What you felt stirring across the land… it was the equinox… green spring equal nights… canyons are opening up, at the bottoms are steaming fumaroles, steaming the tropical life there like greens in a pot, rank, dope-perfume, a hood of smell… human consciousness, that poor cripple, that deformed and doomed thing, is about to be born. This is the World just before men. Too violently pitched alive in constant flow ever to be seen by men directly. They are meant only to look at it dead, in still strata, transputrefied to oil or coal. Alive, it was a threat: it was Titans, was an overpeaking of life so clangorous and mad, such a green corona about Earth’s body that some spoiler had to be brought in before it blew the Creation apart. So we, the crippled keepers, were sent out to multiply, to have dominion. God’s spoilers. Us. Counterrevolutionaries. It is our mission to promote death. The way we kill, the way we die, being unique among the Creatures. It was something we had to work on, historically and personally. To build from scratch up to its present status as reaction, nearly as strong as life, holding down the green uprising. But only nearly as strong.
Only nearly, because of the defection rate. A few keep going over to the Titans every day, in their striving subcreation (how can flesh tumble and flow so, and never be any less beautiful?), into the rests of the folksong Death (empty stone rooms), out, and through, and down under the net, down down to the uprising.
In harsh-edged echo, Titans stir far below. They are all the presences we are not supposed to be seeing—wind gods, hilltop gods, sunset gods—that we train ourselves away from to keep from looking further even though enough of us do, leave Their electric voices behind in the twilight at the edge of the town and move into the constantly parted cloak of our nightwalk till
Suddenly, Pan—leaping—its face too beautiful to bear, beautiful Serpent, its coils in rainbow lashings in the sky—into the sure bones of fright—
Don’t walk home at night through the empty country. Don’t go into the forest when the light is too low, even too late. Don’t go into the forest when the light is too low, even too late in the afternoon—it will get you. Don’t sit by the tree like this, with your cheek against the bark.
From Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, pages 720-21.
“I think that there is a terrible possibility now, in the World. We may not brush it away, we must look at it. It is possible that They will not die. That it is now within the state of Their art to go on forever—though we, of course, will keep dying as we always have. Death has been the source of Their power. It was easy enough for us to see that. If we are here once, only once, then clearly we are here to take what we can while we may. If They have taken much more, and taken not only from Earth but also from us—well, why begrudge Them, when they’re just as doomed to die as we are? All in the same boat, all under the same shadow… yes… yes. But is that really true? Or is it the best, and the most carefully propagated, of all Their lies, known and unknown?
“We have to carry on under the possibility that we die only because They want us to: because They need our terror for Their survival. We are their harvests… .
“It must change radically the nature of our faith. To ask that we keep faith in Their mortality, faith that They also cry, and have fear, and feel pain, faith They are only pretending Death is Their servant—faith in Death as the master of us all—is to ask for an order of courage that I know is beyond my own humanity, though I cannot speak for others… . But rather than make that leap of faith, perhaps we will choose instead to turn, to fight: to demand, from those for whom we die, our own immortality. They may not be dying in bed any more, but maybe They can still die from violence. If not, at least we can learn to withhold from Them our fear of Death. For every kind of vampire, there is a kind of cross. And at least the physical things They have taken, from”“Earth and from us, can be dismantled, demolished—returned to where it all came from.
“To believe that each of Them will personally die is also to believe that Their system will die—that some chance of renewal, some dialectic, is still operating in History. To affirm Their mortality is to affirm Return. I have been pointing out certain obstacles in the way of affirming Return…”
From pages 539-40 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
The sermon is from a Jesuit, one Father Rapier, and takes place in one of GR’s stranger episodes (which is really saying something, that adjective there). Before the sermon—a “Critical Mass,” our narrator takes unusual pains to make sure that we get it, that we understand that the Jesuit is here to preach “against return. Here to say that critical mass cannot be ignored. Once the technical means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good.”
Compare the Jesuit’s notation of “once, only once” to the passage on pages 412-13 on Kekulé, the snake that eats its own tale: “…a quote from Rilke: ‘Once, only once…’ One of Their favorite slogans. No return, no salvation, no Cycle—”. The sermon also echoes the They/We riff on page 521.
Otto is earnestly explaining his views on the Mother Conspiracy. It’s not often a sympathetic girl will listen. The Mothers get together once a year, in secret, at these giant conventions, and exchange information. Recipes, games, key phrases to use on their children. “What did yours use to say when she wanted to make you feel guilty?”
“‘I’ve worked my fingers to the bone!’” sez the girl.
