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In Praise of the Preterite
Or, why you should read "Gravity’s Rainbow" fifty years later.
It was fifty years ago this week that what is probably the outstanding English-language novel of the second half of the twentieth century appeared, yet the anniversary looks like attracting very little real interest in the media. Here, I’ll briefly explain what is great about Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, why it’s so under-appreciated, and why you should read it.
When Gravity’s Rainbow (henceforth GR) was published in February 1973. Pynchon was not exactly unknown: his first novel, V, an unclassifiable sort-of historical novel covering the first half of the twentieth century was published in 1963 to enthusiastic if often puzzled reviews, followed by a much shorter novel The Crying of Lot 49 in 1966. Already in those books we can see typical Pynchon trademarks: titles which make no sense at first sight, immensely complex plots involving many colourful characters with curious names, sinister conspiracies, references to popular culture, and an almost infinitely malleable and adaptable style.
GR was published to very uneven reviews: some laudatory, making (justified) comparisons to Joyce and Proust, others puzzled, or simply dismissive. Nobody really knew what to make of this dazzling 750-page doorstep of a book. It was like nothing that had been published before, and it’s not a lot like anything that has been published since. My own experience is probably typical. I found the book in a public library near the office where I was working at the time, a few years after it came out. I took it home, read it over a couple of weeks, read the last fifty pages again, to check that I hadn’t missed anything, put it down, and thought, like hundreds of thousands of other readers, I suspect, What The Hell Was That About? Oh, there was a story, there were characters, and it was possible to say what the book was “about” in banal terms. But I didn’t understand it at all. So I decided to see what the Times Literary Supplement, by which I swore in those days, had to say about it. After some searching, I found the right issue, and after looking through it a couple of times I still couldn’t find anything. Eventually, I noticed a sniffy, supercilious couple of hundred words hidden away at the bottom of a page, from which it could be deduced that this tiresome comedy act by some unknown American author wasn’t worth your time or money.
These days, it’s true, things have moved on a bit. The wild inventiveness, the post-modern trickery and the sheer complexity of GR have spawned an academic industry: of the wrong kind, I’m tempted to say. A university library database I have access to gives nearly 400 references to books and articles entirely or largely devoted to GR, as well as thousands to Pynchon in general. They have attractive and evocative titles like “Green Scripts in Gravity's Rainbow: Pynchon, Pastoral Ideology and the Performance of Ecological Self,” which actually read like parodies that Pynchon himself might have come up with. Maybe they are. Pynchon has become an infinite play space for academics, just as all his books are still in print and read by ordinary people, but somehow the arbiters of literary taste on both sides of the Atlantic decided long ago that Pynchon was Not Serious and so Not of Interest. I’ll come back to that in a moment. In the meantime, what exactly are we dealing with here?
Well, in one sense, we’re dealing with a novel set largely in 1944-45, as the Second World War was drawing to a close, and with the German A-4 or V-2 rocket, and its development and associated technologies. (In a way, GR is V-2). But to say that is a bit like saying that Ulysses is a book about Dublin in 1906, or that Proust wrote a book about a man who takes forty pages to go to sleep. Because the novel actually ranges far and wide, from South-West Africa at the beginning of the century, to Berlin in the 1920s, to Soviet Central Asia a decade later, to the history of the German rocket programme, and even back to the seventeenth century New England of Pynchon’s ancestors, and (very briefly) forward into the 1960s. The Rocket is at once the governing symbol of the book and a complete Hitchcockian Mcguffin. But then we’re also dealing with, oh, let’s see, Original Sin, predestination and preterition, developments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the rise of industrial cartels, philosophy, theology, conspiracies in every imaginable form, western popular culture since the 1920s, notably music and film, behaviourist psychology, colonialism, communism, the development of the plastics industry, esotericism, witchcraft and magic. Lots and lots of magic. Indeed, magic is to GR what Greek mythology is to Ulysses, or memory is to Proust. Behind the surface appearance of anarchy and chaos is an elaborate scheme based on Tarot cards and astrology, which holds everything together. The Rocket, seen from below, turns out to have the same shape as a Tibetan Mandala.
And this is not an accident. From the little we know about Pynchon’s life (he has given no interviews and permits no photographs) he seems to have studied mathematics and engineering before turning to English literature, and to have served in the Navy before becoming a technical writer for Boeing. Never has a major writer had a better grasp of science and technology and used it better: for Pynchon, as for Plato in the Timaeus, mathematics is the ultimate truth of the universe, and not really distinct from philosophy. In the novel, science and the supernatural are effectively the same thing, and mathematical formulas are also magical spells. Religion, superstition and spiritualism are everywhere: the novel ends with (or actually doubles back to) a bizarre human sacrifice on Easter Sunday, which just happens, in 1945, to fall on 1 April.
Similarly, Roger Mexico, a statistician and one of the novel’s more sympathetic characters, is believed by some of his colleagues to have magical powers, because he can predict how many V-2 rockets will land in any given sector of London. But as he says, it’s just a simple equation based on randomness. Meanwhile, the Powers That Be are obsessively interested in why a young American Lieutenant, Tyrone Slothrop, has a map in his office showing his sexual conquests, which just happen to prefigure rocket strikes. Much of the rest of the novel is taken up with this and other futile attempts to impose order on chaos. The governing principle of the novel, in fact, is Entropy, and Slothrop, a deliberately insubstantial and vapid character even at the start, and whose Tarot is The Fool, actually fades progressively into non-existence as the novel comes to its “end.”
