Pynchon // Gravity's Rainbow
I remember this one semester in college I was taking a class on the 19th century english novel (2 massive books / wk), Shakespeare (2 plays / wk), Milton (Paradise Lost + bunch of papers / wk), Creative Writing, Modern Theatre (2 plays / wk) – it was a ton of reading.
At some point during this class I came across Thomas Pynchon’s V and I got so enthralled I just abandoned all of the other reading I was supposed to do that week.
For some reason, I didn’t read any more Pynchon for awhile – I think subconsciously, I knew what an all consuming rabbit-hole his books were, how much investment they required.
A few years ago, I saw PTA’s film adaptation of Inherent Vice (loved it) and then read Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, which for some reason I didn’t get into as much.
For some reason I recently decided to pick up Gravity’s Rainbow, and I had a similar experience to the one I did with V – I couldn’t put this book down.
It is very thematically related to a bunch of the thinking Rob and I have been doing recently ( eg Civilization Noir ) and I HIGHLY recommend the book, but warn it is (1) not easygoing and it is (2) pretty grotesque. It was the unanimous recommendation for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1974, but deemed too obscene by the board members, so no award was given in the category of fiction that year…
Here are some of my favorite bits…
Civilization noir / the control is put “inside” civilization, God is dispensed with, and there is the illusion of control:
“Once transected into the realm of Dominus Blicero, Roland found that all the signs had turned against him. . . . Lights he had studied so well as one of you, position and movement, now gathered there at the opposite end, all in dance . . . irrelevant dance. None of Blicero’s traditional progress, no something new . . . alien. . . . Roland too became conscious of the wind, as his mortality had never allowed him. Discovered it so … so joyful, that the arrow must veer into it. The wind had been blowing all year long, year after year, but Roland had felt only the secular wind … he means, only his personal wind. Yet. . . Selena, the wind, the wind’s everywhere. . . .”
Here the medium breaks off, is silent awhile . . . one groan … a quiet, desperate moment. “Selena. Selena. Have you gone, then?”
“No, my dear,” her cheeks molded with previous tears, “I’m listen-ing.”
“It’s control. All these things arise from one difficulty: control. For the first time it was inside, do you see. The control is put inside. No more need to suffer passively under ‘outside forces’—to veer into any wind. As if…
“A market needed no longer be run by the Invisible Hand, but now could create itself—ils own logic, momentum, style, from inside. Putting the control inside was ratifying what de facto had happened— that you had dispensed with God. But you had taken on a greater, and more harmful, illusion. The illusion of control. That A could do B. But that was false. Completely. No one can do. Things only happen, A and B are unreal, are names for parts that ought to be inseparable. …”
“More Ouspenskian nonsense,” whispers a lady brushing by on the arm of a dock worker. Odors of Diesel fuel and Sous le Vent mingle as they pass. Jessica Swanlake, a young rosy girl in the uniform of an ATS private, noticing the prewar perfume, looks up, hmm, the frock she imagines is about 15 guineas and who knows how many coupons, probably from Harrods and would do more for me, she’s also sure. The lady, suddenly looking back over her shoulder, smiles oh, yes? My gosh, did she hear? Around this place almost certainly.
Jessica’s been standing near the séance table with a handful of darts idly plucked from the board on the wall, her head bent, pale nape and top vertebra visible above the brown wool collar and through some of her lighter brown hair, fallen either side along her cheeks. Brass throats and breasts warm to her blood, quake in the hollow of her hand. She seems herself, gentling their feathered crosses, brushing with fingertips, to have slid into a shallow trance. . . .
Outside, rolling from the east, comes the muffled rip of another rocket bomb. The windows rattle, the floor shakes. The sensitive flame dives for shelter, shadows across the table sent adance, darkening toward the other room—then it leaps high, the shadows drawing inward again, fully two feet, and disappears completely. Gas hisses on in the dim room. Milton Gloaming, who achieved perfect tripos at Cambridge ten years ago, abandons his shorthand to rise and go shut the gas off.
Zipf’s law and death:
Presently Jessica comes wandering over. No sign of Roger and she’s not sure he wants her to come looking for him, and Gloaming, though shy, isn’t as horrid as some of Roger’s other friends. . . .
