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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.
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.
24 of 24 people found this review helpful
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.
57 of 59 people found this review helpful
Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?
Because the narrator nails it; intonation, accents, everything. It's especially useful to listen to the book with the text in front of you.
Any additional comments?
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.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful
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.
17 of 19 people found this review helpful
What made the experience of listening to Gravity's Rainbow the most enjoyable?
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.
What other book might you compare Gravity's Rainbow to and why?
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.
Any additional comments?
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.
17 of 19 people found this review helpful
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").
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
This is probably the greatest audio book I've ever listened to. It is best, though, to either read the book first or read and listen (maybe listen, then read) concurrently. It is a complex book about complex and simple subjects; it contains myriad literary allusions, toilet humor, elaborate puns, beautifully poetic prose, and arguably obscene language and concepts. It is broad, deep, specific, and ambiguous. It is fantastically real and really fantastic! (Sorry.) It has a structure that alludes to and enhances the themes of the book. It has a plot. Really. It has subplots galore--and those subplots have families of sub-subplots. It has words you don't know the definition of. It has words that don't exist. It is grammatically correct regardless of the rules of grammar. It has witches and rockets and superheroes. It has electronics and calculus and organic chemistry and astrology and kabbalah. It has Seaman Bodine! It is set in Germany and New England and South Africa and England and the Mediterranean coast. It considers and conflates racism and sexism and nationalism and capitalism...a and it is paranoid. Or maybe not.
Byron the bulb, Pirate's banana breakfast, the English candy scene...a and Slothrop's memories of home. And his discovery that I won't mention (because spoiler.) And the launch of 00000. And going through the toilet. And the scenes in Sudwest with the Hetereo, usw.
The performance was very good and probably could not have been better. I listened to most of the original recording that George Guidall did in addition to this re-recording, and in the new recording he is obviously older and less powerful/aggressive in his delivery; not good or bad, just different. My main issues were with how he read math equations (mostly incorrectly) and that the songs were not sung.
I first read this book a decade ago, and am still reacting to it. This listen probably guarantees another ten years of reacting.
From V, not GR: "Keep cool, but care."
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
Any additional comments?
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.
14 of 18 people found this review helpful
Talking light bulbs and other insights
into the socio-economic structure on planet earth as the somewhat deviant characters proceed in life
4 of 5 people found this review helpful
I can appreciate this book as a great piece of art, but it was a bit of a slog. After 40 hours I was even more confused than I was at the start. it doesn't help that some of the chapters are repeated towards the end. GREAT narrator.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful