Book Review of Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/27/12


  Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 quasi-sci fi novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (named after the trajectory of German V-2 rockets), is not remotely a good novel, and, in places, the 300,000+ word book is a horrible novel, on a par with David Foster Wallace’s ridiculously bad sci fi novel Infinite Jest (in fact, that hack and his horrors, actually were spawned by this earlier monstrosity) and James Joyce’s pointless and ridiculously bad Finnegans Wake. It crests a little bit higher than those works because it ascends to intellectual coherence, if nothing else, on a few occasions, and this is not what most Postmodern novels even seem to strive for- base level coherence or imparting anything of lasting cultural, intellectual, and artistic value. However, despite wading through mounds of reviews of the book (from contemporaneous old media accounts to recent lengthy blog posts), as well as whole websites devoted to the man and even just this one book, perhaps the most cogent comment I read on the book came from an anonymous Amazon reviewer who offhandedly compared Pynchon’s book to Kurt Vonnegut’s lean 1968 masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five- which deals with a great many of the same issues, in the same era, in this manner (I paraphrase): if one views Vonnegut’s book as a world class sprinter running the 100 yard dash, then Pynchon’s book is a fat man attempting to not die while running a marathon. This, more than any other half-assed, mealy-mouthed review by a pseudo-Academic pretending to declaim the book as a masterpiece, gets to the heart of why the book fails colossally.

  The 760 page book is divided into four parts, subdivided into unnumbered sections. Part 1 is called Beyond The Zero, and has 21 vignettes. Why it is called this I will defer to the book’s Wikipedia entry:

  The name "Beyond the Zero" refers to lack of total extinction of a conditioned stimulus; that is, as seen in Part One, Laszlo Jamf decreases to zero the stimulus he conditioned on Tyrone Slothrop as an infant, but "there can still be a silent extinction beyond the zero." The events of this part occur primarily during the Christmas Advent season of 1944 from December 18–26. The epigraph is a quotation from a pamphlet written by Wernher von Braun and first published in 1962: "Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death."

  Naturally, this explanation has virtually no bearing on the events that occur within this section, as all we do is meet the motley group of main characters who will do nothing of consequence in the book, save to break out into uncontrollable song, on occasions, or, in turn, admire the fevered burst into jingle by others, de fact Greek choruses that say nothing, add no humor, but give that certain whiff of depth to the gullible who think that anything that happens without reason must be fraught with a depth worth plumbing, and this deception is what Pynchon and the book count on to propel interest in it. Part 2 is called Un Perm’ Au Casino Hermann Goering, or A Furlough At The Hermann Göring Casino. It has only 8 vignettes, and where Part 1 was set around Christmas of 1944, this runs from Christmas to spring of 1945, with an epigraph about the film King Kong, with producer Merian C. Cooper telling Fay Wray: ‘You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.’ Part 3 is called In The Zone, and has 32 vignettes, is set in the summer of 1945, with some flashbacks to earlier in that year. It uses an epigraph from the film version of The Wizard Of Oz: ‘Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas any more.…’ The fourth and last part of the book is called The Counterforce, has a dozen vignettes, and its epigraph is ‘What?’ from Richard M. Nixon.

  Naturally, these epigraphs are merely in-jokes, as they have no relevance to what occurs in the plot. Epigraphs serve one of two purposes: they either recapitulate (and usually distill) the essence of the work they appear in, or they act as counterbalances, to add parallax to the thing being experienced. Of course, Postmodernists have added a third usage: pointless depth pandering; usually meant to suck the intellectual life out of a quote from some abstruse and/or superior work of art and graft it onto theirs, or to just toss something out and hope deliterate readers will do the hard work of soldering meaning and import to the epigraph and the work.

