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.

Purity of essence

I wanted to thank everyone who read along and added helpful and even curious comments both here and on my blog.  While I like to be a purist about reading, I realize that it’s kind of foolish to think you can read certain texts in a vacuum.

I am able to come full circle with a comment about Ulysses.  My co-worker decided that he was finally going to read Ulysses (it feels good to write that).  He is doing it with no outside help (he doesn’t even want me to tell him what’s going on, so I didn’t even tell him about our discussion here).  And it’s amazing hearing what he takes from it and also what he simply doesn’t pick up on.

He didn’t seem to have a basic understanding of the set up of the book–that it is a day in the life of Dublin.  And I can see that if you don’t know that Sandymount strand is in Dublin, it might not be readily apparent that that’s where the book is set (at least right away).  Without such basic knowledge, though, I wondered if it was even possible to understand what was happening in the book.  [Mind you, I had literally no idea what Gravity’s Rainbow was about either].  I had a college course about Ulysses (complete with Ulysses Annotated, so I knew a lot of what was going on in the background.  Of course, when he talks to me about Ulysses, I want to tell him about all the various things that each section symbolizes, or why things are done the way they are.  But I’m holding my tongue to keep his purity in tact.

Having said that, he is picking up on a lot of stuff and is getting a lot of the story.  And it’s always fun to hear him come in with a new insight to what he read that morning.  But I wonder if it would be more enjoyable if he “knew” more.

And now with the insights that I’ve been getting here, I wonder if Gravity’s Rainbow would have been more interesting if I knew the connections I’ve been reading about here.   I would say yes, very probably.  Like my co-worker, I didn’t want any spoilers (that’s why I didn’t read Weisenberger, as I understand spoilers–if that is even possibly with GR–were present, heck, unavoidable.  But I’ll bet knowing more about what the Kabbalah stuff meant would have made some of these sections more interesting.

So, Joyce threw everything he could about Dublin (and some of the world around him) into Ulysses.  And Pynchon seems to have thrown into Gravity’s Rainbow everything he knew about the World circa 1945, with a bit of 70s politics thrown in as well.  And it’s obvious he did his homework.  I never would have guessed that so much of the stuff he talks about was real–can you really fit a light bulb into a kazoo?  And without Wikipedia cheat sheets I wouldn’t have appreciated nearly as much.  Of course, I read the Wikipedia stuff after i read the section, when I was skimming it for things to post about, so i was able to keep some of my purity in tact.

I guess the point is that no one can ever hope to know as much as an author about a subject.  Either because  the author lived it or because the author did more research than you have, or even because it is simply his or her perspective on events.  In the case of Gravity’s Rainbow, I may not have understood everything that happened in the book, but holy cow did I learn a lot more than I ever knew about WWII, conspiracy theories and paranoia.

On another note, I had hoped to post something here every week, but I learned that bosses really don’t appreciate employees writing blog posts on company time (spoiled sports).  So I’m sorry I couldn’t help keep the discussion going regularly.  But at the same time I also found myself almost literally speechless about what  to talk about.  Aside from some serious WTF questions, this book had me kind of stymied for insights.  Well, not insights per say, but coherent insights.

I’m appreciative of the book for making me think so much (and making me think such crazy things) and I appreciate you all for helping me focus my thoughts.

I feel like I would perhaps like to read this book again (although not anytime soon). But since I just learned that V. has some of the same charcaters in it, perhaps i should go back and read that one first.  I wish that GR was available as an audiobook!  That would be interesting in terms of narrator as well.

Speaking of insights, here’s an interesting review of the book from The New York Times.  Holy spoiler alert about Gottfried!  But there are some interesting cultural insights (since it was written in 1973), that we might not pick up on in 2012.  I believe there’s a few errors, too.  It’s also fascinating to see such a lengthy book review in a newspaper!

So, what’s next everyone, JR?  [I actually wrote this post before Daryl submitted his survey.  JR was kind of a joke, but I’m delighted that it was an option!]

Tangentially, I was wondering if there was any kind of acknowledged list of difficult books out there?  I mean, right now it seems like Infinite Zombies is a major resource for such a list. There are a few resources that I’ve seen online, although most of them are just people’s personal lists of tough books.  Given the world’s penchant for making lists, I’m surprised no one with any authority has created The Top 20 Hardest Novels.  I’m pretentious enough to think that I have most of them in my house (whether I have read them or not).  But I always wonder if I missed one.

Not quite Gottfied

The final word belongs to Slothrop (and others): oboy.

Gravity’s Rainbow Post Mortem

I’ve been doing these group reads (with help from other kind contributors) for several years now but have never really tried to collect feedback in a remotely quantitative form. I thought I’d try a little survey this time. I’d be grateful for your honest feedback. It’s anonymous unless you supply your email address in the question that prompts for it for people who say they’d be willing to contribute posts to future group reads.

If I kick off another group read, I’d say it’ll be a little while, as I tend to put off all other creative/reading endeavors during one of these, and three months is a long time to put everything else on hold. Still, I do seem to have a penchant for the group read and would be interested in learning what prospective participants would be interested in reading in the future.

