Gravity’s Rainbow – Greatest English language novel of the 20th Century

If you have heard much ado about Gravity’s Rainbow but could not get past the wall of words, or don’t get what’s all the fuss, then I think this is especially for you. It is also for people who love the book as much as I (do).

I’m writing this because I think Gravity’s Rainbow is the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. I’ve been reading and re-reading it for over 30 years, and it is a never-ending source of pleasure and joy. As many times as I’ve read the book, and I really have no count, it continues to provide new, intense cognitive and visceral rewards – peace, intellectual pleasure, and excitement.

However, at the same time, I know how foreboding and difficult it can be to get through the book the first time or two. It took me a year and a half to get through the first time. It was only the second time through that I began to be able to grasp what was happening – e.g., to connect the individuals who disappeared for a few hundred pages only to suddenly reappear in roles of greater importance. After several times through I began to be able to read the book in any kind of linear fashion, like a book with a story – beginning, middle, end. I know most people do not have the time or patience for this, but I’m also sure there are others for whom the challenges of plowing though the book are much less than were mine.

I write this for those who, like me, do not find Gravity’s Rainbow a “page turner” or a “good read”, but something far deeper and more satisfying, but nevertheless have difficulty accessing the beauty in the face of how intense and how different this book can initially be. For these people, I have three suggestions that helped and allowed me not only to read through the book but also to begin to appreciate the rich lode of incredible prose that is offered within.

  • First, do not read for speed. I was used to buzzing though books in a day. Suddenly I was stuck like a rear-wheel-drive ’64 (dull-lime-green) Oldsmobile Dynamic 88 in deep, sloppy, slippery, icy, wet snow. It was only after I accepted that I may only be able to read five pages, maybe only one, that day, that I was able to make any progress at all.
  • Second, try to appreciate the beauty of what you are reading as you read. I still go back over sentences several times until I’m ready to move on. Many writers strive to come up with prose that strikes the heart and stuns mind like magic – stunning in its impact and its ability to haunt. Pynchon, in this book, hits sentences, paragraphs, sometimes pages of such prose repeatedly, for near 800 pages. It is more than understandable that it took some eight years to write. If it took him that long to write it, don’t worry if it takes a year or so to read it first time out.
  •  Finally, do not try to read the book in a linear fashion – just enjoy the writing for what it is. The world is nonlinear and complex – so too is much of this book. Eventually you’ll see a linearity of sorts.

Finally, I am writing this to provide glimpses of the kind of writing I try to describe above – to offer bait, if you will, to draw you in to reading this amazing, enriching, wonderful book. I always despised stupid questions such as: If you could take one item of clothing to… I cannot tell you what musical recording I would take to the moon or which piece of visual art to look at. However, I can say easily what book I would take – it would be this one.

Side note: I don’t know how to add posts to this string with any kind of way of letting anyone know there’s been something added, so if anyone does read this and is interested, I’ll number the posts. Other than that, I’m at a loss – a technical dope.

CAVEAT – WARNING: Gravity’s Rainbow, while brilliant and a wonder, is not for children. Even smart ones. There are themes, not only related to blatant sexuality, profanity, and deviance, but certainly including those, that I don’t believe are appropriate for children. Even “young adults”. Please do not be offended if you are a “youth”, but innocence is something to be treasured, although it is often not appreciated until it is lost. That is one reason why those of us who left our innocence behind long ago try to protect you.

1. First Post – April 9, 2012

From time to time, I’d like to share passages from Pynchon’s masterpiece that I think are representative of the terrible beauty in his prose. For example, one of my favorites:

Uphill, toward the sea, snow gathers like light at all windward edges of the ancient Abbey, its roof long ago taken at the manic whim of Henry VIII, its walls left to stand and mitigate with saintless window-hollows the salt wind, blowing as the seasons replay the grass floor in great cowlicks, green to blonde, to snow.