  The basic story is rather simple: as World War Two draws to a close, the Nazis are developing V-2 rockets to stop the Allied march across Europe. The main tale, of several anomic ones, follows an American soldier, Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, on his peregrinations on the Continent, after the intelligence forces for several nations discover a pattern in the V-2 attacks. Wherever Slothrop (one of many puerile, made up and unfunny names in the book) gets laid, a V-2 seems to follow. Now, if the phallic obviousness of this (penis- or its erection, is the cause of all mankind’s woes) was not enough, another subplot follows the quest for the Schwarzgerat (or black box- guess the meaning of that, now, won’t ya?), a device to be installed on a rocket numbered 00000. The book follows another absurdly named character, Pirate Prentice (one of many idiotically named characters- Gavin Trefoil, anyone?), about London, where he works with Roger Mexico, Edward Pointsman, and others with one eye on the rockets and another on Slothrop. This leads to many pointless and ill written pages where Mexico pontificates on determinism, whether or not there is an acausal relation between Slothrop and the rockets, and whether or not the rockets represent sexual energy, as well as the hovering specter of The White Visitation- code for a sanitarium that acts as a sort of symbol of where all the book’s denizens could end up. Of course, non-diegetically, Pynchon waves his rocket in the reader’s face. Slothrop has many encounters with characters male and female, but not a one sticks out. As with most godawful novels of this sort, were it not for the Post-its appended to pages with seeming key moments or points to be made, I’d have the whole plot return to the gray mush it originated from between Pynchon’s ears. Hell, sans the Post-its I would have been lost from day to day, so pallid is the plot and so vapid the characters.

  At one point, Slothrop falls in love with a woman called Katje, at a psychological testing center, then she disappears. We meet the Poklers- Franz and Leni, who become the de facto stars of a large portion of the third section’s narrative, which plays out almost as a straight spy thriller, except that Thomas Pynchon is no John le Carré. And for those who would snicker at that comparison, yes, I admit that le Carré is a ‘mere’ genre writer, but he is one of the three or four best ever in his genre, whereas Pynchon is simply not a good writer- in literary fiction or in general, so who has a greater claim to excellence? The Poklers get a bit of ‘real’ drama, in that Franz has a daughter he is allowed visits with, although he feels that the woman he sees is not really his child, and allows a moment or two of depth, before Pynchon snuffs out the couple’s narrative. We also meet Jessica Swanlake, and witness an experiment with an octopus that a scientist named Grigori is trying to get to like Katje, who may or may not be on the same side of the war as Slothrop. Slothrop also undergoes testing but some of it may be in his head, and not real. The book never lets you know and, frankly, few will care. Slothrop, after the testing, is shipped to France, and enter, Rocket 00000, and the Schwarzgerat, made of a fictive plastic called Imipolex G. This leads off into an unsatisfying tale of Slothrop’s childhood torture at the hands of a monster named Laszlo Jamf, inventor of said plastic, except….well, that it turns out to have never occurred. Characters with names like Pointsman dart in and out of the narrative, but I honestly cannot even recall what his purpose was, as I write this, a few days after reading the travesty, despite extensive Post-iting. Slothrop then hooks up with a porno actress (shades of Slaughterhouse-Five, eh?) and her daughter, and begins a ‘descent into madness’- I just had to get it out of the way. This leads the book into silly side tales that are even more anomic and pointless than the main ones. The most ridiculous, as well as most precious, is the Byron the lightbulb vignette, wherein Pynchon gifts the reader with an interminable ‘bit’ (and I use the Vaudeville term for good reason) about a sentient light bulb named Byron who gets screwed into a homosexual fetishist’s asshole. Yes, that’s right, you read correctly- this is where Pynchon’s ‘humor’ and ‘depth’ lead to: light bulb sodomy and the mainstreaming of felching, or the insertion of objects, animate or not, into the anus. This leads into other brief vignettes where the stew of characters whose import and raison d’etres are long forgotten. The book ends with the discovery that the Schwarzgerat is a capsule that can hold a person- sort of like a womb, a black box- get it, get it? Boy, ain’t Pynchon clever to make his phallic rocket a de facto sperm cell? The rocket then is launched and strikes London, just as another had to open the novel.

  In thinking of the book, with a few days to cogitate, it’s remarkable to think how utterly emotionally unaffecting the book is. Literally, it is difficult to recall a scene or character trait, and this is because to Pynchon, and his ilk, these hallmarks of great narrative are not nearly as important as preening one’s intellect. I state this because, unlike truly atrocious writers like David Foster Wallace, James Frey, or Dave Eggers, Pynchon has a few dozen paragraph or longer runs that show that, indeed, he is capable of writing ‘well,’ if not greatly. Pynchon simply chooses to NOT do the hard work of intermixing his ideas with a good narrative, and one borne of well crafted character, from whose eyes we get to see the cosmos. Instead, Pynchon’s caricatures and stereotypes are merely accoutrements for him to hang trite melodramas and clichés. And then there is the annoying use of mathematical symbols and often pointless scatological ‘songs,’ as if from a Greek Chorus, to make points that are either obvious, sans these ‘gimmicks,’ or, worse, to just toss in something that a fan or devotee can latch on to and declaim as brilliant, merely because there is no apparent (nor actual) causal connection between the gimmick and the narrative nor character development.

