much as I want to know what happens to the primary players (and as much as I welcome no longer hauling five pounds of book everywhere), I'm actually kind of bummed that I have less than 100 pages to go."
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason I don't like having to re-read a book to "get it," though. It's the same with movies. I hardly ever see the same movie twice.


Madeleine Totally understandable. I'm not that big on going back to a book when there are so. many. books. that I need to read for a first time.

This one's different, though. It demands a lot more work than the usual fictional fare and I loved what a challenge it presented. I could not stop thinking about it, which is was led me to "Vineland."

But seeing that it took me about two months to wade through GR's labyrinthine narrative (while also consulting various secondary sources), I'm not planning to reread it anytime soon, as much as the idea appeals to me and even though I think I've forgotten enough so that the inevitable reread won't feel like I'm slogging through familiar stuff. Also, having just revisited a (n admittedly more accessible and easier to digest) Pynchon novel for the first time, I'm pretty certain that having a better sense of his writing only adds to the enjoyment.

Honestly, I just want someone to read this so I can witness a first-time reaction without being the one whose brain is twisting itself into a Möbius strip. And so I can finally talk to someone about what this book did to me.


message 3: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason Ah, the vicarious reader. :) No worries, I will definitely read this at some point. It's just—and I never thought I would say this—but I have over 300 books on my "to read" so I don't know that it will be anytime soon. But I will. Promise.


Madeleine I gotta respect and empathize with the triple-digit to-read shelf. Few things can ruin a book like reading it at the wrong time or feeling like it's forced on you. Read what makes you happy, damnit!


s.penkevich Grand review! This book did require a ton of outside research, I think I spent more time researching for this book than I did actually reading it!


Stephen M Wow this is such a great review. Nice! I am one of those who gave up on this book, I got to about the 370 page mark and realized that I had not understood a single damn thing for about 100 pages—something about a people called, Hereros, what the hell is that? My hat's off to you.


Madeleine s.penkevich wrote: "Grand review! This book did require a ton of outside research, I think I spent more time researching for this book than I did actually reading it!"
Thank you so much, kind sir! Yeah, I totally know what you mean. My Pynchon fangirling hadn't yet reached the zenith of its fever pitch when I read this, otherwise I might have been a little more prepared for the way that one read page in this meaty tome was like five in any other book. I am 100% with you on the grossly disproportionate researching-to-reading ratio that time with this book demands. Holy crap, was it ever worth the effort, though. I can't wait 'til I feel like I absolutely have to read this again.

Stephen M wrote: "Wow this is such a great review. Nice!"
Thank you thank you. I very much appreciate your generous compliment.

I am one of those who gave up on this book, I got to about the 370 page mark and realized that I had not understood a single damn thing for about 100 pages
Dude. At least you hung in there for an admirably long time. Had I come to this novel any sooner than I did, I don't know if I could have reached the finish line, and even then I had many, many moments of "Okay, just what in the sweet hell is going on here?" during the two months it took to chisel away at this intimidating gem. Do you think you'll try it again at some point?


message 8: by Stephen M (last edited Sep 01, 2012 01:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Stephen M I want to try again. My goal is to finish it by the end of the year at least. Before the year began, I set myself a goal of reading 5 famously difficult books. So, so far I've got Infinite Jest and Ulysses under my belt. I'm hoping to add this one to but gosh, Pynchon really knows how to make me feel stupid.


Steve This was such a wonderful, creative review! I agree completely about the word-lovers' rewards.

And how is it the coolest cats on all of Goodreads visited here and I'm only just now finding out. Jason, Spenky and Stephen M are great buds to have, aren't they?


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