Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Only twice in my life have I a relied on a guidebook to
help me get through a novel.  I would have certainly
met my doom somewhere between Scylla and
Charybdis if, in pursuit of
James Joyce’s
Ulysses,
I had not kept Don
Gifford and Robert
Seidman’s
700 pages
of annotations at my side.  
My other literary survival
manual came into play when
reading Thomas Pynchon's
Gravity’s
Rainbow—here my lifeline was Steve Weisenburger’s
guide to the sources and contexts of this 300,000
word behemoth.  

The fascination of what’s difficult            
Has dried the sap out of my veins…

Thus wrote Yeats.   But the Irish bard didn’t live
long enough to experience
Gravity’s Rainbow,
having exited the stage around the time Mr. Pynchon
showed up on the scene.  Yet that whole period, from
late Yeats through early Pynchon, might be
considered, in retrospect, as the Age of Difficulty,
the time when readers expected a certain degree of
hardship when addressing new literary masterworks.   

But
Gravity’s Rainbow wasn't just hardship, it was a
bloody gulag.  Once you entered, there were no
guarantees you would ever emerge.   Countless souls
never survived it to the last page, without even a
Solzhenitsyn around to document their struggles and
failures.  

Related Reviews:

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Even from the start, the verdicts were mixed.   When
a three-member Pulitzer Prize jury recommended
that Pynchon’s novel receive the award for fiction,
the Pulitzer board over-ruled them—as a result, no
fiction award was given out that year.  In a strange
twist—one that might have surprised even the
reclusive author—
Gravity’s Rainbow was nominated
for the Nebula, a prestigious science fiction award,
but lost out to Arthur C. Clarke’s
Rendezvous with
Rama
.  When Pynchon’s weighty novel did rack up
a big honor, the National Book Award, the author
didn’t bother to show up for the ceremony, sending
comedian
Irwin Corey—famous for his impersonations
of a drunk professor—on his behalf.  

Is
Gravity’s Rainbow really a work of speculative or
science fiction?  Certainly science and technology play
a key role in this novel, where they are mixed with
fantastic and paranormal elements.  We are given
hints about a puzzling missile component from World
War II, a black box constructed out of a mysterious
plastic called Imipolex G.  We are presented with a
quasi-mystical correlation between the love life of
character Tyrone Slothrop and the location of V2
missile bombings.  We encounter many elements of
the occult and metaphysical, with Tarot-related
symbols playing an especially noticeable role.  An
ambitious critic might even construct a mathematical
interpretation of Pynchon's work, celebrating its
persistence in turning probability and statistics on
their head—although I suspect that for our author
this twist is more an application of Jung’s concept of
synchronicity than the playing out of a sci-fi
worldview.  

"Pynchon creates a world in which some subatomic
characteristics of reality are dealt with at the level of
everyday life," Professor Kathryn Hume has written,
in defense of the sci-fi credentials of
Gravity’s
Rainbow
.  "Pseudo-Heisenbergian uncertainty
bedevils the main characters, but even more
important it constrains the readers."  Professor
David Ketterer has countered with a diametrically
opposed position: "I can testify that [
Gravity’s
Rainbow
] is not a work of SF in any real sense," he
writes. "Furthermore in my opinion it is not a
particularly good book marred as it is by a kind of
elephantiasis…."

So whom do we back in this game of dueling
professors?  I have no problem acknowledging the
sci-fi elements in this book.  But, in all fairness, almost
everything shows up at some point in this immense
novel.  I remember hearing locals describe a specific
Paris café where, if you waited long enough, anybody
you wanted to see would stroll by the sidewalk tables.  
Gravity’s Rainbow is the literary equivalent.  If you
keep pushing ahead you will find every possible
ingredient—philosophy, poetry, silly songs, puns,
equations, pop culture references of various sorts,
real and distorted historical events, and the inter-
action of some 400 characters.  

Perhaps the most surprising ingredient of all arrives
in part three of this labyrinthine work.  During the
course of the section entitled "In the Zone,"
Pynchon actually delivers a taut, straight narrative
without any of the campy or over-the-top qualities
that permeate the rest of this novel.  In this interlude,
German rocket scientist Franz Pökler is allowed to
enjoy annual visits with his daughter Ilse—although
he harbors a deep suspicion that the woman he is
allowed to meet is not really his child.  This compelling
sub-plot, rich in psychological implications, stands out
as the most perfectly realized section of a turbulent
novel.  But for Pynchon, the switch to a quasi-
Dostoevskian realism is just the exception that proves
the rule, the clinching demonstration that no narrative
style is excluded from this author’s playbook.  

In the final analysis, this very all-inclusiveness stands
out as the most salient characteristic of Pynchon’s
novel.  The postmodern impulse to allow all styles,
all contents to mix and mingle, to rub shoulders no
matter how foreign their origins, finds its most
complete realization in this big book, which respect
no boundaries, knows no limits.  Such a project is
ultimately bound to produce vertigo among its
readers, and disappoint those who are seeking some
unifying vision, some holistic stance behind it all.  

Yet
Gravity’s Rainbow always seems to hint that
this grand blueprint is just around the corner.  This
is part and parcel of Pynchon's most characteristic
attitude, namely his paranoia.  The paranoid always
believe that some huge conspiracy theory exists that
can connect all the dots, resolve all the mysteries,
settle all the bets.   In a book in which paranoia looms
so large, readers are bound to expect the same thing.  
Gravity’s Rainbow is premised on an ultimate
explanation that, in the final analysis, it cannot deliver.

In retrospect,
Gravity’s Rainbow must be seen as
an end-of-an-era work—an ironic verdict given how
its most fervent fans embraced it, at the time of its
initial release, as a pathway to the literary future.  
But such disappointed expectations were part and
parcel of many things that arrived on our doorstep
around the time the promises of the 1960s gave way
to the realities of the 1970s.  After
Gravity's Rainbow,
the rules of literary fiction changed again, mostly in
ways Pynchon could not have anticipated.   Different
styles came into ascendancy—minimalism, magical
realism, postcolonial fiction, genre mashups of various
sorts—in the years following its publication.  In more
recent decades, an even more surprising twist,
namely the avoidance of almost any sort of ideology
(you can call this
the Franzen syndrome, if you like),
has begun to permeate the world of literary fiction,
as more and more novelists focus on plot, character
development, pacing and plain old fashioned
storytelling.

In such an environment, Pynchon may still have
many admirers, but few who are willing to follow in
his footsteps.  Even an explicitly Pynchonian novel of
more modern times, David Foster Wallace’s
Infinite
Jest, eventually rests its fictive universe on a
compassionate, humanistic foundation, one that has
no equivalent in Pynchon’s worldview.  If Pynchon’s
books were boats, they would be ones without a sea
floor on which to set anchor.

Even if daring young writers today were bold
enough to adopt Pynchon as a role model, their
publishers would almost certainly refuse to go along
for the ride.  Just as Pynchon’s refusal to give
interviews and make appearances would not be
tolerated in a novelist making a debut today, the
kind of large rambling books he built his reputation
on would be DOA when they showed up on an editor’s
desk.  For these very reasons,
Gravity's Rainbow is
likely to seem just as prickly and uncooperative fifty
years from now as it did when it was first published—
perhaps even more so, as readers forget what it is
like to grapple with deliberately difficult works.  Yet
I suspect that this is exactly the kind of equivocal
legacy Mr. Pynchon would want for this daunting,
bloated book.



Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular
culture.  His newest book is
The Jazz Standards: A
Guide to the Repertoire.
Gravity's Rainbow

by Thomas Pynchon
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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