Pynchon

v2-stamp.jpg

The image here is an elargement of a postage stamp from the last days of the Third Reich showing the launch of five Victory Rockets, the V-2, towards London. (I bought it on ebay, where else?) For dramatic effect, the artist has shown the rockets taking off at steep angle rather than vertically, as they would have been launched. When they reached the point at which their engines would cut out, brenschluss, the rockets would continue on their way, “pure ballastic”, powered solely by the force of gravity, describing a rainbow parabolic arc to their explosive terminus in England.

I have read Gravity’s Rainbow several times. Most of the people I recommend it to barely start it. I guess I like it. But I’m not sure how much I like it. It was certainly an important book to me when I first read it in college – we fans called ourselves the Gravity Men. But since then, I have gone back and forth on my “critical” assessment of this work that is, regardless of my opinion or anyone elses’, a very important, i.e., influential, book.

To summarize the “main” thread of its incredibly complicated set of plotlines, or at least the one that interests me the most and relates most directly to the title:

Tyrone Slothrop is a private in the US Army stationed in London during the V-2 blitz. A colleague, plotting with colored pins on a map of London the impact sites of the rockets, begins to notice a pattern: When Slothrop, who has a knack with the ladies that is envied and celebrated by his buddies, beds down with a new bird, the rocket arrives the next morning to destroy the site. It’s almost as though Slothrop’s presence brings the rocket on later, or as though through some weird sex-guilt-perversion-psycho complex, Slothrop chooses to have sex with women who will be destroyed. And how could he know in advance..? Are cause and effect reversed in time? (You only hear the supersonic rocket coming after the impact!) It all has to do with the experiments performed by Lazlo Jamf, using baby Slothrop as a subject, that tested his sexual arousal in the presence of a new plastic, Imopolex G, which substance is a critical component in the V-2 rocket…

From here on, it gets complicated.

Maps, mathematics, sex, history, techo-weirdness…it has its appeal.

Pynchon can write poetically, and he sometimes conveys a sense of deep pathos, but too often his characters are mere cardboard that he moves around to make his fascinating and convoluted points. The book is permeated with the spirit of “stoner humor,” the sort of jokes that you imagine might be hilarious if you were high, but that can be a bit tedious and sophomoric if you are just reading. Paranoia, the ultimate scheming by the unamed and unknowable Them, the depiction of all social structures as conspiracies (from motherhood to the distribution of lightbulbs) can be outrageously funny, but to one who has never been a fan of Ken Kesey, 60s-style counter-cultural posturing, it can also appear dated and somewhat trivial.

Lots of critics are in awe of Pynchon’s grasp of science and mathematics, but I suspect that this has a lot to do with the general ignorance of such topics among literary critics. (cf. his endless discussion of entropy, a concept much abused in non-scientific argument.) I love his fascination with drainage and urban sewers (a central element in his novel, V) and as one who grew up in the shadow of Rocketdyne and the roar of its engine tests (or at least that’s what we thought those noises were), how could I fail to be amused by The Crying of Lot 49, in which Yoyodyne is the name of a principal defense-aerospace contractor? (I was told by an auction house person that nobody uses that phrase, “crying a lot” anymore.) That novel centers on another conspiracy, one involving the postal service, the first one of which was started by the ancient family of Thurn und Taxis (you can see that name carved into the frieze around the NYC main post office along with the famous “Neither snow, nor sleet, nor gloom of night…” slogan.)

Still and all, Pynchon can compress so much into a paragraph. Here he is describing the Victorian Gothic-Revival architecture of the building, known as The White Visitation, where the British counter-intelligence teams work:

The are approaching now a lengthy brick improvisation, a Victorian paraphrase of what once, long ago, resulted in Gothic cathedrals – but which, in its own time, arose not from any need to climb through the fashioning of suitable confusions toward any apical God, but more in a derangement of aim, a doubt as to the God’s actual locus (or, in some, as to its very existence), out of a cruel netowrk of sensuous moments that could not be transcended and so bent back the intentions of the builders no on any zenith, but back to fright, to simple escape in whatever direction, from what the industrial smoke, street excrement, windowless warrens, shrugging leather forests of drive belts, flowing and patient shadow states of the rats and flies, were saying about the chances for mercy that year.

The spirit of the age crystalized in architecture, and his prose.

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