  A good example of the former gimmick comes on page 450:

  Well, you can’t help but wonder who’s really the more paranoid of the two

here. Steve’s sure got a lot of gall badmouthing Charles that way. Among the

hilarious graffiti of visiting mathematicians,


      1      d (cabin)  =  log cabin + c  =  houseboat,



that sort of thing, they go poking away down the narrow sausage-shaped

latrine now, two young/old men, their feet fade and cease to ring on the sloping

steel deck, their forms grow more transparent with distance until it’s impossible

to see them any more. Only the empty compartment here, the S-curved spokes

on the peep-show machines, the rows of mirrors directly facing, reflecting each

other, frame after frame, back in a curve of very great radius. Out to the end of

this segment of curve is considered part of the space of the Rücksichtslos. Making

it a rather fat ship. Carrying its right-of-way along with it. “Crew morale,”

whispered the foxes at the Ministry meetings, “sailors’ superstitions. Mirrors at

high midnight. We know, don’t we?”

  First, Pynchon feels a need to tell the reader that the graffiti to come is ‘hilarious,’ thus setting up an expectation, in the least, that it will be somewhat humorous. Now, look at the above equation (as best reproduced from the text as Microsoft Word will allow). Are you flat out guffawing? Merely teeheeing? Or stoic? My guess is the third option best describes you and every reader of that passage, and- no- the claim Pynchon makes is, in its context, not in the least bit ironic. The character mouthing it believes it so.

  Yet, Pynchon lards the text with other ‘hilarious’ such gimmicks, and, yes, that was sardonism on my part. Let’s now look at one of the choral ‘songs’ that abound in the text. This from pages 216-217:

  Slothrop puts a hand on his shoulder. The suit padding shifts and bunches over the warm bone beneath it. He doesn’t know what to say, what to do: himself, he feels empty, and wants to sleep. . . . But Sir Stephen is on his knees, just about, quaking at the edge of it, to tell Slothrop a terrible secret, a fatal confidence concerning:


The Penis He Thought Was His Own


(lead tenor):       ‘Twas the penis, he thought-was, his own—

                           Just a big playful boy of a bone . . .

                           With a stout purple head,

                            Sticking up from the bed,

                           Where the girlies all played Telephone—

(bass):                 Te-le-phone. . . .

(inner voices):    But They came through the hole in the night,

(bass):                And They sweet-talked it clear out of sight—

(inner voices):   Out of sight. . .

(tenor):              Now he sighs all alone,

                          With a heartbroken moan,

                          For the pe-nis, he thought-was, his, owwwwn!

(inner voices):   Was, his, own!


  The figures out to sea have been attending, growing now even more windy and remote as the light goes cold and out. . . . They are so difficult to reach across to—difficult to grasp. Carroll Eventyr, trying to confirm the Lübeck angel, learned how difficult—he and his control Peter Sachsa both, floundering in the swamp between the worlds. Later on, in London, came the visit from that most ubiquitous of double agents, Sammy Hilbert-Spaess, whom everyone had thought in Stockholm, or was it Paraguay?

  Now, one might argue that the few dozen such ‘songs’ in the book are put to good use, in that they show drunken men or soldiers amidst male bonding, or somehow escaping the pains of their plights. But, this is not the case. The songs just open up whenever there is a narrative lull, as if one is watching a long dull Factory Film from Andy Warhol, and after every 43 to 57 minutes of nothing occurring, and to prevent one from drowsing off, idiocy occurs….only in song, with occasional dance. Now, were this to occur a few times, amidst a great work of art (sort of like the bratty children’s potty-mouthing, and fart jokes, in a Yasujiro Ozu film), then one could slough these off as possibly, at worst, being a few bits or poorly wrought humor in an otherwise engaging work of art. But this is not the case. At virtually every occurrence of a song like this there is no narrative, comic, nor character reason for the song. Hell, there isn’t even a Negatively Capable reason for one to break out. This is a perfect example of a bad writer foisting his or her own obsessions into a work at the detriment of the reader’s experience, with no ameliorating effect to be gained.