Or, one of the best descriptions of stunned, posttraumatic dissociation that I’ve read, all the more remarkable because it was written in 1973, prior to much academic or even clinical discussion of the phenomenon:

He gazes through the sunlight’s buttresses, back down the refectory at the others … lost somewhere in the stretch of morning between them and himself. A hundred miles of it, so suddenly. Solitude, even among the meshes of this war, can when it wishes so take him by the blind gut and touch, as now, possessively …. [He is] again some other side of a window, watching strangers …

Or of the horror of war, even to civilian victims, during Germany’s V2 attacks on London toward the end of WWII:

Silence comes in, sculptured by spoken dreams, by pain-voices of the rocketbombed next door, Lord of the Night’s children, voices hung upon the ward’s stagnant medicinal air. Praying to their Master, sooner or later an abreaction, each one, all over this frost and harrowed city…
…as once again the floor is a giant lift propelling you with no warning toward your ceiling – replaying now as the walls are blown outward, bricks and mortar showering down, your sudden paralysis as death comes to wrap and stun
I don’t know guv I must’ve blacked out when I come to she was gone it was burning all around me head was full of smoke... the sudden light filling up the room, the awful silence, brighter than any morning through blankets turned to gauze no shadows at all, only unutterable two-o’clock dawn…
How many times before its washed away, these iterations that pour out, reliving the blast, afraid to let go because the letting go is so final
how do I know Doctor that I’ll ever come back?

And these are all from the first 75 pages of a nearly 800 page book. More to come…

2. Second Post – April 10, 2012

This provides a look at Pynchon’s ability to look at and into other worlds within our own:

Christmas bugs. They were deep in the straw of the manger at Bethlehem, they stumbled, climbed, fell glistening red among a golden lattice of straw that must have seemed to extend miles up and downward – an edible tenement-world, now and then gnawed through to disrupt some mysterious sheaf of vectors that would send neighbor bugs tumbling ass-over-antennas down past you as you held on with all legs in that constant tremble of golden stalks…

A more grim subject, but one in which he again shows a pretty amazing ability to get into the minds of children who have lost parents – in this case “taken when she was half her age” in the War.

Mothers and fathers are conditioned into deliberately dying in certain preferred ways: giving themselves cancer and heart attacks, getting into motor accidents, going off to fight in the War – leaving their children alone in the forest. They’ll always tell you fathers are “taken,” but fathers only leave – that’s what it really is. The fathers are all covering for each other, that’s all. 

The depth of her despair and the worldview that has been carved into her heart, perhaps for life, is cruel and callous. But how else can this child understand what has happened to her in her young life? And how many adults would have insight at this level, much less be able to communicate it in such a penetrating fashion?

3. Third Post: April 13, 2012

For those wondering about the title:

But it is a curve each of them feels, unmistakably. It is the parabola. They must have guessed, once or twice – guessed and refused to believe – that everything, always, collectively, had been moving toward that purified shape latent in the sky, that shape of no surprise, no second chances, no return. Yet they do move forever under it, reserved for its own black-and-white bad news certainly as if it were the Rainbow, and they its children…

And again, dissociation:

Waves crash and drag at the stones of the beach. The harbor has broken out in whitecaps, so brilliant they can’t be gathering their light from this drab sky. Here it is again, that identical-looking Other World–is he gonna have this to worry about now? What th’ –lookit these trees—each long frond hanging, stung, dizzying, in laborious drypoint against the sky, each so perfectly placed

More on life during the war:

In these war years, the focus of a woman’s face is her mouth. Lipstick, among these tough and too often shallow girls, prevails like blood. Eyes have been left to weather and to tears: these days, with so much death hidden in the sky, out under the sea, among the blobs and smears of recco photographs, most women’s eyes are only functional.

Finally, the way the world works:

…Now its back to their cages and the rationalized forms of death—death in the service of the one species cursed with the knowledge that it will die… “I would set you free, if I knew how. But it isn’t free out here. All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all. I can’t even give you hope that it will be different someday—that They’ll come out, and forget death, and lose Their technology’s elaborate terror, and stop using every other form of life without mercy to keep what haunts men down to a tolerable level—and be like you instead, simply here, simply alive…”

For now…

About Thomas N. Dikel, Ph.D.

I am a Developmental Psychopathologist trained in child development, clinical psychology, pediatric neuropsychology, and forensic psychology. My focus, expertise, or specialty is trauma and PTSD, particularly child abuse and combat related trauma. I work with both adults and children, and adults who are dealing with childhood issues. I am available for forensic evaluations, consultation, and expert witness testimony.
Gallery | This entry was posted in 20th Century English Literature, Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon, World War II and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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