On the Third Hand…
So I was telling my mom about this go-round here at IZ, and she’s unfamiliar with Gravity’s Rainbow. I started trying to describe it to her, and after hitting the main points (WWII, a star-sticker map of sexual encounters, the desperate kitchen-sink response to the Nazis including even mysticism, lots of bananas) I ended up with almost a whine: “It’s hard.” Not a complaint, really, because I like a challenge in my reading—obviously you all understand, or you wouldn’t be here. But I don’t often even describe a book as difficult. That feels like a value judgment of the work involved in reading, and I just don’t ordinarily think to characterize reading effort in positive or negative terms. It’s reading and understanding, so it’s work worth doing, duh. My point is that GR is taking a lot more work than I—a serial Infinite Jest rereader and Gene Wolfe fan—am accustomed to, and I’m not sure yet that I feel like I’m accomplishing that work successfully.
Some things seem pretty clear to me, though, like Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake. (Quick note: Good god do I love the names in this book. Joaquin Stick took me a few minutes, but then I cracked up, and I think Constant Slothrop’s naming his son Variable is one of the funniest onomastic jokes I’ve ever read.) Their relationship lets Pynchon set up a kind of three-sided opposition (although we know what happens to opposites in the transmarginal state) of the war, love, and…what to call it? Math? Truth? Order? I think “order.”
Start with war. It’s Roger’s mother in section 1.6, which is an odd description, and then it’s a laboratory for Pointsman and Spectro in 1.8, but the most striking characterization of it is the political literalization of the “state of war.” In 1.12, Pointsman feels that he’s become a citizen of the war, and Brigadier Pudding thinks of “other named areas of the War, colonies of that Mother City mapped wherever the enterprise is systematic death.” There’s probably a very interesting line of inquiry here involving colonialism and the prosecution of World War II—which would apparently also manage to draw in Südwestafrika and the Herero, chronology be damned, along with whatever the Schwarzkommando turns out to be, and now I’m wishing I’d had this idea soon enough to research it in time for a post—but: the state of war. Although Pointsman and Pudding enlarge the image for us, with the outlands of war and the uncertainty of its successor state, it’s actually Jessica and Roger who introduce it. End of 1.6: “If they have not quite seceded from war’s state, at least they’ve found the beginnings of gentle withdrawal.”
That last stretch of 1.6 is also where we get the second term in this opposites relation I’m spelling out. Roger and Jessica’s not-quite-secession is in the form of their huddled little place together outside of town. The whole section convincingly shows a couple who care for each other. It gets the details right; the ending—“They are in love. Fuck the war.”—feels both earned and disarmingly direct. Its clarity and sincerity make quite a contrast with the bewilderment in every other setting so far. (I’m a little concerned about how the inevitable appearance of Jessica’s Beaver will complicate this situation.) Note that Jessica and Roger understand what they’re doing as, among other things, a kind of protest against the disruptions of the war and its attempt to claim even people’s internal lives as materiel to be mobilized and spent: “Both know, clearly … that, indeed, the Home Front is something of a fiction and lie, designed, not too subtly, to draw them apart, to subvert love in favor of work, abstraction, required pain, bitter death.” The text is pretty specific about the opposition here.
In section 1.9 we find a longer, more intimate bit about the couple. Among other things, it has Jessica but not once Roger succumbing to lovely domestic fantasy. (Could be characterization just as plausibly as sexism, so I’ll move on.) But after one of those phantasmic shifts of scene that help make this such a tough book comes the third term I’m interested in: Roger’s unbending commitment to scientifically or mathematically verifiable phenomena. This is what I’m calling “order.” Roger has no patience for his coworkers at “The White Visitation” and their mysticism. Where the Psi Section people see him as a prophet, he sees himself just plugging numbers into an equation that describes reality. I understand strategies of literary structuring well enough to know that, at least so far in the book, no one of the three oppositional terms I’m pointing out is supposed to be dominant—but I sure do like Roger’s side in all this (as well as his and Jessica’s, I mean). I feel a bit like everyone can see my underwear hanging out in his contretemps with Pointsman, since I’m the one who’s twice insisted “It must mean something,” like Pointsman does here. But he’s being histrionic when he panics that the end of history and even of cause and effect might lie germinating in the simple recognition that independent events…are independent. I’m reasonably certain the rest of the book will give us a remarkable number of wholly contingent events, so Dr. Pointsman should be able to rest secure.
What remains is to show that this order term is actually placed in opposition to both war and love. I suppose it’s obvious enough with regard to war—the absurdism of living in the state of war comes through every page of this book, loud and clear. But also, Jessica understands in 1.9 that she can’t protect Roger “from what may come out of the sky”—for me, a recognition from her (if not yet from him) that his idea of order can’t stand in the random path of war and not be flattened. And as for love vs. order, check Roger in 1.6: “In a life he has cursed, again and again, for its need to believe so much in the trans-observable [possibly spurious hyphen], here is the first, the very first real magic: data he can’t argue away.” Combined with his and Jessica’s mind-to-mind communication in 1.9, I think this shows what’s really a fairly standard depiction of love as transcendent, the great battering ram that overthrows reason.
Looking ahead, I kind of feel like order will be the biggest loser. Anybody else have any predictions?