  Other gimmicks include missives, with a gimmick piled upon a gimmick, such as annotating pointless missives, such as this, from pages 60-62:


TDY Abreaction Ward

St. Veronica‘s Hospital

Bonechapel Gate, E1

London, England

Winter, 1944


The Kenosha Kid

General Delivery

Kenosha, Wisconsin, U.S.A.


Dear Sir:

Did I ever bother you, ever, for anything, in your life?


Yours truly,

Lt. Tyrone Slothrop


General Delivery

Kenosha, Wisc., U.S.A.


few days later


Tyrone Slothrop, Esq.

TDY Abreaction Ward

St. Veronica’s Hospital

Bonechapel Gate, E1

London, England


Dear Mr. Slothrop:

You never did.


The Kenosha Kid


(2) Smartass youth: Aw, I did all them old-fashioned dances, I did the “Charleston,” a-and the “Big Apple,” too!

Old veteran hoofer: Bet you never did the “Kenosha,” kid!


(2.1) S.Y.: Shucks, I did all them dances, I did the “Castle Walk,” and I did the

“Lindy,” too!

O.V.H.: Bet you never did the “Kenosha Kid.”


(3) Minor employee: Well, he has been avoiding me, and I thought it might be because of the Slothrop Affair. If he somehow held me responsible—

Superior (haughtily): You! never did the Kenosha Kid think for one instant

that you . . .


(3.1) Superior (incredulously): You? Never! Did the Kenosha Kid think for one

instant that you . . . ?


(4) And at the end of the mighty day in which he gave us in fiery letters across the sky all the words we’d ever need, words we today enjoy, and fill our dictionaries with, the meek voice of little Tyrone Slothrop, celebrated ever after in tradition and song, ventured to filter upward to the Kid’s attention: “You never did the, ‘ Kenosha Kid!”

  These changes on the text “You never did the Kenosha Kid” are occupying

Slothrop’s awareness as the doctor leans in out of the white overhead to wake

him and begin the session. The needle slips without pain into the vein just

outboard of the hollow in the crook of his elbow: 10% Sodium Amytal, one cc

at a time, as needed.


(5) Maybe you did fool the Philadelphia, rag the Rochester, josh the

Joliet. But you never did the Kenosha kid.


(6) (The day of the Ascent and sacrifice. A nation-wide observance. Fats searing, blood dripping and burning to a salty brown . . . ) You did the Charlottesville shoat, check, the Forest Hills foal, check. (Fading now . . . ) The Laredo lamb. Check. Oh-oh. Wait. What’s this, Slothrop? You never did the Kenosha kid. Snap to, Slothrop.


Got a hardon in my fist,

Don’t be pissed,


Snap—to, Slothrop!


Jackson, I don’t give a fuck,

Just give me my “ruptured duck!”

Snap—to, Slothrop!


No one here can love or comprehend me,

They just look for someplace else to send . . . me . . .


Tap my head and mike my brain,

Stick that needle in my vein,

Slothrop, snap to!

  Really, go ahead and reread this letter and its ‘notes.’ It’s shockingly bad and solipsistic ‘schtick’- and that’s at best. In reality, it’s just a waste of pulp. With garbage digressions as these, one gets dabs of pseudo-philosophy, doggerel, bad song lyrics, egregious puns, vague pop cultural references that now, not even forty years on, are almost wholly hermetic and sealed in the tomb of their temporal inanity and lack of real import. And, just when it might be that one might actually start to care for a character or scene, Pynchon will bury that in favor of an even less well drawn character or less apt scene (see the Poklers).

  In fact, this digressive nature becomes obsessive, to the point that Pynchon never writes about a thing. He is always hinting at something, but never unzips and unloads. Many PoMo fans find this artistic striptease, of itself, engaging, and an example of Pynchon (or whatever other PoMo hack employs this technique) showing off his intellectual bones. I don’t, because just as that argument fails for the David Foster Wallace type (since one cannot logically claim one good at a thing if one cannot legitimately point to a single example of that person producing anything good), it fails for Pynchon because a total of, perhaps 15-20 well written pages worth of prose, in a 760 page book, does not a good (much less great) writer make. A similar logic can be employed when speaking of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past. 300 great pages of writing out of a 3300 page work does not make the work, on its own, great, although, at 300 pages of greatness (a book’s worth of prose) one can more easily make an argument for Proust being a great writer than Pynchon, at a dozen or so merely well written pages.

