After finishing the super hyped Annihilation last week (not terrible, but overly introverted for a suspense / thriller ), I’m building myself up to embark on a long-delayed journey – reading Thomas Pynchon’s infamous 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
A collection of different book covers used for Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
I’ve long held Gravity’s Rainbow in a reading category with the works of old masters like Tolstoy and Proust, Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, and American postmodern works like Delillo’s Underworld and Gaddis’ Recognitions: books that I’ve earmarked to read at some point in my life, but have purposely held off from reading due to some combination of intimidation, a desire to further build up my reading “muscles,” and more time to induce the wisdom/intelligence that only life experience provides. However, I believe that these are all mere rationalizations that have kept me from pursuing these works, like anything else that is used to keep one from carrying out a long-dreaded and delayed tasks.
After reading a great book that I’ve put off reading for one of the above reasons (or because a recent purchase, release, or recommendation has been moved to the top of my list), I normally return to a common realization – that life is short, reading time is finite, and there is little reason to spend one’s precious time reading books that are less than “great,” especially when there are multiple lifetime’s worth of worthy books to be read. However, the appeal of ‘easy’ books, or books that I deem particularly relevant at a certain point in my life, oftentimes take precedence, leaving the list of ‘to read, at some point’ continually growing. At some point (within reason), there needs to be a conscious effort made on my part to do away with drivel and ‘interim’ reads, as well as the books that indulge some small curiosity, and be more intentional with the books that I choose to tackle. </rant>
I bought my first copy of Gravity’s Rainbow after already having purchased a “Companion” to the book at a garage/library/$1 book sale. I was immediately seduced by this companion (A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Context’s for Pynchon’s Novel), a sort of cipher that would enable the reader to capably break through the complexity and more directly access the author’s intentions and hidden meanings. A minimal amount of online research furthered my understanding of the notorious challenge associated with reading GR, as well as an base knowledge of the general mystique that surrounds Pynchon the person, and the mass acclaim given to Pynchon the author.
A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources & Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel, by Steven Weisenburger (1988)
Since that initial fateful purchase, I’ve heeded the recommendation of many Pynchon fans of reading The Crying of Lot 49 as an “entry point,” into Pynchon’s work, given its relatively short length (160 pages) relative to his other books. The book introduces many of the concepts that seem to be characteristic of Pynchon’s broader work: metaphysics, vague, deep-seated conspiracies that are at the heart of our fragile order, and absurd backdrops and satirical characters (with quippy names) that veer from rational explanation.
Reading Lot 49, I felt fairly uninitiated to the the novel’s broader context, which was written in 1965 and includes references and nods to the 60s, most famously allusions to The Beatles / Beatlemania. This feeling was validated after reading two of Pynchon’s more recent novels: Inherent Vice (2009), which is set in hippie-era 1970s California, and Bleeding Edge (2013), which, most familiarly, is set in the aughts’ tech world. Both of these books felt more accessible, both in terms of their use of a more modern vernacular, as well as an ability to more capably process Pynchon’s humorous digressions and broader plot as a result of a more comfortable baseline of knowledge. From this standpoint, GR’s 1973 publication date already seems like a challenging entry point.
Aside: Instead of Lot 49, I would recommend individuals curious about Pynchon to start with Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, which I think does a fantastic job of capturing the absurdity, humor and thrust of the novel. Now that I think about it, it’s probably my pick for the most faithful / worthy film adaption.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s faithful film adaptation of Pynchon’s novel, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin (2014)
I intend to use this blog as both a capsule and a tool for reading Gravity’s Rainbow, as I try and to tackle it chapter-by-chapter over the summer. Hopefully, using chapters or page intervals as a prompt to pause and reflect will allow me to maintain some grasp the novel. After reading and absorbing each chapter, I also plan to visit the Companion as a way to engage with some of the book’s hidden contexts or obscured clues. While I’m sure there are time-tested and/or recommended approaches for reading the book, for the time being I hope to embrace this method, and intend to capture my thoughts and reflections (and/or lack of comprehension) fairly regularly. That or I give up fairly quickly, and move on to an easier / more relevant read.