|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.
* * *
Sparked by the Pynchon passion often displayed by Leary and encouraged by the hyperbolic praise of critics and readers, a fascination grew into a slight obsession. For much of last summer, I devoured articles about Pynchon and sought out as much info about Gravity's Rainbow as I could find. The Pynchon wiki is certainly immensely helpful and the (currently defunct) Spermatikos Logos page at The Modern Word has some great material. There's also this fantastic page at Bookforum, featuring a long essay by Gerald Howard about his experiences with GR as well as Pynchon reflections by Don DeLillo, Richard Powers, and other contemporary writers in a sidebar.
The release of Paul Thomas Anderson' film adaptation of Inherent Vice also brought about a proliferation of new pieces about Pynchon. A beginner's guide to Pynchon appeared in Rolling Stone, the full Pynchon oeuvre was ranked by Vulture, and countless other pieces explored the cultural impact and excitement surrounding Anderson's film.
Eager to officially begin my foray into actually reading Pynchon, and intent on absorbing Inherent Vice the novel before the movie arrived, I began reading the 70s stoner noir novel last summer. I'd always been intrigued by Inherent Vice as I love detective stories and with Pynchon's great reputation I figured this would be one worth exploring. It's also considered Pynchon's most straightforward book, stylistically.
I enjoyed Inherent Vice very much, found it to be hilarious, engaging, relatively simple to read (despite featuring a tangled web of many characters), and often extremely impressive for its passages depicting the pastels of the southern California sunset. The prose was smooth, the attitude humorous, characters richly portrayed, and the setting beautifully, often stunningly rendered. It was quite simply a pleasurable read.
Providing only occasional glimpses of the literary master truly letting loose style-wise, the prose of Inherent Vice only made me hunger for more Pynchon. I craved to see just what the hell made Gravity's Rainbow so extraordinary and mind-blowing. Is it worthy of this constant comparison to Ulysses? I had acquired The Crying of Lot 49 since everyone says to start with that before jumping into GR but, after completing Inherent Vice my intense curiosity led me to brush Lot 49 aside and finally jump headlong into the Pynchon magnum opus last November 1st.
* * *
Last summer I read John Higgs' excellent biography of Timothy Leary, I Have America Surrounded, which contained a particular emphasis on the hijinks and misadventures Leary endured while exiled in Africa and Europe as a fugitive during the early 1970s. After he'd escaped from a California prison with the help of the Weather Underground, Dr. Leary was shuffled off to Algeria where he was welcomed by Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers. After wearing out his welcome, he bounced around Europe seeking asylum as a fugitive, found himself under house arrest at the home of a billionaire Swiss arms dealer, and eventually was captured by the CIA (during a stopover at an airport in Kabul, Afghanistan of all places) and returned to the United States where he was then imprisoned.
I kept thinking about that early-70s period of Leary's life (what he'd later refer to as "a series of B-movies") when reading Gravity's Rainbow. For most of the book we follow the main character, Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, as he travels around war-torn Europe on a series of random escapades, donning many disguises, ingesting plenty of drugs, engaging in lots of debauchery, and meeting dozens of characters in the process. He stumbles from one journey to the next, traversing the "Zone" of a destroyed, decrepit Germany at the end of WWII, until he's almost forgotten why he started on this meandering excursion in the first place. Perhaps all of this resonated with Leary as he sat in prison reading this book a few years after hopping around the African and European continents with the US legal system in pursuit.
The wanderings of Slothrop begin after he realizes he has been the subject of a bizarre military mind-control experiment (hints of MK ULTRA) and decides to simultaneously flee from his untrustworthy associates and try to discover just how deep the paranoid rabbit hole of his dark history could go. My favorite section of the book was undoubtedly part 3, "In the Zone", which takes up the bulk of the text, following Slothrop on a series of encounters, expeditions, B-movie scenes, and long treks through the stunningly rendered landscape of a decrepit, mangled Germany in 1945. He's initially spun off into this wandering adventure after an odd stay at a beach resort in southern France where he rightly concludes that the military has been monitoring and controlling him for some unknown purpose.
On his subsequent voyage across the map and into the documents of his past, he uncovers some disturbing secrets. As an infant, little Tyrone was apparently sold off to a Harvard research lab to be experimented upon by one Laszlo Jamf (a mysterious figure who's only ever spoken about, never seen, in the book), programmed in order to have certain conditioned Pavlovian reflexes to stimuli and then arranged to be under indefinite surveillance afterward. Jamf, incidentally, was also involved in the creation of a mysterious polymer plastic material, Imipolex G, that prominently features in the construction of the V-2 rocket that so permeates this massive book. Early on in the text, we learn that the locations where the adult Lt. Slothrop has had sexual encounters throughout bomb-ridden 1940s London happen to perfectly coincide with the points on the map where German rockets have struck. This may have something to do with his dark history with Jamf.