“Right! And she used to cook those horrible casseroles, w-with the potatoes, and onions—”
“And ham! Little pieces of ham—”
“You see, you see? That can’t be accidental! They have a contest, for Mother of the Year, breast-feeding, diaper-changing, they time them, casserole competitions, ja—then, toward the end, they actually begin to use the children. The State Prosecutor comes out on stage. ‘In a moment, Albrecht, we are going to bring your mother on. Here is a Luger, fully loaded. The State will guarantee you absolute immunity from prosecution. Do whatever you wish to do—anything at all. Good luck, my boy.’ The pistols are loaded with blanks, natürlich, but the unfortunate child does not know this. Only the mothers who get shot at qualify for the finals.
Here they bring in psychiatrists, and judges sit with stopwatches to see how quickly the children will crack. ‘Now then, Olga, wasn’t it nice of Mutti to break up your affair with that long-haired poet?’ ‘We understand your mother and you are, ah, quite close, Hermann. Remember the time she caught you masturbating into her glove? Eh?’ Hospital attendants stand by to drag the children off, drooling, screaming, having clonic convulsions. Finally there is only one Mother left on stage. They put the traditional flowered hat on her head, and hand her the orb and scepter, which in this case are a gilded pot roast and a whip, and the orchestra plays Tristan und Isolde.
This 2002 documentary by Donatello Dubini and Fosco Dubini is kind of a mess, but it’s a fun mess. Interviews with old friends, like Jules Siegel, superfans and webdudes, and critics (George Plimpton shows up a few times), are interspliced with a lot of stock footage. The Residents’ fantastic pop appropriations from The Third Reich Rock n’ Roll help to stitch the movie together. The film occasionally indulges in a kind of obvious paranoid rambling, and the last section, detailing an attempt to photograph Thomas Pynchon (you remember that silly CNN report?) is not nearly as interesting as Allen Rush or other Pynchonians riff. Sort of a for completists only deal.
For the past couple of years, I’ve seen the phrase Pynchon in Public pop up in my Twitter timeline, often as a hashtag. I had a (willfully) vague idea about what Pynchon in Public was all about–like, reading Pynchon publicly, posting the W.A.S.T.E. horn in public places, leaving books about. Making the secret sign. Etc.
But so and anyway: I’ve been reading or re-reading Pynchon more or less non-stop for the past two years, after diving for reasons I can’t recall into Against the Day, following that up with Mason & Dixon, and then going through The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice again. (In the deepest and most sincere spirit of my Pynchon-reading-experience, I abandoned Bleeding Edge twice during this time). I’m rereading Gravity’s Rainbow now after just having finished it (after years of false starts). Reading it again is like reading it for the first time, and as I progress (and sometimes retreat) through the Zone, I experience a sympathetic fragmentation, a scattering, a sense that the novel is consuming me. Another way of saying this is that Gravity’s Rainbow is a scary book, and all of Pynchon is scary in the sense that it’s all just one big book. It kinda sorta worms its way into the ear of one’s consciousness, wriggles (Ruggles?) behind the old brainpan, performs a paranoid song and dance routine. Other fun and games too.
It means this War was never political at all, the politics was all theatre, all just to keep the people distracted… secretly, it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology… by a conspiracy between human beings and techniques, by something that needed the energy-burst of war, crying, “Money be damned, the very life of [insert name of Nation] is at stake,” but meaning, most likely, dawn is nearly here, I need my night’s blood, my funding, funding, ahh more, more… . The real crises were crises of allocation and priority, not among firms—it was only staged to look that way—but among the different Technologies, Plastics, Electronics, Aircraft, and their needs which are understood only by the ruling elite…
Yes but Technology only responds (how often this argument has been iterated, dogged and humorless as a Gaussian reduction, among the younger Schwarzkommando especially), “All very well to talk about having a monster by the tail, but do you think we’d’ve had the Rocket if someone, some specific somebody with a name and a penis hadn’t wanted to chuck a ton of Amatol 300 miles and blow up a block full of civilians? Go ahead, capitalize the T on technology, deify it if it’ll make you feel less responsible—but it puts you in with the neutered, brother, in with the eunuchs keeping the harem of our stolen Earth for the numb and joyless hardons of human sultans, human elite with no right at all to be where they are—”
