Disgusted with how little fiction I’ve digested over the last two and a half years (particularly as someone who claims ambitions of becoming a novelist), I took it upon myself to begin a pilgrimage into Thomas Pynchon’s classic Gravity’s Rainbow the Christmas before last and found myself overwhelmed practically every millisecond its covers were opened. Considered by critics such as Harold Bloom, Richard Lacayo and Sascha Pohlmann and novelists like David Foster Wallace (maybe you’ve heard of him) not only one of the greatest post-World War II novels but, additionally, the definitive postmodern novel, GR is a shrieking kamikaze assault on sensibility and taste, literary and otherwise. Without a moment’s hesitation I affirm this is the most difficult novel I have ever opened (although, to qualify that assertion, I never did finish Ulysses: I know, I know- for shame) though its girth contributes only fractionally to that. Infinite Jest is longer by nearly three hundred pages, but its gradient is so much smoother and more immediately pleasing (really trying not to use “entertaining” in that sentence at all costs) it’s exponentially less daunting a task. Not that some eight hundred pages of dense, dense text isn’t intimidating to a degree, but its intransigence as a novel issues out of its marriage of disorienting form, its avalanche of 1940s-era cultural/historical cues, and its panoply of absurd character idiosyncrasies and deviancies. Pynchon doesn’t take it easy on the reader at all and seems to take a sadistic delight in careening about between characters and temporal perspectives (flashbacks often just intrude into and colonize the present to hijack what initially appeared to be the point of a scene) with little to no warning. The prospect of hiking GR‘s convoluted switchbacks with sustained focus for eighty times my initial ten page slog was disheartening, to put it mildly.
GR is feverishly digressive and transgressive both (there’s a reason the Pulitzer board threw it out as a candidate for 1974’s prize for fiction, and to warn you fairly, the offending passage is icky- and that right there is probably the understatement of century [side note: after its rejection, no novel won the prize for 1974- negative vindication, perhaps?]), so it’s worth indicating that this novel isn’t for you if 1) you don’t want to invest quite possibly months of brain sweat to grappling with the clefts, gullies, and crevasses of a mammoth (and regularly indeterminate) narrative and/or 2) the storied depiction of deviancy (some of it quite heinous) troubles your conscience. To be more specific with that last point, these depictions are intended to be troubling: they contribute to Pynchon’s nightmare vision of the link between sex and death and don’t appear to me to be titillating or gratuitous. This is a classic theme in a variety of works over the years, but Pynchon conceptualizes it in very modern, lurid, and heartbreaking prose. Interspersed with limericks, yes, but don’t be fooled: there is a writer of consummate skill at work here who can switch gears between passages of monumental beauty and repulsion on a dime and blend together the absurd and the mythic just as forcefully as real life.
As for what it was like trying to negotiate this textual beast… I’m still not sure how to summarize it except, perhaps, as “oceanic.” As in, “terrifyingly immense and in very real danger of drowning”; sheets of prose sweeping me into consecutive riptides pulling me under first this way, then that. But its very inaccessibility, paradoxically, tugged at me like the Death’s Star tractor beam: I couldn’t not try to swim this cataract. Because there are rewards littered throughout GR, make no mistake. A dozen pages of obscure technical jargon about Poisson distributions can suddenly dissolve into a paragraph of achingly exquisite reflection that stops you dead in your tracks and leaves you breathless. That first time around, though, the titan won. A hundred pages in, exhausted from the sheer mental effort of trying to tread water, I succumbed to the instability intrinsic to this story. I shipwrecked on the etymology of the word: the inviting text closed itself off and my vision disintegrated into a blur of incomprehension. Oof.
What’s drawing me back, though, is more than the sting of defeat I’d like to extinguish. I think there’s something here worth reading, and I think my trouble staying faithful to its pace and proportion are indicators of my shortcomings as a reader rather than sure signs that this book is a waste of time. I’m encouraged by a few things from the second half of 2015. One was reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian with Blake last summer because that forced me to keep grappling with something that required a different kind of engagement altogether than Barth or Francis Watson week after week after week. (Editorial aside: what a strange thing to say, but I really mean it.) After the initial phase of moving to Minnesota the next promising development was the ease with which I digested The Crying of Lot 49, the novel Pynchon wrote prior to GR. Crying was dense and labyrinthine in its own way, but surprisingly humanistic and loaded with inventive wordplay and black humor. I put it down confident that I hadn’t completely lost my old habits of reading, but, to consolidate that victory, I made the decision to read drastically fewer things online to re-discipline myself to patiently pore over physical pages with real, printed signifiers upon them. Cultivating that attention to genuine texts has helped enormously and I’m finding that the act of reading isn’t as herculean a task as it had been for that sad spell. Reading fiction sounds fun again instead of something I “should” do.
Amplifying this is how psyched I still am in the wake of my Infinite Jest essay: that in itself has restored much of my confidence as a reader by helping rehabilitate my fiction taste buds. And I can’t lie, the gauntlet laid down by Peter Leithart is prodding me towards the “challenge” of fiction again to keep my sacramental imagination alive and, more than that, healthy. I hear from theology students all too regularly that their reading is exclusively commentaries and systematics and that they feed their imaginations with movies in the little time they afford themselves for such things. That was me for far too long when I wasn’t even a proper student and I’ve seen the corrosive effects of this disregard of the imagination firsthand. How much does this contribute to the overall poverty of the evangelical imagination? What possibilities are closed off to us because of this dearth of imagination? We can’t envision what we exclude ourselves from by definition. And you all know I say this not from a deep-seated hatred of movies but out of the recognition that there’s something non-negotiably unique and therefore vital about literary texts’ nourishment of the imagination. But evangelicals tend to detach goals and effects from sources and view communication and tradition as mechanistic transmissions. I digress slightly into this to shed more light on why it is frequently so difficult for us to understand and enjoy literary fiction: our practices as low church pietists militate against it from the outset.
Anyway, I think GR might be able to help habituate us into a better praxis and imaginative outlook. I am enormously intrigued by the risks Pynchon takes, knowing there’s nothing he leaves uncalculated. Yes, it’s demanding, but good golly Miss Molly, what is there on offer in our entertainment wasteland that places any demand on us? It’s high time we find ourselves pulled up short by something that dwarfs us for once. So while it’s enormous and unrelenting and its tone often pitiless, the larger meta-textual pathos Pynchon incarnates through the splinters of his characters’ desperate, deranged experiences may just have a word of judgment and of grace both for our collective humanity. And I’ll be finding out beginning today, so look forward to my marginalia from somewhere over gravity’s rainbow for many moons now!