If any of this is beginning to sound like it may form something resembling a coherent narrative, then I've severely misled you.
* * *
* * *
It's fascinating to envision Leary initially receiving and reading this book, locked in solitary confinement.
Imagine the resonance of this line for the ol' professor, booted from both Harvard and West Point earlier in his life. Page 85: "we're only following in a long line of experiment and questioning. Harvard University, the US Army? Hardly shabby institutions."
A short piece from Leary's 1979 book Intelligence Agents portrays his earliest encounter with his favorite book:
"He lay on the bed and read for 12 hours until the lights were turned off. The next morning he woke at sunrise and read for 15 hours. The following morning he finished the first reading, promptly turned back to page one and spent two days re-reading and annotating. During the subsequent week, he decoded, outlined and charted the narrative. Every character in Gravity's Rainbow is either an operative working for a Psycho-political hive-bureaucracy or an Independent Intelligence Agent (Out-Caste) working counter to the hive-bureaucracy."
* * *
Admittedly, my experience with reading the 776-page Gravity's Rainbow can hardly be summed up here, so I hope this smattering of random reflections will suffice.
One thing is for sure, it is indeed an epic on par with Ulysses and Moby-Dick. The massive, encyclopedic collection of historical facts, ample allusions to movies, comicbooks and other pop culture, richly detailed geographical settings, gigantic interconnecting web of characters, mathematical formulas and other thoroughly described scientific jargon, intricately arranged structure, layers of and references to various threads of symbolism, and especially its penchant for lengthy catalogues of items give it the tell-tale markings and scope of an epic and make Gravity's Rainbow one of those inexhaustible, extremely re-readable books.
Its prose also varies between incoherence, obscurity, absurdity and painfully tedious, bloated, verbal-diarrhea rambling to engrossing, hilarious, cinematically descriptive, lucid, sparkling, extraordinarily beautiful prose. There were many times in the process of reading this book that I absolutely loathed it, yet there were also many times that I loved it (upon finishing I wanted to jump right back into it and skip the bad parts). There are parts that have to be considered among the most vile, disturbing passages ever written and there are many parts that will make you burst into laughter or sit in awe at the author's command of language.
It's a strange book. One is often compelled to wonder why Pynchon, a man with an otherworldly writing ability, an enduring sense of humor, and a staggeringly vast range of knowledge, would choose to write it this way. It's a book that's very easy to get lost in or simply give up on.
We've already talked about Tyrone Slothrop (whose name is an anagram for "Sloth or Entropy") and he is certainly at the center of the story but there are dozens upon dozens of other characters in this book (over 400, apparently). There are shadowy, despicable figures from a London psychiatric hospital called "The White Visitation" who are seeking after Slothrop, a group of rebel African-German soldiers (known as the Schwarzkommando) who are searching for scattered rocket parts, a grim metal-teethed Russian soldier named Tchitcherine who's seeking to annihilate the Afro-German soldiers (who are led by his half-African half-brother), a British mathematician studying metaphysical phenomena, a seductive former sex-slave Dutch double-agent, and many, many more. I count at least 10 main characters, some of them not even living in the same time period.
Gravity's Rainbow feels like a gigantic collage of short stories, all loosely interrelated and most of them taking place right around the end of WWII. The confusion tends to come from the frequent flashbacks and flashforwards (or what Steven Weisenburger in A Gravity's Rainbow Companion frequently refers to as "analepses" and "prolepses") where we get the background of certain characters like, for instance, Franz Pökler, a young German chemical engineer working on the V-2 rocket in the late 1930s. In one of the longest, most compelling and heart-wrenching sections of the book, we follow the story of Pökler who is forced to work all day (and sleep on a cot at night) at a rocketry plant while his wife and daughter are kept in an internment camp. Working for the evil Captain Weissmann (aka Captain Blicero, the book's main supervillain), he is granted one visit from his daughter per year, but after a while he's convinced they aren't even sending the same girl anymore. The chapter ends with a hauntingly grim scene where Pökler witnesses the inmates of a concentration camp. He sees a sickly woman lying on the ground:
Where it was darkest and smelled the worst, Pökler found a woman lying, a random woman. He sat for half an hour holding her bone hand. She was breathing. Before he left, he took off his gold wedding ring and put it on the woman's thin finger, curling her hand to keep it from sliding off. If she lived, the ring would be good for a few meals, or a blanket, or a night indoors, or a ride home...
