A first riff on rereading Gravity’s Rainbow (and some thoughts on Weisenburger’s Companion)

I enjoy rereading more than reading. Returning to Moby-Dick2666, 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:

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(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.

Hemingway died one day and Pynchon was born the next (DeLillo on Pynchon)

It was as though, in some odd quantum stroke, Hemingway died one day and Pynchon was born the next. One literature bends into another. Pynchon has made American writing a broader and stronger force. He found whispers and apparitions at the edge of modern awareness but did not lessen our sense of the physicality of American prose, the shotgun vigor, the street humor, the body fluids, the put-on.

I was writing ads for Sears truck tires when a friend gave me a copy of V. in paperback. I read it and thought, Where did this come from?

The scale of his work, large in geography and unafraid of major subjects, helped us locate our fiction not only in small anonymous corners, human and ever-essential, but out there as well, in the sprawl of high imagination and collective dreams.

Don DeLillo on Thomas Pynchon. From the Summer 2005 issue of Bookforum.

Riff on the end/beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow

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:

“Now everybody—“

□ □ □ □ □ □ □ Continue reading

Lydia Davis on Thomas Pynchon

A rather appealing specimen of early Pynchon is the last story in his collection Slow Learner. The story, “The Secret Integration”—first published in the Saturday Evening Post more than forty years ago (three years after V. appeared)—involves a gang of young practical jokers and a rich childhood setting of an old town with a new development, a sprawling estate with a derelict mansion, and a downtown, complete with seedy hotel. In one deftly described scene, the boys coast on their bikes down a long hill in the early evening toward the hotel, “leaving behind two pages of arithmetic homework and a chapter of science” and, on the TV, “a lousy movie, some romantic comedy.” Because all the televisions in town receive only one channel, the boys, as they fly by, are able to follow the movie’s progress from house to house, through doors and windows “still open for the dark’s first coolness.”

In his introduction to Slow Learner, Pynchon, who somewhat preempts our reactions to the story, remarks that he likes it more than he dislikes it. In fact it is so likable that one envies the boys their comfortable society and the fields, streams, and town of their games. Their collaboration and apportioning of assignments is charming (to develop an arsenal for sabotaging the railroad; to enlist malcontent first-graders to destroy the boys’ latrine; to infiltrate PTA meetings); the elaborateness of their schemes, and the number that succeed, is impressive; and the animation of the central character, Grover the boy genius—with his enormous vocabulary, fund of information, and flights of hilarity—is particularly savory. The pranks the boys plan are potentially devastating to the community, yet, as Pynchon says in a lovely bit of writing, the boys would never actually take “any clear or irreversible step,” because “everybody on the school board, and the railroad, and the PTA and paper mill had to be somebody’s mother or father, whether really or as a member of a category; and there was a point at which the reflex to their covering warmth, protection, effectiveness against bad dreams, bruised heads and simple loneliness took over and made worthwhile anger with them impossible.”

There is a lyrical humanity in this story, an almost unapologetic gentleness, inviting and inclusive, that contrasts with the weightier, complex pessimism and bravura of Pynchon’s later works, in which perhaps it is more difficult for the characters to go home and be comforted at the end of the day.

From the Summer 2005 issue of Bookforum.

A scattered riff on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow

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

Slow Learner (Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow)

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From page 641 of Gravity’s Rainbow. More hidden future-titles.

Mandrake parable (Gravity’s Rainbow)

The sand-colored churchtops rear up on Slothrop’s horizons, apses out to four sides like rocket fins guiding the streamlined spires… chiseled in the sandstone he finds waiting the mark of consecration, a cross in a circle. At last, lying one afternoon spread-eagled at his ease in the sun, at the edge of one of the ancient Plague towns he becomes a cross himself, a crossroads, a living intersection where the judges have come to set up a gibbet for a common criminal who is to be hanged at noon. Black hounds and fanged little hunters slick as weasels, dogs whose breeds have been lost for 700 years, chase a female in heat as the spectators gather, it’s the fourth hanging this spring and not much spectacle here except that this one, dreaming at the last instant of who can say what lifted smock, what fat-haunched gnädige Frau Death may have come sashaying in as, gets an erection, a tremendous darkpurple swelling, and just as his neck breaks, he actually comes in his ragged loin-wrapping creamy as the skin of a saint under the purple cloak of Lent, and one drop of sperm succeeds in rolling dripping hair to hair down the dead leg, all the way down, off the edge of the crusted bare foot, drips to earth at the exact center of the crossroad where, in the workings of the night, it changes into a mandrake root. Next Friday, at dawn, the Magician, his own moving Heiligenschein rippling infrared to ultraviolet in spectral rings around his shadow over the dewy grass, comes with his dog, a coal-black dog who hasn’t been fed for a few days. The Magician digs carefully all around the precious root till it’s held only by the finest root-hairs—ties it to the tail of his black dog, stops his own ears with wax then comes out with a piece of bread to lure the unfed dog rrrowf! dog lunges for bread, root is torn up and lets loose its piercing and fatal scream. The dog drops dead before he’s halfway to breakfast, his holy-light freezes and fades in the million dewdrops. Magician takes the root tenderly home, dresses it in a little white outfit and leaves money with it overnight: in the morning the cash has multiplied tenfold. A delegate from the Committee on Idiopathic Archetypes comes to visit. “Inflation?” the Magician tries to cover up with some flowing hand-moves.” ‘Capital?” “Never heard of that.” “No, no,” replies the visitor, “not at the moment. We’re trying to think ahead. We’d like very much to hear about the basic structure of this. How bad was the scream, for instance?” “Had m’ears plugged up, couldn’t hear it.” The delegate flashes a fraternal business smile. “Can’t say as I blame you… .”

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.