I have a nasty habit, when it comes to these big books, of coasting downhill for the last hundred or so pages, and Gravity’s Rainbow was no exception. This was my second time through the book, and while I still left a whole lot of understanding on the table, I grokked a lot more this time around too. Still, though, the last few sections puzzle me. I don’t require tidy endings by any stretch of the imagination, and in some cases we actually get tidy endings (there can be no question of what ultimately happens to Gottfried), but Pynchon also just opens up so many weird little mystery boxes here at the end. I cite for your reference the colonel from Kenosha and Byron the bulb, for instance, and Richard M. Zhlubb. The bizarre Gross Suckling Conference. The return of Ludwig. The possibility that Jamf wasn’t in fact real. Several lapses into pastiche.
I suppose that as Slothrop is sort of diffused Orpheus-like across the Zone, so the narrative further fractures (you mean it could fracture further?), spinning out of control because god knows it’s a mad world, etc. But then Pynchon brings us back — albeit via another round of pastiche — to a very ordered conclusion, those lovely subsections detailing the clearing, the ascent, the descent.
And then he sort of yanks the rug back out from under us, or maybe it’s more like dropping a banana peel in our path. Follow the bouncing ball indeed. It’s just such a strange ending, mixing that old Slothropian hymn with a campy singalong vibe. I don’t know how to read the ending, whether I’m to understand the narrator to be sympathetic to the preterite or to be undercutting any sympathy with the zany mugging and cheerleading (or even whether that cheerleading is in fact a 1970s sincerity that I’m too jaded about the campy to interpret correctly, and that the cheerleading is in fact designed to be affirming).
I can’t begin to wring my thoughts together into a pat summary. The last time I read Gravity’s Rainbow, I characterized it (and Pynchon’s work in general) as being like nasty medicine — not so fun to swallow, but good for you. This time around, it was a good bit tastier. I’ll read the book again in a few years, though I may dip into Rilke first, as a familiarity with his Orphic sonnets turns out to be pretty critical to a thorough reading of Pynchon’s book. If you want to wrap up the read with a nice analysis of the relationships between the German poet and the American novelist, take a gander at this.
Thanks to all who played along, whether as post authors, commenters, or silent readers.