“Roger says that now you’ll count up all those words you copied and graph them or something,” brightly to head off any comment on the dart incident, which she’d rather avoid. “Do you do it only for séances?”
“Automatic texts,” girl-nervous Gloaming frowns, nods, “one or two Ouija-board episodes, yes yes . . . we-we’re trying to develop a vocabulary of curves—certain pathologies, certain characteristic shapes you see—”
“I’m not sure that I—”
“Well. Recall Zipf’s Principle of Least Effort: if we plot the frequency of a word P sub n against its rank-order n on logarithmic axes,” babbling into her silence, even her bewilderment graceful, “we should of course get something like a straight line . . . however we’ve data that suggest the curves for certain—conditions, well they’re actually quite different—schizophrenics for example tend to run a bit flatter in the upper part then progressively steeper—a sort of bow shape …I think with this chap, this Roland, that we’re on to a classical paranoiac—”
“Ha.” That’s a word she knows. “Thought I saw you brighten up there when he said ‘turned against.’ “
” ‘Against,’ ‘opposite,’ yes you’d be amazed at the frequency with this one.”
“What’s the most frequent word?” asks Jessica. “Your number one.”
“The same as it’s always been at these affairs,” replies the statistician, as if everyone knew: “death.”
It is not death that separates these incarnations, but paper: paper specialties, paper routines. The War, the Empire, will expedite such barriers between our lives. The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though its propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together. The War does not appear to want a folk-consciousness, not even of the sort the Germans have engineered, ein Volk ein Führer—it wants a machine of many separate parts, not oneness, but a complexity…. Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof is it… so absentee. Perhaps the War isn’t even an awareness—not a life at all, really. There may only be some cruel, accidental resemblance to life.
Come then. Leave your war awhile, paper or iron war, petrol or flesh, come in with your love, your fear of losing, your exhaustion with it. All day it’s been at you, coercing, jiving, claiming your belief in so much that isn’t true. Is that who you are, that vaguely criminal face on your ID card, its soul snatched by the government camera as the guillotine shutter fell—or maybe just left behind with your heart, at the Stage Door Canteen, where they’re counting the night’s take, the NAAFI girls, the girls named Eileen, carefully sorting into refrigerated compartments the rubbery maroon organs with their yellow garnishes of fat—oh Linda come here feel this one, put your finger down in the ventricle here, isn’t it swoony, it’s still going. . . . Everybody you don’t suspect is in on this, everybody but you: the chaplain, the doctor, your mother hoping to hang that Gold Star, the vapid soprano last night on the Home Service programme, let’s not forget Mr. Noel Coward so stylish and cute about death and the afterlife, packing them into the Duchess for the fourth year running, the lads in Hollywood telling us how grand it all is over here, how much fun, Walt Disney causing Dumbo the elephant to clutch to that feather like how many carcasses under the snow tonight among the white-painted tanks, how many hands each frozen around a Miraculous Medal, lucky piece of worn bone, half-dollar with the grinning sun peering up under Liberty’s wispy gown, clutching, dumb, when the 88 fell—what do you think, it’s a children’s story? There aren’t any. The children are away dreaming, but the Empire has no place for dreams and it’s Adults Only in here tonight, here in this refuge with the lamps burning deep, in pre-Cambrian exhalation, savory as food cooking, heavy as soot. And 60 miles up the rockets hanging the measureless instant over the black North Sea before the fall, ever faster, to orange heat, Christmas star, in helpless plunge to Earth. Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It’s a long walk home tonight.
“Yes yes but—” giving Slothrop a most odd look, “I mean I’m not quite sure I really see, you know, the point to it all. How does one win?”
Ha! How does one win, indeed. “One doesn’t win,” easing into it, thinking of Tantivy, one small impromptu counter-conspiracy here, “one loses. One by one. Whoever’s left is the winner.”
“It sounds rather negative.”
“Garçon.” Drinks here are always on the house for Slothrop— They are springing for it, he imagines. “Some of that champagne! Wantcha to just keep it coming, and any time we run out, go get more, comprendez?” Any number of slack-jawed subalterns, hearing the magic word, drift over and take seats while Slothrop explains the rules.
