Finishing Gravity’s Rainbow

I’m not planning on writing a review of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which might drive me insane, but I did want to write a bit on the experience of reading it. I have two main responses to the book, one of which is to admire Pynchon’s obvious brilliance and to wonder what kind of mind it takes to write such a book. The other is to admit that I didn’t really enjoy it. I liked isolated scenes here and there, found parts of it funny, parts insightful, but these moments of enjoyment weren’t enough to make me like it as a whole.

I just couldn’t quite make sense of what was going on enough of the time to satisfy me. I don’t mind dealing with a certain amount of uncertainty and confusion — I happily read Infinite Jest not getting everything that was happening — but there was too much here. I felt as though I understood what was happening in the book in very broad terms, and also I remember small scenes, but too often as I was reading, I couldn’t figure out the relationship of one scene to another, couldn’t quite remember where I’d seen a particular character before, wasn’t sure where we were in time, and wasn’t sure what the characters were doing. I did “cheat” a little bit and looked up discussions of the book online, but these only helped a little bit.

I know that the book is confusing to other readers as well, and that part of the point is to be difficult, but that didn’t change my experience of reading it much.

So, what is the novel about, exactly? It does have a main character, Tyrone Slothrop, an American who is on a quest for information about the V-2 rocket and who was the victim of some bizarre Pavlovian research as a child. There is also Captain Blicero, who creates and fires the V-2 rocket. The novel takes place during and shortly after World War II, with flashbacks to earlier times. It’s about wartime intelligence, psychological research, paranoia, fear, obsession with death, and obsession with connections between sex and death. And there’s so much more — lots of characters, lots of silly songs, lots of sex, especially of the more perverse kinds. It’s all about violence on a mass scale, and how this messes with people’s minds. It’s dark, as one would expect a book about World War II to be. It’s also emotionally cold, which is an important reason I didn’t enjoy it. It’s very much an intellectual book, detached and analytical. It is funny in places, and it’s also sad, but mostly it’s grim.

I can see that this is an important book, and that it’s an appropriate response to a horrifying war and a world that has become insanely insanely self-destructive. But, alas, it was also a bit of a slog.

11 Comments

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11 responses to “Finishing Gravity’s Rainbow

  1. Interesting. Well, it sounds like I’ll have quite an experience awaiting me in 2011 with Pynchon. It’s odd, because sometimes I read things about this book (paranoia, silly songs) that makes me think I’ll really enjoy it, and other times I hear that it really is kind of a grim slog. I guess there’s only one way to find out for sure what my own experience with it will be. Still, I appreciate your thoughts on the reading experience. I will brace myself.

    In other news, look at you with all your TBR Challenge books crossed off in the sidebar!

  2. When I worked in the bookshop, we had a lot of interest from the students in both Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. When a newbie reader approached those authors, better-read hands than mine took the Pynchon away and sent them off with the DeLillo instead, at least to begin with. But it must be said that those who’d read Pynchon could be a bit smug about it! Not you, though of course, Dorothy; I enjoyed your review so much because I really love your honesty, and I am sure I would feel exactly the same about the book!

  3. verbivore

    It’s interesting to me to read your thoughts here. First, I applaud you for sticking with a book like this. I’ve mentioned before that I attempted to read Gravity’s Rainbow, got about 50 pages in and just couldn’t go on. The ‘not getting it’ as a fundamental part of the reading experience is fascinating to me, and something I’ve never been able to appreciate. I understand that Pynchon is huge and important and I will read Gravity’s Rainbow and his other work and hopefulyl work out for myself why he’s worth the effort. But it will take a deep snow day I think, to get me there anytime soon.

  4. I have a friend who is a brilliant reader. She pretty much finishes every book she picks up and is incredibly intelligent… and this is one of perhaps three books that she’s ever failed to finish. She just couldn’t get anything from it and finally waved the white flag and took it to a used bookstore. If I try anything by Pynchon, it will likely be his first novella, The Crying of Lot 49, mostly because it is appealingly short!

  5. Too bad your overall experience of the book wasn’t very good. but kudos to you for sticking with it anyway!

  6. I admire you finishing a book you didn’t enjoy. I don’t have the discipline to do that, maybe because I’m not a fast reader.

  7. Emily — I know — the challenge went well for me! I’ll have to do a wrap-up post at some point and figure out if I want to do the same thing next year. GR evoked a whole range of feelings from me, including enjoyment and boredom both. It’s such a complex book.

