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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.

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.
Accursed.
Between the dreams inside your head.
Accursed.
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.

Pynchon’s Vergeltungswaffen

April 19, 2012 8 comments

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.

 

 

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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.

How’s it Going?

Just thought I’d add a post inviting any who’re still with us to sound off on how it’s going, what you’re stuck on, whether you think you’ll finish, etc. Is anybody still out there?

Also, if you’ve been trying to keep up but are having a little trouble keeping it all in your head, Paul’s posts over at his own blog are not to be missed for pretty comprehensive summaries.

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