So That’s It, Huh?

Howdy, folks! Sorry to have been away for, oh, almost the entire book—I’ve only just got out from under probably the worst job situation of my entire working life. (Which doesn’t include the bits where I haven’t had any work at all, so how much complaining can I really do.) I was so excited, too, because I thought there was another week or two after this one. Oh well. At least I made it, and managed to get back in time for the wake.

As a general summary matter, I think my reading definitely suffered from being forced by circumstance to go it alone. I hope to go back and comment on some of the previous posts, now that I have a chance to read them (forewarned is forearmed, people). The threshold matter of not being able to determine what “happens” (more or less)—that is, which narrated events are real in a Watsonian sense—induced a too-permissive suspension of the need to work things out.

(Picking this back up on a different day now, because the distracting power of TVTropes is not of the Lord.)

I may or may not have mentioned here before the concept of reading protocols. One of the reading protocols that folks who appreciate SF tend to learn pretty early is a kind of patience; since the world the work takes place in isn’t one you can already know (given the fantastic nature of SF), the work has to build that world for you. As a reader, that means you have to be willing to let the important unfamiliar things become clear and let the unimportant ones remain vague. I found SF when I was young, so this is a way of reading I have a lot of practice in. In fact, as I’ve started looking back on my reading of Gravity’s Rainbow, I’ve realized that I was unconsciously applying this protocol, and it wasn’t a successful way to read the book.

An essay by Brian McHale (“Modernist Reading, Postmodernist Text: The Case of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,'” in Constructing Postmodernism) pinpointed for me some of what was happening in my reading. McHale gives a kind of taxonomy of unreal narrated events in the book. The most obvious ones are the ones that are cued ahead of time: “Here’s what didn’t happen.” Then you get ones like Pökler’s night with Ilse (Christine mentions this one in her post I linked to), where the narration explicitly clears up the event’s unreality after the fact—sometimes very much after the fact. And then there are ones like the candy scene Daryl wondered about. These are scenes that are later contradicted (in this case by the results of the SEZ WHO guys’ investigation), but not really authoritatively: It may be the later scene that’s unreal instead. McHale describes these scenes as ontologically “flickering.” I think what happened for me is that I got tired of mentally going back and erasing events from continuity, and then on top of that I got tired of leaving so many events up in the air, so to speak—holding off on making ontological judgments.

Because the “reality” or “nonreality” of events was deliberately obscured—and I was getting frustrated with that—I stopped trying to work it out. I figured the distinctions I needed to be able to make would become apparent, and thus I could read more carefully for things like prose style, ideas, set pieces, political or philosophical positions and their illustrations, etc. Which means, among other things, that I didn’t realize the 00000 had been fired in any narrative past. Until I read otherwise in secondary material, I thought the firing that’s interspersed throughout the final section was in the narrative present. I missed important things, is what I’m saying.

So that’s how I gave myself a harder time than necessary with this book. But I have a quibble with the ending that I’d be interested to hear other opinions about. I’ve learned that a major part of what’s going on in the last section, with all the subtitled vignettes and the Raketen-Stadt and Takeshi and Ichizo and all of that, is a depiction of Slothrop derezzing. And retrospectively, that makes for an enormously affecting story: He was essentially sold, by his father, to experimenters when he was an infant, and throughout the book he’s never really treated as a person. He’s an experimental subject (still), he’s a pawn, he’s a courier, he’s an instantiation of a legendary hero, he’s a half-mythical character—he’s always a means for other people, never an end in himself. Slothrop’s been the only entity trying to maintain a kind of synoptic understanding of himself, an idea of himself as subject. And in the end, he gives up that struggle against all other forces; they win. “It’s doubtful if he can ever be ‘found’ again, in the conventional sense of ‘positively identified and detained.'” I find that very, very sad, and a solid way of partly accounting for the structure of the end of the book.

