“…And now, in the Zone, later in the day he became a crossroad, after a heavy rain he doesn’t recall, Slothrop sees a very thick rainbow here, a stout rainbow cock driven down out of pubic clouds in Earth, green wet valleyed Earth, and his chest fills and he stands crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural….”
When I completed the last book on the Pulitzer Project reading list, I wanted to keep the project going just a little bit longer. So I created another reading list of books that were finalists in years the Pulitzer Prize wasn’t awarded, books that are part of the same series as a Pulitzer-winner, prequels and sequels to winners, books that are merely tangentially related to winners, and/or just books that are by Prize-winning authors I liked the most.
For example, thus far I’ve read Java Head by Joseph Hergesheimer (which was the finalist that didn’t win in 1920), Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee’s controversial posthumous prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird), Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (one of three novels that didn’t receive the Prize in 2012), and a collection of comics about the Escapist character in Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
Most recently (and most painstakingly), I completed Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, the book that was snubbed by the Pulitzer Prize board in 1974.
In 1974, scandal erupted after the Pulitzer board withheld the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The jury had voted unanimously for Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, but the board vetoed their recommendation calling the novel “obscene,” “overwritten,” “turgid,” and “unreadable.” The jury expressed dismay when they learned of the book’s rejection and protested the board’s decision but to no avail.
Richard Locke in The New York Times Book Review wrote,”Gravity’s Rainbow is bone-crushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, pastoral, historical, philosophical, poetic, grindingly dull, inspired, horrific, cold, bloated, beached and blasted.”
Though it went on to win the National Book Award (jointly with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Crown of Feathers) and has since enjoyed critical acclaim (TIME magazine, for example, named it one of the “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels”) I agree with Locke and the Pulitzer board wholeheartedly. I slogged through this book over the course of most of the year, from mid-April to late December, for only 10-20 minutes at a time. Though Gravity’s Rainbow is wholly unreadable like Locke and others have suggested, it is largely unreadable. Even the reading guide I printed out and studied alongside my reading of the text was largely unreadable!
The basic plot of the book is this: Tyrone Slothrop is a soldier at the tail end of World War 2 who is mysteriously connected to the development of a German V-2 rocket which is being fired time and time again. Or, as Goodreads user Greg concisely puts it: “THIS BOOK IS ABOUT A MAN IN WW2. HE GETS ERECTIONS.” Indeed, the V-2 Rocket 00000 is mysteriously connected to Slothrop’s erections and fires every time he has a sexual encounter.
And the sex this man has… woof. Many of the scenes in this book are pornographic. There are loads and loads of exuberant sex. Many of the characters are totally amoral and will do it with just about anything that moves. There are graphic descriptions of just about any kind of sex imaginable: anal, oral, nasal (yep), coprophagia (yep to that, too), masturbation, heterosexual, homosexual, transvestite, sadomasochism, necrophilia, and even pedophilia.That seems to be Pynchon’s particular favorite. It’s not surprising that Nabokov was Pynchon’s writing teacher in college. And Pynchon has few filters, so he writes whatever comes into his mind without inhibition.
Speaking of Pynchon writing whatever comes into his mind without inhibition, Gravity’s Rainbow is written in dense, Joycean stream-of-consciousness (though I actually think Ulysses is much easier to follow), with an estimated 400 side characters and subplots that veer far from the main Slothrop plot, weave around each other, then come back to intersect each other before veering off again.
In terms of thematic elements, Pynchon explores the boundaries between reality and fantasy, and blurs lines between actual events and history. Most fiction books who can be classified as “historical fiction” seems to work on two levels of reality; there’s the real world – the one we are also familiar with, and there’s fictitious characters in that world. Pynchon, however, took it to another level in Gravity’s Rainbow. There’s the real world, the course of the second World War, there’s a vast palette of fictitious characters, but their fantasies, dreams and notions of confusion seemed to mingle so eloquently into reality that the lines between the levels are almost invisible, which ultimately makes the reader ask what history really is. A condensed version of reality? A framed, bent narrative to fit into something else?
The historical content is both deeply researched and easily tossed aside when Pynchon feels something needs a change, making its status as “historical fiction” tentative at best. Much of the book is firmly planted in reality – technical documents relating to V-2 rockets, equations featured in the text are correct, the firing command sequence in German that is recited at the end of the novel is also correct and is probably copied verbatim from the technical report produced by Operation Backfire, the theater bombed at the end of the book is based on Rex Cinema in Antwerp (which was hit by a V2 rocket), and many of the actual events and locations used as backdrops to his story are factual, too.
The book also deals with themes of disillusionment, paranoia, depravity, drug use, nightmare hallucinations, conspiracy theories, free will and predestination… The aforementioned Richard Locke wrote that megalomaniac paranoia is the “operative emotion” behind the novel. Of course, this all makes the novel difficult to get through, as well – particularly the drug-induced hallucinations that bring the reader in and out of reality. What’s really happening in the novel? Does what’s happening really matter? Does anything matter?
There was one discussion of the novel I came across that I really enjoyed, in which the reviewer compared the structural arc of the book to the arc of an actual rocket:
At the beginning of the novel, everything is frantic and cacaphonic, just like the launch of a V-2 rocket. It takes off, gains altitude steadily, as the different plot-arcs begin to gain altitude as well. At some point, halfway through the novel or so, the overall arc seemed to lose gravity; sub-plot after sub-plot was introduced, dreams, reality and hallucinations mingled effortlessly, with no apparent connection to anything else than the entropy of it all. Then, finally, the rocket begins to dive with break-neck speed as the novel comes to a close. Slothrop disappears with no explanation, Mexico’s, Pointman’s and Katje’s plot-arcs close off with little to no warning, and then, ultimately – the crash of the rocket. If you think about it, it could also be seen as a circle of life. The launch, the rise, the fall, the end – a universal, cyclical arc of creation and destruction, of life and death.
I think that’s pretty much it. It summarizes the book pretty well.
Gravity’s Rainbow is often described as “the postmodern novel.” I tend to agree. I don’t think there’s any other book you could point to that would challenge this book’s claim to that prize. What I found most interesting about the book, however, was how perfectly it fits into both the 1940s (the time period it was set during) and the 1970s (the time period it was written during).
I don’t know whether I recommend reading it or not. It’s definitely an experience. If you do decide to pick it up, a few suggestions from me: 1) try reading V. first – from what I understand, it’s a more accessible Pynchon novel that will still give you a lot of the themes Gravity’s Rainbow explores; 2) go into the book with an open mind – a very open mind; 3) most of the book is not meant to be made sense of, so don’t worry about trying to make sense of it – just go along for the ride; 4) don’t try to fly through it – take your time with it. I made the mistake of reading to finish it, when I should have been reading it to experience it; 5) most importantly – again – don’t worry about trying to make sense of it. In March of 1977, Jules Siegel published an article in Playboy that attempted to fill in some of the gaps in the life of America’s most curious living author. The piece was titled, “Who Is This Thomas Pynchon… and Why Did He Take Off with My Wife?” Pynchon reportedly told Siegel, “I was so fucked up while I was writing [Gravity’s Rainbow] . . . that now I go back over some of those sequences and I can’t figure out what I could have meant.” So… There’s that; 6) I would also highly recommend using this helpful Wiki if you want to nerd out on the many, many, many references.
A lot of reviewers I came across gave the advice to pick it up a second, third, fourth time to re-read it. Most of them said they understood it better and better the more they read it. For me, I won’t be picking it up a for a second read. Not any time soon, anyway.