As my time in Brazil begins to come to a close, I’m finding it time to return to old resolutions, goals, and objectives. Given an overabundance of free time and some amount of foolhardy ambition, I figured that now would be as good of a time as any to embark on the challenge of reading Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, one of several postmodern door stoppers known for its semi-intentional incomprehension and difficulty. Accompanying me for the experience is A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Context’s for Pynchon’s Novel, which has to date been an invaluable companion indeed.
50 pages in, and I have struggled to pick up a rhythm to reading the book and its accompanying companion.
To date, the process has mostly been as follows:
a) visit the companion for an initial overview of the ensuing “episode,” an oftentimes unconnected adventure taken by one of the main characters of the novel to-date
b) note the first reference made by the Companion to a word, phrase, or sentence in the book, and mentally file it away to revisit upon reading
c) dive into the novel itself, with a mind for the episode’s first passage referenced in the Companion
d) Read through the Companion text, annotating the book itself to its context while trying to connect the dots between the novel, the allusions made by the Companion, and my own understanding
e) Read until the culmination of the episode (marked by a line break), and revisit the Companion to restart at step A
Gravity’s Rainbow takes place in WWII England in the area surrounding London, which is in the ongoing process of being bombarded with V-1 and V-2 German missiles. The missiles themselves, and the ongoing risk of falling victim to their seemingly-random fall across London, create a mortal and almost sardonic backdrop to the events taking place and the actions taken out by the main characters.
The protagonists to date are young US and British servicemen working in a Special Operations (known as the SOE), investigating the missiles across greater London.
The first character we are introduced to, Geoffrey “Pirate” Prentice, is endowed with the superhuman power to intercept and enter the dreams of others. Much of the book’s first 50 pages take place in these very dreams and images, and are reported back to “The Firm” – a secret British military organization charged with managing the “supernatural” and experimental pursuits of the Allied Forces.
Some of the characteristic elements of Pynchon’s writing are evident – the double- and triple-entendre names of his characters, as well as the acronyms of organizations (in this case, both real and imagined), that persist across his writings. Unlike some of Pynchon’s other books that I’ve read (Lot 49, Inherent Vice, Bleeding Edge), the acronyms used so far seem to be a mix of the real and imagined, referencing companies, missions, and organizations of the Allied and Axis WWII forces.
The Companion helpfully peels back the curtain on the at-times inscrutable to reveal some of the meticulous research and preparation taken by Pynchon – his grasp of the London and greater London geography (numerous references to neighborhoods and nearby villages and towns are made), his revisiting of the Times of London daily newspaper for not only the daily wartime current events, but also seemingly asides to epochal shops, shows, and miscellany, and his knowledge of BBC Radio programming. All of the above seek to create a photo-realistic period piece – seeking to mimic the era’s styles, diction, and events.
Of course, given that this is Pynchon, the last thing I expect is a straight backed work of historical fiction, rather the novel’s effect is to blend the real and wildly imaginary into a ridiculously believable hodgepodge of satire-cum-conspiracy characteristic of so many of his other works.
Hopefully the rhythm will pick up and I will have more lucid reflections to come. Regardless, an enjoyable experience, and not quite yet a descent into madness.