This is one of they key ideas in this book:
They have had their moment of freedom. Webley has only been a guest star. Now it’s back to the cages and the rationalized forms of death—death in the service of the one species cursed with the knowledge that it will die. … “I would set you free, if I knew how. But it isn’t free out here. All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all. I can’t even give you hope that it will be different someday—that They’ll come out, and forget death, and lose Their technology’s elaborate terror, and stop using every other form of life without mercy to keep what haunts men down to a tolerable level—and be like you instead, simply here, simply alive. .. .” The guest star retires down the corridors.
Proverbs for Paranoids, 1: You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.
Proverbs for Paranoids, 2: The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.
Proverbs for Paranoids, 3: If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.
Tchitcherine’s father was a gunner on the Admiral’s flagship, the Suvorov. The fleet paused in Lüderitzbucht for a week, trying to take on coal. Storms lashed through the crowded little harbor. The Suvorov kept smashing up against her colliers, tearing holes in the sides, wrecking many of her own 12-pound guns. Squalls blew in, clammy coal dust swirled and stuck to everything, human and steel. Sailors worked around the clock, with searchlights set up on deck at night, hauling coal sacks, half blind in the glare, shoveling, sweating, coughing, bitching. Some went crazy, a few tried suicide. Old Tchitcherine, after two days of it, went AWOL, and stayed away till it was over. He found a Herero girl who’d lost her husband in the uprising against the Germans. It was nothing he had planned or even dreamed about before going ashore. What did he know of Africa? He had a wife back in Saint Petersburg, and a child hardly able to roll over. Up till then Kron-stadt was the farthest he’d been from home. He only wanted a rest from the working parties, and from the way it looked . . . from what the black and white of coal and arc-light were about to say … no color, and the unreality to go with it—but a familiar unreality, that warns This Is All Being Staged To See What I’ll Do So I Mustn’t Make One Wrong Move … on the last day of his life, with Japanese iron whistling down on him from ships that are too far off in the haze for him even to see, he will think of the slowly carbonizing faces of men he thought he knew, men turning to coal, ancient coal that glistened, each crystal, in the hoarse sputter of the Jablochkov candles, each flake struck perfect… a conspiracy of carbon, though he never phrased it as “carbon,” it was power he walked away from, the feeling of too much meaningless power, flowing wrong … he could smell Death in it.
Well, to find that Säure Bummer, soon as this rain lets up, give the man his hashish. But what then? Slothrop and the S-Gerät and the Jamf/Imipolex mystery have grown to be strangers. He hasn’t really thought about them for a while. Hmm, when was that? The day he sat with Säure in the cafe, smoking that reefer . . . oh, that was day before yesterday, wasn’t it? Rain drips, soaking into the floor, and Slothrop perceives that he is losing his mind. If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long. Well right now Slothrop feels himself sliding onto the anti-paranoid part of his cycle, feels the whole city around him going back roofless, vulnerable, uncentered as he is, and only pasteboard images now of the Listening Enemy left between him and the wet sky.
It matters, but how much? Now that Margherita has wept to him, across the stringless lyre and bitter chasm of a ship’s toilet, of her last days with Blicero, he knows as well as he has to that it’s the S-Gerät after all that’s following him, it and the pale plastic ubiquity of Laszlo Jamf. That if he’s been seeker and sought, well, he’s also baited, and bait. The Imipolex question was planted for him by somebody, back at the Casino Hermann Goering, with hopes it would flower into a full Imipolectique with its own potency in the Zone—but They knew Slothrop would jump for it. Looks like there are sub-Slothrop needs They know about, and he doesn’t: this is humiliating on the face of it, but now there’s also the even more annoying question, What do I need that badly?
It means this War was never political at all, the politics was all theatre, all just to keep the people distracted . . . secretly, it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology … by a conspiracy between human beings and techniques, by something that needed the energy-burst of war, crying, “Money be damned, the very life of [insert name of Nation] is at stake,” but meaning, most likely, dawn is nearly here, I need my night’s blood, my funding, funding, ahh more, more. . . . The real crises were crises of allocation and priority, not among firms—it was only staged to look that way—but among the different Technologies, Plastics, Electronics, Aircraft, and their needs which are understood only by the ruling elite . . .
