Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ten great books #6: Gravity’s Rainbow

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Gravity's Rainbow

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

If there’s a thread that runs through many of the books I’ve mentioned here so far, it’s that they’re often the work of massively erudite authors who are deeply ambivalent—or ironic—about their own learning. Norton Juster and the tireless annotators of the Sherlock Holmes stories seem content with knowledge for its own sake, but as for the rest, Borges ends up trapped in his own labyrinth; The Magic Mountain constructs an edifice of ideas on the verge of being blown up by a meaningless war; Proust notices everything but envies those creatures of instinct, like Albertine or Françoise, who can relate to the world in simpler terms. Gravity’s Rainbow may be the ultimate expression of this discomfort, an incredibly dense, allusive, and omniscient novel about the futility of information itself. No other work of contemporary fiction is so packed with technical lore, references, jokes, and ideas, and its technical virtuosity is staggering. Thomas Pynchon has occasionally been dismissed as a shallow trickster or showoff, but his style is inseparable from his larger concerns. Only by writing the encyclopedic novel to end all others can he qualify himself to sound a deadly serious warning, which is that all the plans, structure, and information in the world can only wither and die in the face of more fundamental truths: death, loneliness, dissolution.

In the meantime, though, there’s plenty to enjoy: limericks, pie fights, burlesque imitations of vaudeville and musical theater, puns of exquisite corniness (the German city of Bad Karma, the Japanese Ensign Morituri), and countless vignettes of incredible beauty, cruelty, and inventiveness. That last word has a way of being applied to works that don’t deserve it, but here, it’s fully justified: Gravity’s Rainbow invents more in its seven hundred pages than any other novel I know—every paragraph threatens to fly out of control, only to be restrained by its author’s uncanny mastery of tone—and the effect is both exhilarating and alienating. There aren’t any real characters here, just puppets with amusing names, and there’s never a sense that this is anything more than a construct of Pynchon’s limitless imagination. (There’s a good case to be made that this was a conscious artistic choice, and that depth of character would only make the novel more unwieldy than it already is.) Like most encyclopedic works, it includes veiled parodies of its own ambitions, like Mitchell Prettyplace’s definitive eighteen-volume study of King Kong, including “exhaustive biographies of everyone connected with the film, extras, grips, lab people,” or Brigadier Pudding’s Things That Can Happen in European Politics, a comprehensive analysis of possible political developments that is constantly overtaken by real events. It’s all futile, of course. But on any given page, as we’re swept up by Pynchon’s enormous talent, it doesn’t seem so futile after all.

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2013 at 9:00 am

3 Responses

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  1. my favorite, this… thing, it’s not even a novel, it’s a robust explosion, boom, before you hear it comming ( of course). nice

    refined quotes

    September 30, 2013 at 1:13 pm

  2. Pynchon’s prose was never created to be comprehended, at least not in any logical way. His imagery is ecstatic and surreal – he conjures the weather terrain machinery and human pain/suffering in ways that no other writer can even closely imitate. I read GR in 1998. I was unemployed. It was my primary task…and I am still reading it in 2016. As a lark. Which is how – I certainly feel – Pynchon intended it to be grasped. Life makes little sense; why should novels? GR haunts the reader, akin to a long menacing hallway in the Overlook hotel, snow banks 20 feet high clasping the structure –
    And within, another mess of galaxies, cringing masses in a void….

    August West

    December 8, 2016 at 10:37 pm

  3. @August West: Sometimes I think reading Gravity’s Rainbow is still my primary task, too.


    December 22, 2016 at 9:10 pm

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