  But, to return to Pynchon’s aversion (a better term than digression) to dealing with grand themes, great character development (character IS plot, after all), and compelling narrative, there is his dosey doe about ‘issues’- governance, life’s absurdity, homosexuality (Pynchon has a few embarrassingly poorly written scenes parodying homosexuals that are cringeworthy in their wicked stereotyping), sexual perversion, drug abuse, mass murder, etc.- but, aside from an occasional bad pun or joke, he never puts his dick on the chopping block, he never engages at a level of depth. For this, his defenders and disciples will chime on that Pynchon is choosing to not engage (hence, an unwillingness to make art of worth is somehow more valuable than an inability to, and even making an art of worth) or that he has greater concerns than actually taking a stand and making art that actually communicates. After all, art is communication, clarified and at a higher level than normal. But, to do so would require real hard work, real talent, and not the easy out of artistic striptease. The plain truth is the reason that these PoMo frauds and charlatans do such is because they know that their bodies, if revealed, would be blubbery, cellulite ridden hulks, rather than taut. Lean, sexy works of profundity and grace. Writers like Pynchon, Wallace, Vollmann, Barthelme, and others of that ilk, like to impress, and like to gull the impressionable, to earn the cooing of fellow stripteasers who will blurb their latest sorry act. Pynchon is like that guy on the streetcorner- you know him, every small town or big city neighborhood has one. He is the local sciolist who impresses on first encounter, for he can spiel on about any topic, it seems, at length, and seemingly in depth, until you actually start maturing and learning on your own, and discover that when challenged on what he is spieling, he either a) digresses- usually to a topic he hopes you have little or no knowledge of (all the safer for him to claim authority over), or b) shows himself up as said sciolist. This is Pynchon, to a T.

  Even more telling is my prior claim about comparing Pynchon and Gravity’s Rainbow to Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five. Both books are said to be ‘comic masterpieces,’ but it’s only true in Vonnegut’s case. First, in, literally about a fifth to a sixth of Pynchon’s book’s length, Vonnegut handles a good five to ten times worth of meaty issues and insights with concision, whereas Pynchon is a devotee of bloat. Second, Vonnegut is actually funny, in his book. Pynchon is not. I recall, while reading Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair, and researching criticism of it, how claims of Wallace’s being a humorous writer were hurled, yet all I could tell, in terms of humor, was a tale in which Wallace made a pervert out of television game show host Alex Trebek. This is what passes for humor in the minds of literary stripteasers. Vonnegut, on the other hand, actually develops characters that we care for, even when they are inane- such as Billy Pilgrim or his wife. And when he relies on a seeming gimmick, such as a bird chiming ‘Poo-tee-weet,’ there is a reason for it, in that it connects the reader back to the book’s main points, narratively, philosophically, and thematically. Pynchon’s logorrhea is incapable of such humor, concision, and poesy. To succeed, especially on the written page, humor needs an underlying understanding of the thing being needled, made fun of, parodied. In short, there usually needs to be an affection for the thing, however absurd or worthy of being made fun of (i.e- to laugh with something rather than at it). And, in those few cases where mean-spirited making fun of can work, the writing, wordplay, and insight must be spectacular. Pynchon is NEVER spectacular. Nor is he funny- neither in the Three Stooges lowbrow sort of way, nor in the intellectual Woody Allen sense. Hell, he’s not even smirk-inducing, wherein the reader gets the intent of some solipsistic piece of sophistry and says, ‘Ah, yes, that’s what he was trying to do,’ and smirks at even the intended humor. Pynchon is all pretense (much like Joyce in Finnegans Wake), Vonnegut is all substance. Of course, it is intent, above all, that ripples through almost all criticisms- pro and con- of the book, as if it is more important to try and sort out what it is Pynchon must have (yes, imperatives abound in most reviews of this book) meant, or tried to mean. Why? Simple, because the book fails so spectacularly to mean or impart anything of value. Bad execution almost necessitates such a reaction, especially in bad readers and critics who wish they could even have the time to regurge such a lengthy work, and are impressed by that fact, alone. It goes without saying that this is a fallacy, and one that is a logical fallacy: the fallacy of intent, or the Intentional Fallacy, a notion roundly and thoroughly debunked in the 1954 essay, by W.K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Monroe C. Beardsley, called The Intentional Fallacy. But, as to why people even make this logically egregious error, decades after its manifestation in the arts, leads one into another thorny area, and logical fallacy, called Confirmation Bias. Human beings almost always are predisposed to liking or disliking something within a few seconds- be it potential mates, political candidates, art, or anything else. Then we tend to spend much time justifying these illogical and emotionally based biases with ornate, even baroque, reasoning. In the case of many PoMo writers, or modern artists in, say, Abstract Expressionism, one may immediately like what the artist seems to be attempting. And, even if that so-called attempt fails, or is shown to not even be what it seems, the average percipient clings to their initial bias, and defends it, often against reason and factual proof to the contrary, simply because it makes one feel better, at least in the short term. Hence, the seeming length of a book, like Gravity’s Rainbow, immediately marks it, in some minds, as big, deep, important, and to be ‘intelligent,’ one simply must like it, or at least, get it. To not do so would prove to one’s colleagues, that the uninitiated is the rube and/or boob he has always felt of himself- yet more confirmation bias- albeit negative, and to be avoided at all emotional cost- damn logic, reason, and intelligence. Forget that the book offers nothing and the friends (be they at a bar or in print fellow critics) they seek to impress are equally unmoved or, more importantly, not intellectually nor artistically impressed, by the work. Granted, Pynchon is not the first nor last artist to benefit from these fallacies and biases: the whole of Shakespeare (from his truly great plays and sonnets to his truly terrible), James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Jackson Pollock, Pier Paolo Pasolini, David Foster Wallace, and many others, have likewise benefited from the same predisposition to having intellectual or artistic heft.

