On the Third Hand…

So I was telling my mom about this go-round here at IZ, and she’s unfamiliar with Gravity’s Rainbow. I started trying to describe it to her, and after hitting the main points (WWII, a star-sticker map of sexual encounters, the desperate kitchen-sink response to the Nazis including even mysticism, lots of bananas) I ended up with almost a whine: “It’s hard.” Not a complaint, really, because I like a challenge in my reading—obviously you all understand, or you wouldn’t be here. But I don’t often even describe a book as difficult. That feels like a value judgment of the work involved in reading, and I just don’t ordinarily think to characterize reading effort in positive or negative terms. It’s reading and understanding, so it’s work worth doing, duh. My point is that GR is taking a lot more work than I—a serial Infinite Jest rereader and Gene Wolfe fan—am accustomed to, and I’m not sure yet that I feel like I’m accomplishing that work successfully.

Some things seem pretty clear to me, though, like Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake. (Quick note: Good god do I love the names in this book. Joaquin Stick took me a few minutes, but then I cracked up, and I think Constant Slothrop’s naming his son Variable is one of the funniest onomastic jokes I’ve ever read.) Their relationship lets Pynchon set up a kind of three-sided opposition (although we know what happens to opposites in the transmarginal state) of the war, love, and…what to call it? Math? Truth? Order? I think “order.”

Start with war. It’s Roger’s mother in section 1.6, which is an odd description, and then it’s a laboratory for Pointsman and Spectro in 1.8, but the most striking characterization of it is the political literalization of the “state of war.” In 1.12, Pointsman feels that he’s become a citizen of the war, and Brigadier Pudding thinks of “other named areas of the War, colonies of that Mother City mapped wherever the enterprise is systematic death.” There’s probably a very interesting line of inquiry here involving colonialism and the prosecution of World War II—which would apparently also manage to draw in Südwestafrika and the Herero, chronology be damned, along with whatever the Schwarzkommando turns out to be, and now I’m wishing I’d had this idea soon enough to research it in time for a post—but: the state of war. Although Pointsman and Pudding enlarge the image for us, with the outlands of war and the uncertainty of its successor state, it’s actually Jessica and Roger who introduce it. End of 1.6: “If they have not quite seceded from war’s state, at least they’ve found the beginnings of gentle withdrawal.”

That last stretch of 1.6 is also where we get the second term in this opposites relation I’m spelling out. Roger and Jessica’s not-quite-secession is in the form of their huddled little place together outside of town. The whole section convincingly shows a couple who care for each other. It gets the details right; the ending—“They are in love. Fuck the war.”—feels both earned and disarmingly direct. Its clarity and sincerity make quite a contrast with the bewilderment in every other setting so far. (I’m a little concerned about how the inevitable appearance of Jessica’s Beaver will complicate this situation.) Note that Jessica and Roger understand what they’re doing as, among other things, a kind of protest against the disruptions of the war and its attempt to claim even people’s internal lives as materiel to be mobilized and spent: “Both know, clearly … that, indeed, the Home Front is something of a fiction and lie, designed, not too subtly, to draw them apart, to subvert love in favor of work, abstraction, required pain, bitter death.” The text is pretty specific about the opposition here.

In section 1.9 we find a longer, more intimate bit about the couple. Among other things, it has Jessica but not once Roger succumbing to lovely domestic fantasy. (Could be characterization just as plausibly as sexism, so I’ll move on.) But after one of those phantasmic shifts of scene that help make this such a tough book comes the third term I’m interested in: Roger’s unbending commitment to scientifically or mathematically verifiable phenomena. This is what I’m calling “order.” Roger has no patience for his coworkers at “The White Visitation” and their mysticism. Where the Psi Section people see him as a prophet, he sees himself just plugging numbers into an equation that describes reality. I understand strategies of literary structuring well enough to know that, at least so far in the book, no one of the three oppositional terms I’m pointing out is supposed to be dominant—but I sure do like Roger’s side in all this (as well as his and Jessica’s, I mean). I feel a bit like everyone can see my underwear hanging out in his contretemps with Pointsman, since I’m the one who’s twice insisted “It must mean something,” like Pointsman does here. But he’s being histrionic when he panics that the end of history and even of cause and effect might lie germinating in the simple recognition that independent events…are independent. I’m reasonably certain the rest of the book will give us a remarkable number of wholly contingent events, so Dr. Pointsman should be able to rest secure.