Thanks for sticking it out for Gravity’s Rainbow.

Take the Quick Survey

GR: The End

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.

WTF: Byron the Bulb

Carol asks:

Does anyone care to comment on Byron the Bulb?  Beyond Weisenburger’s cartel explanation and my own memory of my father’s ramblings about how lightbulbs could be made to last forever if GE were not so greedy, I wonder what this is all about.

This is actually something I had thought about trying to linger on, but I tend toward laziness at the end of the long downhill slide of a book like this. I did poke around online a bit, and even in some online scholarly databases, but I tended to find weird results, Byron also being the name of a celebrated Romantic poet.

I suppose it’s easy enough to read Byron the Bulb as a little symbol or miming of the counterforce described in section four, working as do Pirate, Katje and the rest against larger forces mashed up of industry, military, science, and personal ambition. It’s also interesting to note that that Phoebus cartel was apparently a real thing (thanks to Paul for his curiosity and for reporting this fact, which it would not have occurred to me to think might be true) , which maybe lends an air of legitimacy to the whole notion of justified paranoia.

Beyond that, I’ve got nothing very, ahem, illuminating to say. Here’s hoping someone can do better in the comments.

Fuck the War?

Way back in 1.7, as Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake have begun to settle into a routine in the abandoned house they’ve adopted, Pynchon closes with this kind of lovely passage:

It is marginal, hungry, chilly — most times they’re too paranoid to risk a fire — but it’s something they want to keep, so much that to keep it they will take on more than propaganda has ever asked them for. They are in love. Fuck the war.

Now we jump forward to 4.2 and this realization:

“The War” was the condition she needed for being with Roger. “Peace” allows her to leave him.

And now Mexico views the foregone war almost with something like nostalgia. Little wonder, I suppose.

Also of note as we flip from the earlier chapter to the later is the shift in his sense of paranoia from situational paranoia (somebody might see our fire) to systemic paranoia more along the likes of what Slothrop suffers.

As in the early sections of the book, Roger is characterized as a child. In this episode, he throws a tantrum, cries snot “by the cubic yard” (which I quote because it delighted me), pulls a man around like a child’s sleigh (by the wiener!), expresses his displeasure by urinating inappropriately, and so on. Even the inexplicable jars of baby food rolling around in the floor of the car he’s driving reinforce the idea of Roger as infantile. Pynchon characterizes him as a “30-year-old innocent,” and then at last, getting back to paranoia, Prentice tells him he’s a novice paranoid. The sense I get, in other words, is that until now, Roger has thought about paranoia — to the extent that he’s thought about it at all — as simply a synonym for minor nagging fear. Once he connects the dots about Pointsman’s role in having Jessica sent away, his worldly innocence is ruined. It seems fitting that Prentice, who also previously found himself in a similar romantic triangle  to Roger’s, should be the one to induct him into the world of real paranoia.

And of course, given the reality Pynchon sets up for us within the novel, it seems sufficiently clear that this real systemic paranoia is well founded, that it’s not paranoia, as they say, if it’s true.

One Lemming

This week I head down another minor rabbit hole (or should I say Roseland Ballroom toilet?) after another weird association the text suggested to me that’s probably entirely irrelevant.

Poor little Ludwig’s lemming has gone missing, and Slothrop asks him in italics, in 3.25, “One lemming, kid?”

Years ago in a college class on the avant garde theater, I watched a documentary about a production by The Open Theater entitled The Serpent, which opened in 1969. With a subtitle labeling it a “ceremony,” The Serpent treats of what has emerged as my pet theme for this read of Gravity’s Rainbow — temptation — by dramatizing at times pretty obliquely that first of all temptations in the Garden of Eden. Filled with stylized movements and chanting, the play lives up to its subtitle, and vignettes like an autopsy complete with technical jargon and procedure resonate both with the notion of the ceremonial and with a certain fetish for the technical that runs through Pynchon’s novel.

The play is very weird, but also really mesmerizing, enough so that it has stuck with me for a long time now and set alarms flashing when I got to GR 3.25. As it turns out, Slothrop’s question to Ludwig is a repeating line lifted from a Gertrude Stein-ish section of the play, of which I’ve lifted an excerpt sourced from here:

God: Henceforth shall you thirst after me.
And now shall come a separation.
Between the dreams inside your head.
And those things which you believe to be outside your head
And the two shall war within you…
Second Woman of the Chorus: I’ve lost the beginning.
Third Woman: I’m in the middle.
Fourth Woman: Knowing neither the end nor the beginning.
Second Woman: One lemming.
Third Woman: One lemming.
Fourth Woman: One lemming…
First Woman: I went to a dinner.

That cluster of women approximates the old Greek convention of a chorus, and as I recall, they interrupt one another rhythmically and repeat that line many times throughout the play with an inflection that I can still hear (though the video I link above doesn’t reproduce it, alas).

The Serpent seems to be concerned with the idea of ceremony, and with its Biblical theme and the old instructive miracle plays in mind, I find it hard not to turn my thoughts to Pynchon’s preoccupation with the divide between the Elect and the Preterite — a divide that The Open Theater was in some ways working to close within the theater (it’s interesting to read some of the intro matter for the play here, though since it’s not all available, I don’t feel comfortable quoting it or working on a more involved thesis).

