National Book Award winners, number 26: 1974’s Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.

20 May

1.

In 1974, Thomas Pynchon won the National Book Award for his immense, overpowering linguistic tour de force Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel that is stranger, more idiosyncratic, more nonsensical, more upsetting than any summary or review can convey.

The novel has no conventional plot. It’s by turns a horrifying exploration of science gone wrong; an erotic picaresque journey through post-war Europe; a series of confounding scenes of madness and paranoia; bizarre sexual encounters, including one of the great orgy scenes in American letters; and a dumbfounded American G.I. who seems to be able to predict where German V-1 rockets will land by his erections. The entire enterprise seems a paean to entropy, decay, destruction, the thanatos syndrome. There’s weird sex galore, including enough coprophilia and sodomy to make the Marquis De Sade blush.

There’s something haunting and desolate amidst the random absurdities, however, something blasted out and nuclear, something impossible and disruptive, like radioactive dust. The book feels devised by a deeply angry man. The rainbow in the title is the new covenant with man; with God out of the picture, we’re left with the arc of man-made missiles operating according to the laws of hard science. Gravity’s rainbow ends with destroyed cities, ash and rubble.

Gravity’s Rainbow was the first big, sprawling, dense, post-modern novel I ever read. I was enthralled thrilled challenged excited irritated depressed. I read it when I was 19, traveling across the country by car with my cousin. Along with Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Rainbow was and is the beginning of literature for me. It exists with a holy fire, a divine glow. I didn’t understand all of it. I absorbed it (or it absorbed me).

Confounding, erotic, challenging, eclectic, the silly mock-epic with enough madness to fill a dozen asylums.

Confounding, erotic, challenging, eclectic, the silly mock-epic with enough madness to fill a dozen asylums.

Thomas Pynchon has haunted me ever since. Here’s the first line, one of the most famous in American literature: “A screaming comes across the sky.”

2.

Pynchon is the key writer in the post-modern school. The novels tend to be labyrinthine, linguistically dense, self-aware, ironic, abounding in the absurdities of the human condition, with bouts of psycho-sexual violence. The key texts are John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, to a lesser extent Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the story collections of Donald Barthelme and the theoretical writings of Roland Barthes. (Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five probably belongs with this group, too.) The movement is a clear byproduct of the late 1960s. There’s a whiff of the ivory tower in a lot of the postmodernist work, as well as a streak of slapstick silliness, a distaste for sentimentalism and a hard-on for vulgarity. The movement stems from the modernism of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, only blended with pop culture and ironic distance; marbled with a disbelief in language, absolutes or the old forms; structured with long, poetic often beautiful sentences; and (often) punctured through with a lack of emotional resonance. As the very fine compendium of oddball writers, Cult Fiction put it, the books are dedicated to (Groucho) Marxism.

The low-brow/high-brow mash-up can’t be overstated. As a group, the postmodernists—none of whom would want to be labeled this way, I’m sure—adore degraded culture. To a writer, they utilize street argot[1], pidgin English and patois. They love comic books, science fiction serials, B-movie plots. Yet many of the post-modern novels exist in a theoretical framework, with pages of jargon and oddball diction, weird forays into the extremes of scientific research. And of course the near-impenetrable prose, the specialized diction, and the at-times stilted dialogue.

Their ranks include the William Gass and William Gaddis, Tom Robbins, Edward Abbey, Joan Didion, and half a dozen more.

As a group they’ve been reviled, revered, dismissed, disregarded, adored, emulated. But over the last fifteen years, excepting Pynchon and DeLillo, they’ve lost steam as a cultural force, and have slowly been passed over and forgotten.

They’re children—including David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem (one of the great colliders of high and low fiction), William T. Vollman—have taken over.

3.

Gravity’s Rainbow is the biggest, the weirdest, the shaggiest, the densest of the post-modern novels. There’s orgies and hellfire and an octopus that records people and a light-bulb that becomes self-aware, burning away his consciousness one volt at a time. Of all the novels I’ve read, it’s an experience more than a novel, and a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. Pynchon has legions of fans, and almost as many naysayers. He’s a writer of inexplicable talents, who as often as not squanders them. (His non-fiction is fabulous.)

As I get older, Rainbow’s influence wanes. I think V. is a better novel, stranger, more unsettling, with tighter writing. Ditto for The Crying of Lot 49, one of the most absurdly plotted novels ever written, about an illegal, underground mail system called Trystero, and a heart-breaking ending where nothing is answered or resolved.

Pynchon is a recluse. He’s also driven, dedicated, unwavering, uncompromising and dogmatic in his style. He’s entered some type of hyper late-phase productivity, publishing three novels in a handful of years. His books have a manic energy to them, some propulsive force, and an often exaggerated 1950s comic book dialogue style.