We have to look for power sources here, and distribution networks we were never taught, routes of power our teachers never imagined, or were encouraged to avoid… we have to find meters whose scales are unknown in the world, draw our own schematics, getting feedback, making connections, reducing the error, trying to learn the real function… zeroing in on what incalculable plot? Up here, on the surface, coaltars, hydrogenation, synthesis were always phony, dummy functions to hide the real, the planetary mission yes perhaps centuries in the unrolling… this ruinous plant, waiting for its Kabbalists and new alchemists to discover the Key, teach the mysteries to others…
From page 521 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow
Kekulé dreams the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used. The Serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” is to be delivered into a system whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity—most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide… though he’s amiable enough, keeps cracking jokes back through the loudspeaker, “Good morning folks, this is Heidelberg here we’re coming into now, you know the old refrain, ‘I lost my heart in Heidelberg,’ well I have a friend who lost both his ears here! Don’t get me wrong, it’s really a nice town, the people are warm and wonderful—when they’re not dueling. Seriously though, they treat you just fine, they don’t just give you the key to the city, they give you the bung-starter!” u.s.w. On you roll, across a countryside whose light is forever changing—castles, heaps of rock, moons of different shapes and colors come and go. There are stops at odd hours of the mornings, for reasons that are not announced: you get out to stretch in lime-lit courtyards where the old men sit around the table under enormous eucalyptus trees you can smell in the night, shuffling the ancient decks oily and worn, throwing down swords and cups and trumps major in the tremor of light while behind them the bus is idling, waiting—passengers will now reclaim their seats and much as you’d like to stay, right here, learn the game, find your old age around this quiet table, it’s no use: he is waiting beside the door of the bus in his pressed uniform, Lord of the Night he is checking your tickets, your ID and travel papers, and it’s the wands of enterprise that dominate tonight… as he nods you by, you catch a glimpse of his face, his insane, committed eyes, and you remember then, for a terrible few heartbeats, that of course it will end for you all in blood, in shock, without dignity—but there is meanwhile this trip to be on… over your own seat, where there ought to be an advertising plaque, is instead a quote from Rilke: “Once, only once…” One of Their favorite slogans. No return, no salvation, no Cycle—that’s not what They, nor Their brilliant employee Kekulé, have taken the Serpent to mean. No: what the Serpent means is—how’s this—that the six carbon atoms of benzene are in fact curled around into a closed ring, just like that snake with its tail in its mouth, GET IT?
From pages 412-13 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
A couple of days ago I posted a brief excerpt from Jules Siegel’s March 1977 Playboy profile “Who is Thomas Pynchon… And Why Did He Take Off With My Wife?” The excerpt came from an excerpt posted on the Pynchon-L forum, but most of the article had been removed at the (apparent) request by Siegel. Several folks sent me the whole article though (thanks!) and I read it.
Siegel was briefly a Cornell classmate of Pynchon’s in 1954, and they remained friends (in Siegel’s recollection) for at least two decades after. During this time, Siegel claims that Pynchon wrote him dozens of letters, which were ultimately sold at auction (along with much of Siegel’s property) to help pay for a hip replacement. Material from the letters soak into Siegel’s sketch of Pynchon’s progress, along with several stoned/drunken adventures that would not be out of place in V. or Mason & Dixon or Gravity’s Rainbow, or really, any person’s young life.
A competitive anxiety reverberates under the piece. “We were friends, maybe at some points best friends, very much alike in some important ways,” Siegel writes. “We were both writers,” he boldly writes. Siegel reminds us that “In Mortality and Mercy in Vienna, Pynchon’s first published short story, the protagonist is one Cleanth Siegel,” but protests he doesn’t see himself in that hero.
The competitive anxieties culminate in the big reveal that (spoiler!) Thomas Pynchon had an affair with Siegel’s second wife Chrissie. There’s probably a Freudian reading we can append to the details that Siegel offers about Pynchon’s sexual prowess: “He was a wonderful lover, sensitive and quick, with the ability to project a mood that turned the most ordinary surroundings into a scene out of a masterful film—the reeking industrial slum of Manhattan Beach would become as seen through the eye of Antonioni, for example.”
Or maybe these unsexy details are just a sign of Playboy’s editorial hand. Wedged gracelessly between ads for vibrators and nude greeting cards, Siegel’s lines often reek of 1970’s Playboy’s rhetorical house style, a kind of frank-but-(attempted)-sensual glossiness that contrasts heavily with Pynchon’s own sex writing. At times I found myself reading Siegel’s prose in one of Will Ferrell’s more pompous accents.