GR was the product of a very particular time and place. Written (we think) mostly in the years 1967-1972, mostly in California, it reflects the counter-culture of the time, of which Pynchon seems to have been a supporter, though by no means an uncritical one. (He wrote a much later and slighter novel about the period: Inherent Vice.) The Vietnam War was over (in the western media, anyway) and the Watergate crisis was revving up. Thatcher and Reagan were not yet casting baleful shadows backward in history. The Beatles had gone but their overwhelming influence endured. Rock music was just at the point of turning pretentious. People of my age listened to Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Who, the Doors and (unfortunately) Black Sabbath. Films like The Godfather, Cabaret and Lady Sings the Blues had been doing well in the cinema. The influence of the French Nouveau roman was strong, and was picked up by authors like John Barth, himself once popular but now largely forgotten. GR appears at first sight as anarchic as those times seemed to be, but it’s better described as anarcho-syndicalist: his heroes are drifters, rebels, drug-dealers, deserters, victims of conspiracies, the lost and the defeated, but their stories are organised into a narrative of formidable structural power and effectiveness. If Pynchon apparently claimed to have written much of GR while taking psychedelics, well, it doesn’t show.
Above all, it’s a book which would have been prosecuted for obscenity fifty years before (as Ulysses was) and would be unpublishable today. I suspect no contemporary publisher would dare touch it: whole cohorts of sensitivity readers would have to be treated for PTSD. And Pynchon, of course doesn’t care. Indeed, he’d probably have said he didn’t give a **** In many ways this is the most glorious thing about GR: perhaps the greatest modern English-language novelist is indulging himself in a display of dazzling excess. Pynchon’s mastery of every register of English prose is extraordinary: he moves from pastoral to philosophical to detailed technical explanations, to satire, to parody, to hipster, and also to pages of achingly beautiful description and compassion. He’s an author showing off: look, I can do this! Look I can do this too! It’s not surprising he’s been compared to Joyce, but there are also echoes of Smollet, Cervantes and even Rabelais.
And he includes what he feels like including, just as he takes every prescription for writing the modern novel that has ever come out of a Creative Writing course, smashes it to pieces and jumps up and down joyfully on the bits. (“Write about what you know” indeed!) Pynchon’s entire strength is that he writes about what he doesn’t know, but manages to conjure up: a hallucinatory portrait of London under rocket attack, or a semi-mythical Zone in Germany in the summer of 1945, where magic flourishes briefly, as the underlying systems of power are reorganised by the new occupiers and the old criminals. It’s almost as if Pynchon was setting out to annoy academic literary critics: “You will want cause and effect” says the narrator wearily, at one point. “Very well.”
Oh, the narrator. Well, this is a post-modern novel, so we have an unreliable narrator; of course we do. But there’s a big debate over how many narrators the book has, or even whether (as I personally think) there is a single main narrator who’s suffering from something like multiple personality disorder. Indeed, there are so many “voices” in the novel, not just narrating, but also replaying memories and living fantasies, that it’s not surprising that in the end the narrative structure of the novel collapses just as Slothrop himself does. If there is a single narrator then he must go mad at the end.
All of which may sound serious, even solemn, but Pynchon as a writer can be elegantly sarcastic, wonderfully satirical and screamingly funny. And his humour is equal-opportunity: sensitivity readers would be hard-put to construct a list of ethnic, gender, racial, religious or ideological groups that couldn’t claim to be offended by something. From obscene Rocket Limericks, to sardonic parodies of popular songs of the 1930s and 40s, to a positively Dickensian capacity for surreal but appropriate names for his main characters, to entire short stories whose only purpose is to set up excruciating puns, it’s all there. How after all, can you dislike a book whose action takes place partly in the Spa town of Bad Karma? How can you not admire a book which entirely gratuitously introduces the splendidly Hobbesian law firm of Saltieri, Poore, Nashe, De Brutus and Short?
In the end, though, beyond the satire, the parody and the conspiracies, the novel impresses most by an unexpected characteristic: compassion. It appears that a distant ancestor of Slothrop once wrote a tract On Preterition, which didn’t endear him to the local religious authorities in New England. Now Preterition, in the chilly Calvinist theology of the day, was the state of those whom God has elected not to save. They are those who are damned from the beginning of time, just as some are predestined to be saved, because God has decided that way. GR is, in the end, an ode to the Lost, to the Preterite, to those passed over. Pynchon’s sympathy is with the losers of history: there is seldom a positive word about any important historical figure, or any figure of power. He writes sympathetically about a group of defeated Argentinian anarchists in a stolen U-Boat (don’t ask) and a group of Herero saved from slaughter in South-West Africa and brought to Germany where they act as firing-crew for the V-2 (don’t ask either). He writes about victims, but not the passive, suffering, demanding victims of modern fiction. He writes about ordinary people, mostly reasonably good, mostly reasonably honourable, trying to do their best in a world where power lies elsewhere, and they are surrounded by anarchy and chaos. Which is perhaps the most any of us can aspire to in the end.