He’s an immense presence in the American literary landscape. There’s something Pynchonian about his influence. He’s often used as a qualifier for other writers’ work, but he stands in a category all his own. Even the comparisons to DeLillo are off the mark; Pynchon is sillier, funnier, cornier, wilder, and less stringent a writer than DeLillo. DeLillo sees life as a trap. Pynchon sees life as a cruel game. The game is hilarious because we can never know the rules.

Great review here.

The prose is heated, jarring, visceral, sometimes silly, always complex. Here’s a taste of his cacophonous summation of the Dodo bird, being massacred by the German colonials, narrated in part by a German named Franz:

“This furious host were losers, impersonating a race chosen by God. The colony, the venture, was dying—like the ebony trees they were stripping from the island, like the poor species they were removing totally from the earth. . . . To some, it made sense. They saw the stumbling birds ill-made to the point of Satanic intervention, so ugly as to embody argument against Godly creation. Was Mauritius some first poison trickle through sheltering dikes of earth? Christians must stem it here, or perish to a second Flood, loosed this time not by God but by the Enemy. The act of ramming home the charges into their musketry became for these men a devotional act, one whose symbolism they understood.”

 

And, a few paragraphs later, this, as he witnesses the ongoing extinction:

“It is the purest form of European adventuring. What’s it all been for, the mudering seas, the gangrene winters and starving springs, ourb one pursuit of the unfaithful, midnights of wrestling with the Beast, our sweat become ice and our tears pale flakes of snow, if not for such moments as this: the little converts flowing out of eye’s field, so meek, so trusting—how shall any craw clench in fear, any recreant cry be offered in the presence of our blade, our necessary blade? Sanctified now they will feed us, sanctified their remains and droppings fertilize our crops. Did we tell them ‘Salvation?’ Did we mean a dwelling forever in the City? Everlasting life? An earthly paradise restored, their island as it used to be given them back? Probably. Thinking all the time of the little brothers numbered among our blessings. Indeed, if they save us from hunger in this world, then beyond, in Christ’s kingdom, our salvations must be, in like measure, inextricable. Otherwise the dodoes would be only what they appear as in the world’s illusory light—only our prey. God could not be that cruel.”

4.

1973 was a very fine year for literature, especially around the world. Milan Kundera published his second best novel, Life Is Elsewhere. J.G. Farrell released The Siege of Krishnapur. Iris Murdoch, Mervyn Peake, Patrick White, Mario Vargas Llosa, Graham Greene, J.G. Ballard, Martin Amis, and Julio Cortazar all published notable novels.

Things were crowded here, too. In the U.S., Robert Pirsig published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Tim O’Brien released If I Die in a Combat Zone. Cormac McCarthy published his ultra-violent Child of God. Gore Vidal released his fascinating, and underrated, novel of historical revision, Burr. Kurt Vonnegut put out his oddball, and strangely unsettling novel Breakfast of Champions. Rita Mae Brown released Rubyfruit Jungle. Underground favorite Jerome Charyn put out Tar Baby. And in the popular realm, James Jones, Roger Zelazny, Robert Ludlum, Rex Stout, Jaqueline Susann, Jack Vance, Irwin Shaw, L. Sprague de Camp, and August Derleth all released new books.

A titanic list. The American literary landscape was evolving. MFA programs were beginning to unload new voices into the mainstream. The two big trends of American literary fiction—maximalism (or metafiction or postmodernism) and regionalism (or minimalism)—were colliding in the 1970s. Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, for example, published their first collections of short stories in 1976. Regionalism tended towards small moments of emotional devastation, hard drinking blue collar people. Both trends feel a bit dated now.

But Pynchon stands apart, somehow both sillier and more serious than his contemporaries. If you can stomach it, Gravity’s Rainbow is an earth-shattering experience.

 

[1] DeLillo’s entire body of work can be understood by his constant theme of the imperfections, and degradation, of language.l Boo

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3 Responses to “National Book Award winners, number 26: 1974’s Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. National Book Award winners, number 27: 1973′s split award, Chimera and Augustus. | simoneandthesilversurfer - May 31, 2014

    […] silliness with violence, low culture with academic jargon. He’s one of the major figures of postmodernism, and embodies all of their sins and […]

  2. National Book Award winners, number 30: 1974’s A Crown of Feathers, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. | simoneandthesilversurfer - July 28, 2014

    […] In 1974, Isaac Bashevis Singer won the National Book Award for his superb, humane, and thrilling short story collection, A Crown of Feathers. It was his seventeenth book. The award was split with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. […]

  3. The boy with a thorn in his side, part 1: Saint Simulacra. | simoneandthesilversurfer - October 18, 2014

    […] led to The Secret Agent. And The Secret Agent led to Gravity’s Rainbow. And that was it. I was hooked. I was converted. I fell in […]

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