  And this brings me to another claim of Pynchon and, especially, this book- that he and it are complex or complicated or difficult. Not so, on all three counts. Just because a book is long does not make it complex, and because the narrative is non-linear does not mean it’s complicated, and because the whole is a mess does not make it difficult; it just makes it a long, non-linear mess. But one that is airy, and floats on air in its utter vacuity. I read the whole book in about six hours, and that’s only because I went back to reread multiple parts. There is no dazzling wordplay- even for naught, as there is in Joyce, and Pynchon’s prose lacks the heft and density of Herman Hesse. It is a pretty breezy read, but not in the good sense, for my brief synopsis of the plot is all that is needed to be known of the book- and all that can be recalled (actually, even less, sans Postits). Gravity’s Rainbow is simply not even a challenge to read because it (really Pynchon) wants you to do all the work, rather than Pynchon.

  Of course, this is the reaction of good, intelligent readers, and not someone pushing an agenda. As example, in its its review of the book, the New York Times reviewer, Richard Locke, wrote some of these choice samples, which reveal that the critic is finding things in the book that simply are not there, i.e.- doing what Pynchon should have. First, he compares Pynchon to Melville, but it’s a generic comparison. Why? Because they are Americans who wrote long novels? No. Quoth Locke:

  The various characters' obsessive search for Blicero's rocket recalls another mammoth American novel, "Moby Dick."

  Yes, literally, because a minor character in Pynchon’s book is obsessive, he compares this to the obsession of a central character of a great book. Not only is the scale of Ahab’s obsession and character well beyond Blicero’s, but so is the object of the obsession. The rocket, in Gravity’s Rainbow, is a fey and obvious attempt at masculine destructive symbolism whereas the whale, in Moby-Dick is still, over a century and a half after its release, a deep and compelling symbol and metaphor- especially considering that Ahab (and Melville) have put such personal demonic heft into a sentient being (truly, as we now know that Melville was scientifically prescient), not a mere phallic symbol. Also, Pynchon’s prose is not as dense, poetic, and illuminating as Melville’s, nor does Pynchon have Melville’s consummate narrative drive, ability to sketch compelling and realistic characters. Hell, Pynchon does not even understand the power Melville deploys in his intercalary chapters on 19th Century whaling, for things are so ephemeral and meaningless in Gravity’s Rainbow that often a thing, an idea, a scene, a character, is dropped for hundreds of pages, or totally dropped, as the reader is left lurching into a void, albeit a none too enticing gape.