Even worse is the casual sexism of the piece—which again, may be attributable to Playboy’s editors. Siegel, on his first wife (sixteen when he married her): “She was so wonderful a lover, generous and easily aroused, but I was too callow then to appreciate her.” Of his second wife: “It is easy to underestimate her intelligence, but it is a mistake. She is obviously too pretty to be serious, conventional wisdom would have you believe.” Of one of Pynchon’s girlfriends: “Susan has red hair and is breathtakingly beautiful, with the voluptuous body of a showgirl. Like Chrissie, she is much brighter than she looks.”
More interesting, obviously, are the (supposedly) real-life details that inform Pynchon’s fiction. Siegel notes some of the contents of Pynchon’s Manhattan Beach apartment: “A built-in bookcase had rows of piggy banks on each shelf and there was a collection of books and magazines about pigs.” Pigs, of course, are a major motif of Gravity’s Rainbow. Another detail that seems to connect to GR: “On the desk, there was a rudimentary rocket made from one of those pencil-like erasers with coiled paper wrappers that you unzip to expose the rubber. It stood on a base twisted out of a paper clip.” Siegel lets us know that he knocked the rocket down. Pynchon puts it back together; Siegel knocks it down again.
(Parenthetically: Siegel’s evocation of Pynchon’s Manhattan Beach days fits neatly into my picture of Inherent Vice).
In accounting details of Pynchon’s alleged affair with his wife, Chrissie, Siegel shares the following:
Once, out on the freeway, she told him that we had all gone naked at the commune, he professed to find that incredible and dared her to take off her blouse right there. She did. A passing truck hooted its horn in lewd applause. He loved her Shirley Temple impersonations—On the Good Ship Lollipop sung and danced like a kid at a birthday party. They talked about running away together.
It is hardly possible here not to recall the episode early in Gravity’s Rainbow wherein Jessica Swanlake removes her blouse in the car on a dare from Roger Mexico. Is Siegel daring the reader to extrapolate further? Extrapolation, paranoid connections—isn’t this part of Pynchonian fun?
In that spirit, I’ll close with my favorite moment from the article.
“You know the W.A.S.T.E. horn in The Crying of Lot 49? The symbol of the secret message service? Every weirdo in the world is on my wave length. You cannot understand the kind of letters I get. Someone wrote to tell me that the very same horn was the symbol of a private mail system in medieval times. I checked it out at the library. It’s true. But I made it up myself before the book was ever published, before I ever got that letter.”
The lines are supposedly from Pynchon himself. Siegel even puts them in quotation marks—so they must be real, right?
I enjoy rereading more than reading. Returning to Moby-Dick, 2666, Ulysses, or Blood Meridian reveals so much more: More depth, more art, more structure, more precision, more humor, more pain, more more.
Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow is all more. Rereading Gravity’s Rainbow is like reading it for the first time, or, rather, more precisely, that is how I am experiencing it now—with clarity—compelled as I was to immediately circle back through its loop again.
Gravity’s Rainbow’s cohesion hides (hides is not the right verb) under detritus, in the flux of objects and concepts that tangle and unravel throughout the text. Indeed, the novel’s themes seem to repeat (with difference, with opposition) in the lists and rants that lard it.
A simple, early example comes on page 18, where Teddy Bloat turns spying eyes over our hero Tyrone Slothrop’s desk, where “Things have fallen roughly into layers, over a base of bureaucratic smegma that sifts steadily to the bottom…” In A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel, Steven Weisenburger points out that “Among the list of objects on Slothrop’s desk are items, allusions, and brand names left in his wake throughout the novel.” Weisenburger proceeds to sift through these layers, pointing out connections, and offering (as always) helpful page numbers which attest how damn precise Pynchon’s novel is.
I picked up Weisenburger’s Companion on solicited recommendations from Twitter folk and readers of this blog, and I’ve found it unobtrusive and helpful so far. Weisenburger’s introductory essay is especially good, and foregrounds his intertextual approach to his Companion (he all but namechecks Mikhail Bakhtin: “Gravity’s Rainbow sets in motion ‘the Night’s Mad Carnvival’ (V133.38) of intertextual entertainments”; a few lines later, he describes the novel as a work of “encyclopedic heteroglossia”). Weisenburger also quickly helped to (re)confirm my sense that GR loops back into itself, its end cycling back to its beginning: “Gravity’s Rainbow is ‘heterocyclic’ (V249.26): rings are looped together in still larger, polymerized rings, looped together in the still larger cycling of its four parts.”
