An Approach to Reading Gravity’s Rainbow
I picked up Gravity’s Rainbow many times and never got past the first handful of pages before finally plowing through the whole thing a few years ago. As has always been the case when reading Pynchon, much of it was a horrible slog for me. I’ve read all the novels except for Mason & Dixon, and I’ve read a fair amount of that one. I’ve felt about nearly all of them pretty much the way I feel about going out of my way to do exercise, which is that I really sort of hate it the whole way through, but afterward I feel as if I’ve done something that was good for me.
When I brute-forced my way through Gravity’s Rainbow last time, I did so with no reading aids, and I know that a lot of the historical specificity and cultural texture of the book were lost on me. So for this read, I’ve equipped myself with Steven C. Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel. For those who participated in the Infinite Jest read, Weisenburger’s book does for Gravity’s Rainbow essentially what Greg Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity does for Wallace’s novel (but perhaps not as obsessively — which I mean as a compliment to Carlisle and not as an affront to Weisenburger).
My approach to reading Pynchon’s book this time around is to read Weisenburger’s notes for a section before reading the section itself. I mark up the companion book to note things that interest me or that seem especially important given what I remember from my last time through GR. Then I read the section of the novel, referring back to the notes where needed (my memory is a sieve), taking my own copious notes in the margins and, the margins in my copy of the book being pretty small, in a notebook. Then I glance over Weisenburger’s notes one more time, paying particular attention to the things I’ve circled and added my own notes to.
Of particular interest in the Companion are the explanations of the book’s structure, which is loosely outlined at the outset and which I presume we’ll find ongoing notes about as we push forward in the book. If you want to do a serious, deep read of GR, I think Weisenburger’s book is a must.
I’ve picked up another hitchhiker for this read as well. Several years ago, artist Zak Smith took on the huge project of drawing an illustration for every page of GR. I’m a big fan of art that accompanies big novels (if you were with us for Moby-Dick, you’ll surely remember Matt Kish’s work, and if you joined in for Ulysses, you’ll recall Ulysses Seen), so I’m excited to be turning the pages of Smith’s Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow. You can see the pictures online here, but to me, there’s nothing like holding the fat brick of a book in my hand and seeing the art on the page. The intro is also a good read, and you miss out on that if you settle for the online version. Although I’ve casually flipped through the book, I’m taking my time and moving through it as I move through Pynchon’s novel, savoring the images alongside the text.
I’ve added a few links in the sidebar that may be of interest to those wanting supplemental material. Especially interesting to me were the character concordance (an .ods file) and back issues of Pynchon Notes, both of which I hope to find time to dip into. If I recall correctly, the wallace-l discussion list spun off of the pynchon-l list, which may be more relevant for this read (though I’m personally too intimidated to chime in there). And finally, there’s ThomasPynchon.com, which looks as if, with some digging, it might contain some pretty interesting stuff.
So, that’s my approach. If you’re new to Gravity’s Rainbow, you should very strongly consider picking up Weisenburger’s book. Smith’s is a nice bonus if you’re into art, and a deep dive into some of these other links might be of use if you’ve got more time than I do.