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Tag: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Why do I read Gravity’s Rainbow?

I’m thinking about me today. As I mentioned in the previous post, I have read Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon over the last thirty years or so too many times to count. Last night as I lay in bed drifting into sleep, I began to question why.

The book has been a companion to me. It’s been with me everywhere. I’ve read it in bed, in easy chairs, in trains and planes, and on the beach. It’s frustrated me and comforted me. It has assailed me with riddles, and it has spoken clear words of encouragement.

I’m rereading it now, and its message seems so distinctly simple.

Yes, there is a lot we don’t control about our world. Yes, there are powerful forces who exert control over vast amounts of energy, and They are not friendly. However, those elites do not hold quite as much control as They imagine. They are not omniscient.

Resistance is real, and it works. We can play the part of double agents, living in Their systems and simultaneously sabotaging them.

Connection is key. The elite divide us. We must come together. We can touch each other, and They can’t stop us. Through small acts, we can thwart Them, and we win when we do.

Their systems – the rocket – crave sacrifice. They destroy. But even that technology of death connects. The launcher and the dying are one in the flight of the rocket.

What can we preterite do in the face of such radical destruction? Look to our hero Slothrop. We can narrow our Delta-t band. Live as much now, leaving the past and the future to Them. Live! It’s the thing that scares Them most.

* * *

Why do I read Gravity’s Rainbow?

My relationship with the book is about my relationship with myself. I can see myself maturing as I have read it over and over. I discovered me in its pages.

I have read passages that utterly confused me. They were times I did not know my own way through the world. I have read dream sequences with tangled words, and I have felt peace. These were times I was grateful for the turmoil around me. I saw the path through the rubble of my life.

I have no illusions before me as I read it now. I am one with myself, and the pages dissolve as I turn them. The words register and leave their impressions, and I smile.

The book is complex, but so is the world They have made for us to pick our ways through. We must each bring our dead as we join the resistance, and we must touch each other. We must bare our skin and open to our lashes we lay on ourselves. We must own our selves. We must touch.

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Reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Gravity's Rainbow 004

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.

Reading Opening Lines

Published 1973 by Jonathan Cape

Gravity’s Rainbow. Published 1973 by Jonathan Cape.

A screaming comes across the sky.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon opens with that sentence. I like the simple, declarative structure. Sound takes on the active role. Something that we see as normally passive and received becomes the actor, the mover. It does so in a medium that is painted with adjectives to adorn it with meaning. Here sky stands alone. It’s not stormy, blue, clear, cloudy, or even star-studded.

And how does sound relate to this empty sky? It comes. Of all the ways it could have passed, ridden, approached, or appeared. The whole idea has been stripped to its essence, and in those naked words, a glimmer of what is to come is born.

Opening sentences carry enormous responsibility in books. They have to inform the reader about the subject of the book, and good ones subtly set the tone. Great ones make the astute reader stop and stare. The line quoted above is one of those. It announces to anyone interested enough to consider it that the following book is going to be loud enough to fill an empty space. Gravity’s Rainbow roared into literary space in 1973 and has been the subject of study, adoration, and derision ever since. It happens to be one of my top 5 favorite books.

Another great book also opens simply. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden starts with “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” At first glance, the sentence is almost boring, until you consider the elements. There is a name, and there is place echoed from the book’s title. What follows in the story is a wrestling of name and identity in place that grows, anchors, and frees.

I read books. I can tell a lot by the opening line. I’ve read some pieces in which I knew the entire plot by the first sentence, and I’ve read some that needed a lot of work on that one little sentence.

My favorite opening line of all time comes from a little book with a big title, Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett. While it’s very good, no, the book did not win the National Book Award. That’s not what we’re here to consider.

What does the opening line say?

Lightning sought our mother out, when she was a young girl in Brown County, Indiana.

There it is. It’s got sentient natural electrical weather. It’s got the maternal role juxtaposed against the promise of a youthful girl. And it’s got place. I love that the moving inanimate electricity searches for the girl. It injects just a note of paranoia. But it’s in the past and in a seemingly unlikely place. The book goes on to fulfill the promise of this opening. It’s got bad weather and women and an odd place little thought of by people except those who live there.

When I browse bookshops, I often read the opening lines of books. I rarely look at what the cover has to say. The verbiage written on the dust jacket is advertising, but the opening line is there to hook me. It’s there to compel to read what follows.

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