    Litlove — I think DeLillo does make a better starting point than Pynchon, or perhaps his book The Crying of Lot 49 is a better place to start with Pynchon than GR. I’d hate to think of a newbie reader beginning with GR! I’m glad I don’t sound smug :)

    Verbivore — not getting it is indeed very interesting, and I’ve thought a lot about why I didn’t mind not getting it while reading Infinite Jest, when I did mind here. There have to be other rewards, I suppose, to make up for the confusion and uncertainty, the pleasure of working hard to figure it out or something else. I guess my reward was the satisfaction of finishing a challenging book, but I didn’t feel that until the end!

    Steph — definitely The Crying of Lot 49 is the place to start. I really liked that book, and yes, it is very short! It was quite a leap, I have to say, from one to the other.

    Stefanie — thank you! I do have enough stubbornness to keep me going :)

    Lilian — thank you! I’m not a fast reader either, but I read this one by reading only 10-20 pages a day. It took me a couple months to finish it, but that way it didn’t like quite as much of a slog.

  8. I know my limitations as a reader and from the sounds of it, I wouldn’t get on with this book. I think I would get impatient and bogged down–I know I am not a discliplined enough for something like this. I really don’t mind challenging reads (though I know I don’t read enough of them), but I have to at least feel like I have a chance of following what’s going on. I always admire your book choices and the fact that you stick with even the hardest books. And great job reading all the books on your list!

  9. I wonder why so many of these “brilliant” books end up being so difficult to understand in the most basic way. I’ve not read Gravity’s Rainbow (or anything by Pynchon, for that matter), but it seems… pointless. If a writer is brilliant enough to write a novel that makes readers pick up on his/her brilliance… why not make the story accessible? Difficulty is good and all but… to a degree, I suppose. Almost every reader I’ve encountered feels Gravity’s Rainbow is confusing and clever, but not very enjoyable. Can it be called a great novel in this way?

  10. Thanks, Danielle! I’m pleased to have finished the list (well, I didn’t finish Our Horses in Egypt, but I gave it a good try). I’m pleased to have read GR, but it really was a challenge, and reading books that are so difficult is not something I want to do often. It can be too discouraging. I was hoping to like it better, and when I discovered I didn’t, I was too stubborn to stop reading. I’m not actually sure that’s a good thing!

    Biblibio — good question about whether it can be called a great novel. I do think there are people who genuinely enjoy it, but there probably aren’t all that many. I guess I think there are different ways to enjoy a book, including enjoying the challenge and accomplishment. I think also that there were things he wanted to accomplish that required difficulty, or maybe he didn’t care about accessibility. But I do wonder whether it will last, if the people who love it are few and far between.

  11. Amber Adams

    In defense of Pynchon:
    The novel is much easier to follow with the annotated guide by Stephen Weisenburger. I find Pynchon’s style alienating but more authentic for that reason. The reader remains as horrified and alone as the characters. Pynchon won’t allow you to attach to the characters because they themselves are constantly faced with their own fragile mortality. The complexity is also authentic. War, imminent fear, and mass hysteria can’t be followed with a bird’s eye view and his snapshot cinematic organization of scenes reflect that. Its a hodgepodge of discourses (militant, fairy tales, music, etc) much like the mind of any individual and reads like weaving tangential monologues. Temporally, it jumps around but he was obsessed with the idea of hysteron proteron because of the way a V-2 rocket was felt before it was heard. The scenes mimic that. Many of the characters are felt before you know who they are or what they are even doing.

    I didn’t enjoy Pynchon because of the challenge or accomplishment. For me, it was discovering how he made me feel the discontent and madness of impending V-2 bombings like I was faced with the imminent fear. If I was uncomfortable, horrified, or cantankerous I was supposed to be; as I would probably be in the face of war. I also can appreciate a novel that uses structuralism to make sense of chaotic events, as we all try to compartmentalize things in hindsight.

    It is not easy reading but it has its rewards. Also mixed in with the graphic sexually explicit scenes is some truly beautiful use of language like: ‎”The rain washes, drenches, fills the gutters singing, the city receives it, lifting, in a perpetual shrug…”

    As a side note, I stumbled onto this blog looking up reviews for various translations of Rilke and really appreciated your thoughts on that.

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