* * *
The following two sources proved to be invaluable guides in navigating the monster novel's treacherously shifting mazes of narrative and obscure references:
A Gravity's Rainbow Companion by Steven Weisenburger
This book of annotations is good for helping the baffled reader find their bearings. Not only are many of the obscure references explained, but each of the book's four parts and each part's many episodes are summarized, detailing where and when the action takes place.
Weisenburger also gets into the novel's underlying symbolic structure, informing us:
Gravity's Rainbow is not arch-shaped, as is commonly supposed. It is plotted like a mandala, its quadrants carefully marked by Christian feast days that happened to coincide, in 1944-45, with key historical dates and ancient pagan festivals. The implications of this design are several, and wonderfully complex.He goes on to elaborate on the fascinating details of this intricate design, and that's just the Introduction. The annotations are in the same format as the indispensable Ulysses reference works and they're nearly as wide-ranging
SOME THINGS THAT HAPPEN (MORE OR LESS) IN GRAVITY'S RAINBOW
by Michael Davitt Bell (of Williams College)
An absolutely essential episode-by-episode online guide. Not only is every section succintly summarized, the author frequently offers interpretations or speculates on Pynchon's allusive puzzles and elusive references.
* * *
It's fun to envision Pynchon at work on this eclectic, gigantic opus. Huddled up inside a small apartment blocks away from the ocean somewhere in 1960s Manhattan Beach, scribbling this enormous encyclopedia of postmodern literature by hand on graph paper. Two tiny but significant toy totems sitting on his desk: a pig and a rocket.
Being that he is almost as private and reclusive a person as J.D. Salinger, there probably won't ever be a book-length biography of Thomas Pynchon published but we can piece together some history via quotes from those who knew him.
In a letter to his literary agent in 1964, Pynchon announced that he was in the midst of a creative crisis with four novels simultaneously in progress. "If they come out on paper anything like they are inside my head," he wrote, "then it will be the literary event of the millennium." These four were probably what ended up being The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and... Against the Day? The last one is anyone's guess. (Note that the latter two were published nearly 30 years after his creative crisis.)
An old friend, Jules Siegel, wrote a piece for Playboy entitled "Who is Thomas Pynchon...And Why Did He Take Off With My Wife?" where he shared information about the author including speculations on Pynchon's writing process. As one might assume from the prevalence of hash in Gravity's Rainbow and the prominence of marijuana in Inherent Vice, Pynchon had a penchant for pot and hashish. He apparently told Siegel that while rewriting Gravity's Rainbow, "I was so fucked up while I was writing it …. that now I go back over some of those sequences and I can’t figure out what I could have meant."
There you have it. Throughout the 1960s, in a tiny SoCal beach apartment, there sat Pynchon, stoned out of his mind, laboring away in longhand on a gargantuan, carefully contrived, labyrinthine bible of paranoia.
* * *
He is one of our time's great geniuses, a man of letters whose mastery of style and prolific output is the envy of most of the literary world. Yet he completely rejects the public eye, taking Joyce's "silence, exile, and cunning" quite literally, refusing to do interviews or be photographed. According to an old anecdote, a reporter once tracked down Pynchon's address in Mexico City. When he knocked on the apartment door, the author snuck out a back window, down a fire escape, and hopped on a bus out of town.
Despite being so intentionally cut off from publicity, he has made cameos on The Simpsons not once but twice, both times voicing his own character who appears with a paperbag over his head. He wrote a piece for the 10-year anniversary program of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show and contributes the occasional newspaper article, such as his ode to sloth as part of a series on the seven deadly sins for The New York Times where he wrote, "Perhaps the future of Sloth will lie in sinning against what now seems increasingly to define us -- technology." He is also fond of pigs.
His aloofness, the mystery surrounding his character, and the fun he seems to have with us reminds me a bit of the rapper MF DOOM who wears a metal mask in all public appearances and is notoriously difficult to track down, even for peers and collaborators. Although this behavior deepens the magnetic intrigue of the artist's persona, it also tends to shift our focus toward a closer scrutiny and appreciation of the art itself, the material they choose to share with the world in full bloom.
* * *
While writing the book that would become Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon used the working title Mindless Pleasures which, clearly, is not nearly as cool. The final manuscript was submitted under this boring title. Viking Books' original announcement to the press used it. Where the final fantastic title came from is not exactly clear, but I prefer to imagine Pynchon came up with it himself.
The title refers to, among other things, the trajectory of a rocket fired off into the sky and eventually curving back down to earth.
* * *
Let's be perfectly clear: this book is filthy. It has a fair share of unbelievably appalling, disturbing, extremely disgusting scenes in it. Parts of it are truly abhorrent. Worse than anything in the relatively tame (yet banned and burned) Ulysses by a long shot. I turned away from reading in shock and horror more than once. I hated entire portions of this book.
