Thursday, June 4, 2009

GRAVITY'S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon (Part II)

Having finished Gravity's Rainbow now, I'm attempting to see the novel whole--a task complicated by the fact that the first 100 pages, read a week ago, seem to be a great distance back in time. I can now see the surprising and perhaps ultimately tragic progress of the Force-Counterforce dialectic. By the novel's midpoint, we seem to have settled into an almost comfortable oscillation between tragic images of horror and death and the wildly comic imaginative flights that Pynchon associates with life. But Pynchon refuses to let the novel remain in this steady state of dynamic oscillation (a position I'm tempted to compare to the 'endpoint' of deManian deconstruction: two mutually exclusive and equally plausible meanings oscillating around a point of radical uncertainty). Pynchon pushes his own construction further, until it begins to break down when it encounters horrors unanswerable by even the darkest comedy. The turning point comes, fittingly, just past the novel's halfway point, in the long episode I'll call "Franz Pokler and His Daughter(s)." It's a beautiful and terrible sequence, one of the novel's many high-points, and it focuses on the SS's strategy for controlling rocket engineer Franz Pokler by manipulating his deepest parental and erotic desires, allowing him to spend a few days each year with a girl presumed to be his daughter, who spends the rest of the year in a concentration camp. (Franz's uncertainty as to whether this girl is his daughter and his suspicion that a different girl is being sent to him each year are perfect touches that raise this little narrative to the level of Kafka.) At the end of the episode, with the war nearly over, a disillusioned Pokler forces himself to walk into the Dora concentration camp (a historical camp that fed slave laborers to the Nazi rocket program), forces himself to face the reality that his equations, his devotion to rational thought, forced him to repress, even as that reality was consuming his ex-wife and daughter. So Pynchon takes us inside the concentration camp. The scene is short (a mere two paragraphs) and impressionistic, but it's arguable that the movement that has governed the structure of the novel until this point is irrevocably altered by it. For here is a horror that comedy cannot answer. (The one time that TP does attempt to play the camps for laughs, his satirical description of the SS-themed sado-masochistic 'stadt' set up by homosexual prisoners from Dora, is the novel's biggest comic misfire. It's not satire of fascism but fascist satire, a genuinely repulsive passage that's probably the result of authorial homophobia (on display in a few passages here and there throughout the book) and Pynchon's reductive theory of fascism as S-M (about which I'll have more to say in a later post).) After this point, throughout the book's second half, the oscillations into comedy become more desperate, hysterical, and sometimes self-cancelling, as in the endless song "Sold on Suicide." The narrative voice also becomes more digressive, more apt to shift tones on a dime, more aggressive and insolent toward the reader. The ultimate failure of the comic strategy becomes clear at the end, when the self-proclaimed 'Counterforce' is reduced to pissing on board meetings and grossing-out wealthy diners, a kind of petty pranksterism that, while funny, doesn't affect the balance of power. The pranksters are doomed,like Byron the Bulb in his Grid, to become 'pet freaks' of the system, exemplary misfits whose continued existence and antics allow the state to advertise its 'tolerance.' The last we hear of the Counterforce, one of its members is giving an interview to the Wall Street Journal. Enough said.

Or is it?
The narrative of the most militant face of the Counterforce, the Schwarzkommando, is left unresolved and ambiguous. The narrator attempts to foist a transparently phony resolution upon the reader by showing Enzian and Tchitcherine meeting unknowingly on the road, but by this point in the novel any non-lobotomized reader should know not to trust the narrator. As he tells us--in one of his voices--"there's nothing so loathsome as a sentimental surrealist." So what happens to the Schwarzkommando and Rocket 00001? (I suspect, by the way, that this narrative gave TP some difficulties. It reads as though he wrote it without being quite sure where it was going. The other narrative lines don't give me this feeling at all.) About the Schwarzkommando no answer can be given apart from extratextual speculation, a labyrinth I prefer not to enter, but as to the question of Enzian's rocket, Pynchon has constructed one gaping ambiguity on the novel's final page. The rocket that crashes into the cinema is not explicitly identified as Rocket 00000 carrying Gottfried (God-fried/God-freed) to his death. And given the radical discontinuity of the novel's final pages, we may not be off the mark to interpret the final 'Descent' section not as a description of Gottfried's wartime descent but of the fall of the Schwarzkommando's missile, Enzian's anarchist terrorist 'revelation' visited upon a peacetime cinema to show that "Nowhere is safe," that safety, like Faulkner's 'victory,' is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

And let's think further about that ending for a moment. All of the book's audiences, the viewers and voyeurs who comprise one of its motifs, can be easily interpreted as stand-ins for Gravity's Rainbow's audience--you and me. That hurts, doesn't it? It should. We are Osbie Feel behind his camera, Grigori in his tank, the horny viewers of Alpdrucken and the far hornier Anubis orgiasts turned on by a performance of pedophile S-M. Yes-sir-ee, we're the rubes who've stepped right up to Tom Terrific's Flickering Freakshow, paid our two bits and spent a week or two inside. Fun, wasn't it? Let's see now: atrocity, genocide, murder, serial killing, rape, pedophilia, incest...heh, heh. Just good clean American fun here, folks. And this audience/reader-as-voyeur theme culminates when a cinema audience, frustrated because the film or projector has broken (itself an instance of the novel's 'persistence of vision' motif as well as a mirror reflecting back at the reader his own frustration at the novel's discontinuities), is transformed into the ground zero of a missile strike, an event that ends the novel (in midsentence) with an annihilating symbolic attack on its readers. It's hard to think of another novel that ends this violently, with such a sledgehammer-subtle assault on its own readers. Even Blood Meridian, surely the most superficially 'violent' of great American novels, doesn't fit the bill.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just finished (my first) reading GR about thirty minutes ago and immediately dove into your posts about the book. In regards to "The narrative voice also becomes more digressive, more apt to shift tones on a dime, more aggressive and insolent toward the reader." I couldn't agree more: there were moments in the book where I honestly felt as if Pynchon was peaking over my shoulder as I read, gauging my reactions, noting what bothered me and then cramming another hundred pages into my copy. As to your idea that the 00001 is the actual rocket fired on the Orpheus at novel's end, I hadn't thought of that but it makes perfect sense. My only disagreement with you is your interpretation of the homosexual's from the concentration camp. To me it didn't feel like Pynchon was making light of the situation as an excuse for more childish comedy, but using the most Juvenal of satire to show how fascism had beaten down and destroyed the will to live of those survivors. Thanks for articulating your ideas, it's helping me to better digest this behemoth.