Waxing Press

Book Review: Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

book reviews, tastemakingIan Wissman

When it comes to literature and the aesthetics of writing, I'm a Mooreman. I believe in art's power and need to present a real challenge to its viewer/reader/auditor with intellectual rigor and a fascinatingly unique perspective. That entertainment is a secondary or tertiary value of any piece of fiction (or art in general) comes as a shock to those who let me expound on why I like "difficult" fiction, but base entertainment seems often valueless with middling rewards. Sure, I indulge from time to time in pulp and rote genre fantasia, but those digressions tend to leave no lasting or inspiring impressions on me. And, in truth, real entertainment comes to me through that aforementioned intellectual rigor and struggle with a book. Dense prose and demanding concepts that require legwork on the reader give me intense pleasures, especially rewarding when my brain makes new connexions beyond the text, affecting the way I think and feel and express. To me, the true value of reading a book is the expansion of my capacity to communicate, to make myself clearer in a world of voices unable to articulate with precision. And this is why I love a book like Thomas Pynchon's National Book Award-winner, Gravity's Rainbow.

One problem with writing about Gravity's Rainbow is that a seminal book such as this has been written about endlessly for the past 44 years. I'm left only with my ability to articulate why challenging fiction is necessary and why it needs to be pursued if, as a civilization, we're to maintain our humanity. So, I'm going to write circuitously about my appreciation for challenging and demanding fiction to express my love of Gravity's Rainbow.

First, let's recognize that "entertainment," that ever-present-but-elusive thing, is highly subjective and often polarizing--it's what makes me cringe when colleagues talk about a show like The Big Bang Theory but fail to recognize the nuanced and shaggy beauty of the bizarre and discombobulating new season of Twin Peaks. But, it's not entertainment value that drives the cringe; it's level of intellectual accessibility, and the ability to forestall the concrete for ambiguousness. That is, where I'm sure I could find some chuckles in the aforementioned sit-com, the heartier pleasures come from the deep, complex interpretive work one must do to "get" and "enjoy" the latter. With Gravity's Rainbow, nothing is taken for granted: the reader is never condescended to, never abused. In fact, the book teaches you in its early chapters how to read it, setting up the chess pieces of its literary game early on. Each character intro is suffused with the necessary info to track their narrative arcs. No more succinctly is this done with Katje's introduction, which opens with her being filmed and ends with Grigori, the octopus, being conditioned with the very film.

One sees Grigori 100 pages later, but in a new, unexpected context. However, astute reading will recognize him and the connexions to Pavlovian conditioning and feel that hearty pleasure of connexion-making, and re-contextualized story-telling. Other character details, such as Tyrone Slothrop's harmonica playing, becomes key clues and indicators that signify more complexity to readers as they build motifs throughout the book. As Tyrone basically dissolves into nature, glimpses of his dissolute self appear to other characters through these clues--the harmonica heard in the distance, the Hawaiian shirt passing in the periphery of a crowd. Meaning-making is done on the part of the reader in these moments, rewarding the reader's acuity and recall.

Think about a key trope in a really great stand-up set: The callback. While it can sometimes feel forced, it's often appreciated when a comic strives for it, because it rewards the audience's keen attention to the details of the comic's "narrative" of jokes, fostering a kind of "in-ness" between artist and audience. The same is done in literature's greatest feats, like Gravity's Rainbow, where the nudge-nudge-wink-wink of consistent callbacks doesn't wear on you, but rather makes the text bloom and blossom in your mind. It reminds me of the comment complaint about films based on books: "The book was better," the expected and cliched refrain (there's always truth to cliches, otherwise they wouldn't be cliches). What's at the root of this universal feeling is that the film missed some essence of the book that you perceived--typically from the intellectual rigor you put into reading the book over the film. I feel similarly about "difficult" or "challenging" literature in comparison to lighter, less demanding novels. Because of the work needed to "understand" the book's plots, characters, ideas, meanings, et. al., the deep, deep satisfaction of these fictions outshines those pulpy pleasures.

Is reading Gravity's Rainbow a must for everyone? No. Surely not. It's messy and complicated, fraught with really problematic stuff that won't tickle the fancies of many readers. But those who look to books to challenge their perceptions, don't be daunted by difficulty. Trust in yourself. Trust in the author. And enjoy the hell out of the ride.