Yes but Technology only responds (how often this argument has been iterated, dogged and humorless as a Gaussian reduction, among the younger Schwarzkommando especially), “All very well to talk about having a monster by the tail, but do you think we’d’ve had the Rocket if someone, some specific somebody with a name and a penis hadn’t wanted to chuck a ton of Amatol 300 miles and blow up a block full of civilians? Go ahead, capitalize the T on technology, deify it if it’ll make you feel less responsible—but it puts you in with the neutered, brother, in with the eunuchs keeping the harem of our stolen Earth for the numb and joyless hardens of human sultans, human elite with no right at all to be where they are—”
We have to look for power sources here, and distribution networks we were never taught, routes of power our teachers never imagined, or were encouraged to avoid . . . we have to find meters whose scales are unknown in the world, draw our own schematics, getting feedback, making connections, reducing the error, trying to learn the real function . . . zeroing in on what incalculable plot? Up here, on the surface, coaltars, hydrogenation, synthesis were always phony, dummy functions to hide the real, the planetary mission yes perhaps centuries in the unrolling . . . this ruinous plant, waiting for its Kab-balists and new alchemists to discover the Key, teach the mysteries to others . . .
“Of course not,” Sammy sez. “Would you—really—trust any of us?”
“Oh, no,” Pirate whispers. This is one of his own in progress. Nobody else’s. But it’s still a passage They can touch quite as easily as that of any client. Without expecting to, it seems Pirate has begun to cry. Odd. He has never cried in public like this before. But he understands where he is, now. It will be possible, after all, to die in obscurity, without having helped a soul: without love, despised, never trusted, never vindicated—to stay down among the Preterite, his poor honor lost, impossible to locate or to redeem.
He is crying for persons, places, and things left behind: for Scorpia Mossmoon, living in St. John’s Wood among sheet-music, new recipes, a small kennel of Weimaraners whose racial purity she will go to extravagant lengths to preserve, and husband Clive who shows up now and then, Scorpia living only a few minutes away by Underground but lost to Pirate now for good, no chance for either of them to turn again . . . for people he had to betray in the course of business for the Firm, Englishmen and foreigners, for Ion so naïve, for Gongy-lakis, for the Monkey Girl and the pimps in Rome, for Bruce who got burned . . . for nights up in partisan mountains when he was one with the smell of living trees, in full love with the at last undeniable beauty of the night… for a girl back in the Midlands named Virginia, and for their child who never came to pass . . . for his dead mother, and his dying father, for the innocent and the fools who are going to trust him, poor faces doomed as dogs who have watched us so amiably from behind the wire fences at the city pounds . . . cries for the future he can see, because it makes him feel so desperate and cold. He is to be taken from high moment to high moment, standing by at meetings of the Elect, witnessing a test of the new Cosmic Bomb —”Well,” a wise old face, handing him the black-lensed glasses, “there’s your Bomb . . .” turning then to see its thick yellow exploding down the beach, across the leagues of Pacific waves . . . touching famous assassins, yes actually touching their human hands and faces . . . finding out one day how long ago, how early in the game the contract on his own life was let. No one knows exactly when the hit will come—every morning, before the markets open, out before the milkmen, They make Their new update, and decide on what’s going to be sufficient unto the day. Every morning Pirate’s name will be on a list, and one morning it will be close enough to the top. He tries to face it, though it fills him with a terror so pure, so cold, he thinks for a minute he’ll pass out. Later, having drawn back a bit, gathering heart for the next sortie, it seems to him he’s done with the shame, just as Sir Stephen said, yes past the old shame and scared now, full of worry for nothing but his own ass, his precious, condemned, personal ass. . . .
