Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Thomas Pynchon might not be a very prolific author, but his books have often had a powerful impact when they were published, with the most prominent of the lot arguably being his 1973 classic bestseller, Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s an unusual kaleidoscope of a novel, taking place against the backdrop of the Second World War, exploring through a large number of characters the madness and all-consuming paranoia it gave birth to.
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Thomas Pynchon Undertakes a Unique Wartime Study
Quite soon we’re bound to reach the hundred-year-milestone marking the beginning of World War II, an event which has endured in our collective consciousness despite our ever-increasing distance from it. Countless authors, and artists in general, have sought to study and explore the deadliest and most terrifying conflict in human history, but none have provided as unique and unusual an inquiry into the subject as Thomas Pynchon did with his 1970s bestseller, Gravity’s Rainbow.
Whereas most novels have things like cohesive plots taking us from point A to point B, the winner of the 1973 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction takes a departure from all conventions, taking a more fragmented approach to the subject. While this aspect does push many people away from even trying to read the book, or forcing them to settle for a Gravity’s Rainbow summary, I would urge you to read on and at least hear my take on it.
Quite famously, this novel has around four hundred characters, and we’re treated to little slices of their lives, all working together in order comment on various topics, explore certain ideas, or recount true events. There aren’t any real protagonists in the conventional sense, at least not until the reader reaches the later parts of the book.
Through this kaleidoscope of human lives and experiences during WWII, Thomas Pynchon attempts to paint a portrait of the atmosphere which reigned over Europe, expanding into the way in which it gave birth to an all-consuming paranoia. In a sense, it’s a character study of Europe itself, how it ended up becoming the entity Pynchon was familiar with when he wrote the novel. As such, I hope you’ll forgive my lack of a comprehensive Gravity’s Rainbow summary, for as you understand, it’s a bit too ambitious of an undertaking.
It is true that it might feel like this study isn’t all that relevant to the modern climate and European politics, but I would argue the contrary. It is just appropriate today as it was fifty years ago, giving insight into the kind of process the ramifications of which can be felt for decades and decades on end, if not centuries. For the modern reader, it can be seen as an attempt to explain the development which led to the current state of affairs.
The Optional Nature of Narrative in Gravity’s Rainbow
To start things off, I feel like it’s necessary to address the aspect about the book which frightens most people away, and makes others regret they ever embarked on the adventure in the first place: the narrative, or more precisely, the lack of one. As I mentioned before, it does start to become more cohesive towards the later parts, but the reader still has to reach them first.
The plot doesn’t develop in the classical sense, or likely, like anything you’ve ever read before. While passages, stories and ideas are connected thematically, the way in which events unfold and characters are presented feels quite chaotic, to say the least. There are many creative thoughts and sequences, but it almost feels as if they were arranged like they arrived in a stream of consciousness.
The absurdly large number of characters isn’t something I’m fond of personally, but it does help that we’re not really required to keep track of them or even remember their names. The main characters eventually make themselves known, but until then we’re just treated to one slice of life after the next, revolving around people we only get to know so briefly before bidding our goodbyes to them. In truth, most of them feel forgettable and are lacking personality, just like real people.
There is a paragraph in the last part of the book, which I think would have been much-better placed at the start, where the author explains how he wants readers to approach the book, and I have to say, I came to the same conclusion and agree with him completely.
It helps to forget everything you know about conventional novels and narrative, to go into it without any rigorous expectations or preconceptions, to simply flow with the rhythm and try to feel as much as remember. When I was able to attune myself in this manner, everything clicked and I was able to start enjoying the absurd amount of creativity Thomas Pynchon managed to inject in Gravity’s Rainbow.
If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
Madness and Paranoia
I understand that not everyone will be able to do what I’ve just mentioned in the previous paragraph. However if you have a vested interest in World War II, modern European history, and are prepared to overcome the unusual hurdles presented by this novel, then you’ll be treated to an absolutely fascinating study on paranoia in all of its glorious madness.
I didn’t mention it earlier, but despite its hefty subject matter, Gravity’s Rainbow can be quite a humorous affair at times, with the author often taking his opportunities to poke fun at the more ridiculous aspects of war and the life which comes after it. He exposes through various scenarios the effects paranoia can have on people, and how it can absolutely stifle the development of a society, if given the chance.
As a matter of fact, it feels to me like Thomas Pynchon‘s narrative excels at making the reader feel what madness is truly like. When we keep on reading pages and pages of seemingly unconnected events, we start to lose our understanding of what’s actually happening, putting us on a more equal level with the people whose lives we’re exploring.
Some of the other topics the author touches on in Gravity’s Rainbow include fate, free will, the various imbalances in power we see in our daily lives, the relationship between the leaders and the led, and many more. I would venture to say the novel often broadens its horizons, and touches on topics which go beyond the main subject.
While this book can be painful at times to get through, ultimately, for those who reach the end of it, there’s an invaluable reward awaiting at the end: plenty of food for thought. Thomas Pynchon, in my opinion, succeeds in not just simply pushing us to think about various important topics, but more remarkably, in ensuring his ideas stay with us for long after we’ve finished reading the book.
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The Final Verdict
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon is certainly an unconventional book, quite demanding in terms of what the reader is asked to put up with, but with incomparable rewards for those who go through with the journey.
If you feel like you’re capable of tackling the challenges presented by this novel, to accept its lack of narrative and disregard for conventions, and are interested in a dissection of the effects World War II had on Europe, then I believe you ought to give this eternal classic a chance.
VIDEO: A Journey Into the Mind of P
A documentary, written & directed by Donatello Dubini & Fosco Dubini, mostly on the authors reclusiveness, how it’s been dealt with by some hysterical fans, old friends, critics… containing some interesting interviews & speculations on the themes of Gravity’s Rainbow & how they relate to the historical realities of the American fifties & sixties, the paranoid politics of cold war logic, megalomaniac experimental psychology, the callous mindset of military engineering & so on…
Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. is an American novelist, a MacArthur Fellow, and winner of the 1973 U.S. National book Award for Fiction for his classic bestseller, Gravity’s Rainbow. Some of his other works include Vineland, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day, The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice, which got made into a major motion picture.