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.
©1973 Thomas Pynchon (P)2014 Penguin Audio
At last George Guidall has re-recorded Gravity’s Rainbow, and the result is magnificent. The tempo is a little slower, which is altogether to the good, but he recites instead of singing the songs, a loss (though thankfully he does vocalize the melody to Cielito Lindo recognizably (Ja, ja, ja ja! In Prussia they never eat p?ssy…)). Please, audiobook producers, have him record V., Pynchon’s first novel. And don’t skimp on Pynchon’s hilarious take on the Colonel Bogie March, let ‘er rip.
Concerning the novel itself, I’ve known intelligent people of good taste who simply couldn’t get through it. It’s very challenging, and not for everyone. I suggest trying Inherent Vice, or even The Crying of Lot 49 (which was my first), to test the waters. Just as one should read Portrait of the Artist before trying Ulysses. Then, prepare to be absorbed: study of this book will surely knock out a couple months of your life. In a good way.
I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
Don't expect Thomas Pynchon's picaresque, burlesque WWII epic Gravity's Rainbow (1973) to tie up all loose plot strands and resolve the fates of all loose characters. Expect an experience that comically and disturbingly involves you in the intertwined urges of Eros and Thanatos and the creative and destructive missions of civilization. The book is an encyclopedic riff on paranoia, sex, death, rockets, history, politics, religion, racism, war, cartels, chemistry, plastics, science, probability, drugs, music, movies, zoot suits, the dodo, American culture (and Western civilization in general), and much more, and the connections between everything.
The novel is divided into four parts. The first part centers on London in the later stages of WWII and introduces Pynchon's point of view characters working for or around PISCES (Psychological Intelligence Schemes for Expediting Surrender), a cryptic British organization operating out of an insane asylum called the White Visitation. The protagonist is the happy-go-lucky US Army Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, whom the Brits are observing because his sexual assignations with women seem to predict the landing sites of the German V-2 rockets that land and explode before you can hear them approach. (Or are his one-night stands only sexual fantasies!?) Part Two moves things to France, as Slothrop becomes aware of the ways in which They have been manipulating him since infancy and starts trying to get out of Their clutches. Part Three enters the Zone, comprised of the minor zones into which America, the UK, and Russia have carved up the freshly capitulated Germany. Here Slothrop is on a quest for the Unholy Grail, a mysterious uber-rocket with a "black device" payload and the serial number 00000, as the allies are racing around snapping up German rockets and scientists. Part Four introduces a valiantly ineffectual Counterforce, comprised of Their rejects and runaways who are trying irrationally to muck up Their rational plans.
Those bare bones ignore Pynchon's extravagant character creation, plotting, and digressing, not to mention his brazen vamping, culture vulturing, grossing out, and turning on. This is a dense, outrageous, imaginative novel. In addition to some healthy sex scenes, like between Slothrop and the German witch Geli Tripping, and some comical scatological ones, like one involving an outraged Roger Mexico and a cabal of oil executives, there are plenty of cringe-inducing sequences not for the squeamish. There is, for instance, a surreal sequence of Slothrop traveling down a toilet (ala Alice down the rabbit hole) and sex scenes involving bestiality, incest, pedophilia, coprophilia, necrophilia, polymerphilia (?), and more. All part of Pynchon's program to explore to the depths and heights the interface between life and death.
Slothrop is a fun, fluid, frustrating everyman hero, descendent of Puritans, victim of Pavlovian conditioning, prey to paranoia, a man whose identity becomes increasingly fragmented and dispersed the longer They experiment and spy on him and the longer he wanders the Zone posing as a British war correspondent, Errol Flynn, Rocketman, a Russian officer, a local German pig hero, a-a-and even (jeepers!) Fay Wray. While pursuing the 00000, Slothrop gets side-tracked by an aging German drug dealer giving jobs to Rocketman, a Russian officer bent on killing his half-brother South African Schwarzkommando leader, an aging German soft-porn star wanting to be whipped, a cell of Argentinean anarchist gaucho wannabes wanting to be free, a ship of fools orgying down the river, and a fat eight-year-old German boy looking for his lost lemming Ursula, to name just a few of the many colorful eccentrics. The characters are caught up in the struggle between the Elect chosen few and the Preterite passed-over masses, with moments of humor or doomed love providing respite. Although Pynchon understands the winners, his heart is with the losers.
