Tuesday, October 26, 2004


I'm in the middle of rereading Gravity's Rainbow for what must be the third or fourth time. At the moment I've just reached the end of the Advent set-piece, on p. 159 of the Bantam edition. (It's been slow going, because I try to only read it when my mind is emotionally and intellectually capable of fully responding to the book; otherwise, what's the point?) I want to record my reactions to the book here, as my reading progresses. These won't be anything like finished essays or works of criticism, just thoughts noted down on the fly. If you haven't read the book, they probably won't mean much to you.

First, some notes I made before I hit the first Katje-Blicero-Gottfried section, beginning on p. 109 (all page numbers will refer to the Bantam edition):

Despite Pynchon's reputation as an anti-realistic writer, the book has a firm grounding in material reality. It's full of descriptions which put most "realistic" writers to shame in their specificity and grasp of material reality.

Setting aside the set-pieces, Pynchon's prose craftsmanship is amazing. It seems like there's almost never a wrong word.

One could consider the book's structure "musical," in its use of recurring motifs.

I know this book well, probably as well as I know any book; I almost feel like without trying, I've memorized whole passages. But this familiarity means that the marshalling of surprise and shock which is an important part of Pynchon's technique loses its impact. It's like watching a Monty Python episode for the fifth time.

One thing which is much more obvious to me on this reading than on previous ones is how pervasive the fear of death is, which leads to the fear of randomness, and the need to escape randomness by finding connections in everything (the famous "paranoia").

As I said, these were my reactions to the book before we meet Katje, Blicero and Gottfried. The Katje-Blicero-Gottfried section struck me as a major turn in the book. It's the first real move away from the world of allied intelligence in London, with Blicero the first character not part of this world whose mind we get an extended look at. It contains the first explicitly pornographic and sadomasochistic passages, although there've been intimations of this earlier. Up until now, the book has been basically a realistic novel with interludes of fantasy. But the description of Gottfried's abuse is outside the conventions of the realistic novel, but it's not fantasy either. There's a change in the language, too: the basis in material reality I referred too earlier is less in evidence, and the syntax even seems to become disordered. And Pynchon's conspiratorial interpretation of history makes its first appearance here, if I'm not mistaken, in the passage which contains the quote "The real business of the War is buying and selling." (122) To be honest, this is where the book first took flight for me on this reading. As I said, Pychon does a superb job of depicting the material reality of wartime London; but it's a bleak and drab reality, and up to this point the flights of fancy have been too infrequent to provide much relief.

After this, two brilliant set-pieces, Frans Van der Groov's dodo hunt and the Disgusting English Candy Drill. Then comes a fairly long Roger-Jessica passage (140-147). Here I wrote that I don't think the Roger-Jessica sections really work. To make them work, more than brilliant prose is needed. Pynchon needed to make Roger and Jessica psychologically convincing characters. And they aren't: particularly Jessica, who comes across in passages like this as more of a wish-fulfillment fantasy (her transformation into a bitch by the end of the book is equally unconvincing). Perhaps as a result, for the first time Pynchon's prose appears to be trying too hard.

After this comes the Advent set-piece. On previous readings this had been one of the book's highlights, but this time it was a disappointment. It's aiming at a sort of panoramic view of wartime England, but this doesn't quite come off. The rhetoric struck me as overblown; especially the stuff about "the War" with a capital W, which forces me to recognize that Pynchon's conspiratorial interpretation of history, which I referred to above, is not very coherent.

More later, hopefully.

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