Nodding, shrugging, smirking
Because this is the beginning, and the beginning is a very good place to start, I’m going to quickly dispense with some inane observations. I will then progress into less inane observations. I will not mark the transition between the two, and if you feel all of the following are painfully inane, why then just pretend the transition happens somewhere at a later date. Like Paul, I’m flying completely blind here. No background research, no previous reading, no exposure to this novel at all.
I hate bananas. I have always gagged at the smell of bananas. I hold my breath when I give my children bananas. If I mistakenly drink a smoothie with banana or eat a so-called bread made of banana, I try very hard not to vomit.
Pirate Prentice, therefore, is already in the running for my least favorite character.
Seriously, though, the banana-seeking trip to the roof and the banana-laden and overripely unctuous kitchen scene brought me immediately to a pleasant, early conclusion about this text. This author can write. Not just because he goes on and on in nauseating detail about bananas. Any monkey could do that. My immense gratitude for the vacillations of physical space between narrow and expansive in this section begins when the cold, murky, drowning scene of those on the train (and those left behind) wedges us tightly, claustrophobically into a depot that becomes Pirate’s private quarters, and then the banana nonsense opens the whole text away from that sepulcher-like scene into a luxurious (especially since illicitly undertaken under rationing) sensory extravaganza. I thoroughly enjoyed this scary into safe, skeletal into gluttonous transition, and lodged stylistic ebbing and flowing as a point very much in Pynchon’s favor.
At the recommendation of several re-readers, including a fabulous comment a few days ago by DCN, I am letting this text wash me along its course. I am not trying to understand it. I have experience with Faulkner and Joyce and Wallace and Bolaño, and I will willingly follow stream of consciousness wherever it leads. I don’t need transitions, don’t ask for clarifications, and quite enjoy being driven by a good author. Heck, we’re already suspending disbelief to read a novel, so why not suspend all expectations of realism. I meant that sincerely and without facetiousness. But just so Mr. Pynchon knows, I can’t comment intelligently about such writing until I’ve finished and reread, so I hope he’s not visiting our group read anytime soon.
The style, however, both hides and highlights a central point of this first section: the terrible upheaval of war. Just as Roger Mexico vacillates between “don’t make me out some cold fanatical man of science” (47) and “his morality always goading ” to keep the “psychical” distinct from science (47), I sense already that we’re going to go back and forth with the characters between “I need to dissociate from the horrors of war and pretend life is normal” and “nothing can be normal in this hell.” Already we see Tyrone Slothrop a barely controlled panic about his obsession “with the idea of a rocket with his name written on it” (29). Genetic PTSD about the fire or not, Slothrop is on the edge and I don’t blame him. One wrenching reality of the first section is that it’s nigh impossible to explain to people not living a war what it feels like to be terrified and resigned and depressed and morbidly hopeful. The long section (relatively) between Jessica and Roger nurtures the paranoia and frustrations both feel, repeating the ineffectual literary protests of war. The “perfectly black rectangle of night” (59) taking men, the reduction of woman to child (62), the suggestion that “the Home Front is something of a fiction and a lie, designed, not too subtly, to draw them apart” (48). Unfortunate, though, that the wounded girls asking for gum and rockets screaming through this text are plot movers and therefore not terrifying but exciting for the reader. Well written voyeurism of people in war is Schadenfreude of the worst kind.
And speaking of deplorable literary styles (nice way out of the intense discomfort afforded readers of a surreal war novel, no?) is anyone shocked that it took a postmodern writer 31 pages before talking about a penis? One of the things I most loathe about the other Pynchon books I’ve read is the latent, creepy, old-man sex fetish in which a woman can’t just throw a dart without “breasts bobbing marvelously” (36). We have several cocks and hardons and a map of sexual conquests “Never to rank a single one—how can he?” For titillation’s sake, Pirate climbs a tall ladder to a hot house, “holding up the skirt of his robe to drop [bananas] in. Allowing himself only to count bananas, moving bare-legged among the pendulous bunches” (8) there hasn’t been a dystopic writer this obsessed with sex since Robert Heinlein. I counted at least one sexual innuendo or reference every 8 pages, and I’m usually pretty daft about such things.
Look, I get that the easiest way to counter the humanity effacing effects of war is writing long, intense sexual romp scenes. But bawdy jokes are different than constantly grabbing at it.
But I will hold off my frustration with the constant phallic status updates (noted in my paperback as I.P.R.s [infantile penis reference] for now. Because Variable Slothrop might be the best name in all literature *and* an essentialism for Gravity’s Rainbow itself. (Jeff and I have more in common than I thought, because I debated, before I read his post, whether Variable or Constant had the better name. Slothrops are no fun if they’re predictable, though, so I went with Variable.)
I absolutely will not discuss Mr. Pointsman now. I’m hoping he just goes away and is a character role of disgusting soulless pig placed carefully as juxtaposition to Jessica and Roger’s desperate clinging to humanity. If he turns out to best Randy Lenz as my least favorite character in a novel EVER, I will not be surprised. But for now, honor the spoiler line and let me pretend this rat scurries away before we find out what The Book is and who the other six owners are.
In the tradition I began for Infinite Jest and continued on for 2666, I will offer a quote of the week from Gravity’s Rainbow. Please, by all means, share your favorite (or least favorite or most iconic or least intelligible) below. We’ve read approximately 85 pages, I just adore this line:
“An elderly air-raid warden, starchy and frail as organdy, stands on tiptoe to relight the sensitive flame.” The pun of the sensitive flame, beaten to death on an earlier page actually pays handsomely in this line. I assumed in reading and typing that line that the warden was a woman. Rather daft of me, I thought, until I did some research and found that there were, in fact, women serving as air raid wardens. So now I love the line all the more*: as history lesson, as gender-bending prose, as ethereal image.
*I’m going to pretend to not have a preconceived prejudice about Pynchon specifically and postmodern writers generally as ragingly misogynistic, and will thereby allow that he might describe a man as frail as organdy. And on tiptoe. I’m guessing by Week 6 I will retract that generosity, but for now I’m feeling quite generous indeed. Probably from the equally magnanimous helping of bananas.