Friday, March 01, 2013
‘A screaming comes across the sky’.
Thomas Pynchon’s books aren’t exactly what you’d call easy reading. Even his most ardent fans will readily admit it. Its probably why his first novel ‘V’ sat on my bookcase for the best part of 15 years before I actually got through it all in one go. I used to pick up ‘V’ and say to myself ‘there must be something I’m missing here’ and dutifully read about a hundred pages before throwing it to the floor in a huff. Then I came across a copy of his third book Gravity’s Rainbow and thought to myself ‘this is it, this must be the one’. So I bought it, took it home, sat and read the first 100 pages and threw it down in a huff. I was becoming exasperated, frustrated and totally non-plussed as to why it was Thomas Pynchon was earning so much praise. What was all the fuss about? He’s damned near unreadable. Emperors New Clothes. Bah.
Then something strange happened. About five years ago I picked up ‘V’ again. Determined this time to make sense of it I slowly, very slowly read it all the way through. After I’d finished it I wasn’t exactly sure that I’d understood everything that had gone on in there but somehow, somewhere, during the course of that book I felt I’d passed some kind of unspoken test, broken through some unseen barrier and joined some unique club. The skin had somehow been peeled from my eyes. I’d read a Pynchon novel and I’d actually enjoyed it.
Feeling much happier with myself I thought that I’d have another crack at Gravity’s Rainbow. Armed with my ‘V’ knowledge I thought I’d got the map, thought I knew my way around, thought I knew how Pynchon’s mind worked. Gravity’s Rainbow was going to be a walk in the park. Of course I couldn’t have been more wrong. Gravity’s Rainbow makes ‘V’ look like the TV Times. ‘V’ is but a mere warm up, the amouse bouche, a stretch of the legs before getting out of bed. ‘V’ is GR for beginners. GR’s 750 pages took hold of my brain cells and bashed them around the inside of my skull until it got to the stage where I was nervous about picking the book up. Some of it was dazzling, some of it was baffling, some of it was prurient, disgusting, weird, shocking even. Whatever plot lay between its covers remained hidden to me. I looked Pynchon up on the internet and found some kind of sense. He’s a recluse, never gives interviews, doesn’t do publicity [not that he needs it]. Book signings? HA! GR opened up a little bit but with more information came more disorientation. Pynchon fans can’t even agree on who the central character in GR is, there could be up to three. The one character that most people agree on is last seen a hundred pages from the end sitting on a kerb. But I got through it and although I still wasn’t absolutely 100% certain that I’d understood even a tenth of it, it didn’t seem to matter. I’d read Gravity’s Rainbow and I was hooked. I was now a dead cert Pynchon fan.
And then a couple of years back I decided re-read Gravity’s Rainbow. In the meantime I’d read a few other Pynchon books [The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland] but GR sat there looking at me, it felt like it wanted me to read it again. I kept being reminded of a strap line that appears on one of the earlier editions ‘no other book haunts the waking mind like Gravity’s Rainbow’. Exactly right. So once again I dug in. With my first reading under my belt I knew what to expect. I could luxuriate in Pynchon’s writing, soak up the characters, become more familiar with Pynchon’s quirks [kazoo’s, bizarre acronyms, daft songs] dig myself deeper in.
Pynchon wrote GR longhand on graph paper during the American war in Vietnam. It was published in 1973. It begins at the fag end of the Second World War and winds up somewhere near the beginning of the Cold War. The plot involves the search by several characters for a prototype V2 rocket named the Schwarzgerät - you only get to discover this fact after 250 pages of scene setting but don’t let this put you off - I’m not going to even try and expand on this so I’m cheating here by letting Wikipedia explain:
‘The plot of the novel is complex, containing over 400 characters and involving many different threads of narrative which intersect and weave around one another. The recurring themes throughout the plot are the V-2 rocket, interplay between free will and Calvinistic predestination, breaking the cycle of nature, behavioral psychology, sexuality, paranoia and conspiracy theories such as the Phoebus cartel and the Illuminati. Gravity's Rainbow also draws heavily on themes that Pynchon had probably encountered at his work as a technical writer for Boeing, where he edited a support newsletter for the Bomarc Missile Program support unit. The Boeing archives are known to house a vast library of historical V-2 rocket documents, which were probably accessible to Pynchon. The novel is narrated by many distinct voices, a technique further developed in Pynchon's much later novel Against the Day. The style and tone of the voices vary widely: Some narrate the plot in a highly informal tone, some are more self-referential, and some at times may possibly even break the fourth wall. Some voices even narrate in drastically different formats, ranging from movie-script format to stream of consciousness prose.
The narrative contains numerous descriptions of illicit sexual encounters and drug use by the main characters and supporting cast, sandwiched between dense dialogues or reveries on historic, artistic, scientific, or philosophical subjects, interspersed with whimsical nonsense-poems and allusions to obscure facets of 1940s pop culture. Many of the recurring themes will be familiar to experienced Pynchon readers, including the singing of silly songs, recurring appearances of kazoos, and extensive discussion of paranoia. According to Richard Locke, megalomaniac paranoia is the "operative emotion" behind the novel, and an increasingly central motivator for the many main characters. In many cases, this paranoia proves to be vindicated, as the many plots of the novel become increasingly interconnected, revolving around the identity and purpose of the elusive 00000 Rocket and Schwarzgerät. The novel becomes increasingly preoccupied with themes of Tarot, Paranoia, and Sacrifice. All three themes culminate in the novel's ending, and the epilogue of the many characters.’
GR won a single award [a Sci-Fi one at that] that Pynchon didn’t even bother to accept, instead sending someone on his behalf who introduced himself as Richard Python. He retains his cult status by never posing for publicity photos of ever having been interviewed. He’s only written seven novels and one book of short stories in almost fifty years.
Now I’m reading ‘V’ for the second time. I think I have it: lots of people, at various times in history are in search of something beginning with ‘V’ be it a woman, a rat, or a city. I think thats it but as ever with Pynchon nothing is ever certain.
I’ve read all his books now but still feel that GR and V are his strongest works. I shall come back to them again and again feeling within myself an absolute certainty that I shall draw more and more inspiration, pleasure and benefit from them with each turn of the page.
[Gravitys Rainbow has just been republished by Vintage. Being a fan of their books and seeing as how I’ve given away all my previous copies of GR to friends, and how my American Penguin classic version is dropping to bits, I’m about to invest. I urge you to do the same].