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Monday, November 25, 2019

Reading the Unreadable #5: Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

"Gravity's Rainbow" is less a novel than it is a test of patience.  More than any other book I've read, it belongs on the "unreadable" list, just for its sheer incomprehensibility.  Reading like a less coherent American version of Umberto Eco, this book makes me think of nothing so much as the Doonesbury cartoon in which Uncle Duke (Trudeau's stand-in for Hunter S. Thompson) sobers up enough to read an article he wrote while under the influence of whatever he was taking and comments "There's words on the page, but they could mean anything."

Taken line by line, or even scene by scene, Gravity's Rainbow is understandable.  Even, at spots, enjoyable.  I see elements in there that were clearly an influence on later writers, especially on some of the work of one of my favorites, Alan Moore (see his Cinema Purgatorio for examples of what I mean).  Stylistically, Pynchon has his stuff wired tight and clearly accomplishes whatever he set out to do, a laudable goal that apparently can only be known by him and his two closest friends.

However, any attempt (at least by me) to understand this book on any kind of larger scale is bound to be met with frustration.  Looking for any kind of bigger picture or overarching theme leaves one so quickly bewildered as to create a desire to go back to the aforementioned Mr. Eco for a light read.
I can see some of the ideas that Pynchon is developing here about the military industrial complex and the people who work within it, but pinning down any point that he's trying to make about those things is as futile as nailing jello to a wall.

Because, for me, the overarching questions of Gravity's Rainbow is "Why?" Not, "why do the events in this book happen, or happen as they do?" Nor "Why is this world that Pynchon writes about such a disordered mess?" But rather, "Why should anyone want to read this book?" and also, "Why would Pynchon ever write it?"
Maybe that's philistine of me.  Certainly, Wikipedia would have me believe that there's some overall sense to this thing.  Damned if I can see it though.  I mean, I'm no dummy....I've majored in English literature and done analytical study of great works from every major culture and time period, so I kid myself that I know how to read a book...but for the life of me, I can't see anything about this book that justifies its existence as anything other than a masturbatory paean to pointless self-indulgence.  I mean, if you write a book that's only understandable to a highly specific subset of the species, with very particular knowledge of a small point in time and space, and with apparent cultural, philosophical or spiritual relevance outside its own attempt at worldbuilding, with language and structure that shifts gears mid-sentence, occasionally dipping into deliberate attempts at profanity, racism and xenophobia, are you committing literature, or just word salad?
The most surprising thing about "Gravity's Rainbow" is that by some cultural fluke, it is considered among the top 100 novels of all time, when in any rational world it should be a classic of vanity press.  Perhaps this is a fine example of work that, like the paintings of Barnett Newman, is only considered important exactly because it is incomprehensible.

I don't know, and after spending several months hacking my way through this book, I don't care to find out.  The best thing about this book, to my eye, is that I never have to open it again.

Up next, we head into more familiar territory for me with Joanna Russ's "The Female Man".  I remember enjoying her "Picnic in Paradise" when I was in high school, so maybe this one will leave a better taste in my mouth.

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