Thursday, June 4, 2009

GRAVITY'S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon (Part III)

A-and speaking of endings, how about the end of that Tyrone Slothrop? What happens to Slothrop over the course of the novel and why? That question can only be satisfactorily answered at essay- or book-length, but I would like to sketch out a few ideas here. Recall that our introduction to Slothrop consists not of a description of his person but of an archaeology of his fabulously untidy desktop. (Recall also that among the many items on Slothrop's desk are a few jigsaw puzzle pieces--"...the orange nimbus of an explosion (perhaps a sunset), rivets in the skin of a Flying Fortress..."--that when put together in the reader's mind add up to Hiroshima.) So as the novel begins, Slothrop is not yet a 'subject,' in jargon terms; nor is he GR's subject in the usual sense of the word, since the book begins inside Pirate Prentice's mind. Over the course of the first section, we readers construct Slothrop's subjectivity from the seemingly random information we are given, until by the end of the London section he seems as hard or harder, more solid and rounded, than any of the other characters. We readers are exemplary paranoids, sometimes even making connections none of the novel's characters can see. Over the rest of the novel, Slothrop's seemingly solid identity is placed under increasing pressure and gradually begins to disintegrate, as symbolized by his comic costume changes, role playing, etc. In the latter parts of the book, simultaneous with the distortions brought about by bringing the novel in contact with the concentration camps, Slothrop begins to lose "personal density," the solidity of one's personality, which by Mondaugen's Law is directly proportional to "temporal bandwidth," the extent to which one is conscious of one's past and future. Continuity, then, is subjectivity, and living only in the Now reduces the thickness of one's self toward zero. (Mondaugen's Law is both a satire of the kinds of equations Pynchon was forced to memorize as an engineering student at Cornell and a critique of one strain of pop 'existentialism' that found its way into the Sixties counterculture.) In the book's last 100 or so pages, when Slothrop wanders through northern Germany, he appears to regain (or construct) his 'self' in communion with nature. These scenes, the novel's most traditionally Romantic, culminate in a stunningly eroticized Lawrentian vision of a rainbow: "...Slothrop sees a very thick rainbow here, a stout rainbow cock driven down out of pubic clouds into Earth, green wet valleyed Earth, and his chest fills and he stands crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural...." Some time later, Slothrop finds a fragment of newspaper with a photograph of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, described in imagery that horrifyingly transforms the earlier rainbow: "...a wirephoto of a giant white cock, dangling in the sky straight downward out of a white pubic bush..." The imagery of sublime natural beauty has been transformed utterly by the annunciation of the atomic age into an image of colossal pornography. An image of all-encompassing love has "become death, the destroyer of worlds." The unassimilable horror of Hiroshima blows Slothrop away. Henceforth we see him only in fragments, memories, legends. In philosophical terms, the Bomb puts a period to Slothrop's personal dialectic of subjectivity by shattering the synthesizing self. The spectre of nuclear annihilation has blown his mind, as it should really have blown all of our minds--and as it would have, had we not been culturally insulated and interpellated by ideologies that tried to defang its horror. The final, fragmented, Orphic Tyrone is a barometer of human existence in the nuclear age. His disintegrated madness is a form of sanity in a psychotic world. (Another echt-Romantic notion.)

This is but one possible sketch of Slothrop's trajectory through the novel. There are many others. (It would even be possible to argue that Slothrop dies somewhere around page 360 after drinking tainted water in the Tiergarten fountain and the rest of the novel consists of his dying, feverish fantasies--but that's probably a longshot.) My reading does, however, correspond well to another of the book's major themes, the eroticization of thanatos and the thanatization of eros. (I'm now following interpretive tracks laid down by Walter A. Davis in his book Death's Dream Kingdom.) It's a theme dramatized most obviously in the Blicero narrative, culminating in Blicero encasing his beloved Gottfried in a rocket, symbol of death. Returning to the Hiroshima newspaper fragment, we see an image of a militarized pinup girl (the "old fashioned" eroticization of thanatos) contrasted with the mushroom cloud as something of a different and far more shocking order, the thanatization of eros, the life instinct being wholly co-opted by desire for death. It's an insufferable situation that (in one reading) finally destroys Slothrop's coherent self or (in another) reveals the incoherence and randomness beneath the paranoid construction that we readers(its partial creators) called his 'self.'

And even having written three posts now (with another longish one still to come), I know I've merely scratched the surface of this novel's greatness. Here is a 760-page novel in which the first 100 pages, the middle 100 pages and the final 100 pages are equally brilliant and surprising--something that almost never happens in long novels. Even more remarkable, on the level of craft, is the fact that this book hardly ever lags. There's very little slack in GR. It's a big book, but there's precious little excess fat on its bones. There may be no other novel of its generation that's both this long and this tight. And did I mention that it's funny as hell? And that it contains cogent, knowing critiques of technocracy and corporatism that sadly remain relevant 35 years later? And did I mention that this is the only--the ONLY--'postmodern' novel that doesn't look like a bloated masturbating midget when placed next to Ulysses? (Really. It's that good.) A-and...Aw shit, just read the damn thing--at least twice.

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