  Locke writes:

  Pynchon has brilliantly combined German political and cultural history with the mechanisms of paranoia to create an exceedingly complex work of art. The most important cultural figure in "Gravity's Rainbow" is not Goethe or Wagner, however, but Rainer Maria Rilke, Captain Blicero's favorite poet. In a way, the book could be read as a serio-comic variation on Rilke's "Duino Elegies" and their German Romantic echoes in Nazi culture. The "Elegies" begin with a cry: "Who, if I screamed, would hear me among the angelic orders? And even if one of them suddenly pressed me against his heart, I would fade in the strength of his stronger existence. For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of Terror that we're still just able to bear, and why we adore it is because it serenely disdains to destroy us."

  Well, as mentioned, the book is not complex, and while Rilke does have an impact on the characters in the book, to the reader, it is nil, because it is just an act of branding- or brand mooching; Pynchon being able to say that he referenced a far greater artist in his work for the express purpose of leaching off that greatness. The most obvious way bad writers do this is by using epigraphs in their works- just as Pynchon does in this novel.

  Perhaps the most interesting thing that Pynchon does is sprinkle in some Proverbs For Paranoids in the book. Here are the five of them:

1. You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.
2. The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.
3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.
4. You hide, they seek.
5. Paranoids are not paranoid because they're paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.

  This is Pynchon at his most Vonnegutian, and best. Usually, his defenders will pick a lone apothegm to declaim as the man’s genius, such as, ‘There was no difference between the behavior of a god and the operations of pure chance.’ Is this a deep thought? Yes, but (drum roll) nothing comes of it.

  But, to those who fawn over Pynchon, one need only compare the relationships between well written scenes and those poorly written ones; such as Katje and Slothrop with that of Mexico and Jessica. In the latter, their relationship is best summed up on pages 41-42: 

  They have found a house in the stay-away zone, under the barrage balloons south of London. The town, evacuated in ‘40, is still ‘regulated’-still on the Ministry’s list. Roger and Jessica occupy the place illegally, in a defiance they can never measure unless they're caught. Jessica has brought an old doll, seashells, her aunt's grip filled with lace knickers and silk stockings. Roger’s managed to scare up a few chickens to nest in the empty garage. Whenever they meet here, one always remembers to bring a fresh flower or two. The nights are filled with explosion and motor transport, and wind that brings them up over the downs and a smack of the sea. Day begins with a hot cup and a cigarette over a little table with a weak leg that Roger has repaired, provisionally, with brown twine. There’s never much talk but touches and looks, smiles together, curses for parting. It is marginal, hungry, chilly-most times they're too paranoid to risk a fire- but it’s something they want to keep, so much that to keep it, they will take on more than propaganda has ever asked them for. They are in love. Fuck the war.

  Compare that with this typical repartee between Slothrop and Katje, on pages 221-222:

  Then in the morning Katje comes storming in madder than a wet hen, to tell Slothrop that Sir Stephen’s gone. Suddenly everybody is telling Slothrop things,

and he’s barely awake. Rain rattles at the shutters and windows. Monday mornings, upset stomachs, good-bys . . . he blinks out at the misted sea, the horizon mantled in gray, palms gleaming in the rain, heavy and wet and very green. It may be that the champagne is still with him—for ten extraordinary seconds there’s nothing in his field but simple love for what he’s seeing.

  Then, perversely aware of it, he turns away, back into the room. Time to play

with Katje, now. . . .

  Her face is as pale as her hair. A rain-witch. Her hat brim makes a chic creamy

green halo around her face.

  “Well, he’s gone then.” Keenness of this order might work to provoke her.

  “It’s too bad. Then again—maybe it’s good.”

  “Never mind him. How much do you know, Slothrop?”

  “What’s that mean, never mind him? What do you do, just throw people away?”

  “Do you want to find out?”

  He stands twisting his mustache. “Tell me about it.”

  “You bastard. You’ve sabotaged the whole thing, with your clever little collegiate drinking game.”

  “What whole thing, Katje?”

  “What did he tell you?” She moves a step closer. Slothrop watches her hands,

thinking of army judo instructors he’s seen. It occurs to him he’s naked and also,

hmm, seems to be getting a hardon here, look out, Slothrop. And nobody here to

note it, or speculate why. . . .

  “Sure didn’t tell me you knew any of that judo. Must of taught you it in that

Holland, huh? Sure—little things,” singing in descending childish thirds, “give

you away, you know. . . .”

