Wednesday, July 18, 2007


This is a very peculiar book. It's not a book of illustrations in the conventional sense; it consists of approximately 760 drawings, one for each page of the 1973 Viking edition of Gravity's Rainbow. Despite the title, Smith doesn't portray everything that happens in Gravity's Rainbow. In fact, most of the drawings don't actually show anything happening. But each page does portray a scene, or sometimes simply an object, which appears on, or is inspired by, the corresponding page in Gravity's Rainbow.

Smith works in a variety of styles and techniques. Most of the drawings are black-and-white, but some have color added. Many of the drawings are caricature-like sketches. Some look like watercolors, or black-and-white reproductions thereof. Some look abstract at first glance. Some are darkened or cross-hatched to the point of virtual illegibility. Some pages are even broken up into comic-like panels, though there are never word balloons.

In appearance Pictures resembles one of those "wordless novels" that have appeared from time to time (e.g. Eric Drooker's Flood!). But unlike such books, it isn't a standalone narrative. Without referring back to Gravity's Rainbow itself, one can't tell the significance of Smith's drawings -- or, in many cases, even what is happening.

This leads to the main problem with the book. If one considers it simply as a collection of drawings, the variety of styles and the skill with which it's executed make it fascinating, though more suited to dipping into than reading straight through. But it demands to be read in conjunction with Gravity's Rainbow. And when you do this, well, Pynchon simply blows Smith out of the water. For all Smith's skill, he doesn't even come near to the richness of Pynchon's prose.

One thing that really pissed me off about the book is the misleading back-cover blurb (which Smith, of course, was not responsible for). This begins: "Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) has been called a modern Finnegans Wake for its challenging language, wild anachronisms, hallucinatory happenings, and fever-dream imagery. With Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow, artist Zak Smith at once eases and expands readers' experience of the twentieth-century classic." First of all, Gravity's Rainbow is a difficult book, but Finnegans Wake it ain't: rarely if ever is there any difficulty figuring out what event is taking place on the page. Second, if this were a difficulty, Pictures wouldn't help: as I said above, you need Gravity's Rainbow to understand Pictures, not vice versa. (Incidentally, I'm not sure what the "wild anachronisms" the blurb mentions are supposed to be. Gravity's Rainbow ranges widely in time, from the mid-17th century colonization of Mauritius to an imaginary future, but as far as I recall the details of each scene are appropriate to the period in which it's set.)

Another side-note: at the start of Smith's foreword, he tells a story in which he allows a porn director who goes by the name Benny Profane to use some of Smith's Gravity's Rainbow drawings in his latest movie, in exchange for being allowed to act -- i.e. have sex -- in that movie. He comments: "I suspect Pynchon fans will find all that thoroughly gratifying..." I don't know how Pynchon fans would feel about it (myself, I have no feelings one way or the other), but I can't see Pynchon -- at least the Pynchon who wrote Gravity's Rainbow -- being anything but horrified.

If you're interested in the book, it's published by Tin House Books and costs $39.95; its ISBN-13 is 978-0-9773127-9-5.

I am the porn director in question. Why do you immediately jump to the conclusion that Pynchon would be horrified? Have you seen the movie in question, or the context in which the illustrations are displayed? It seems to me that you are jumping to some very prudish conclusions... but I will give you the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps you are merely prejudiced against the porn industry.

PS, in defense of Zak's book, the one which you are reviewing, He wasn't setting out to quantify or explain Pynchon's amazing novel... he merely had an extremely personal reaction to the book, as many of it's fans have, and he wanted to give the audience an intimate view of his experience with G.R. When viewed as a document of the nuances of one individual's thought process, Zak's art takes on much more texture.
Hello, and thanks for commenting.

When I wrote that I believed Pynchon would be horrified, I meant just that: that Pynchon would be horrified, not that I was horrified or disapproving. If you read my series of posts on Gravity's Rainbow (which of course, you were under no obligation to do), you would see that while I think Gravity's Rainbow is a great book, I don't agree with all of its values.

I have indeed not seen the film in question. My belief that Pynchon would be horrified is based on two things. First, his curious disapproval of film; and second, the negative portrayal of the orgies in the book (unless I've forgotten one): Greta Erdman's gangbangs and the orgy on board the Anubis.
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