Winner of the 1973 National Book Award, Gravity's Rainbow is a postmodern epic, a work as exhaustively significant to the second half of the 20th century as Joyce's Ulysses was to the first. Its sprawling, encyclopedic narrative and penetrating analysis of the impact of technology on society make it an intellectual tour de force.
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Don't expect Thomas Pynchon's picaresque, burlesque WWII epic Gravity's Rainbow (1973) to tie up all loose plot strands and resolve the fates of all loose characters. Expect an experience that comically and disturbingly involves you in the intertwined urges of Eros and Thanatos and the creative and destructive missions of civilization. The book is an encyclopedic riff on paranoia, sex, death, rockets, history, politics, religion, racism, war, cartels, chemistry, plastics, science, probability, drugs, music, movies, zoot suits, the dodo, American culture (and Western civilization in general), and much more, and the connections between everything.
The novel is divided into four parts. The first part centers on London in the later stages of WWII and introduces Pynchon's point of view characters working for or around PISCES (Psychological Intelligence Schemes for Expediting Surrender), a cryptic British organization operating out of an insane asylum called the White Visitation. The protagonist is the happy-go-lucky US Army Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, whom the Brits are observing because his sexual assignations with women seem to predict the landing sites of the German V-2 rockets that land and explode before you can hear them approach. (Or are his one-night stands only sexual fantasies!?) Part Two moves things to France, as Slothrop becomes aware of the ways in which They have been manipulating him since infancy and starts trying to get out of Their clutches. Part Three enters the Zone, comprised of the minor zones into which America, the UK, and Russia have carved up the freshly capitulated Germany. Here Slothrop is on a quest for the Unholy Grail, a mysterious uber-rocket with a "black device" payload and the serial number 00000, as the allies are racing around snapping up German rockets and scientists. Part Four introduces a valiantly ineffectual Counterforce, comprised of Their rejects and runaways who are trying irrationally to muck up Their rational plans.
Those bare bones ignore Pynchon's extravagant character creation, plotting, and digressing, not to mention his brazen vamping, culture vulturing, grossing out, and turning on. This is a dense, outrageous, imaginative novel. In addition to some healthy sex scenes, like between Slothrop and the German witch Geli Tripping, and some comical scatological ones, like one involving an outraged Roger Mexico and a cabal of oil executives, there are plenty of cringe-inducing sequences not for the squeamish. There is, for instance, a surreal sequence of Slothrop traveling down a toilet (ala Alice down the rabbit hole) and sex scenes involving bestiality, incest, pedophilia, coprophilia, necrophilia, polymerphilia (?), and more. All part of Pynchon's program to explore to the depths and heights the interface between life and death.
Slothrop is a fun, fluid, frustrating everyman hero, descendent of Puritans, victim of Pavlovian conditioning, prey to paranoia, a man whose identity becomes increasingly fragmented and dispersed the longer They experiment and spy on him and the longer he wanders the Zone posing as a British war correspondent, Errol Flynn, Rocketman, a Russian officer, a local German pig hero, a-a-and even (jeepers!) Fay Wray. While pursuing the 00000, Slothrop gets side-tracked by an aging German drug dealer giving jobs to Rocketman, a Russian officer bent on killing his half-brother South African Schwarzkommando leader, an aging German soft-porn star wanting to be whipped, a cell of Argentinean anarchist gaucho wannabes wanting to be free, a ship of fools orgying down the river, and a fat eight-year-old German boy looking for his lost lemming Ursula, to name just a few of the many colorful eccentrics. The characters are caught up in the struggle between the Elect chosen few and the Preterite passed-over masses, with moments of humor or doomed love providing respite. Although Pynchon understands the winners, his heart is with the losers.
There is much wonderful writing in the novel. Many great set pieces, like some conscripted "piss-swollen men" singing a sublime evensong, Katje recalling playing Hansel and Gretel, Death paying Roger Mexico and Jessica a little call at their romantic hideaway, Tchitcherine witnessing a Kirghiz male-female insult singing contest, Slothrop escaping from some limerick-singing, blood-thirsty American soldiers in a hot air balloon laden with custard pies, or loathsome Major Duane Marvy getting his just deserts. And many vivid and apt descriptions:
--"roadsides of poor rotting horses just before apricot sunrise." --"big globular raindrops, thick as honey, begin to splat into giant asterisks on the pavement, inviting him to look down at the bottom of the text of the day, where footnotes will explain all." --"Forget-me-nots boil everywhere underfoot, and ants crowd, bustling with a sense of kingdom." --"The water is clear, running lively, cold. Round rocks knock together under the stream. A resonant sound, a music."
If you lose focus for a moment and fall briefly out of Pynchon's spell, you might get lost for paragraphs at a time. Most of his digressions are funny and relevant (like a community of Dobermans and German Shepherds trained to kill strangers on sight), but a few seem excrescent (like Byron the Bulb). And, to confide, when I finished the novel I did feel more relief than regret.
George Guidall superbly reads the audiobook with a wry and moist enthusiasm, without contorting his voice for different characters. Sometimes, as with Basil Rathbone in a doper western movie, I wish he would do British accents. But he voices a great sneeze, American chuckle, perky band of Mickey Mouse fat cells, and every other outre job with aplomb.
At one point the audiobook repeats from the last 35 minutes of the audio download part three until the first 47 minutes of the audio download part four (82 minutes). It makes what is a long audiobook even longer and should've been cleaned up.
If you are interested in the great American novel, the matter of circa WWII, the rise of the rocket, the history of Them, surreal madcap scenes of a scatological and or sexual nature, and comically devastating satires of western civilization, you should like Gravity's Rainbow. But be prepared to feel like Dorothy out of Kansas or King Kong out of his jungle.
At last George Guidall has re-recorded Gravity’s Rainbow, and the result is magnificent. The tempo is a little slower, which is altogether to the good, but he recites instead of singing the songs, a loss (though thankfully he does vocalize the melody to Cielito Lindo recognizably (Ja, ja, ja ja! In Prussia they never eat p?ssy…)). Please, audiobook producers, have him record V., Pynchon’s first novel. And don’t skimp on Pynchon’s hilarious take on the Colonel Bogie March, let ‘er rip.
Concerning the novel itself, I’ve known intelligent people of good taste who simply couldn’t get through it. It’s very challenging, and not for everyone. I suggest trying Inherent Vice, or even The Crying of Lot 49 (which was my first), to test the waters. Just as one should read Portrait of the Artist before trying Ulysses. Then, prepare to be absorbed: study of this book will surely knock out a couple months of your life. In a good way.