There is much wonderful writing in the novel. Many great set pieces, like some conscripted "piss-swollen men" singing a sublime evensong, Katje recalling playing Hansel and Gretel, Death paying Roger Mexico and Jessica a little call at their romantic hideaway, Tchitcherine witnessing a Kirghiz male-female insult singing contest, Slothrop escaping from some limerick-singing, blood-thirsty American soldiers in a hot air balloon laden with custard pies, or loathsome Major Duane Marvy getting his just deserts. And many vivid and apt descriptions:
--"roadsides of poor rotting horses just before apricot sunrise."
--"big globular raindrops, thick as honey, begin to splat into giant asterisks on the pavement, inviting him to look down at the bottom of the text of the day, where footnotes will explain all."
--"Forget-me-nots boil everywhere underfoot, and ants crowd, bustling with a sense of kingdom."
--"The water is clear, running lively, cold. Round rocks knock together under the stream. A resonant sound, a music."
If you lose focus for a moment and fall briefly out of Pynchon's spell, you might get lost for paragraphs at a time. Most of his digressions are funny and relevant (like a community of Dobermans and German Shepherds trained to kill strangers on sight), but a few seem excrescent (like Byron the Bulb). And, to confide, when I finished the novel I did feel more relief than regret.
George Guidall superbly reads the audiobook with a wry and moist enthusiasm, without contorting his voice for different characters. Sometimes, as with Basil Rathbone in a doper western movie, I wish he would do British accents. But he voices a great sneeze, American chuckle, perky band of Mickey Mouse fat cells, and every other outre job with aplomb.
At one point the audiobook repeats from the last 35 minutes of the audio download part three until the first 47 minutes of the audio download part four (82 minutes). It makes what is a long audiobook even longer and should've been cleaned up.
If you are interested in the great American novel, the matter of circa WWII, the rise of the rocket, the history of Them, surreal madcap scenes of a scatological and or sexual nature, and comically devastating satires of western civilization, you should like Gravity's Rainbow. But be prepared to feel like Dorothy out of Kansas or King Kong out of his jungle.
I have Guidall's original recording of GR. Both are excellent. He doesn't try to act the characters too much...something which I find annoying in many other audiobooks. He also has a good sense of how to narrate this book.
People compare GR to Ulysses...I don't see that. Ulysses is a different beast of a book with a different writing style. Don't let the comparisons scare you away, or make you think you need to read Ulysses first to "get" this book.
My advice to those working your way through GR is to read a section first, then go back and listen to the section while reading along. You'll be amazed at how much you pick up and understand during that second pass. Also, this isn't a book to plough through over a weekend. Its going to take some time, so work slowly...you'll be rewarded. There is a reference guide to GR which you may find helpful but I don't think it's necessary. Just have fun.
Because the narrator nails it; intonation, accents, everything. It's especially useful to listen to the book with the text in front of you.
As Tyson Allan pointed out (on April 7, 2015), the content of chapter 33 is repeated in chapter 34 & 35. Additionally, there is repeated content in chapters 38&39. It's easily remedied by skipping ahead to chapter 40, but hopefully the digital file will be fixed.
This is a fantastic reading of a well loved masterpiece but there is a flaw in the recording that I can't believe no one seems to have caught before now. The content of chapter 33 is repeated in chapter 34 & 35, meaning the audiobook is about two hours longer (or perhaps even more) than it needs to be. Unless of course this is just a flaw in my copy somehow I think this needs to be corrected.
Otherwise this is a phenomenal performance of a notoriously difficult read. It has given me a new found and deeper appreciation for the material and I know I will revisit it time and again.
