Hi everyone, I’m Paul Debraski. You may know me from previous blogging exploits like Infinite Summer, Moby Dick, Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow. I used to read big books like this back in college but I had kind of gotten away from them post college. But I’m back and happily in the midst of big, complicated books. I’m unofficially posting here (Daryl says it’s okay). I was really hoping to have more time to write my own posts and maybe even contribute here. But man, time is fleeting.
So, here’s a few thoughts that I’ve been pondering while reading the book.
When you first start to read this book, you slowly get used to the idea that there is a ton of noise and you have to pick out the important parts. Of course, how are you supposed to know what is important? I mean, I knew (from reading this before) that the book was about money and stocks, so I focused on the details of that. And yet, as I get twenty page after a conversation I realize that some little blow off detail was actually really important too.
Surely not everything is important here. (Can we assume that the porn jokes are just jokes and aren’t going to “mean” something in 100 pages?) But what about that water leak? Is that going to be significant, or was it just a way to get the kids out of the board room. (Of course, something bad is bound to happen with Monty’s speech, right? And yet, as far as chronological time, the section ends with the night ending, so did Monty even give the speech?
It would all be so frustrating if it weren’t so enjoyable to read.
So, if you like, I’m posting along at my blog. Although as I found out, I got a pretty big detail wrong last week (which I have since corrected). http://ijustreadaboutthat.wordpress.com/category/occupygaddis/
I asked this question in my last post, and figured it might be more fun for it to have its own thread.
Obviously “hard” is subjective. And things are hard for lots of different reasons. (Sometimes things are just BAD, not hard!) But I suppose there must be general consensus about at least the top ten or so.
I can’t say as I have an exact list of Really Hard Novels because I haven’t read all of the ones on my list. So I can’t really rank them. But in general.
- Finnegans Wake (So hard I won’t even bother)
- Gravity’s Rainbow (I wouldn’t have thought so until the last section)
- The Recognitions (by virtue of it being so frikkin big). I read this decades ago and I don’t remember much about it sadly, so I’ll have to try again
- The Sound and The Fury (which I tried once and may have finished but if I did it was just seeing words, not really reading them)
- Tristram Shandy, (I’ve read this twice. Once in college when I loved it and a second in the last few years when I found it really confusing–I think you need serious unimpeded time for it)
- Infinite Jest
- The Tunnel (man I had a hard time with this beast)
- Underworld (I loved the opening section but found the middle really difficult)
- Moby Dick (it’s not a hard book, but i can see why it’s hard to finish).
- Naked Lunch (if that’s even a novel)
- Foucault’s Pendulum (I read this ages ago (my first big book). I wonder if I would understand more about now).
- The Satanic Verses (I was dying to read this and I had NO IDEA what was going on)
- Pale Fire (which I loved and cant wait to read again)
- The big Dostoevsky/Tolstoy books. I haven’t read enough Russians, and I’m intimidated by both of them.
- Trainspotting (only for the accents)
- Ada (I’ve heard this is hard, although i haven’t tried yet. I’m working my way through Nabokov
- All of the Epics in Middle English (although that doesn’t really count, right?)
- Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (I remember being really confused by this, although it can’t have been that hard as I’m looking forward to reading it again someday.)
I know there’s a few other books that I should add. This is based on my remembrances and some online searches. It may not be fair to include translations (Don Quixote would be on there, although I understand the most recent translation is supposed to be wonderful).
I’m inclined to throw Tolkien’s The Simarillion on there, but I can’t say for sure as I haven’t looked at it since high school. And my Faulkner knowledge is really limited so there could be more from him. A number of online lists cite Gulag Archipelago, but I read that recently and didn’t find it hard at all. Even if it is considered hard for the brutality, Elie Wiesel’s Night is much more brutal.
Anyone else have some good additions?
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.
The final word belongs to Slothrop (and others): oboy.
We’ve already had a discussion of Pynchon’s use of “sez” in this book. There’s another slangy thing in here that I like quite a lot and which appeared a few times in this week’s reading.
It’s the above mentioned “oboy oboy.”
There is something so endearingly childish in this phrase, that I think it really conveys the glee which Slothrop (as I believe it is always him who thinks it) exhibits. I’ve never seen it written that way anywhere else and I find it very effective.
Now I had assumed that this device was littered throughout the book. But a Google Book search turns up only 8 instances of it in total (and two of those come after the spoiler line). So, perhaps it has just stuck with me.
I sort of wish I had more to say about this, but it struck me as a fun narrative device–and Pynchon certainly has a lot of them in this book.
I’ve been kind of quiet here. It’s not because I’m behind or because I’m not enjoying myself. Indeed, I’m really caught up in the book, but with the focus lately on the wild life of Slothrop there wasn’t a lot that I was thinking about aside from reckless speculation about plot.
But this week’s section about parabolas got me thinking outside the plot.