As I said at the outset, this is a bit of a rabbit hole, and not likely a very rich one to plumb any further. The emphasis Pynchon puts on the phrase seems odd (how often does he resort to italics in the book, I wonder?), and the dramatic work certainly shares some themes with Gravity’s Rainbow, but that’s hardly enough to hang an assertion of an intentional reference on.

WTF: Multiple Narrators in GR

From Christine, who puzzles in her latest post over narration, distortion, and reality, we have this WTF:

I’ve searched a lot of the companion links in the right sidebar but can’t find what I’m looking for:

Anyone found a cogent dissection of the multiple narrators of this book? I can identify three, so far, from their tone and knowledge, but I think there may be many more. In fact, I think each character might get his own (doesn’t seem that the women get their own, but, again, I’m just formulating my thoughts on this and need help.)

Have you read anything on this that you recommend?

I don’t have a great answer, but a couple of possible leads from a quick search of the Gale resources my library offers turns up these possible hits, which I have not read:

  • “Consciousness without borders: narratology in Against the Day and the works of Thomas Pynchon.” Richard Hardack. Criticism. 52.1 (Winter 2010) p91.
  • “Science, narrative, and agency in Gravity’s Rainbow.” Margaret Lynd. CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. 46.1 (Fall 2004) p63.

Excuse Me, While I Kiss The Sky

Sometimes a phrase or association just jumps out at me, and in this week’s reading, it was the following section (ellipses Pynchon’s):

Even a month ago, given a day or two of peace, he might have found his way back to the September afternoon, to the stiff cock in his pants sprung fine as a dowser’s wand trying to point up at what was hanging there in the sky for everybody. Dowsing Rockets is a gift, and he had it, suffered from it, trying to fill his body to the pores and follicles with ringing prurience . . . to enter, to be filled . . . to go hunting after . . . to be shown . . . to begin to scream . . . to open arms legs mouth asshole eyes nostrils without a hope of mercy to its intention waiting in the sky paler than dim commercial Jesus. . . .

Slothrop has just learned from Greta about a highly erotic suit made of Imipolex-G but doesn’t quite manage to put together all the facts and come to certain important conclusions. But that’s almost beside the point. What made me sit up and take notice was that mention of a scream, which zipped me right back to the opening line of the book:

A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

It’s strangely worded, isn’t it? Memorable, sure, but there’s also something very slovenly about the choice of so prosaic a verb as “comes” in such a sentence, unless the word turns out to be a sort of double-entendre picked up 500 pages later. So the rocket screams and part of binary Slothrop that has been conditioned to be attracted to that black substance ensconced within the rocket provokes a screaming as well, inviting the question of exactly which screaming it is we’re hearing at the beginning, or whether one can be properly distinguished from the other.

The Aristocrats

At the end of 3.14, we are presented with Margherita and Bianca, “playing stage mother and reluctant child.” Tween (or tween-looking) Bianca is made to dance and not sing but grunt her way through a couple of Shirley Temple songs before Greta takes the girl across her lap and begins whipping her with a metal ruler. Naturally this makes everybody horny, and a sort of conga line of an orgy ensues.

My initial reaction was one of something like horror. I mean, I’m not especially prudish, but just as I recoiled a few chapters back at the prospect of Pökler violently bedding his daughter (a contemporary of Bianca’s) and felt great relief that he didn’t go through with it, I was very uncomfortable with the sexualization of Bianca.

Its degeneration into an orgy seems in keeping with the company aboard the hellish Anubis, but it finally occurred to me that our ham of an author is basically riffing on that old dirty joke originating on Vaudeville commonly called “The Aristocrats.” If you don’t know the joke, the premise is that a family is appearing before a talent agency to show off their act, which quickly degenerates into whatever incestuous, coprophilic, sadistic, or otherwise very-far-from-vanilla scene the teller wishes to ad lib. At the end of the joke, the talent agent asks what the number is called, to which the leader of the bunch replies “The Aristocrats.” Pynchon even sets up the gag with the stage mothering and the performance of another Vaudeville-era staple in the Shirley Temple bit. The real joke here is that the people on board the Anubis are in fact mostly aristocratic types, which deflates the satiric punch of the original joke.

You can google the joke and find videos of various comedians giving their renditions. Penn Jillette also produced a documentary about the joke in 2005.

Switching gears just slightly, it’s hard to read sections 3.11, 3.14, and 3.15 without thinking of Nabokov’s Lolita. Pynchon took a course with Nabokov while an undergraduate at Cornell, and there are various articles on the web about possible connections between the two authors, but in a quick scan, I haven’t yet found anything among the resources I have ready access to that goes into much detail on the conversation between Nabokov’s novel and Pynchon’s scenes (but here’s an interesting side note). (Another side note: Humbert seems himself a bit of an, um, aristocrat.) I’m not really equipped to say much about the relationship here and will wait with bated breath for the Modernists among us to weigh in.