This book is a difficult read. The performance made the grand scale of the book and the scope of the detail more brilliant and enhanced my love of this book. Well done.
Talking light bulbs and other insights
into the socio-economic structure on planet earth as the somewhat deviant characters proceed in life
l'enfer c'est les autres
Best fiction book I've ever read (technically listened to).
This is not a typical fiction book. There is a real method to the madness within the story. It's not meant only to divert ones attention from the mundane or entertain, but to explore the human experience from one author's perspective. The story in the book can be hard to follow and definitely won't be everyone's cup of tea.
In someways, the book reminds me of a conversation I usually have with strangers when I'm sitting at a bar having a beer, say. I know three things will almost always happen, 1) I'll end up alienating the person, 2) I'll start talking about science, history and philosophy, and 3) they won't alienate me whatsoever because I'm always interested in learning what they have to say about their thoughts but never about what they've done or the jobs they've had or the sports team they like or any of the other things they do, but I always am interested in what they think and why. Let them teach me new thoughts and new ways of seeing the world, but sadly they seem to be interested in the boot camp they had 20 years ago or that job that they worked on many, many years ago. I'd much rather talk with them about this book than the mundane.
There's no more interesting question than what is the order of the universe and what our purpose 'should' be and how we best should deal with the absurdity of life (by 'absurdity' I mean it the way Camus uses it in his "Myth of Sisyphus"). Those three question or variations of them are what drives me and this novel explores them in it's own unique way.
To understand this book, it takes someone who knows the pre-1945 movies to appreciate the book fully. I understand the war and its pop culture more than today's culture. (I probably could not really name a song from the last 35 years, but I know my war and pre-war culture, and there is probably not a thing I don't know about the old movies and actors). It's necessary to have that background when he's telling the story. He'll often leave the reader dangling by making a statement like "it's like when Spencer Tracy went to Africa", and he doesn't complete the circle until 10 hours later when he mentions the movie "Stanley and Livingston" and how the African Chieftain was a Mason and gave the Masonic handshake (paranoia is definitely a theme in this book).
I can only hint at what this novel is about. The first line in the book is the line "there is not extinction only transformation". That theme definitely runs through out the book. The most important statistical distribution in discrete space is the "Poisson Distribution" and the time between events (continuous space) is the Exponential Distribution. He explains this concept better than any text book and why it's so important for understanding the world we live in. His example regards number of bombs falling in a grid and the time between bombs. He could have just as easily explained it by a boy fishing ('poisson" is fish in French) on a dock. Life itself has a random nature and the Poisson and Exponential distribution are real things and are expertly explained within the text.
There's a very special feature of the Exponential Distribution. It is a memory less distribution. He'll comment on that (though he called the property something else). The memory less property means that if the average time between bombs blowing up in a grid happened to be 4 hours, and if you know that the grid hadn't happened to have had any bomb within 30 hours the expected mean time for a bomb to blow up next would be still four hours. Pynchon really understands his math!
He'll elaborate this concept 10 hours latter and talk at length about "Byron the bulb", the immortal bulb. Light bulbs are the quintessential example for the exponential distribution.
An immortal bulb will understand the truth, lives forever and is doomed to never tell it to anyone. The bulb will ultimately get hit with the "karmic hammer' of which only the 1937 Ford never gets and will ultimately get recycled much as the most popular machine gun from WW I did.
He'll tell many asides in the book. He's giving what he believes is his order to the universe. The 'temporal bandwidth' is the time width we use to assess our reality and we use it for our past and future. As our delta time (a calculus term and is the arbitrarily unit of time remaining) approaches zero and since it's in the denominator our last moments will approach relative infinity. The author doesn't really hide what he's talking about in the story. The Benzine molecule can only ever mean one thing within fiction.
There's a lot of crap in this book. There's a lot of racism. But, it's all there for a reason. He'll explain the crap when he talks about 'crap from Shinola'. Hint, our toilet seats are white for a reason. The 'we' and the 'they' are fundamental to our worldviews, and sometimes they just can't touch each other. (Ontological foundations are never necessarily unique. But, Pynchon is definitely not a philosopher and doesn't talk that way at all).
