One of the things that most irritates me is the idea that someone would read books like this one purely in order to show off or impress people. I see comments like that all the time, have had them directed at me, things like: you didn’t actually enjoy it; you only wanted to make yourself seem intelligent. Wha? Who exactly would it impress? Some faceless dude on the internet? Well, gee. Or will some super hot girl on a train make lingering eye contact with me over the top-edge of my copy of Finnegans Wake? One can but hope. Thing is, does anyone actually give a shit about the difficulty of what other people are reading, y’know, out in the real world? From the hostile reaction readers like me get on forums and message boards you’d think that you could walk into a nightclub wearing a I’ve read Proust t-shirt and be mobbed. It simply doesn’t happen. None of my friends care either. They couldn’t give a fuck. Most of them haven’t even heard of 90% of the books I read; and their eyes glaze over if I try and talk about them.
Of course, when choosing to read any book, the themes, the plot [or content] have to appeal to me in some way, but, assuming that is the case, that I have two novels to choose from both of which appeal to me, and one is straightforward and one is not, why would I pick the difficult novel? The simple fact of the matter is that I like, actually genuinely enjoy, being challenged, being stretched. As the serious reader in my circle of friends and acquaintances I’m often invited to borrow best-selling books – detective novels mostly, or thrillers – and I always politely decline, not because I’m judging anyone, merely because I know that I don’t get off on that kind of thing. I need to be made to think. Recently I went on holiday and I took with me a hefty collection of Anton Chekhov’s short stories and Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White. I don’t do beach reads. In a way, I wish I did. I’d probably be a lot more at ease in myself. Anyway, it was for this reason – this desire to be challenged, to be made to work – that I took up Gravity’s Rainbow [GR].
To my mind, GR’s reputation as unreadable or alienating is overstated. I mean, it’s only a book, and they’re just words, yo. If you can read, then you can read GR, only it might require a little bit more patience than your regular kind of novel and you might have to accept that not every reference, not every paragraph in fact, will make sense, will be familiar, recognisable. I think a lot of the time when the term unreadable is thrown around by people it simply means: I hated it. Which is fine. I hate a whole shit-tonne of things. But I think it’s unfair to try and turn others off reading something purely because you didn’t like or enjoy it. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the stuff that traditionally turns people away from GR:
- There is some science
- And maths
- And psychology
- There are a bunch of acronyms, some of which are never explained
- There is a huge cast of characters, and you won’t keep them all straight in your mind
- There are extreme flights of fancy, that drop in on the reader without warning and appear to have no connection to what the author was writing about at the time
More so than the obscure references, the science, etc, I feel as though the real impediment to enlightenment vis-a-vis GR is Pynchon’s style, his syntax in particular. This is especially true of the first 200 or so pages, which are by far the most challenging. I must admit that the way the man puts together a sentence, his grammar and his word-order, is weird, is sometimes baffling. The style reminded me a lot of Faulkner, actually, especially Absalom Absalom. Like with that book there are some sentences here that appear to be random words strung together in no particular order; the words themselves aren’t obscure, they simply don’t naturally follow each other. Another thing that the two books have in common is what I call selective grammar. What I mean by that is that for a page or two the grammar seems conventionally correct, so obviously the author knows his business, and then one will suddenly come across a large chunk of text that appears to be missing the necessary commas, full-stops etc. Occasionally distracting or even tedious that might be, but it is not especially tough to navigate. Perhaps the most irritating thing for me, about GR and the style, was the way the story would shift perspective from one character to another without warning, almost in the middle of a sentence. And it would sometimes take a paragraph or two to realise that it had happened. That feeling of catching up with the book, of sometimes being one step behind, instead of riding along with it, was frustrating.
