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.

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Gravity’s Rainbow’s abjection at time seems to contest the Circe episode in Ulysses—oh Pynchon’s pigs!—our author contends with Joyce at the trough of literature.

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And the end here—oh what the hell is happening here at the end here?! What is happening to Slothrop—dissolving? Scattered? Orpheus? All those Maenads. Mouth harp and lyre.

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Slothrop down the toilet.

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Pynchon, Patron Saint of Toilet Humor—and Toilet Seriousness.

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So this riff seems to be dissolving. Maybe a few comments on the reading experience, no?

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Well it’s difficult. Very very difficult. I’m trying to think of a more difficult book.

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Gravity’s Rainbow’s rhetorical shifts are scattered, slippery, messy, dreamy-nightmare slushystuff. The camera speeds through space time consciousness, no respecter of borders and zones. The narrative is always out there ahead of the reader (or behind the reader, or above the reader, or below the reader), snaking and shifting and spinning, barreling into modes and methods often utterly alien. Sometimes there’s a guide, but can we trust it? Ulysses—yes—difficult, yes—but each episode of Ulysses adheres to its own kind of rhetorical logic, one that the reader might learn, follow, and explore (But hey wait, you say, You need to reread Gravity’s Rainbow, just like you reread Ulysses, then you’ll see the rhetorical (il)logic). …and, too, Ulysses had a few major maps there for its readers (Homer, Hamlet). Gravity’s Rainbow, sure, there are templates, but Pynchon explodes them, inverts them, subverts them, hides them, mocks them, adores them (How do you know? Are you sure?). 

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Biting his thumb at cause and effect.

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Drugs sex and jazz. 0s and 1s. Kong and his lady friend.

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But wait sorry pardon me—my thoughts scattered there. Yes, the reading experience—what engages and compels and sustains me most in Gravity’s Rainbow is the aesthetic pleasure (and aesthetic revulsion) of the novel: more than the plot, more than the meaning, it’s the dazzle and confusion I love.

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But then yes ah! That dazzle and confusion, those atomized particles: They crash back into each other, resolving into plot and into meaning, into strange connections. Synapses. Sections of the mosaic cohere—but the bigger picture, hesitant, irresolute, scattered.

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Can I promise more to come? I’d like to take another shot. I’d like a do over please. Safe here in my office, I wish I had the book with me.

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