Thursday, June 4, 2009

GRAVITY'S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon (Part I)

Almost 300 pages into a re-reading (my second complete reading) of Gravity's Rainbow, I'm finding it a much richer and more beautiful book than I remembered, and no less complex. Thinly disguised as an antiwar novel (a disguise as transparent as those donned by its characters) GR is actually the Great American Anti-Corporate Novel. It investigates, in a more complex, knowing and entertaining way than any other novel I've ever read, the tragic human effects of capitalism in its 'permanent war economy' mode. And even as I write that, I reel at its terrible reductiveness. Gravity's Rainbow exceeds and dissolves our interpretations by creating a seemingly horizonless comic world, an imaginative stage as big as reality, and by reading us as we read it, frequently breaking our suspension of disbelief to position us as voyeurs at its spectacles. This is what the novel's most self-conscious moments are ultimately about: denying the reader an 'exit' into the novel's fantasy world, keeping us positioned in our world and opening a wormhole into the reader's time. (I'm getting fuzzy and mystical and altogether too Psi Section now. I know. Too much time at the White Visitation...) More violently--and this is a work that sometimes treats its readers with great violence--Pynchon shows us at one point that we are like Pointsman's Pavlovian dogs (or more specifically, Grigori the octopus), responding on cue to TP's textual stimuli. This is not a book designed to make its readers comfortable, and those who come away only amused are surely misreading it. (Not, of course, to downplay the amusement, because GR is funny as hell--but that's hardly all it is.) Anyone who reads GR without understanding that Grigori in his tank watching the film of Katje is an image of himself reading about Katje is conveniently missing the most violent thing this novel does to its audiences. (Well, until the end, that is, when TP drops a rocket on us...)

If our understanding of the novel can be organized around a single theme (a rather absurd project, given a novel so varied and polyvocal), my candidate would be the idea of Force and Counterforce, of ultra-rational corporate power and the spontaneous, anarchic resistance that rises up in opposition to it. The deathly order of Power can be anarchically resisted by improvisation (bending the notes away from the "official frequencies"), an area in which TP is the John Coltrane or Charlie Parker of our literature. (I just paused to put on my CD of Coltrane's album Giant Steps, music for thinking about Pynchon.) This is the reason, the best and deepest justification, for all the novel's digressions and wild flights of fantasy and imagination. The novel exemplifies in its own form the kind of resistance it describes: Slothrop's slapstick antics, drinking games, stupid songs and labyrinthine plots are his improvised, spontaneous, anarchic acts of resistance to the forces of Death that represent power in the novel: Slothrop's "They," a group that stretches to include all military, governmental, scientific and corporate technocrats of death. Against them comes spontaneous life, wild sex, unsentimentalized love--all that is most Romantic in Pynchon. In the novel's form, at the level of narration, Slothrop's actions find their counterpart in Pynchon's choices: his multiple voices, incessant clowning, self-consciousness, goofball surrealism, slapstick comedy, long digressions, proliferating narrative lines. All of this characterizes Pynchon's resistance to traditional fictional forms (which he also clearly adores; the best analogy here is probably Pop Art's ironic relation to mass production) with their fixed formulas and rational rules, those carefully calculated equations that all add up to the death of art--or an art of death.

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