I’m about halfway through the second of those four parts, “Un Perm’ au Casino Hermann Goering,” but still playing catch-up with the Weisenburger. I sometimes skim—sometimes with undue pride (Hey I got that reference on my own, thanks anyway Dr. W), and sometimes, admittedly with a vague but cheerful boredom (Weisenburger has an occasional tendency to lay out Pynchon’s source texts in detailed detail).
The Companion is at its finest, in my estimation, when Weisenburger extrapolates from his sources and contexts into GR’s deepest themes, like here, where our introduction to Gottfried (a seemingly minor character) branches into etymology, mythology, and comparative religion:
(My favorite moment here is probably where Dr. W poses that question about Pynchon knowing Branston and Grimm, and then immediately answers it (in what I like to pretend is Robert Evans’s voice)).
While Weisenburger’s Companion often enlightens and clarifies, so does simply (or not so simply) rereading Gravity’s Rainbow enlighten and clarify the first reading. I’m thankful that I didn’t use Weisenburger’s book on my first full trip though GR. Sure, Companion hazards a number of plot spoilers, which I imagine would annoy many readers. But more significant to me is that using Weisenburger’s annotations as a first-timer’s guide through Pynchon’s detritus would have likely spoiled the aesthetic effect of that detritus. It would likely have spoiled some of the richness in the rereading that I’m enjoying so very much now.
Well: “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before [—]”
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So. Okay. So I finished Gravity’s Rainbow on Friday night, and reread the opening section (and more than the opening section) on Saturday morning, resisting a compulsion to immediately return to the beginning.
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So: Okay: Right?
The ending of Gravity’s Rainbow cycles back to the beginning (like Finnegans Wake): Blicero’s rocket, screaming across the sky—yes? no?—to invade the dreams (?) of psychic Pirate Prentice? The book: a loop, a Möbius strip, a film, its reels discombobulated, jostled, scattered…
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“…it’s all theatre,” we learn on the book’s first page (page 3); the book ends in a theater—the Orpheus Theater!—where maybe scattered Slothrop is the leading man, scattered, we find ourselves in him, parts of him—where the audience demands, on the book’s last page: “Start-the-show!”
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“You’re putting response before stimulus,” Spectro shakes his head at Pointsman, early in “Beyond the Zero,” the first section of Gravity’s Rainbow—does this describe the beginning/end of the novel? (“It has happened before”).
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Or, a bit earlier even, at the seance, (page 32), Gloaming describes one kind of plot: “…we should get something like a straight line” — but then gives us another kind of plot — “…however we’ve data that suggest the curves for certain —conditions, well they’re actually quite different—schizophrenics for example tend to run a bit flatter in the upper part then progressively steeper—a sort of bow shape … classical paranoiac—” Is this the shape of Gravity’s Rainbow?
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—but right this moment it’s that final dash that intrigues me—this in a novel full of dashes, this in a novel that name-checks Emily Dickinson, Eternal Empress of Dashes—the fragmented conclusion is full of dashes, lines obliterated by more perfect, straight lines, simultaneously connecting and disconnecting—like the novel’s final line:
I’m safe here at my office, away from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I almost certainly would not dare to write about it were it proximal. If the book were here with me, its text would infect me, and I’d replicate it in chunks here for you, dear reader, to sort out (or not sort out) as you wish (or do not wish).
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I’m almost finished with Gravity’s Rainbow, which is how I know that I’m not finished with Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m going to have to read it again. (I want to read it again).
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I’m about fifty pages from the last page—just got through/endured/delighted in/icked and acked at the Gross Suckling Conference, or, as I like to think of it, the alliterative abject dinner party.
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Gravity’s Rainbow is filled with more abject imagery than any novel I’ve ever read.
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I mean abjection here in the general sense of degradation, etc., but also in the specific sense that Julia Kristeva uses in Powers of Horror:
The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance. A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled. The border has become an object. How can I be without border? That elsewhere that I imagine beyond the present, or that I hallucinate so that I might, in a present time, speak to you, conceive of you—it is now here, jetted, abjected, into “my” world. Deprived of world, therefore, I fall in a faint. In that compelling, raw, insolent thing in the morgue’s full sunlight, in that thing that no longer matches and therefore no longer signifies anything, I behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders: fainting away. The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.
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Forgive me for citing at such length, but perhaps Kristeva summarizes some aspect of Gravity’s Rainbow that deeply interests me: The core of the novel (the core that Pynchon atomizes, decentralizes, scatters like his main man Tyrone Slothrop)—the core of the novel rests on love and death, me and not-me: “How can I be without border?” The war and its corpses and rockets and dissolutions. Continue reading “A scattered riff on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow”→