Monday, March 18, 2013

"Gravity's Rainbow" turns 40... and it's still amazing

Figure: "Gravity's Rainbow"
"Gravity's Rainbow" 
There is something about February through June. Every year, I read the "heaviest" books out there in these months. Last year it was James Joyce's The DublinersUlysses and Finnegans Wake. In 2013, I figure to tackle some Pynchon, and Nabokov's Pale Fire .

So I decided to kick this year's heavy reading season off with the granddaddy of all postmodernist maximalist books, Gravity's Rainbow.

Why not? It's been 20 years, give or take, since I read it.

It turns out that the only difference between then and now is that The Simpsons spoofed the reclusive Thomas Pynchon. Other than that, the book has lost none of it's power. Nor, unfortunately, has it become any easier to follow. Which is why it is still considered a postmodernist masterpiece.

If you have not read it, prepare for a bit of a ride. It takes works, especially in the opening section, Beyond the Zero. Pynchon does not introduce you to characters, one after the other. Instead, his narrator jumps from character to character, scene to scenes abruptly. So it takes a while for the major players to coagulate into real people. And the plot becomes clearer...

But be forewarned: when the plot finally emerges, things get even weirderer than the early hallucinatory scenes. And a bit more brutal at times.

Our humble protagonist, the American slob Tyrone Slothrop is stationed in London near the end of WWII.  Germany is lobbing V-2 rockets across the straights in a last-ditch effort to cripple Britain. Add Slothrop begins to suspect, paranoid style, that he is being tailed.

Figure: Pynchon on  The Simpsons
Pynchon on  The Simpsons
But, as Joseph Heller pointed out, "Just because you're paranoid don't mean they're not after you."

Because they are after Slothrop. Why?

It turns out that Slothrop's sexual liaisons map precisely to the locations that V-2 bomb strikes. And mad scientist Pointsman grows obsessed to explain the phenomena. And thus has Slothrop committed to an insane asylum, St. Veronica s, which actually a front for the secret organization "The White Visitation" that is trying to leverage psi -- or psychic powers -- into weapons that the military can use.

Weird enough for you? Well, it gets even stranger. After being discharged, Slothrop begins a rampage through Europe beginning in the Hermann Goering Casino in the newly liberated French Riviera. Which is where Slothrop falls in love with the spy Katje. Who was a former lover of the creator of the V-2 rocket, the sadistic German scientist Blicero. Who is fashioning a V-2 rocket with the serial number 00000 made out of a new plastic polymer created by German genius Jamf, Imipolex G, that Slothrop remembers smelling as a child. Because, it turn out, that Jamf was experimenting on baby Slothrop. While working for a US military contractor. And this memory causes Slothrop to investigate the connections between the German company and American. And he uncovers a likely plot that shows that corporations are behind the war. And they are running them solely to make money...
Slothrop as Rocketman

Okay. I'm up for air. =) Here I go again...

And it the conspiracy is not enough for you, Slothrop falls in with some dope dealers. Who have stumbled upon a stash of Wagnerian costumes. And a girl from the party gives Slothrop a Viking helmet, from which she removes the helmet, and a cape. And, from then on, Slothrop, rapidly disintegrating into madness, becomes a Don Quixote-like super hero "Rocketman." Who is spends his life devoted to truth, justice, and finding rocket 00000.

Okay. Okay. I'll stop. Because that is only about half of the plot. And tracing only Slothrop. So there is no way to reliably summarize a plot so crazy and wild. One needs only to appreciate. And wonder at the fertile, psychedelic demented genius in Pynchon.

He spins conspiracies that make Glenn Beck seem sane...

Throughout, Pynchon's language is evocative. And nearly as convoluted as the plot. He uses run-on sentences in a cadences reminiscent of Ginsberg's seminal Howl. And, like the Beats, he piles symbol upon image upon alliterative sound to weave a wall of language that can at once draw one in and, should you lose concentration for a second, leave you lost, turning back five pages until you rediscover the last time you were following Pynchon's main thread.

