Reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
by Jake McPherson
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon is my vade mecum, a guidebook carried constantly.
I read it first while still an undergraduate in the early 80s. We’d read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in a class, and I liked it. I decided to read what was purported to be his best work, which had won the National Book Award, and I was not disappointed. I remember standing in my English professor’s little office, and she asked me what made me think I could possibly tackle such a book.
“Arrogance?” I quipped.
She guffawed and slapped her desk.
Gravity’s Rainbow is a puzzle to many readers. It confounded me for a very long time. I think the best way to describe it is entwined.
The book opens in a dream of a labyrinthine knotting of passageways and trails that lead steadily into a deeper place, a level further below, revealing still new permutations of existence than were readily available at first glance. People trudge through the space neither succumbing nor escaping. They simply move.
A master storyteller like Pynchon knows the opening must reveal the whole in some way. This opening language weaves in and out of various levels of understanding of the dream, and we’re alerted to the notion we will journey through a maze that will lead us deeper into the story, the characters, the themes, the words, and even ourselves as readers.
I don’t think there’s anything extra in this book. I have read it so many times I’ve lost count. That’s honest. I’m rereading it again, and it’s very clear this time through. I’ve had questions about the book for many years, decades. I am getting answers this time.
Yes, the language is convoluted at times. It’s serpentine, and it’s done for a reason. I think the times when the words double back on themselves and lead the reader to the place where he questions what he’s just read and where he is in the text are to push him out of his easy chair and into a new way of knowing, a new way of questioning how a book and a reader are supposed to relate to each other.
The scientist is observer and observed. The rocket is one with launcher and victim. Separation is a myth invented by our minds to control our environments. The reader is whole in the act of reading, and the book is not an object but a function in the equation. Connection is key. Singularity as opposed to duality seeps through the language. We are all whole in our beings as we move through our days. Verbs are vital.
“A screaming comes across the sky” is the opening sentence. There are only six words, and two of them function like verbs. They act on the reader. They move. “Screaming” conjures a host of terrors, nightmares, banshees. “Comes” sits there simple enough. Surely. It’s a small word. Or does it act in another way here? Where does it put us, the readers? Aren’t we left underneath the noise listening to it peak and recede, leaving us shaking in our boots and thankful for escape? We’re sorry enough for the poor sods under the rocket when it stopped screaming and left only dust and rubble, but really, better him than me, eh?
Our hero, Tyrone Slothrop, educates us as he hops across Europe. He’s an American lost and helpless amongst these tired Europeans. He grows in his knowledge of the trappings of his own life and its tie to the rocket, and he is transformed into the Rocketman when he is liberated from the ties binding him to his Earthly existence. He transcends.
I am enjoying this read through the book immensely. The words shine on the pages or the screen, as it is. Yes, I like my e-reader very much. I carry a library in my palm. The world’s books await. It’s a gift, and I like it.
I had so many questions when I read it the first few times. There was so much that eluded me, and now I see it was my own life I was questioning as a young man. I’m not young any more. I’m middle aged. Like Slothrop, I’ve evolved. I don’t fight the words. They lie there. I take them in. They work their wonders in my mind calling up all sorts of ideas and pictures and feelings and memories. Together, we make a story.
The night’s sounds trilling through my window while I read are just as much a part of the event as the book and I are. It’s all there, and nothing gets left out.
“Soup” should be a verb.
Gravity’s Rainbow soups its way into my being, and together we grow.