Sunday, July 19, 2009

Gravity's Rainbow

"A great steaming slagheap of a novel." That's how David Quammen puts it in one of his essays.

Paragraphs go on forever, scenes and POVs blur into an endless torrent. Characters flicker past with names like Lloyd Nipple, Ronald Cherrycoke, and Blodgett Waxwing. Four hundred of them, including an octopus and a guy who can change the colour of his skin. Take a trip down a toilet, throw pies at airplanes, relax at the Casino Hermann Goering.

When you come up for air you're dazed and blinking, disoriented by the encyclopedic detail, nasty sex, strange conspiracies, acronyms and aliases, druggie humour, snippets of German, and doggerel like "The Penis He Thought Was His Own."

Oh, and don't forget the formulas:

So Is It Any Good?

Imagine Richard Brautigan and Henry Miller co-writing an entire season of The X-Files and you'll get a notion of what to expect. Portions of the novel are absolutely brilliant. But it is such a convoluted work that you'll need to read it several times to get a handle on it. You'll need to study it. But look on the bright side. Master the book and you'll be able to teach the sucker at university.

Search for the word "Vsesoynznyy" in Google Books and read 2 or 3 pages for a sample of Pynchon at his best, an inspired mixture of farce and erudition.

Now decide. Is this, as some feel, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century? Or is it, as the 1974 Pulitzer committee said, "unreadable, turgid, overwritten and obscene"?

Need Help?

You can buy Steven C. Weisenburger's A Gravity's Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon's Novel. You can also check out the following sources on the Web:

Character Index
Gravity’s Rainbow Wiki
NY Times review by Richard Locke
Ultra-Condensed Version by Glenn Davis
Some Things That “Happen” (More or Less) in Gravity’s Rainbow by Michael Bell

Edward Whittemore

A forgotten author whose work reminded me very much of Pynchon is Edward Whittemore, author of the hard-to-find "Jerusalem Quartet," which consists of Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, Nile Shadows, and Jericho Mosaic. I've only read Jerusalem Poker, but I'd definitely put it in the same ballpark as the two Pynchon novels I've read, V and Gravity's Rainbow.

Whittemore was apparently as inscrutable as Pynchon.