Saturday, January 15, 2005


I'm going to be hard on Pynchon in this installment, and I feel bad about this. Unfortunately, the best passages aren't necessarily the ones I have the most to say about. This is especially true of Pokler's story, which I haven't yet discussed. It's a magnificent piece of writing, and emotionally devastating; but at the moment I don't really have anything to say about it that wouldn't be just repeating what's clear from the text. But keep in mind when you read the following paragraphs that I still think Gravity's Rainbow is a great book.

In "Beyond the Zero" and "Un Perm'," and in "In the Zone" before Pokler's story (except for a few isolated remarks), personal morality is not a big issue. Characters are either uncomplicatedly good or uncomplicatedly bad, with no self-examination required; in fact, the only introspective character is a bad guy, as we've seen. But beginning with Pokler's story, personal morality becomes crucial. The worst sins, Pynchon now tells us, are indifference--"our age's neutral, our silent passing into the machineries of indifference" is how he puts it in the midst of Pokler's story (482, Bantam edition)--and lack of responsibility, distancing oneself, as Pokler does, from "the inconveniences of caring." (499)

I have no problem with this message per se, but its sudden introduction causes difficulties in terms of the book as a whole. To start with, as said above, we've already read hundred of pages in which this call to responsibility was never mentioned, and now suddenly we're told that it's crucial. If it's so important, why didn't we hear about it before? More specifically, it's Slothrop who, aside from Pokler, receives Pynchon's condemnation for irresponsibility. But Slothrop isn't behaving any differently now than he did in "Beyond the Zero" and "Un Perm'," where his behavior wasn't condemned. The condemnation of Slothrop's promiscuity on pp. 549-50 is a powerful passage, but in the earlier portions of the book his promiscuity was portrayed as life-affirming, if anything.

We also see Slothrop's earlier character redescribed in ways that the text doesn't support. In the paragraph beginning "But somebody has already educated him" (461), just after Greta asks him to whip her, it's implied that Slothrop has always had sadistic tendencies, but there's been no sign of such tendencies up to this point. And on p. 572, we are told that Slothrop "is growing less anxious about betraying those who trust him. He feels obligations less immediately. There is, in fact, a general loss of emotion, a numbness he ought to be alarmed at, but can't quite . . ." (ellipsis Pynchon's). But again, what we're actually shown of Slothrop doesn't reveal any such alteration in him. Having created a deliberately cartoonish protagonist, Pynchon is now trying to transform him into a three-dimensional character such as one would find in a "realist" novel, and it doesn't work.

The whole Greta-as-child-murderer thing is weak, both as a plot device and in terms of the writing: the prose in and around Morituri's tale is below Pynchon's usual standard in Gravity's Rainbow. I'm very leery of psychoanalytic interpretations, but in this case it's clear that Greta represents insatiable female sexuality (521-2, 568-9), and Pynchon is threatened by this. There's a strange duality between Bianca (of all the women improbably eager to hop into bed with Slothrop, Bianca is perhaps the least convincing) and Greta, where Bianca represents "good," nonthreatening female sexuality and Greta is "bad" female sexuality. One thing I noticed was that when Greta is first mentioned, she is said to be the woman who Slothrop will abandon (424), but as the scene plays out, it is Bianca whom he is accused of abandoning; I wonder whether Pynchon didn't make Greta a murderer as a way of "freeing" Slothrop from his responsibility to Greta and transferring it to Bianca. The more I think about the Bianca episode, the more unaccountable it seems. Less than fifty pages after Pokler's story, in which Pynchon deconstructed the myth of childhood innocence and showed Franz resisting the temptation to have sex with "Ilse," he falls into the very things he had warned against. Rereading these sections--Slothrop's sex with Bianca and Morituri's tale--I began to wonder if Pynchon had lost control of his material.

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