Thursday, December 05, 2013

Gravity's Rainbow (by Thomas Pynchon)

This book finishes up the Time 100 list (wrapup post to follow), and unfortunately it was not one of my favorites. I have no doubt that it's a great book--there is some beautiful writing, some funny surrealist scenes, and thematic interestingness. But there is also a lack of emotional grounding, or grounding in some type of recognizable world or logic, and I felt disconnected from most of it.

The ending was affecting, and it was certainly my favorite part of the book (right behind the candy scene from the beginning) but it should have affected me more than it did, I kind of had forgotten about Gottfried, though. Certainly I didn't care about him the way I cared about other characters like Katje or Roger Mexico. Also I never really got a handle on what "Schwartzgerat" meant in the first place. I didn't really have a handle on a lot of elements, and I chalk that up to me not being on the book's wavelength in general.

Another issue is at what point does 700 pages of tongue-in-cheek misogyny cross over into actual misogyny? For me, I was there a few hundred pages ago. It's a very sexualized novel by design, and the presentation of male sexuality is no great shakes, but at least some of the male characters seemed to have agency and identity apart from being sexualized. Anyway, I loved this essay, which covers much of the same ground in a more academic way (and comes down mostly on the pro side of the argument):

Gravity's Rainbow often reads like a male fantasy gone out of control: the phalli are a little too large, the female characters too eager to bed down with Slothrop, the victims of sadists far too eager about their own pain. And because the narrative doesn't offer final readings, it is never quite clear how much really is mockery or disruption and how much is the residue of real assumptions about gender. These exaggerations self-consciously invite a feminist critique, from an outsider's perspective. But the novel itself does not supply that critique; it can only inflate or dislocate the discourses of its own crimes, and so at once gesture to a newly written self and reduplicate an old and tiresome one.

The whole essay is great. Anyway if you love Gravity's Rainbow, come tell me about it. I'm curious to hear more.

"'The basic problem,' he proposes, 'has always been getting other people to die for you. What’s worth enough for a man to give up his life? That’s where religion had the edge, for centuries. Religion was always about death. It was used not as an opiate so much as a technique—it got people to die for one particular set of beliefs about death. Perverse, natürlich, but who are you to judge? It was a good pitch while it worked. But ever since it became impossible to die for death, we have had a secular version—yours. Die to help History grow to its predestined shape. Die knowing your act will bring will bring a good end a bit closer. Revolutionary suicide, fine. But look: if History’s changes are inevitable, why not not die? Vaslav? If it’s going to happen anyway, what does it matter?'"

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