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.