Section 175 of the Nazi death camps and 50 thousand Jehovah Witnesses as recipients of the 28000 meter frequency with the 9 km antenna in the German town listening to U-boats in order to hear of possible crucifixions at sea makes sense to somebody who has read as many WW II books as I have. (hint: JWs come out looking like heroes).
He doesn't say it directly but he brings it up multiple times. Clark Gable as the Devil and William Powell as the angel and Myrna Loy (yes, they are Nick and Nora Charles) is an ironic movie for what happened after the movie was released. John Dillinger and the lady in red, and the blood on him at the Biograph in Chicago. The movie is called "Manhattan Melodrama" is ironically named because of John Dillinger was gunned down in Chicago and the movie was forever known for that event. The author just assumes the reader knows those kind of things. Doesn't everyone know everything there is to know about the old movies? The author brings up Fritz Lang a lot too. My all time favorite director.
I better stop. There are many themes tied loosely together in this book. Paranoia (everything happens for a reason) or anti-Paranoia (nothing happens for a reason). Cause and effect, at the quantum level cause can happen before effect and the author definitely leans that way. Singularity, there is a point at which our knowledge collapses because we have to divide by nothing. Rebirth through the shuffling around of the molecules and the father/son mother/daughter connections. Our background, media and corporations take away our authentic selves. There is always a rocket hanging over us and it's just a matter of time and chance (or as multiple characters say 'time and god').
This is not a typical fictional book. I love pre-1945 culture, I love the science in this book and I love learning about the order of the universe. BTW, the book at times is laugh out loud funny. Don't let your emotional repulsion from some of the topics get the best of you. (Funniest line in the book, "Brigadier pudding died from e-coli infection").
Snotty, elitist lawyer who reads too much and is kind too little.
Yes, wholeheartedly. It's a great way to experience a classic work.
Pynchon belongs with Pynchon. There's no other way to put it.
You can't go wrong with Pirate Prentice's famous Banana Breakfast.
No. It insists upon being taken in only in smaller bites. Each passage is thoughtful and wants you to pause, chew, and savor.
It's weird, yeah. Pynchon is weird. But give it some time to sink in. Let the humor wash over you. Get carried away on the prose. Don't try to grasp the meaning of a passage or story all at once. Let enlightenment sneak up on you.
It's more fun that way.
Say something about yourself!
Thanks to the miracle of audiobooks (because I have more time to "read" via this method and retain things better through sound for some reason, I was able to give this book my full attention and conquer the literary milestone that people seem to think it is. All my life I've heard the same things about this book. I've heard that hardly anyone finishes it, and those who do seldom understand it. But I've also heard that for those who do understand it, it's one of the greatest books ever written.
That's high praise. And from where I'm sitting, sorry to say it... it's also an over-saturated load of bull butter.
I've read some bad books in my time. We all have. In my experience, Gravity's Rainbow is one of the worst reads I've ever encountered. I have found zero redeeming qualities in it. None. Zip. Zilch. I give it one star because I can't give it -5 or lower.
I realize this book has a lot of defenders, and I trust this review will be taken with the understanding that my disdain for this work has nothing to do with attacking those who enjoyed it. If you enjoyed it, great. Glad you did. Clearly, you were the target audience, and I'm sorry that this review might hurt your sensibilities. Not sure why you're still reading what I have to say about it, but that's on you, just as it's on me that I actually bothered to finish Gravity's Rainbow. That said, I am inspired to a level of anger requires an exorcism and/or should have me channeling the powers of the Dark Side like a master. And so, like the author himself, I write this rant of a review because I felt obliged to word vomit about it. The difference, of course, is that I freely admit I'm not literary, I don't try to be, and I can make my point in considerably less time. You're welcome.