But I don’t think it’s enough, because Slothrop was also kind of never the point. (I’m not sure the book treats him any better than the entities within it, although I’d be willing to have a discussion about it that would probably be very interesting.) The end of the book is focused on the flight of the 00000, which has at its heart the “black device” that has exerted such a gravitational pull on the characters and events, and here’s where I think Pynchon makes an artistic misstep. (Subjective response ahoy!) For me, the main matter of the book is systems—social, religious, scientific, political, economic, racial, sexual, etc.—and especially the interactions of these systems when they’re superimposed and the way these systems will each tend to absorb as much of existence as possible into themselves. There is a totalizing drive inherent in these systems, although they are often forced to accommodate each other (a few characters note that the war seems to be one such accommodation). The 00000 is one site, perhaps the most salient in the book, where a number of these systems overlap and impinge on one another—which is why I find it disappointing that when the rocket finally gets a star turn, that’s when the text achieves its greatest decoherence. I see the argument that the rocket is the apocalyptic event that can’t be contained within the existing arrangement of systems, so it’s like the event horizon of a revolution—the line past which all else is unrepresentable. Except that a large amount of the book actually does take place afterward, and the systems are all still in force. It’s after the flight of the 00000 that they are able to terminally attenuate Slothrop. I’d like to hear what other folks thought about the ending. Did you even consider it in this way? If so, were you disappointed too, or are there aspects I’m not taking into account?

Even though I disagree with some authorial choices about the ending, I’m glad I got through GR this time. If I ever return to school, and my project remains generally what I currently expect it to be, I’m going to have to do some serious grappling with this book. I look forward to my romp through the posts.

4 thoughts on “So That’s It, Huh?

  1. Dennis May 14, 2012 / 12:39 am

    I think that looking at the book through the dichotomy of Doyle/Watson might lead you astray. Here is my thought: The concept of the unreliable narrator is a common thread in much of literature, Huck Finn, Lemuel Gulliver, Candide are all examples, but in these cases the narrator is the character in the story. Since Flaubert there has been an attempt to remove the narrator from the story completely. Mdme Bovary is exactly such an attempt wherein the narration is done through empathic narration and the effects of the incongruities that occur are implied by the difference between the character’s thoughts and actions occurring around him. In these stories all narration is unreliable. When we come to someone like Joyce we see a continuation and furthurance of this in such works as _Dubliners_ and _A_Portrait_of_the_Artist_as_a_Young_Man_. But when we come to _Ulysses_ we see a stark change. The narrator initially starts off as absent, but increasingly asserts himself to the point where he, himself, becomes a character, one who is capable of playing jokes on the reader and almost laughing at his audience. I liken him to the “off” chapters of _Moby_Dick_ where Ishmael goes off on how one whale is a lot like the founding father, George Washington, or what it’s like to get sleepy on a mast.

    Now we come to Pynchon. His narrator moves from empathic to omniscient at the drop of a hat. And his omniscient narrator looks like it could be 4 or 5 more different guys. (Sorry, Christine, They all seem to be guys to me.) Each of them chiming in without regard to the last narrative section and each potentially as wrong as any of the others. That’s one of the great insights that I got from this reading. (Again, thanks Christine) I have tentatively named some of them based on tone alone. What I don’t have a good feel for is how they each measure up in consistency, style, objective knowledge… WHat we see is equivalent to watching TV where someone is constantly changing the channels, but where every channel relates to the same subject. It’s just that one channel is a procedural police drama and the next is an absurdist, hipster comedy. Or, it’s lilke everyone in _Foucalt’s_Pendulum_ creating their own set of acana out of a mixed bag of semi-forgotten myths and half-baked science.