Yet there are many things about it that I absolutely loved. The length of this piece is getting a bit out of hand so I'll spare you full block quotes. Here are some of my favorite parts and aspects of Gravity's Rainbow (in no particular order):
- The opening episode. Love the depiction of Capt. Pirate Prentice tending to his greenhouse garden of banana trees situated on the roof of a building in 1940s London.
- All of Pynchon's descriptions of setting. This is a book of crumbled, decrepit, depressed, destroyed times, territories, and landscapes, yet Pynchon renders it all in such magnificently beautiful prose that this is the aspect of the book I enjoyed the most. Richard Poirier, in his fabulous review for The Saturday Review put it nicely, describing Pynchon's portrayal of setting as "a species of travel writing about Berlin before Hitler, London during the Blitz, the Zone after the war, central Asia in the 1930s, German Southwest Africa early in the century---all of it apparently staggeringly authentic not only in detail but in tone, in creating the spirit of times and places Pynchon has never seen."
- The séance scenes. As the book mostly revolves around the war years, Death and The Dead always seem to be present. There are three different scenes featuring a circle of people summoning dead spirits to speak through a medium. Pynchon portrays these masterfully.
- Beyond Pynchon's remarkably descriptive passages portraying setting, my favorite device he employs is the catalogue of items. There are many great examples of this, but my favorite is probably the thorough description of the layers of crap covering Slothrop's desk toward the beginning of the book.
- Character portrayals. Despite an incomprehensibly long list of characters, Pynchon often gives them profiles in a memorably whimsical fashion. Take his description of the Russian solider Tchitcherine, for instance:
"In and out of all the vibrant flesh moves the mad scavenger Tchitcherine, who is more metal than anything else. Steel teeth wink as he talks. Under his pompadour is a silver plate. Gold wirework threads in three-dimensional tattoo among the fine wreckage of cartilage and bone inside his right knee joint, the shape of it always felt, pain's hand-fashioned seal, and his proudest battle decoration, because it is invisible, and only he can feel it. A four-hour operation, and in the dark. It was the Eastern Front: there were no sulfa drugs, no anaesthesia. Of course he's proud."
- The Pökler story. I already discussed it above, but the long episode focusing on the German chemical engineer Franz Pökler toward the middle of the book is as gripping as it is disturbing.
- The Adventures of Rocketman! While wandering in dilapidated Berlin, our hero Slothrop befriends and smokes reefer with a trio of weird characters hanging out inside the hollow of an upended tree trunk. They have recently looted a stash of Wagnerian opera costumes. Thus begins the adventures of Raketemensch or Rocketman---Slothrop donning a green velvet cape and large metal helmet shaped like a rocket. He stumbles around Germany wearing this ridiculous get-up for a while, always providing comic relief.
- All of Slothrop's adventures. If you isolate Slothrop's journeys (which are interweaved with sections detailing the stories of dozens of other characters), Gravity's Rainbow becomes a far more approachable, readable, and engaging book. The varieties of his shenanigans are legion. For one thing, he has lots of sex with different women all over the place. There's also an upscale party scene where all participants (some wearing zoot suits) are hallucinating on hash, the whole thing turning into madness when a tank, driven by an arms dealer upset about unpaid loans, crashes through the wall and fires its cannon. There is a hot air balloon chase, with Slothrop hurling pies at a pursuer in a propeller plane. In full Rocketman regalia, Slothrop sneaks over to the mansion where the Potsdam Conference is taking place (featuring Stalin, Churchill, and Truman all together), seeking a buried package of hashish kilos. Later, he stands atop the Brocken mountain peak at sunrise and experiences firsthand the legendary Brocken spectre phenomenon. I could go on forever...
* * *
Make sure you go read the companion piece from Michael at Overweening Generalist entitled "Fugitive Thoughts: Timothy Leary's Reading of Gravity's Rainbow".
* * *
Here are some Gravity's Rainbow-related links to check out:
Bookforum (lengthy review & appreciation from various authors)
"The Adventures of Rocketman" (raving review in New York Times from 1973)
"Rocket Power" (in-depth review by Richard Poirier---one of the best GR write-ups out there)
Recent review of GR audiobook in NY Times
...and a good response to it in Letters
On the Thomas Pynchon Trail (phenomenal profile piece in Vulture from a couple years ago)
Tracking Down Thomas Pynchon (another, older, lengthy profile piece)
How Thomas Pynchon Novels Can Change Your Life (Telegraph)
"The best of his novels are literary fireworks displays, bursting outwards with hilarious glee: casts of grotesques, 10-page shaggy-dog jokes, mathematical intricacies of construction, and an inhuman depth of period reference and erudite jocosity."