Brief internal feminist critique (perhaps) of Gravity’s Rainbow


From page 507 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

The Mother Conspiracy (Gravity’s Rainbow)

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.

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Anti-paranoia (Gravity’s Rainbow)

Rain drips, soaking into the floor, and Slothrop perceives that he is losing his mind. If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long. Well right now Slothrop feels himself sliding onto the anti-paranoid part of his cycle, feels the whole city around him going back roofless, vulnerable, uncentered as he is, and only pasteboard images now of the Listening Enemy left between him and the wet sky.

Either They have put him here for a reason, or he’s just here. He isn’t sure that he wouldn’t, actually, rather have that reason…

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. The “pasteboard images” line recalls a favorite passage of Moby-Dick.

Africa 39, a compilation of new African writing, and Franzen’s Kraus Project (Books acquired, 3.04.2015)


Got these as desk copies (as opposed to review copies) a few weeks ago. I’ve been picking through Africa 39 more or less at random, in between stretches of Gravity’s Rainbow. Hit or miss so far, as these affairs so often are. Here’s Margaret Busby, one of the panelists who helped compile the book (from The Guardian):

Africa39 is not an exercise constrained by labels, fashion and preconceived rules about genres, nor by what constitutes African writing. Twenty countries are represented by work created in a variety of African and European languages – Kiswahili, Igbo and Lingala as well as English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Understandably, with the continuing debate about the validity of the “African writer” category, there are those who feel uncomfortable about participating in this venture (indeed, some have chosen to opt out).

Speaking of Gravity’s Rainbow (sort of), it shows up in Jonathan Franzen’s “translation” of Karl Kraus’s essays. I shouldn’t put translation in those suspicious quotation marks; he does translate—but the book he really wants to write is a memoir in footnotes. Maybe you read the excerpt Harper’s published a few years ago?

Michael Hoffman’s long review at NYRB is good. From that piece:

In the same hands done differently, The Kraus Project could have made an entertainment, an intellectual comedy, a bildungsroman about a clever and ambitious young man on a Fulbright in Germany for a couple of years in the early 1980s. The loneliness of abroad would have come into it, separation from a difficult unbookish family in the Midwest and a bookish difficult fiancée at Columbia; the poststructuralist intellectual fashions of the time; a little local color to evoke the bizarrely wonderful extraterritorial and microideological West Berlin of the cold war; what it felt like to be an American in Germany at the time of the Cruises and Pershings and the SS-20s (what price Germany then, not Austria, as what Kraus called a laboratory for destroying the world?); the overbearing influence of the one novel our hero packed in his suitcase full of French theory—it was Gravity’s Rainbow—and the dual terror exerted on him by Pynchon on the one hand and Harold Bloom on the other.

Such a book would somehow have delivered us to the improbable but finally inescapable conclusion that our young American could find no more apt or fruitful literary father for himself than “the angry, apocalyptic, and arguably megalomaniacal Karl Kraus.” The old curmudgeon took care to express his nolo in advance thus: “Many share my views with me. But I don’t share them with them.” As it happened, he also disdained fiction: not an ideal adopted father.

This rich web of circumstance is all present here (Franzen seems to remember everything, or at least to have kept records of everything), but it is packed away in the garrulous and seedy autobiographical footnotes, often going over many pages. Probably the main life of the book is in these. But there is something earnest and faithful and inflexible in Franzen that won’t let him turn away and ironize his former self—“my feeling [is] that I’m still the same person I was at twenty-two.”

… The entire unstable ensemble has something of the rackety allure of the Bremen Town Musicians, or, if you prefer, a new supergroup: the assiduous, dependable Paul Reitter holding things together on bass, the restrained Daniel Kehlmann good for the occasional off-beat tambourine flick (“But Heine is still wonderful, too”), and Franzen riffing and wailing away on free-form lead and clamorous vocals. The Kraus Project really is one of a kind—a strange, space-bending, Cubist, not un-simpatico book.

Look at Borges (Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow)

In the days of the gauchos, my country was a blank piece of paper. The pampas stretched as far as men could imagine, inexhaustible, fenceless. Wherever the gaucho could ride, that place belonged to him. But Buenos Aires sought hegemony over the provinces. All the neuroses about property gathered strength, and began to infect the countryside. Fences went up, and the gaucho became less free. It is our national tragedy. We are obsessed with building labyrinths, where before there was open plain and sky. To draw ever more complex patterns on the blank sheet. We cannot abide that openness: it is terror to us. Look at Borges. Look at the suburbs of Buenos Aires. The tyrant Rosas has been dead a century, but his cult flourishes. Beneath the city streets, the warrens of rooms and corridors, the fences and the networks of steel track, the Argentine heart, in its perversity and guilt, longs for a return to that first unscribbled serenity… that anarchic oneness of pampas and sky…

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

A drinking game called Prince (Gravity’s Rainbow)

One day Slothrop gets a chance to check this out. Seems Dodson-Truck is a chess fanatic. Down in the bar one afternoon he gets around to asking Slothrop if he plays.
“Nope,” lying, “not even checkers.”
“Damn. I’ve hardly had time till now for a good game.”
“I do know a game,” has something of Tantivy been sheltering inside all this time? “a drinking game, it’s called Prince, maybe the English even invented it, cause you have those princes, right? and we don’t, not that that’s wrong understand, but everybody takes a number, a-and you start off the Prince of Wales has lost his tails, no offense now, the numbers going clockwise around the table, and number two has found them, clockwise from that Prince, or whatever number he wants to call out actually, he, that’s the Prince, six or anything, see, you pick a Prince first, he starts it off, then that number two, or whoever that Prince called, sez, but first he goes, the Prince does, Wales, tails, two sir, after saying that about how that Prince of Wales has lost his tails, and number two answers, not I, sir—”
“Yes yes but—” giving Slothrop a most odd look, “I mean I’m not quite sure I really see, you know, the point to it all. How does one win?”
“Ha! How does one win, indeed. “One doesn’t win,” easing into it, thinking of Tantivy, one small impromptu counter-conspiracy here, “one loses. One by one. Whoever’s left is the winner.”
“It sounds rather negative.”

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Control (Gravity’s Rainbow)

It’s control. All these things arise from one difficulty: control. For the first time it was inside, do you see. The control is put inside. No more need to suffer passively under ‘outside forces’—to veer into any wind. As if…A market needed no longer be run by the Invisible Hand, but now could create itself—its own logic, momentum, style, from inside. Putting the control inside was ratifying what de facto had happened—that you had dispensed with God. But you had taken on a greater, and more harmful, illusion. The illusion of control. That A could do B. But that was false. Completely. No one can do. Things only happen, A and B are unreal, are names for parts that ought to be inseparable…

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.