A Screaming Comes Across the Sky

The past two months I’ve been enraptured by the most difficult, dense and brilliant novel I’ve read in years. That book is Gravity’s Rainbow, perched high and dry on a number of best 100 novel lists, by Thomas Pynchon, an elusive writer with a background in rocket science (technical spec writer for Boeing).

The 100 word blurb is woefully inadequate to even briefly touch on what the novel does, but here goes:

A few months after the German’s secret V-2 rocket bombs begin falling on London, British Intelligence discovers that a map of the city pinpointing the sexual conquests of one Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, U.S. Army, corresponds identically to a map showing the V-2 impact sites. The implications of this discovery will launch Slothrop on an amazing journey across war-torn Europe, fleeing an international cabal of military-industrial superpowers, in search of the mysterious Rocket 00000, through a wildly comic extravaganza that has been hailed in The New Republic as “the most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II”.

That out of the way, the draw of the novel isn’t the plot. Sure, it’s there buried under miles of towering imagery, drawn out alliterative metaphors, references to 1940s pop culture, cleverly manipulated ballad lyrics, and dozens of strange and disturbing sexual couplings. The brilliance of the book stems from Pynchon’s ability to weave the meta- structure of the book onto the template of Europe in the last days of the World War.

Most obvious is the motif of the V-2 rocket, from which the title is drawn – the rainbow produced by gravity, the parabola. From that arch everything follows. There are no explicit chapters, only “episodes” of varying length, delimited by a line of empty squares. Some episodes are relatively straightforward comic jaunts, Slothrop venturing out into the Zone (Germany post-VE Day), encountering a wide array of characters (all females he inevitably beds), lots of daring escapes, espionage, double crosses, twists and turns. Other episodes are far more experimental, melting between time and space, POVs of multiple characters, often transitioning mid-sentence via odd punctuation and lots of ellipses. But taking a step back, there’s a method to the madness – the focal point from which the stream of conscious is launched is returned to, wrapped up. A parabola of form.

The experience of reading the prose itself is also difficult to describe. The writing is incredibly dense, but possesses a cadence and flow that move quickly. Couple that with long grocery lists of strange gadgets, visions, and encyclopedic info dumps and you end up with something akin to hallucinogenic drugs. At one moment Pynchon is describing the breathtaking beauty of the summer sun setting over a Bavarian castle; the next – a crew of drunken American GIs singing crude pop songs. The cognitive dissonance is relentless, and the reader can’t attempt to completely parse the text. Instead you have to sort of glide on top, let the strange and absurd references to German romantic poets, industrial molecular compounds, and American pop icons pass by. Eventually, you’ll enter this zen state where the warrens of fracturing prose grow smooth, glassy.

Aside from form, the content itself has plenty of interesting things to say. For one, the relationship of sex and violence: the phallic nature of rockets, the dream of space travel, reaching out to the unknown to conquer, how the feminine void is receptive to the penetrative masculine. In turn – how this fits into colonialism, the very same lust of sexual conquest mapped into the land of the Other (illustrated in a particularly moving episode of the slaughter of an island of Dodo birds). Then there’s an entire truckload of stuff about technology and the military industrial complex and paranoia and conspiracies, which dovetails nicely with Slothrop’s fragmented mind.

Again, this is a tough book. You’ll find yourself reading page after page completely lost or confused with irrelevant characters, unknown references to art or science or history, confusing discombobulations of grammar and form. Expect to mouth “WTF” more than once.

But this is a book that illustrates more than any other what postmodern art is about – the chop suey of tropes and themes and characters to build some form of meaningful meta structure. There’s beauty here, there’s madness, there sorrow and disgust and wonder and absurd laughter, and there’s brilliance. If you can push through, it’s an incredibly rewarding novel.

On the other hand, it’ll be pulp fiction for the rest of the year – my brain needs the rest.

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