09 September 2010

If You Only Read One Trans-Genre, WWII, Science-Fact-tion, Literary Heavyweight, Conspiracy-Thriller this Year...

Gravity's Rainbow (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)Make sure it has poetry about a man freezing his junk off with liquid oxygen:

The was a young man from Decatur
Who slept with a LOX generator
His balls and his prick
Froze solid real quick
And his asshole a little bit later

-T. Pynchon

While browsing the annals of twitter this morning I came across a List of twenty-six good reasons to read, (or reasons why it is bad not to read for all my pessimist friends). I figured that list qualifies as good a reason as any to (finally) tackle a thick little novel called Gravity’s Rainbow

I first covered Pynchon eons ago on the subject of his novella The Crying of Lot Forty-Nine. Even then I noted his style as unconventional, wordy, fanciful, and a bit hard to get into. It pales in comparison to Gravity’s Rainbow. Beyond from my previous complaints about commas, word choice and syntax, Pynchon seems to be deliberately harassing his readers in Gravity’s Rainbow. I remember reading an article about this book saying that over 200 characters make an appearance in this novel, it jumps from settings around England, Holland, Germany, Russia, Japan and Africa, the inner dimensions of a few no so steady minds and regularly breaks into song. You heard me.

The novel is written to be read almost like a screen play rather than a novel. Certainly by the characters and events of this novel, as well as others, Pynchon has evidenced that he is highly focused on film. Several of the stars of this novel are actors and directors; most famously, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels and his films are mentioned. His action of applying a screen play to the narration of a novel is masterful and worthy of respect in its own right. What I found while reading this book was that it’s a little bit like getting into Shakespeare. I never had much trouble with ol’ Billy; after reading just a few lines of iambic pentameter and Elizabethan English and I could remember how that dialect of English worked and easily go with the flow. Gravity’s Rainbow was the same way for me. It took me one busy month to finish it and what I found out was that it was better to read a little, even if not a whole chapter, everyday rather than to wait for a weekend when I could read fifty pages at a clip simply because if I took any more than a day off from reading I would forget how to read him.

Now back to that list one of the biggest boons to Gravity’s Rainbow is point number three: [Reading] Improves your vocabulary. I would like to think I am a pretty well read person, and I have survived most of college so I can safely say that my vocabulary is at least functional, but for this novel I found myself having to read with a dictionary in my lap because every page featured a word I didn’t know. Not bad for an author who spent most of his adult life working for Boeing, hell that’s an accomplishment for any writer. To substantially challenge your readers is no easy feat, nor is it easy to challenge them but keep them reading, Pynchon is able to do both because aside from all the traps of language, vocab and literary form, this novel really has a significant plot.

Most of the story takes place in Germany just after World War II. It is based on the historically accurate chase for V2 rocket materials by the Allies dividing up Germany into the pieces that would herald the Cold War. Throughout, this novel is steeped in actual, documented historical facts and quotes, with the amazing fictional side story of a Monty Python style version of James Bond flick. Gratuitous sex, wild parties, deep conspiracies, science fact that seems way more like science fiction, deep, twisted psychology, and a crumbling hero all add up to keep readers drooling for more.

The most profound aspect of this novel is the symbolism embedded in the plot. As the story moves we see people fall to insanity, moral depravity, drug abuse, ruthless competition and ultimately ending with the strange sexual murder of youth in the quest to obtain a weapon. The implications are obvious, the questions implied about military influence are frightening and the truth is very nearly blinding. What makes this novel so great to read is much more than the academic challenge, or the adventurous characters, it is the questions, the internal searching and the warning, or rather the, “what-have-we-done?” sentiment toward modern technological and military civilization.

The five things Gravity’s Rainbow does best as per the list of good reasons to read are as follows. I already mentioned vocabulary. If you can get through it without having to look a single word up, well then maybe you should be here instead of me. “Number Eight, Improves Discipline” is a good one. It’s no easy thing to get all the way through this book, I think the Simpson’s cracked a joke about that in one episode. “Number Eleven, Gives you Something to Talk about.” I’ll say, get me a few heavy thinkers and some cold drinks I am sure we would go on for days…hard part is finding people who have read it. “Number Twenty-One, Can Change your Life.” As corny as that answer sounds it definitely gave me a new way of viewing and understand social relationships especially in terms of technology and the military. Finally “Number Six, Builds Self-Esteem.” Everything about this book has “challenge” written all over it, and since the world is fresh out of awesome things to keep us busy like conquer Troy or scalp Nazi’s tough books will have to do.

The limerick at the intro is one of the highlights of the book. It comes from the scene where the protagonist meets up coincidentally with American troops merrymaking in the Mittelwerk at Nordhausen. The spritely Yankees were taking turns writing dirty poems about parts of the V2 rocket as they dismantled the base before the Russians were to arrive.

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