|Japanese cover for Gravity's Rainbow|
[Preface: Last year I developed a fascination with Timothy Leary's deep interest in author Thomas Pynchon & Gravity's Rainbow which led me to reach out to the highly knowledgable OG (Michael from Overweening Generalist) for his input on this topic. A lengthy e-mail discussion ensued and out of that grew a two-part crossover collaboration between "A Building Roam" and "Overweening Generalist". While my piece focuses on the intrigue of Gravity's Rainbow, the mystery of Pynchon, and Leary's role in all of this, the OG further explores Leary's relationship with Pynchon's postmodern epic. So read my piece, go read OG's piece (entitled "Fugitive Thoughts: Timothy Leary's Reading of Gravity's Rainbow") and let us know what you think.]
What could possibly compel someone to read such a beastly and tedious book as Gravity's Rainbow? For me, it was a series of reinforcing recommendations that sparked a compulsive interest.
My initial fascination with the work of heralded author and notorious recluse Thomas Pynchon can be traced back to three events. First, I heard Michael Schur (aka Ken Tremendous), the creator of Parks and Recreation, tout Pynchon's work passionately on a baseball podcast a few years ago. That led me to at least familiarize myself with the author. Then, while discussing books once with my remarkably well-read friend Charlie, he insisted I read Pynchon's work, particularly Gravity's Rainbow, in response to both my love for Joyce and my interest in paranoia. And, most significantly, I was struck when I heard Dr. Timothy Leary rave about Pynchon and express intense adoration for Gravity's Rainbow in multiple lectures and interviews from the Psychedelic Salon podcast archives.
Leary flat out declared Gravity's Rainbow "the best book ever written in the English language" and hailed the genius of Thomas Pynchon on many occasions. While his pal Robert Anton Wilson was known to frequently evangelize about the genius of Joyce, Leary championed Pynchon as a literary god any chance he got. An old 1980s interview clip on YouTube shows Leary calling Pynchon his "hero" and the finest living writer, pleading for the aloof Pynchon to get in touch with him. There are accounts of Leary, stuck in solitary confinement during the mid-1970s, receiving and repeatedly reading the recently published Gravity's Rainbow. He also praises Pynchon in his autobiography Flashbacks, likening him to Joyce and Dante.
How great could this Pynchon guy possibly be to elicit such fervent admiration? Somehow a modern, contemporary writer being so historically special didn't seem possible to me. All the very best writers are dead, aren't they? My inquiries in Google brought back frequent comparisons to Joyce, especially holding up Gravity's Rainbow next to Ulysses and Moby-Dick as the grandest epics of Western literature. My fascination swelled.
* * *
Gravity's Rainbow made quite a splash when it landed in 1973. It was the third book to appear from the completely hidden-from-the-public-eye author Pynchon, whose writing had established a lofty reputation from his first novels V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). A gigantic, densely elaborate and confounding epic, a huge messy tale revolving around German rocketry and the end of WWII, Gravity's Rainbow would go on to win the National Book Award (Pynchon sent comedian Irwin Corey to accept the award on his behalf) and generate controversy when it was unanimously selected for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction yet ultimately rejected because of a passage involving coprophilia. So turned off by the perversions of Pynchon, the Pulitzer board elected to give the prize for fiction to nobody. The Pulitzer board described the novel as "unreadable", "turgid", "overwritten" and "obscene" and, after reading the book, I can't help but agree wholeheartedly with each of those adjectives, though I certainly did enjoy the experience overall.
Despite some annoying, disturbing, and offputting qualities ("turgid" really sums it up well), it's undoubtedly a brilliant work of literature by one of the finest writers of the last hundred years. The New York Times lavished it with praise upon its release, likening it in scope to Ulysses and Moby-Dick, and Richard Lehmann-Haupt poured it on pretty thick in a humorous review published in the New York Times Book Review:
'The Adventures of Rocketman'
Gravity's Rainbow is fantastic---fantastically large, complex, funny, perplexing, daring, and weird---weird as an experience you've never really been through before. Fantastic! ...
So what can I tell you? That Pynchon writes like an angel and clowns like the very devil? ...
Perhaps I can only say this: if I were banished to the moon tomorrow and could take only five books along, this would be one of them. And I suspect that's a feeling that's going to last.