Sometimes a book drops into your life like a depth-charge. Chance, or fate, or a misguided librarian, or a mischievous English high school teacher launches this tome in your direction. It seems to trace a quasi-mystical parabola to reach its target — the pointed metal tip for a split second strikes the top of your skull — and shortly afterwards, you hear it detonate: boom. The sound of your mind being quietly blown.
Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, did that for me, anyway. And having returned to my old bedroom bookshelf after several decades away, I decided to risk re-reading it. Not a task to be undertaken lightly, you understand.
For a start, it is a dense, heavy book — 760 pages of linguistic wizardry that oscillates between tantalising insight on the one hand and the purely incomprehensible on the other, often both in the course of one sentence.
And for another thing, it is that dangerous thing: a life-changing book. A book that stretches your understanding of what literature can do, that takes you by the hand — or by the nose — and leads you down difficult and warped pathways to discover things about war and sex, death and obsession, and the Nazi research into plastics (and explosives) that you cannot unlearn, even if you want to.
Like Harper Lee or JD Salinger, Pynchon is one of those high-profile literary recluses — the only known photograph of him dates back to the early 1950s. Now in his late 70s and living in New York, Pynchon has evaded the modern publishing publicity machine far more successfully than most. Even in a fairly recent news item about him, he managed to slip under the radar. The camera showed a busy New York street with him in it but the news channel — respecting his wishes — refused to pick him out of the crowd.
When asked by the same CNN team if he would call himself ‘a recluse’, Pynchon replied, “My belief is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists… meaning, doesn’t like to talk to reporters.” He sends himself up deliciously in a cameo appearance on The Simpsons where he stands in front of a large neon sign that reads ‘Thomas Pynchon’s House. Come on in’ with a paper bag over his head. (Incidentally, when he was sent the script, he apparently refused to utter the words “No wonder Homer is such a fat-ass,” because, as he explained to producer Matt Selman, “Homer is my role model and I can’t speak ill of him.”)
He has been likened to Greta Garbo and the Wizard of Oz. One critic refers to Pynchon as “an enigma” in both senses: he is enigmatic, but he is also, like the Nazi code of the 1940s, encrypted, a code for us to break. Some conspiracy theorists believe he is actually several people: a single pen name for the work of many hands. That impression is bolstered in part by the extraordinary breadth of his knowledge across a variety of technical fields. When asked to write a review of Pynchon’s first novel, V., for the New York Review of Books, George Plimpton’s first impression was that the author was “the sort of person that could turn out an almanac in a week, a huge encyclopaedic mind.” Added to that is Pynchon’s virtuoso ventriloquism: it seems almost impossible to believe that one person can ‘do’ so many voices.
It is, ironically, Pynchon’s invisibility that makes him stand out, in a publishing industry that recently hit a new low with the publication of Selfish, an art book comprised entirely of Kim Kardashian’s mobile phone selfies. Author Arthur Salm muses that if Pynchon and Paris Hilton ever met, the resulting “matter/antimatter explosion would vaporize everything from here to Tau Ceti IV.”
So let’s leave the Wizard safely behind his curtain, and follow the yellow brick road into Pynchon’s very own Oz. Gravity’s Rainbow is a brilliant, frustrating literary maelstrom full of parody lyrics, statistics and probability, ballistics and rocket science, behavioural psychology, scatological slurs and madly inventive names (‘Pirate’ Prentice, Dr Laslo Jamf, Tyrone Slothrop, Tantivy Mucker-Maffick, Bartley Gobbitch, Teddy Bloat — take your pick: there are around 400 characters in the book to choose from). Set during the final months of World War II, this is a war-ravaged world, characters’ minds are as Blitzkrieged as the cities they stumble around.
Like the bastard offspring of a homoerotic transhistorical ménage a trois involving Don DeLillo, Herman Melville and Lenny Bruce, Pynchon doesn’t just have his finger on the pulse of the white, male, American psyche, he slices open the entire artery.
The plot arc (referenced in the book’s title) follows the Nazi development of the V-2, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, a rocket that broke the sound-barrier. GI Slothrop, teeth chattering, explains to Tantivy Mucker-Maffick, “The other kind, those V-1s, you can hear them. Right? Maybe you have a chance to get out of the way. But these things explode first, a-and then you hear them coming in. Except that, if you’re dead, you don’t hear them.” He has become obsessed with the idea of a rocket with his name written on it “if they’re really set on getting him (‘They’ embracing possibilities far far beyond Nazi Germany) that’s the surest way, doesn’t cost them a thing to paint his name on every one, right?”
This is a world of lies and sinister mind-experiments, sado-masochistic armaments (you heard me), covert operations, of surveillance and control, of Pavlovian octopi and rooftop banana breakfasts under London’s barrage balloons, voyages through sewers where every social nuance is readable in the accretions of shit along the way, not to mention — as if I couldn’t — the infamous passage (excuse the pun) of lovingly detailed coprophilia that probably cost Pynchon the Pulitzer.
Thirty-two years after first picking it up, I’m re-reading Gravity’s Rainbow.
As I write this, I’m only about half way through.