Friday, September 01, 2006

"Gravity's Rainbow" Thomas Pynchon

Ist Reading
This has to be the great American novel. A huge loose rattle-bag of ideas, characters, viewpoints, locations. Here is a list of some of the things one learns about while reading this book: behaviourism, rocket science, metaphysics and physics, sceances, Marvel comics, chemistry, the history of WWII, coprophilia, the German involvement in South West Africa, linguistics and the alphabeticisation of previously unwritten languages, inter-war revolutionary politics, the secret African commandos corps, the relative merits of Rossini over Beethoven, the early history of Siemens and ICI. The list goes on, but one is never sure what is real and authentic, and what is fantasy or science fiction.
Like Mahler’s vision of the symphony, Pynchon’s method is to include everything, it seems, so that the book becomes a post- modern monument to Western Civilisation in the late 20th century, high and low culture both.

The style is digressive, with extended riffs that go on for pages, piling absurdity upon absurdity, outrage upon outrage. The text is fractured, interspersed with lyrics, song and dance routines a la Buzby Berkly complete with bizarre stage directions, brief thumbnail sketches of historical developments and introductions to obscure branches of science, many of them totally fictitious, jokes, sarcastic authorial asides and chapter-long monologues in free indirect style: Bakhtin’s heteroglossia is vividly enacted in the multiplicity of styles and characters and voices. If Woolf is the Queen of the semi-colons, Pynchon is the Superhero of the ellipsis…

Frequently the text is arrested by passages of heart-wrenching beauty that are almost Jamesian in their elegance and sensitivity. Frequently the text is ruptured by hilarity and hysteria. Pynchon is capable of absolutely everything, and he shows it to you. There are indiscriminate echoes of everything and everyone: literature, science manuals, journalism, historiography, war diaries, screenplays, popular songs: the borrowings make no distinction between genre or style and on first reading appear to have no purpose other than to create a kind of white noise. The characteristic pose of the reader is one of astonishment.

The book’s overarching theme and project is the examination of paranoia as an addition to our existentialist anxiety. Kafka described our existentialist fear of being trapped and helpless in a destiny we have not chosen. Pynchon adds a mad paranoia to this, in his description of a destiny which has been chosen for us, against our will and without our knowledge, by Them.

Everything is tied in to Slothrop’s relationship to the Rocket. Modern European history is revealed as having been planned and designed by Them with an ulterior motive in mind (is this the development of the rocket, or simply an attempt to interfere with Slothrop’s erections?): developments in rocket science and chemistry, Pavlov’s experiments on dogs, the German bombardment of London. It’s all quite absurd, and the text knows it is, and sends up the absurdity of the paranoiac vision with a welter of crazy Dickensian names and a plethora of utterly mad acronyms.

At the same time, the novel makes the point that paranoia is in itself an absurd position, by contrasting its extreme solipsism with an actually indifferent universe. Perhaps extreme paranoia is one way out of, or at least our only healing response to our existential loneliness. (The other way, of course, is love, but this takes a second place in Pynchon’s world view.) “They have done this to me, I am Their victim”, is perhaps a more comforting world-view, than “I am completely irrelevant.” At least one can have some kind of fun or meaning to life in finding out who They are and why They have done it.

Paranoia is the imposition of an infinite plot on a universe which is ruled by random chance and full of meaningless data. Hence the inclusion of every reference, every style. This paranoia, and the looping in of names and references that one gradually recognises as important (sinister?) –Jamf, for example, (a real person?) make a more general statement about fiction and its relationship to reality. The plot of the novel, (such as it is) designed by the author, stands in analogous relationship to the plot against Slothrop, designed by Them, for Their own obscure ends.

It seems to be a characteristic of our minds, that in spite of, or perhaps because of our conscious irrelevance in the universal scheme of things, to imagine our lives as having some shape, some purpose, which we call destiny or fate or luck. This disguises the actual condition, which is that everything is ruled by chance (numbers?). The closest analogy to this is the book: the novel. The popularity of biography as a genre: only when a life has ended does the pattern emerge; only when the last detail of the novel is in place, does the pattern of the plot become clear. The novelistic plot designed by the author enacts the paranoid’s plot, designed by Them. The characters in a novel may indeed whisper with total justification: “They’re plotting against me,” because They (writer and reader) really are. But may we? May the paranoiac? To what extent is paranoia real or imagined? What is reality?

The text of full of symbols of this paranoiac outlook. Chess is probably an ultimate symbol of this. If one sees life as analogous to a game of chess, one can’t help but be paranoid. Everything that happens (in the game, in life) is the result of a move made before with some far reaching strategy in mind. The chess master can think hundreds of moves in advance and can anticipate hundreds of moves by his opponent, and can arm himself against them: this is an extremely paranoid stance. Ironically, the character who plays chess in the novel, Mravenko, plays systemless, blindfold chess (another Pynchon absurdity) incapable of “rational play” and always wins. “Do you have any idea what’s going on?” Tchitcherine asks him –another paranoid character, victim of a plot etc. “Does anybody?” Mravenko replies. And the reader falls about laughing madly.

Another paranoid subject is the homosexual plot. A secret brotherhood linked by desire to pervert the nation’s youth. The characters ‘in charge’ of the whole operation -Sir Marcus Scammony and Clive Mossman- are gay. This also has echoes in the Masonic episodes featuring Bland.

It’s all very Woody Allen, with lashings of LSD and dope, William Burroughs and Spiderman, and echoes of Eliot in his Proofrock mood.

The Proverbs for Paranoids are a catechism for the characters in their relation to the God who created them, their author. And they also continue the literary type of the little man against the system embodied in such characters as Hasek’s Svejk.

PfP 1: You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.

PfP 2: The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.

PfP 3: If They can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.

PfP 4: You hide, They seek.

PfP 5: Paranoids are not paranoids because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.

And what of the rocket? In the correlation between Slothrop’s hardons and the bomb sites of the rocket, specifically, and if not in intent, at least in mood, generally, Pynchon echoes Auden: It’s natural the boys should whoop it up for/so huge a phallic triumph

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