    The drive toward the 00000 is, it seems to me, the same as what Ahab felt toward the White Whale. And Blicero’s direct counterpart in Slothrop’s story has to be Pointsman. In the end Ahab’s obsession was against nature itself: unyielding, uncaring, aloof and mysterious, but there is no equivalent to Ishmael in _GR_, What we see is a crowd of people moving toward what seems plausible and real but what is little more that a dream. The result is that those in power (the elite, Pointsman, Blicero, Slothrop) try to control those who are not (the preterite, Slothrop, Gottfried, Bianca) and we have two choices: to fight, counter-conspiracy or to succumb, anihilation. And, in the end, we must all succumb.

    The end of the novel may not seem satisfying, but in a real sense there is no end. The threat of the preterite was to be alone without love, but Slothrop showed again and again that, even in the direst of circumstances, he could find love. And even though those sections of love were fleeting and sometimes insubstatial, those moments are all we have to cling to on this tiny gray marble in space.

  2. Christine May 16, 2012 / 3:34 am

    So glad you made it back, Jeff.

    I share your frustration with the shifting of unreality and reality. I’m glad I didn’t have McHale to guide me, for I would be quite angry that the answers I tried to puzzle out are so clear. I gave up on the patience protocol I swore I’d use for this reading because the effing text is so maddening. I don’t do the LSD-dream-as-comic-book text thing well. So I’ve reread sections dozens of times based on a revelation that comes later.

    And that angers me, honestly.

    Dennis, I agree the narrators are all guys. I genuinely like at least two of them, and would launch another couple in a schwarzgerat of my own. (Yeah, the spoiler in the NYTRB review made me mad, too. I’m an angry reader in general, it would seem.)

    Jeff, if I understand your concern, you are saying that Slothrop’s surrender and defeat at the end is not satisfying since Slothrop is not the point; and that you’d rather have an actual resolution to the battle of the totalizing systems that, in their battle for the usurpation of the novel’s power, could be encapsulated in the 00000? And that you feel denied access to the ways in which those power structures battle and resolve?

    If that is what you were seeking (and that’s a big “if” because I don’t read well at midnight and often miss author’s points), I think the text certainly set you up to hope for that, but it also told you in advance you’d never get such a clear look into the interplay and machinations of those power structures. I agree that many of the book’s explored forces seem to Venn diagram right in that black box, but I also saw from the middle of the book on that we’d never find answers even once we read the actual schwarzgerat’s reality/point/contents/message.

    Several references in the novel reveal that Wars only seem real, and that those totalizing forces you mention are at war in perpetuity, fabricating big-W Wars to suit Their purposes and resolving those Wars to further suit Their purposes. There’s no way this one tiny rocket in this one tiny War (isn’t it terrible to set up WWII in a 900-page novel and make it clear that it’s one teeny tiny speck in the drive toward world annihilation?) could resolve in any satisfying way. Just because Slothrop seeks the 00000 and the schwarzgerat doesn’t mean they’re actually the key to anything. GE is a bigger force than Blicero’s rocket, but we don’t get any clarity or resolution on that monolith, either. Except via my buddy Byron the Bulb.

    I guess what I’m rambling about is that the White Whale of this novel is a freaking guppy in the vast ocean, and even if we dissect the one we finally catch (which Pynchon does for us, shot with a murky lens and completed with a muddy spoon), we’ll never understand the human drive to power, self destruction, and capitalism.

    So while I agree with your frustration, I saw the “now you see me; now you don’t” coming a mile away.

  3. Daryl July 29, 2012 / 10:39 am

    Sooo….if I read V. and thought it a work of such tasty potential with a handful of golden moments but ultimately literarily, writing-wise, immature, not yet ripe, the kind of stuff Pynchon castigates himself for in the Slow Learner introduction, would Gravity’s Rainbow be my go to? I’ve also heard monumental things about Mason & Dixon. My main gripe with V. was that it only worked as a first novel. It was a wonderful achievement but only worked as the effort of a writer who’s voice had not yet been fully formed.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston July 30, 2012 / 8:57 am

      I think there are elements of what you’re nervous about here in all of Pynchon’s stuff, which is all nevertheless probably still worth reading if you’ve got the patience for it.

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