What remains is to show that this order term is actually placed in opposition to both war and love. I suppose it’s obvious enough with regard to war—the absurdism of living in the state of war comes through every page of this book, loud and clear. But also, Jessica understands in 1.9 that she can’t protect Roger “from what may come out of the sky”—for me, a recognition from her (if not yet from him) that his idea of order can’t stand in the random path of war and not be flattened. And as for love vs. order, check Roger in 1.6: “In a life he has cursed, again and again, for its need to believe so much in the trans-observable [possibly spurious hyphen], here is the first, the very first real magic: data he can’t argue away.” Combined with his and Jessica’s mind-to-mind communication in 1.9, I think this shows what’s really a fairly standard depiction of love as transcendent, the great battering ram that overthrows reason.

Looking ahead, I kind of feel like order will be the biggest loser. Anybody else have any predictions?

14 thoughts on “On the Third Hand…

  1. Chase Edmond February 28, 2012 / 5:25 pm

    Wonderful post. Thanks!

    I, too, find GR more difficult than Infinite Jest, and even Ulysses, perhaps because from practically the beginning of both I found a character and/or subject (Hal and Gately and their struggles; and about every thought in Bloom’s head) I immediately either related to or found profoundly interesting. Not that war and Pavlovian experimentation aren’t interesting, they just don’t draw me in quite as quickly.

    I’m with you on another point, too. I find the Roger/Jessica plot line comfortable enough to be a foothold when climbing the jagged edges of some of the other prose, something familiar, very familiar (love in the face of war, Hemingway and all that), a sort of soothing interlude between more dense and difficult moments. Though I am not at all confident that these feelings will remain when I read on.

    I’m very interested in the Trifecta you mentioned: love, war, and order. It seems to me that Slothrop, for one, is embroiled in all three (his sites of [carnal] love predicting important locales of war, and being pursued by scientists who want to find the order of future love/war events). I have a feeling, though, that Pointsman’s upcoming structured-stimulus experimentation could find him overcome more by war and order, and less by love. If Pointsman gets his way. But if Rosie get his way, the priorities could shift, and love could win out? I dunno.


    • Jeff Anderson February 29, 2012 / 3:34 pm

      Thanks, Chase! That’s a really good point about Slothrop—especially as I get further into the reading for next week (have to read a little ahead to write on schedule!), there’s this sense that he’s kind of slowly gathering mass, like a number of disparate plot lines are going to start bowing toward him as his gravitational pull increases. So it makes sense that he would combine all three in one.

  2. Daryl L. L. Houston February 28, 2012 / 8:00 pm

    I can say that so far, the book is much more palatable on a second reading. There’s a lot of hard going ahead, though, so we’ll see what I think in a few weeks.

    The love/war terms you mention put me in mind of a couple of probably related terms: youth and age. You’ve got ancient Pudding here, and in next week’s reading you’ll be introduced to another older gent who pretty well represents war. Compare to young Roger and Jessica. Roger in particular is described time and time again in childish terms, and there is about the two of them an air of youth, not least of all because they are, well, youthful. Still, there are other youngish characters, and none of them are as steadfastly described in youthful terms as these two. Makes me think of the old dramatic conventions wherein romances feature the young and histories (ie, plays about war) deal more with the old heads of state. And then there’s good ole Helen, sporting the face that launched a thousand ships.

    Re that third term, well, keep your eyes peeled for problems with cause and effect throughout. Slothrop’s already turned us onto the idea with his fear of the rocket that destroys you before you even get a chance to hear it. I’m thinking of Helen again, youth/love causing war. I’ll be curious to hear what you think as you get through the next couple of weeks as we learn more about the book’s/narrator’s take on whether this irrational hoo-ha that makes Mexico bristle is real or not.

    • Jeff Anderson February 29, 2012 / 3:44 pm

      What’s funny is that, outside of the sewer of Slothrop’s subconscious (and I think I just understood some of what you were saying in a way that I hadn’t yet: Surely it’s significant in a way we could call moral that the setting Slothrop’s own brain calls up for him to deal with the whole country’s race issues is a sewer full of shit), there hasn’t really been anything unpalatable for me. I’m loving the writing, and finding a surprising number of bits that underlay the technical brilliance with really meaningful stuff. I’m just not sure I’m catching enough of what’s happening on my first time through. Which, I suppose, is why we reread…

      Interesting point about youth and age. On the one hand, I understand the general idea behind the conventions you mention: The young have more ahead of them, so there’s more time for their romance to flower, and as a strictly practical matter there’s a definite lower bound on age for assuming real political or military power. I think Pirate Prentice might be a figure to think more about here. He’s in his 40s, which I literally didn’t remember until Paul pointed it out, and I think that’s partly due to the fact that he feels so tenderly toward Roger and Jessica, which aligns him with the youthfulness you highlight.

  3. Christine February 29, 2012 / 3:00 am

    Jeff once said on his own blog that what he reads informs how he writes. Is it through the wonder of Pynchon’s bawdy jokes, then, that you reference what will happen when Jessica’s Beaver shows up?

