Penguin, 1973, 776 pages
Winner of the 1973 National Book Award, Gravity's Rainbow is a postmodern epic, a work as exhaustively significant to the second half of the 20th century as Joyce's Ulysses was to the first. Its sprawling, encyclopedic narrative and penetrating analysis of the impact of technology on society make it an intellectual tour de force.
So much penis. And excrement. And drugs. And penis. Lots of penis.
Not many books have ever defeated me. This one did.
I read my first Pynchon novel, The Crying of Lot 49, when I was a teenager. I remembered it as weird and cool and formative, to a kid who mostly grew up on science fiction and fantasy.
It wasn't until many years later that I reread The Crying of Lot 49 as an adult, and found it cool and interesting but not quite as deep and mind-blowing as I did when I was a teen, and then I read Inherent Vice and thought it was rather "meh." But I still liked the ideas that bubbled up in both books, and I knew Thomas Pynchon is a Very Big Literary Deal, so I figured sooner or later I should tackle one of his big books. Hence, his so-called magnum opus, Gravity's Rainbow.
After a few chapters, I was like what is this shit even?
Gravity's Rainbow is immense and sprawling, with many, many tangents and characters, and I was lost, and really having a hard time staying interested after, like, the third graphic scatalogy scene.
Eventually, I cheated by reading the Wikipedia summary of the novel. It didn't help. I was still lost, and plowed ahead because dammit, I was going to finish this book. But I confess: it just sort of flowed past me in vulgar episodes that left little impression other than to gross me out. I tried to focus, but it seemed like half plot-like construct and half long tedious passages about Slothrop's penis.
Pynchon writes about penises a lot. Thomas Pynchon is very much a "dick lit" author. He is a Literary Manly Man Dude Lit Author of Penis Fiction.
No, seriously, there are orgies and cunts and descriptions of ejaculation, masturbation, cocks going anywhere and everywhere, and when Pynchon isn't writing about genitals he's writing about shit and piss and snot, and there's an early passage where Slothrop is nearly drowned in a tide of latrine effluent, graphically described as coming from a bunch of Negroes (Negroes and references to negro penises turn up with disturbing frequency)... I can understand why some of the panelists who considered Gravity's Rainbow for the Pulitzer found it to be offensive and pornographic, because there really is a bunch of offensive pornography decorating the ideas (I can't even call it a story) that drive this book. At several points I was ready to bail because I really did not want to suffer through another passage of characters gratuitously describing bodily excretions and unnatural sex acts in some sort of literary gross-out exercise. But dammit I was going to finish this book, and dammit I did.
You'll notice I've ranted at length and haven't really talked about the plot. Well, damned if I can tell you what it was.
It's set at the end of and immediately after World War II, I guess. There's this guy, Lt. Slothrop, and this shadowy agency is tracking all his sexual encounters in London, which they figure out creates some sort of Poisson distribution on a map that predicts where the next German rocket-bomb will hit. And Slothrop goes around having sex with lots of people, which is why there are so many passages about Slothrop's penis, but there are many, many, oh so goddam many other characters, and Pynchon writes about their penises too. Except the ladies, and then Pynchon writes about their cunts, quims, pubic bushes, you get the idea.
Uh, right, the plot? Seriously, who knows? This book was an 800-page acid trip, a carnucopia of vulgarisms and clever, clever references (ibid) because Thomas Pynchon is such a clever, clever lad.
There's a 400+ page companion to help people get through this fucking book and make sense of it.
I had V and Mason & Dixon on my TBR list too, but honestly, I feel like I am so done with Thomas Pynchon, I don't know if I will ever muster the will to subject myself to another one of his horse-choking penis-epics.
("Horse choking penis" — yeah, Pynchon went there too.)
This book broke me. My brain is scarred. Gimme something light and murderous in the way of a thriller or a space opera. I can't hang with this shit.
Also by Thomas Pynchon: My reviews of The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice.
My complete list of book reviews.