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Gravity's Rainbow review

So I finally did it. Plowed through this beast of a novel, all 887 pages in my tattered and duct-taped paperback version (I tore the cover off at one point on accident...coincidence? It can't be). I think I read five other books from the time I started to the time I finished. Everyone said that this is the kind of novel you either love or hate, but in this as in many, many other things my principal reaction is…shrug.

First let me say that it wasn’t that hard, certainly not as hard as I was led to believe. Sure, Pynchon often changes subject or narrator in mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence, he often starts a section without any lead-in whatsoever, and figuring out time is a chore (on purpose, I suppose), but that’s about it. Running through it all is a relatively straightforward plot that one can follow even with long breaks at times. There are numerous references to obscure 1940s pop culture and a dollop of engineering and chemistry here and there, but none of those are key to understanding the basic points. I was lazy and didn’t read much supplementary materials, but even I caught a lot of the references (except for the tarot and Gnostic stuff at the end). Those who have called it as hard as Finnegan’s Wake are fools—it’s written in a real language, fergawdsake.

On balance, I’d say I liked it, but I was often at a loss as to how to react. Not to say that it inspired no reaction at all. Parts of it are truly inspired, and often funny, and the prose is devilishly original. Pynchon makes these winding digressions, piling on lists of objects and characteristics (one of his signature moves, and he’s good at it), making what seems to be a massive effort, but I was often left admiring nothing more than the sheer strangeness of it all. The main pulse of the book, the consistent motivating force across most of the main characters, is paranoia. Deep, nail-biting megalomaniac paranoia. I never quite grasped why this should be such an important feeling, subject of such a massive tome. Maybe if I were smarter I would get it.

On a side note, Pynchon often uses simple activities or natural phenomena (like the rise and fall of a rocket) and imbues them with heavy metaphorical significance. Combine that with the consistent theme of paranoia, and I got tired of it after awhile. I suppose my main problem with the book was just crankiness. I see (in a dim way) what he was getting at with the Us/Them business infusing everything, even molecular bonds, but it just pissed me off a little.

Still, a great book. Someday I may even read it again and learn to like it more. But not for a long time.


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