    I just couldn’t let it go. Bemused applause over here, Jeff. Nice homage.

  4. Dennis Fleming February 29, 2012 / 1:04 pm

    In terms of opposition, Roger and Pointsman were explicitly called opposites. (V:p55 ll 19-20) “If ever there the Antipointsman existed, Roger Mexico is the man.” But what I take from that is not that Mexico works under a different set of illusions, but that he doesn’t try to erect them. Pointsman is a consumate pavlovian and has reduced human interactions to the point of conditioned response. His behavioralism informs his universe and, as a result, sees nothing unethical in experimenting with humans. Mexico, on the other hand, does not create a mythology around his numbers. In fact he is at constant odds with people who try to. It’s most telling in the context of the of Reverend Paul de la Nuit who insists that a process that was unbelieveable (curing the sick with grass through a sieve) was nevertheless useful because it purpoted to be for good. Roger maintains that the equations are just that and, by extension, using them to save people was equivalent to using a sieve. Furthermore, Roger seems to be the character most capable of childish delight, making snow angels (V: p 57 ll 14-16) Most of the rest are busy projecting their smuggness, fears or hopes onto an overdetermined world in Calvinist fashion.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston February 29, 2012 / 1:14 pm

      The anti-people was one of the topics I thought about delving into, so I’m glad you brought it up. A statistician, Roger is happy enough to live between the integers, but Pynchon goes out of his way (if I recall correctly) to say that for Pointsman, everything is 1 or 0. He says much the same about Slothop (though I don’t remember in which section, and I don’t want to say too much here lest I spoil something through simple forgetfulness).

      • Jeff Anderson February 29, 2012 / 3:55 pm

        Yes, thanks, Dennis, that “Antipointsman” bit (and god bless the editor who imposed or approved the “Antichrist” format on that rather than the more obviously “anti-Pointsman”) was really interesting to me too. I agree that it’s the myth-building that upsets Roger so much. It’s not for nothing that he gets so worked up and rude when Jessica asks him why his equation is “only for angels” (1.9). At the same time, though, I get the feeling we’re going to see that total war brings in concepts and truths of such magnitude that the myths probably can’t be escaped.

        And you’re right, Daryl, that everything’s binary for Pointsman; among other things, it’s Roger’s comfort with numbers between 0 and 1 (the way statistical probabilities are written—in technical literature, I’ve never yet seen them expressed as percentages or fractions) that gives Pointsman the screaming willies. Even that formulation of Pointsman vs. Antipointsman, which comes to us freely and indirectly through Pointsman himself, is strictly binary. They can’t just disagree about extremes, they have to be completely incompatible.

  5. Schnelly March 4, 2012 / 7:33 pm

    Wow…So I just stumbled upon this GR group read ya’ll got going on here. I’m so excited!! I freakin love this book. I’ve read Ulysses, Infinite Jest, Moby-Dick, etc. and in my opinion they just don’t compare. I’ll spare you my rather long winded argument as I know that IJ is especially beloved around here. I’ll have to say about this post (and I hope this isn’t spoiler) is don’t get too attached to Mexico and Pointsman. I know it’s tempting to read into these characters, but don’t do it. This book is chock full of Black Holes that lead nowhere and thats kinda of the point (once again, I’ll spare everyone from a long digression). My advice, and I think several veteran Pynchon readers mentioned this already, is to let the text wash over you. There is a ton of stuff going in the first part of the novel but trust me, push forward and you will be rewarded. If anything, pay special attention to the bizarre analepses that occur throughout part one.

    On side note, I noticed there was very little discussion about the von Braun epigraph at the begining. Huh, seems to me to be the modus oparandi for part one…

    • Jeff Anderson March 4, 2012 / 8:16 pm

      Hi, Schnelly! Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m curious: How’d you stumble on our den of Zombies here?

      As for your advice—I cannot even tell you how small are the chances that I’ll get too attached to Pointsman. Not having talked about it, I can’t say whether I dislike him as intensely as Christine does, but I certainly don’t really like him any. Roger’s another story, but I suppose it’s an attachment I permit along with the realization that attachment opens the gate to suffering. If something happens to him, I’ll probably be sad and also gratified that Pynchon was able to make me care.

  6. Schnelly March 4, 2012 / 10:03 pm

    Uhh…sorry for the typos in my reply. This book gets me pretty excited. Yeah so I was bored at work and just happen to be Googling GR when I came across you zombies. I’m familiar with the Infinite Summer read/blog from several years ago. I think you guys were or are loosely associated with those folks. Anyhow, I’ve read GR several times and will contribute whatever I can to a fruitful discussion about, well, whatever! Oh, and yes, you’re right. No one should feel much compassion for Pointsman. I think I had my mind set on Mexico and that whole Jessica/Beaver thing when thought of attachment.

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