It’s obvious that Pynchon has done his homework for this book. I mean, his knowledge of WWII, Germany and Africa are more than impressive.
I’ve already mentioned a vague parallelism to Ulysses (which I think has fallen by the wayside at this point). So let me posit a new structural question/theory.
Is Gravity’s Rainbow structured in a parabolic arc in any way? (Obviously this cannot be answered and remain within spoiler limits, so tread lightly). I initially thought about this because I found the sections about Enzian and Tchitcherine kind of slow and difficult, especially compared to the fast paced earlier scenes. (A second read made that less so). But it seemed as if the book was moving along pretty briskly and then, just as it reached the center (or thereabouts) of the book, these two sections were heavy and laden with history and back story and complex stuff–very much unlike the Slothrop romp and fun sections. True, there is a Slothrop section in between these dense sections, so that kind of blows the (poor) theory away.
Nevertheless, I wonder if anyone else has noticed any kind of structure to the book as a whole (in the way that Infinite Jest was superficially a Sierpinski Triangle) parabolic or otherwise.
I didn’t really feel like this was a WTF question, so I wanted to raise a discussion about this, without providing much in the way of analysis.
In this week’s reading there’s a twice mentioned and once explicated sequence in which Basher St. Blaise and his wingman see an Angel. Basher doesn’t ever say anything about it, but Cherrycoke learns details by examining artifacts that were on basher’s person at the time.
I’m not going to focus on the Cherrycoke part (which is cool in and of itself) but on the Angel part. There are several other mentions of the word Angel in this week’s reading alone. They cover a wide range of ideas as well, and I’m curious if there is any connection, implied or direct between what Basher saw and any of the other uses of the word angel.
Here’s Basher’s scene (a big block quote for context):
Basher St. Blaise’s angel, miles beyond designating, rising over
Lübeck that Palm Sunday with the poison-green domes underneath its feet, an obsessive crossflow of red tiles rushing up and down a thousand peaked roofs as the bombers banked and dived, the Baltic already lost in a pall of incendiary smoke behind, here was the Angel: ice crystals swept hissing away from the back edges of wings perilously deep, opening as they were moved into new white
abyss. . . . For half a minute radio silence broke apart. The traffic being:
St. Blaise: Freakshow Two, did you see that, over.
Wingman: This is Freakshow Two—affirmative.
St. Blaise: Good.
No one else on the mission seemed to’ve had radio communication. After the raid, St. Blaise checked over the equipment of those who got back to base and found nothing wrong: all the crystals on frequency, the power supplies rippleless as could be expected—but others remembered how, for the few
moments the visitation lasted, even static vanished from the earphones. Some may have heard a high singing, like wind among masts, shrouds, bedspring or dish antennas of winter fleets down in the dockyards . . . but only Basher and his wingman saw it, droning across in front of the fiery leagues of face, the eyes, which went towering for miles, shifting to follow their flight, the irises red as embers fairing through yellow to white, as they jettisoned all their bombs in no particular pattern, the fussy Norden device, sweat drops in the air all around its rolling eyepiece, bewildered at their unannounced need to climb, to give up a strike at earth for a strike at heaven… (151).
So the key here is that St. Blaise saw an angel. Here are the other instances of the word Angel (just in this week’s reading). Most of them come before the above quote and I can’t help but wonder if they are meant to make us question what Basher saw.
The first comes with Osbie Feel and his mushroom (and while I don’t make any connection on this one, it is interesting that he chose this particular species, which is really called Destroying Angel):
Now and then the geometry of her restlessness brings her to glance in a doorway at his boyish fussing with the Amanita muscaria (for it is this peculiar relative of the poisonous Destroying Angel that claims Osbie’s attention, or what passes with him for attention) (93).
The second, and more prominent one is with Pirate and Katje. It would be crazy of Basher was talking about a windmill instead of a real Angel, but again, it’s an interesting name choice (and also makes me think of Don Quixote):
an enormous sky all sea-clouds in full march, all and plum, behind her, detects danger in her loneliness, realizes he’s never heard her name, not till the meeting by the windmill known as ‘The Angel'” (106).
The third is about starlings (I think). It starts bout birds, at any rate. And I couldn’t help wondering if there is meant to be some kind of connection between the birds and what Basher saw. But this novel is so much about the “Psi” that perhaps these birds are a red herring to the skeptical.
the more distant shapes among the threads or sheets of smoke now perfect ash ruins of themselves, nearer windows, struck a moment by the sun, not reflecting at all but containing the same destroying light, this intense fading in which there is no promise of return, light that rusts the government cars at the curbsides, varnishes the last faces hurrying past the shops in the cold as if a vast siren had finally sounded, light that makes chilled untraveled canals of many streets, and that fills with the starlings of London, converging by millions to hazy stone pedestals, to emptying squares and a great collective sleep. They flow in rings, concentric rings on the radar screens. The operators call them ‘angels” (112).