You will want cause and effect. All right. Thanatz was washed overboard in the same storm that took Slothrop from the Anubis. He was rescued by a Polish undertaker in a rowboat, out in the storm tonight to see if he can get struck by lightning. The undertaker is wearing, in hopes it will draw electricity, a complicated metal suit, something like a deep-sea diver’s, and a Wehrmacht helmet through which he has drilled a couple of hundred holes and inserted nuts, bolts, springs and conductive wands of many shapes so that he jingles whenever he nods or shakes his head, which is often. He’s a digital companion all right, everything gets either a yes or a no, and two-tone checkerboards of odd shape and texture indeed bloom in the rainy night around him and Thanatz. Ever since reading about Benjamin Franklin in an American propaganda leaflet, kite, thunder and key, the undertaker has been obsessed with this business of getting hit in the head by a lightning bolt. All over Europe, it came to him one night in a flash (though not the kind he wanted), at this very moment, are hundreds, who knows maybe thousands, of people walking around, who have been struck by lightning and survived. What stories they could tell!
What the leaflet neglected to mention was that Benjamin Franklin was also a Mason, and given to cosmic forms of practical jokesterism, of which the United States of America may well have been one.
Well, it’s a matter of continuity. Most people’s lives have ups and downs that are relatively gradual, a sinuous curve with first derivatives at every point. They’re the ones who never get struck by lightning. No real idea of cataclysm at all. But the ones who do get hit experience a singular point, a discontinuity in the curve of life—do you know what the time rate of change is at a cusp? Infinity, that’s what! A-and right across the point, it’s minus infinity! How’s that for sudden change, eh? Infinite miles per hour changing to the same speed in reverse, all in the gnat’s-ass or red cunt hair of theacross the point. That’s getting hit by lightning, folks. You’re tv ay up there on the needle-peak of a mountain, and don’t think there aren’t lammergeiers cruising there in the lurid red altitudes around, waiting for a chance to snatch you off. Oh yes. They are piloted by bareback dwarves with little plastic masks around their eyes that happen to be shaped just like the infinity symbol:. Little men with wicked eyebrows, pointed ears and bald heads, although some of them are wearing outlandish headgear, not at all the usual Robin Hood green fedoras, no these are Carmen Miranda hats, for example, bananas, papayas, bunches of grapes, pears, pineapples, mangoes, jeepers even watermelons—and there are World War I spiketop Wìlhelmets, and baby bonnets and crosswise Napoleon hats with and without Ns on them, not to mention little red suits and green capes, well here they are leaning forward into their cruel birds’ ears, whispering like jockeys, out to nab you, buster, just like that sacrificial ape off of the Empire State Building, except that they won’t let you fall, they’ll carry you away, to the places they are agents of. It will look like the world you left, but it’ll be different. Between congruent and identical there seems to be another class of look-alike that only finds the lightning-heads. Another world laid down on the previous one and to all appearances no different, Ha-ha! But the lightning-struck know, all right! Even if they may not know they know. And that’s what this undertaker tonight has set out into the storm to find.
Any wonder it’s hard to feel much confidence in these idiots as they go up against Pernicious Pop each day? There’s no real direction here, neither lines of power nor cooperation. Decisions are never really made—at best they manage to emerge, from a chaos of peeves, whims, hallucinations and all-round assholery. This is less a fighting team than nest full of snits, blues, crotchets and grudges, not a rare or fabled bird in the lot. Its survival seems, after all, only a mutter of blind fortune groping through the heavy marbling of skies one Titanic-Night at a time. Which is why Slothrop now observes his coalition with hopes for success and hopes for disaster about equally high (and no, that doesn ‘t cancel out to apathy—it makes a loud dissonance that dovetails inside you sharp as knives). It does annoy him that he can be so divided, so perfectly unable to come down on one side or another. Those whom the old Puritan sermons denounced as “the glozing neuters of the world” have no easy rog d to haul down, Wear-the-Pantsers, just cause you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there! Energy inside is just as real, just as binding and inescapable, as energy that shows. When’s the last time you felt intensely lukewarm? eh? Glozing neuters are just as human as heroes and villains. In many ways they have the most grief to put up with, don’t they? Why don’t you, right now, wherever you are, city folks or out in the country, snuggled in quilts or riding the bus, just turn to the Glozing Neuter nearest you, even your own reflection in the mirror, and . . . just. . . sing,