Pynchon’s Vergeltungswaffen

I’ve been fighting harder and harder against the text this month, because I’ve decided I’m not just going to let Gravity’s Rainbow‘s narrators take me for a ride anymore. This text is full of distortions, and I don’t know how in the name of all that’s holy we are supposed to know what does and does not happen in this novel.

There are some outlandish narrator assertions that I just know are character fantasies rather than actual events. There’s no way Slothrop had an orgy in the closet while touring Middlewerke. He did not charge the Shell Mex House with Tommy gun blazing. Halliburton’s ghost didn’t appear to befuddle anyone. Marguerita does not beat a reluctant performer Bianca, nor does an ensuing orgy take place before they “begin to drift away to catch some sleep.”

Right? Those simply have to be the narration of a dream, perhaps Pirate’s clairvoyant retelling of the nonsense floating through Slothrop’s brain.

If much of this story actually happens, then, it makes for an exhilarating and frustrating exercise in “if that’s not real in the way conventional fiction is real [yes, I do hear the ridiculousness of that], then why spend so much time on it? Why are a character’s thoughts more important than actual events?” Because they are. How do we each live if not listening to our internal narration, interpretations, and fantasies about what we see and do?

So I know that most of the Slothrop sequences are outsized cartoonish fantasies built on a thin framework of reality. I know Slothrop’s narrator is not teling us what is but rather what Slothrop feels. But that’s where my certainty ends.

A couple of weeks’ old question: did Pökler actually bed Ilse? “No. What Pökler did was choose to believe she wanted comfort that night, wanted not to be alone. Despite Their game.”  Her hand might have brushed his knee, but he didn’t slap her, she didn’t hike up her dress, they didn’t spend hours in a taboo sexual affair and then slink out into the morning of Zwölfekinder’s amusement park city. Right? Of course not. But why not, really, except that he was fighting what They wanted and he thought They wanted to weaken him. And what better way than to eviscerate his sense of self? So he fought the obvious by not sleeping with his daughter, who he thought was not his daughter?

I know that postmodern narrators are unreliable. I know that in a text that tries to be a Saturday Morning Cartoon complete with seamless fantasy wish-fulfillment we’re supposed to know that a lot is dream sequence and a lot is fantasy. I started balking way back at the Keystone Cops nonsense after Katje disappears and Slothrop becomes Ian Scuffling. After the U.S.S. Badass I decided everything herein is complete Kuhscheiβe.

So what’s real? Slothrop or Scuffling or Schlepzig or none of them? [All.] The banana rooftop? [Yes.] Blicero’s twisted home on the range? [Yup.] The octopus? [Sure?] The basement-degraded Admiral? [Probably.] Slothrop falling into the sea and struggling aboard the Anubis? [No?]  Is Imipolex real? [Yes?] Is the 00000? [Maybe?] Just because our most reliable, technical, buttoned-down narrator shared Weissman’s order of the Schwarzgerӓt  doesn’t mean even that’s real. This collection of unreality, I feel, is as real as the novel gets. And yet…

It’s all real, since the text is all we have. Whether the whole novel is a dream or not, it’s as real as we’re going to get.

Pökler’s discovery of the Dora death camp was very real.

Is the death in this novel true while all the life is a hopeful lie? Is the sex, even at its most ludicrous, the fantasy that keeps people on several continents going despite the horrors of the early 1940s?

The further we get into this novel, the more capable I feel at distinguishing conventional fiction from experimental narrator hijinks. But I then question the previous narrators’ assertions and feel I should stop at each cinematic fade, go back to the beginning, and reread from there. And believe none of it, which is, I suppose, the point of postmodern fiction anyway. “How probable is the Anubis in this estuary tonight?” It’s a Schroedinger’s text come to harass us with uncertainty and “be careful, for if you try to detect truth, you won’t like what you find.”

Because I’m beginning to think that Gravity’s Rainbow is a Vergeltungswaffen: a Weapon of Retaliation. A revenge for fiction, for reality; for war, for murder; for frivolity in the face of war and murder.  Retaliation for the helplessness and the refusal to help; for the privileging of capitalism over humanity; for the insufficiency of America’s too-late efforts to “liberate.” A Retaliation for our inhumanity: Gravity’s Rainbow gives us a fantasy that shows us how ludicrous it is to pretend life is anything but death.



8 thoughts on “Pynchon’s Vergeltungswaffen

  1. Chase Edmond April 19, 2012 / 8:36 am

    What a great post–thanks! My love of a narrative style that include ambiguities, red herrings, and unanswered questions is equaled only by my complete frustration with the same.

    • Christine April 19, 2012 / 2:11 pm

      Amen, Chase. And I know I should marvel and appreciate, but I resent being dosed with narrative LSD, control freak that I am.

  2. Lauren Gallant April 19, 2012 / 8:15 pm

    Thank you, Christine, for tackling this topic head-on. I must be a control freak, too, as I periodically find myself suffused with frustration, trying to decide whether what I am reading makes any sense at all and feeling too resentful to back up and try to read it all again. Many tales within this novel are pretty balloons floating by my window, catching my attention, then moving on, as I have no context into which to place them. I surely hope that some of Slothrop’s ramblings are hallucinations!

    • Christine April 20, 2012 / 1:10 am

      Lauren, I like the idea of these set pieces as balloons floating by.

  3. clerner1 April 23, 2012 / 9:29 pm

    Thanks for this post – I stopped trying to figure out what was “real” awhile ago but like your idea that it is all real because that is what is in the characters’ head.

    And then there comes this telling line in 3.30 says it all, “Those like Slothrop, with the greatest interest in discovering the truth, were thrown back on dreams, psychic flashes, omens, cryptographies, drug-epistemologies, all dancing on a ground of terror, contradiction, absurdity.”

    We’ll throw Pökler in there too. The subterfuge and paranoia never ends.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s