After the first two hundred plus pages the book becomes so so so much easier to read; if Part 1 is like being caught outside in a storm without an umbrella, then entering Part 2 is like stepping through your front door out of the rain; suddenly everything is clearer, more comfortable. There is *gasp* some straightforward plotting, but, more importantly, the writing is cleaner, more accessible. It is as one luxuriates in Part 2’s ease that one might start to wonder why Part 1 is the way that it is. With the marked difference between the two parts it is almost as though Pynchon wants to disorientate you, only to lead you toward enlightenment. It’s a kind of literary tough-love. In a lot of novels it is the main character who moves from psychological confusion to clarity, in GR it is the reader. But that, of course, still doesn’t explain why. One could say that as Part 1 is set mostly in war-torn London the disorientation is appropriate; most of the numerous characters are living in circumstances in which bombs are dropping all around them and at any moment one could take them out. The characters who don’t appear to be as concerned about death are at least professionally or psychologically under extreme duress. The war, in all its mind-fuckery, its horror, is being brought to bear on everyone in Part 1. In effect, then, your confusion, your disorientation, mirrors theirs and vice versa. Likewise, the world of Part 1 is in a state of disintegration, of collapse, and the characters are attempting to impose order on this chaos, just as you, the reader, are trying to impose order on the chaos of the text.
A lot is made of the book’s flat characters; it is the one of the chief criticisms of GR in particular, and the author’s work in general. By flat what these dissenting voices mean is that the characters are under-developed, simple, one-dimensional. They don’t, they say, feel like real people. We never, they continue, get to know them. Two things strike me as interesting about the flat characters accusation. Firstly, where are these novels which have characters in them that feel like real people? The critic Michael Hoffmann once wrote of Ebenezer Le Page that it is one of the few books that gives you the full man. I’ve always found that absurd. No book can actually give you a full man. As far as I am concerned, all characters in all novels are flat if what you want are real people.
I feel as though what readers are actually wanting from characters in books, when flat is thrown around as a criticism, are people who have a detailed back story and who subsequently grow or change or learn lessons and behave in ways that make sense to them, the reader. Don Quixote is flat, they’d say, because he does the same things over and over again. GR’s Slothrop is flat because we are told very little about his life and his feelings, beyond his paranoia, confusion and fear of death. My response to that is: yeah and so what? This is the second point of interest for me: why are some readers so put off by what they see as flat characters? Why is flat wielded as something with which to strike down a book or writer? Maybe it’s just me, but I like different things; I am able to appreciate a book that tells me, in detail, a bunch of stuff about a character’s mental life, but I am also equally able to enjoy a cornucopia of characters who merely serve the author’s themes or ideas. Books aren’t real life, the characters in them are not real people, so why do we insist that they must strive to be so? Search me.
Another fallacy when discussing Pynchon’s fiction is to label it cold and unemotional. I genuinely don’t get that. Of course, it is wrong on a literal level, because his work is obviously full of emotions such as fear and paranoia etc, but even if you put those aside, as I don’t think they are the kind of emotions people are missing in Pynchon’s work, I’d still say it’s a bad call. I’d say that Pynchon is one of the most sentimental and compassionate authors I have read. In fact, I think he takes it too far on occasions and his stuff can become mawkish. Take Jessica and Roger, who are two vulnerable and confused people who are unsure whether they are genuinely in love or whether they merely need each other in the appalling circumstances of war. All of their interactions are shot-through with longing and tension and doubt. Consider, also, the justly lauded dodo killing scene; the clumsy, not-made-to-endure dodos are clearly a stand-in for man, particularly those in war situations, civilians and soldiers. There is an atmosphere of pathos throughout almost the entirety of GR.
So, I hope I have gone some way to at least debating, if not refuting, some of the popular criticisms of Pynchon’s work. I also hope I have maybe gone some way to convincing those of you who have been previously put off by its reputation that it is possible to read Gravity’s Rainbow, that it isn’t nearly as intimidating as some would like you to believe. However, in light of all that I have written, one question remains for me to ask myself: why did I give up on the book? Because, yeah, I did abandon GR about half-way through. I didn’t want to say that at the start of the review because I think it would have been counter-productive. Why did I give up? Cards on the table? I was bored. I kinda felt as though Pynchon had made his point and was starting to repeat himself, was starting to get on my nerves. I felt as though if I gave up I wouldn’t be missing anything, and that’s perhaps, like with a relationship, the point at which you know you ought to part ways. In all honesty, I just don’t think Pynchon and I are a good fit, because although I like the idea of his books I hardly ever love them, in the reading. The only one I have genuinely loved is Mason & Dixon. That’s a great book. But the rest of his stuff? Meh. I simply can’t get excited about it. He just doesn’t push my buttons.