The fourth also references birds, but then it switches to a more Spiritual sense of angels:
Up across the downs, past the spotlights where the migrant birds in autumn choked the beams night after night, fatally held till they dropped exhausted out of the sky, a shower of dead birds, the compline worshipers sit in the un-heated church, shivering, voiceless as the choir asks: where are the joys? Where else but there where the Angels sing new songs and the bells ring out in the court of the King.(134)
The fifth references bombs, but I think is about much more than that:
Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen (135).
And the sixth and final is from Pointsman’s point of view about Slothrop
But now with Slothrop in it—sudden angel, thermodynamic surprise, whatever he is … will it change now? (143).
So there you have it seven different uses of the word angel, creating several different possibilities of what Basher saw. Or, perhaps Basher’s vision just adds to the whole picture of a book about death, ghosts, angels and the afterlife.
Paul here. Daryl gave me the go-ahead to throw a post of my own here (and since no one else was writing about it…here goes).
I’m going to start this post with this admission: Not only have I not read Gravity’s Rainbow before, I don’t even know what it’s about (aside from what I have read for this week). I haven’t read any commentary or criticism, I didn’t even read the back cover. So I’m flying blind.
I mention that because I’m going to talk about Ulysses; however, I have literally no idea how this plays out in the rest of the story, or if it plays out at all. I’m also going to refrain from looking up secondary sources for this post because I don’t want to create be an academic treatise, it’s more of a reader’s casual observations.
Ulysses is probably the most influential 20th century novel (and you can read plenty about Ulysses on this site too). This is especially true for “modern” writers looking to push the envelope–of which it seems clear Pynchon is one. Stylistically, I don’t think Gravity’s Rainbow could have existed if Ulysses hadn’t been published. But at the same time, it’s not like Pynchon is mapping Gravity’s Rainbow to Ulysses (right? I didn’t actually count chapters or anything.)
Ulysses opens with the famous words, “Stately plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
Gravity’s Rainbow opens with an equally impressive (although admittedly unrelated to Ulysses) opening salvo: “A screaming comes across the sky.” The very beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow has nothing to do with Ulysses. Ulysses, a book about one day in the life of two men pales in scope when compared to Gravity’s Rainbow, a book (so far) about German bombs falling on England in World War II and the members of the possibly secret organizations that are tracking the bombs (or something–bear with me if it eventually becomes about fairies and rainbows).
So, the opening of the books are quite different. The first three pages of GR are about an evacuation (I’m not going to go in that direction about evacuation, even if Joyce did) from the screaming across the sky. But then Pynchon introduces us to the first two men in the story: Captain Geoffrey “Pirate’ Prentice and Teddy Bloat.
As Ulysses opens Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus wake up after a night of drinking. And so do Pirate and Teddy. Indeed, Teddy falls off of a balcony in a drunken sleep; Pirate gets a cot under him to break his fall just in time. Then Pirate proceeds up to the roof and we get a little Ulysses-lite.
We have established Buck Mulligan on the roof. His appearance: “A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained behind him on the mild morning air” and his action: “he peered down the dark winding stairs.”
Pynchon is more verbose than Joyce (at least this chapter of Joyce) but we can see that Pirate is in a similar structure with similar dress:
Then he threads himself into a wool robe he wears inside out so as to keep his cigarette pocket hidden, not that this works too well, and circling the warm bodies of friends makes his way to French windows, slides outside into the cold, groans as it hits the fillings in his teeth, climbs a spiral ladder ringing to the roof garden and stands for a bit, watching the river.
Of course, instead of the open razor that Mulligan carries, Pirate is carrying bananas (I won’t speculate about the meaning of potential violence inherent in the razor vs the utterly non violent nature of the banana or how it compares to a novel that is ultimately about war and death).
Obviously very different things are happening in the two books: Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus discuss death on the tower, while Pirate is by himself watching as death streams across the sky. But when both parties return down the spiral staircase it is time for breakfast. Mulligan and Dedalus eat sugared toast while Pirate and his crew eat what sounds like a rather delicious broiled banana sandwich. And from there things diverge quite drastically.
I don’t want to belabor the point or look for similarities that aren’t there, I was simply struck by these coincidences in the opening of these two apparently unrelated books. However, just to prove to myself I was on to something, I checked online to see if anyone had made anything of this. Evidently there are ample connections between the two books, but there’s one article in particular that I like to think confirms my suspicions: McCarron, William. “The Openings of Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow.” Conference of College Teachers of English of Texas 53 (1988): 34-41. Sadly it is not online anywhere that I can find.
What’s the point of this? Well, none really, but it might be fun to keep an eye out for more allusions to Joyce while enjoying the book.
Oh and that picture above, it’s from a T-shirt that you can buy here.