I own up to my biases. I am not that "literary minded" as I've said, although I have read Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Homer for fun, mixed in with all of the other stuff I enjoy. I also have very little tolerance for the drug culture of the 1970s, from whence this rodent killer of a tome was spawned. It comes down to a matter of taste. I found this book had none, nor was it to mine. I'd find more ready appreciation in a Leonardo or a Monet than in a Pollack. I have a lot better things to do with my time than looking at a canvas spraypainted via firehose or maps drawn by kids with crayons. Give me Beethoven, not the Bee Gees. At the same, though, I did go into this with the idea that there are exceptions to everything, and if so many praise its literary qualities, there had to be something to it. I honestly looked forward to the discovery of what that might be. Having made it to the end and found nothing, I not only feel cheated, I actually feel violated because I'm this angry about it.
Most tell me that if I don't like the book, it's because I don't understand it. To be honest, it's just not that difficult to figure out. I've encountered and appreciated many "difficult" books before, and I've typically come away the better for the experience. That's not the issue I found here. Instead, I found it to have all of the depth of MAD Magazine, with about the same maturity level, but without the inability to land on a punchline, meaningful or otherwise. I've read Choose Your Own Adventure stories with more plot than this. The overall message of the book is a good one: "make love, not war." Sadly, even that basic positive got pulled down to the level of randy farm animals to the point where anything resembling humanity was lost. I'm certain that was the point too. I'm supposed to applaud this? I got the impression Pynchon thinks he deserves a standing ovation. I object to any writer on moral grounds that says fighting is bad and yet forces the reader to resist epic levels of "HULK SMASH!" urges for the duration of the read.
The writing style is my largest gripe. People have described it as "crystalline prose," whatever that means. It tries way too hard to impress the idea upon you that it's raw, visceral, and somehow "artsy" without being artsy. Whatever tone he was trying to achieve, I grant that he achieved it, which is quite a feat considering he did it by using the largest amount of semi-coherent babble I've ever ever seen at one time. The readability of this had all of the appeal of watching somebody shave an animal, remove the top layer of its skin, and then feed that skin back to the animal. No, I don't have personal experience with anything like that, but I can imagine quite a bit without the use of drugs that the author clearly needed to achieve the same effect. And it wasn't so much what Pynchon wrote that made me feel the way I do about it. Instead it was more the way he wrote it that caused that reaction. So if that's your benchmark of literary, ok, point Pynchon. He got a bona fide reaction out of me. Good job in making the reader want to turn away from the work in disgust.
The rest of my issues stem simply from a lack of characters that I cared about or wanted to, and a lack of anything resembling an actual plot beyond the general need of the characters to want to screw everything. It takes absolutely zero talent for anyone to take drugs and get this kind of effect. It boggles the mind that when somebody acts on their visions and writes something down, the "literati" out there prop up both author and book like a pagan idol or a new prophecy or whatever. All it proved to me is that the author was driven to write. There's a fine line between genius and madness, and he crossed it long before the end of his first paragraph. Still, I can't tell anyone not to read it. Everyone makes their own call in that regard. I simply offer my own counterpoint to the choir of would-be angels circling Pynchon's throne in endless hallelujah. I'll be kneeling in reverence over at the altar of Tolkien, if it's all the same. As long-winded as he could be, he at least got to the point and presented it with some manner of coherence. And what do you know... it's the SAME POINT, that war is bad. Tolkien created multiple languages and dialects for his masterpiece. Pynchon spent 1000 pages mangling only one.
Bottom line: I found this book to be pretentious in the extreme and insulting to the very core of my being. I managed to finish it only because I had an audiobook that could force some kind of forward momentum that the author certainly didn't provide, and I willed myself to do so only because apparently the ending was supposed to make me change my mind and help me to see how brilliant this work is. Calling this literature is like calling FOX News "fair and balanced." At least I can get back my Audible credit and trade it in on something that won't potentially cause an aneurysm. I prefer my reading to be enlightening, educational, entertaining, relaxing, or some combination of any of these factors. This was none of the above. Almost anything would be an improvement over this lamentable mess. Almost.
More worthy tomes await. I feel better now. I'm done with one.
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