 Here is a relatively simple example from the beginning of the Book's third section, The Zone:
"So generation after generation of men in love with pain and passivity serve out their time in the Zone, silent, redolent of faded sperm, terrified of dying, desperately addicted to the comforts others sell them, however useless, ugly or shallow, willing to have life defined for them by men whose only talent is for death."
There is, no doubt, power in this book. It is challenging, on par with Ulysses, and Woolf's The Waves, but far less head-scratchy than Finnegans Wake.

My 2013 Take on "Gravity's Rainbow"

Incidentally, what I found most interesting in the book was it's frank and cogent use of mathematics, most notably statistics and probability theory. There is a lot of mathematically correct discussion about using the past to predict where the next V-2 bomb will land. Pointsman, the Cartesian/ Newtonian wants to know exactly. His is a binary world: You know exactly, or you do not.

Statistician Roger Mexico, however, represents the new quantum view. Where things have only a probability density associated with them. So he is always telling Pointsman that he can only predict the likelihood of a bomb falling in a certain location based on the accepted statistical concept, the Poisson distribution (link takes you to a decent overview of Poisson on the Khan Academy).

In fact, this sense of things not being determined ore completely determinable seem to be the key to understanding the book. Because a lot of people, like Pointman, are seeing patterns, which are not there in reality since the events are random. This is called the gambler's fallacy, a well documented psychological thinking fallacy.

Slothrop's grand conspiracy was, likely, the delusion of a frazzled mind seeing a pattern -- corporate corruption -- within a random event. This is a perfect example of the mind trying to create a story out of chaos. But the gambler's fallacy is not for the weak mined or insane alone. Even the sober are victim to this error. For instance, the respected physician Thomas Gwenhidwy also seems to sense a conspiracy, or an "Invisible Hand," guiding the Poisson distribution that is raining destruction on London. He feels that London's poor are being used as a shield to protect the wealthy. However, we are forced by science to agree with Mexico. This is just a random event. And each event operates independent of every other event.

So we are left with the final meditation, whose outlines were suggested to me by Enzian's meditations about gods and chance.

"Ndjambi Karunga and the Christian God were too far away. There was no difference between the behavior of a god and the operations of pure chance. ... But the gods had gone away themselves: the gods had left the people."

An amazing meditation. Of war. And the brilliant chance of being blown into kingdom come by a rocket. With chance predicted only imperfectly by chance. Which looks like the operation of a design by, ultimately, reminds Enzian that god has abondoned us. And left us to the whims of crazy governments and wars.

Sobering. And hidden, like a jewel, in the madness of Pynchon's text.


Gravity's Rainbow Resources: 

I found some really cool on-line resources that were not available to me when I originally read the book back in the early 90's. Students are lucky as all get out today... =)

Some Things That "Happen" (More or Less) in Gravity's Rainbow: No doubt that Gravity's Rainbow is a challenging read. This guide, written by Michael Davitt Bell from Williams College, walks you through the book, chapter by chapter. What I like is that, unlike Cliff Notes, you will actually have to read the book because, without reading Pynchon, this outline will make little sense. Even though I've read the book before, I used this outline extensively.

Gravity's Rainbow: A Summary: This summary is a little more exhaustive than Davit Bell's. In fact, you could likely "fake" a lot of this book using this guide. Still, I prefer the less direct one by professor Bell.

Zak Smith's Illustrations for Each Page of Gravity's Rainbow: 755 illustrations by artist Zak Smith, depicting the events and imagery of Gravity's Rainbow. All pretty cool, executed in pen or brush and ink.

The Illustrated Complete Summary of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: A bunch of colorful, original Adbobe Photoshop images that follow the summary of Gravity's Rainbow listed above. Less complete than Zak Smith's, but there are some cool reources.





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