Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Long-time readers of this blog, if there are any, will have noticed that I haven't blogged about Gravity's Rainbow in quite a while. After my last post on Gravity's Rainbow, I set it aside unread for a couple of months. Then I picked it up again, read twenty or thirty pages, set it aside again, picked it up after a few days, read twenty or thirty pages more, and set it aside once again. Why has my reading of Gravity's Rainbow seemingly run out of steam? Partly because of lack of energy and hence of ability to concentrate; and partly because I was busy writing several reviews I'd committed myself to, and I didn't want to read the book if I wouldn't have time to blog about it. But there's another factor which is intrinsic to the book itself. I'm still coming across brilliant bits of writing on nearly every page. But at this point in the book (the tail-end of "In the Zone" and the first pages of "The Counterforce"), the brilliant bits don't seem to add up to anything; or if they do, I can't see it. John Cawelti once wrote in an article on Melville's The Confidence-Man that whatever Melville asserted in that book, he took back later in the book, and the same could be said of Gravity's Rainbow.* But more that that, so much of the material in these pages simply seems irrelevant to any discernible broader design. To take the most recent example I encountered, why is the story of Byron the Bulb bracketed by an unnamed colonel's hallucination (?) of visiting "Happyville"? And why does the colonel meet Jamf there? (Bantam pb ed., pp. 752-64) In Gerald Howard's article on Gravity's Rainbow in the Summer 2005 issue of Bookforum, which is overwhelmingly laudatory, he nevertheless remarks that "there were stretches of the book that felt so private and hermetic I decided that Pynchon was mostly talking to Pynchon"; and I know what he means.

This leads to the question: what is Gravity's Rainbow? In his article, Howard asserts that "Gravity's Rainbow is not ... a novel in the generally accepted sense--it is a text, intended for moral instruction." I would agree with the first half of the sentence, and so, I think, would most readers (never mind the difficulty of defining "a novel in the generally accepted sense"). But I don't agree with the second half. In fact, it's not clear to me what Howard means by it. Certainly Gravity's Rainbow has a moral point of view, but no more so than do many if not most "novels in the generally accepted sense." And if Pynchon's primary goal in writing Gravity's Rainbow was moral instruction, he picked a very inefficient way of going about it. Moreover, Pynchon's moral concerns are not constant within Gravity's Rainbow: for instance, the moral critique of Slothrop I had talked about earlier (Jan. 15) has apparently been discarded in Slothrop's most recent appearances.

Dan Green also disagrees with Howard's claim, and goes on to suggest that Gravity's Rainbow, at least at its "best," is more like a Menippean satire, "in which 'it's usually difficult (if not impossible) to pin down the specific targets of ridicule,'" and which "depicts human behavior as just hopelessly ridiculous." But I don't think this is right either. While there is indeed satire in Gravity's Rainbow, it's not primarily satire, Menippean or otherwise. Nor is it difficult to pin down the specific targets of ridicule in Gravity's Rainbow's satiric passages. And I don't believe that Pynchon shows human behavior in Gravity's Rainbow as "just hopelessly ridiculous" at all, though his characters do often find themselves in ridiculous situations. Franz Pokler, Lena, Mexico, Prentice, Enzian, Tchitcherine, Blicero, Bianca, Greta: none of these are portrayed as ridiculous. Even Slothrop, for all his gee-whiz and aw-shucks mannerisms, is ultimately more tragic than ridiculous. If you compare Gravity's Rainbow with Gaddis's JR and The Recognitions, both of which are Menippean satires, the difference in tone is obvious. At this point I should put forth my own theory of what Gravity's Rainbow is; but unfortunately I don't have one. I don't understand why Pynchon structured the book as he did, or why he included what he did -- unless he did indeed set out to write a book for which no coherent interpretation was possible.

Towards the end of his article, Howard worries that younger readers may find Pynchon's concerns "alien and irrelevant to them. This makes sense. Pynchon is a pure product of the cold war and the arms race and the adversary culture that opposed them, whereas these young people came of age after the fall of communism, in a time when technology is viewed as the royal road to imaginative and personal freedom." If younger readers do in fact find Pynchon's concerns alien and irrelevant (Howard relies upon a very small and unrepresentative sample), I don't think it's for the reasons Howard gives. The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of the military-industrial complex, or of the invocation of external enemies to get the populace to rally 'round the flag. And suspicion of science and technology remains prevalent

A more likely explanation: the "enemy" in Gravity's Rainbow, in the broadest sense, is the processes of systematization and rationalization. This reflects American society as it was at the time, and even more so that of the '50s and '60s, which was the society of Pynchon's formative years and that which the New Left was a reaction against. This was the society of Whyte's The Organization Man and Galbraith's The New Industrial State. Most major industries were divided up among a few large corporations who tacitly agreed to respect each others' market shares. Government programs, based upon social science, sought to put society in order. And McNamara tried to fight the Vietnam War with operations research. But this society is gone (even more so in perception than in reality). No doubt there are still some industries which are shared out according to cozy gentlemen's agreements among corporations, but not the industries or the corporations that dominate the business headlines. Politicians no longer propose ambitious programs based upon social science -- at least none that have any chance of being enacted. And the current administration's wars have not been notable for precise quantitative planning. Given all this, it isn't surprising that a book whose main target is systematization and rationalization might no longer seem relevant.

*John G. Cawelti, "Some Notes on the Structure of The Confidence-Man," American Literature 29 (Nov. 1957), 278-88.

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