  “Aahh—” exasperated she rushes in, aims a chop at his head which he’s able

to dodge—goes diving in under her arm, lifts her in a fireman’s carry, throws her

against the bed and comes after her. She kicks a sharp heel at his cock, which is

what she should’ve done in the first place. Her timing, in fact, is drastically off all

through this, else she would likely be handing Slothrop’s ass to him . . . it may be

that she wants her foot to miss, only scraping Slothrop along the leg as he swerves

now, grabs her by the hair and twists an arm behind her, pushing her, face-down,

on the bed. Her skirt is up over her ass, her thighs squirming underneath him, his

penis in terrific erection.

  “Listen, cunt, don’t make me lose my temper with you, got no problems at all

hitting women, I’m the Cagney of the French Riviera, so look out.”

  “I’ll kill you—”

  “What—and sabotage the whole thing?”

  Katje turns her head and sinks her teeth in his forearm, up near the elbow where the Pentothal needles used to go in. “Ow, shit—” he lets go the arm he’s been twisting, pulls down underwear, takes her by one hip and penetrates her from behind, reaching under to pinch nipples, paw at her clitoris, rake his nails along inside her thighs, Mister Technique here, not that it matters, they’re both ready to come—Katje first, screaming into the pillow, Slothrop a second or two later. He lies on top of her, sweating, taking great breaths, watching her face turned 3⁄4 away, not even a profile, but the terrible Face That Is No Face, gone too abstract, unreachable: the notch of eye socket, but never the labile eye, only the anonymous curve of cheek, convexity of mouth, a noseless mask of the Other Order of Being, of Katje’s being—the lifeless nonface that is the only face of hers

he really knows, or will ever remember.

  “Hey, Katje,” ‘s all he sez.

  “Mm.” But here’s only her old residual bitterness again, and they are not, after all, to be lovers in parachutes of sunlit voile, lapsing gently, hand in hand, down to anything meadowed or calm. Surprised?

  She has moved away, releasing his cock into the cold room. “What’s it like in

London, Slothrop? When the rockets come down?”

  “What?” After fucking he usually likes to lie around, just smoke a cigarette,

think about food, “Uh, you don’t know it’s there till it’s there. Gee, till after it’s

there. If it doesn’t hit you, then you’re O.K. till the next one. If you hear the

explosion, you know you must be alive.”

  “That’s how you know you’re alive.”

  “Right.” She sits up, pulling underpants back up and skirt back down, goes to the mirror, starts rearranging her hair. “Let’s hear the boundary-layer temperatures. While you’re getting dressed.”

  Now, compare the two pieces. In the former, Pynchon shows that he is capable of keen observation of character and knowing when to stop. ‘Fuck the war’ ends not only a sentence and paragraph, but a vignette, and is a pithy and realistic end to that scene. In the Slothrop-Katje scene we get trite vulgarisms, which would be fine if coming from the characters, rather than the semi-omniscient narrator, but that’s all we get- rote descriptions and platitudes, and ill wrought and unrealistic lines like ‘his penis in terrific erection,’ and the scene goes on well beyond the end quoted above. Also, the characters, as undeveloped stereotypes, not real folks, talk like prigs trying to talk dirty rather than the way real people talk when fucking. The point is that the lesser scene is typical of the heaps that litter Gravity’s Rainbow. And it’s not just the execution, but the very psychology behind the scenes and characters and their mismatches with each other. Ask yourself if there is anything of depth revealed of the characters in the second excerpt? No. Now multiply this scene by a few hundred, or dozens, in lesser characters, and you can see the problems that affect the book are not only qualitative, but become quantitative. Yet, even in the midst of a mess, there is some occasional insight: ‘He lies on top of her, sweating, taking great breaths, watching her face turned 3⁄4 away, not even a profile, but the terrible Face That Is No Face, gone too abstract, unreachable: the notch of eye socket, but never the labile eye, only the anonymous curve of cheek, convexity of mouth, a noseless mask of the Other Order of Being, of Katje’s being—the lifeless nonface that is the only face of hers he really knows, or will ever remember.’ This actually is a nice insight, or the beginnings of one. But it fades, and ten to forty pages will go by before another such moment, just as dozens will go by after the first excerpted moment.

  But, it’s not just flat, or flat out bad, characterizations, but orgies of overwriting, replete with pointless modifiers (adjectives and adverbs galore). From page 149:

  She crosses the complex room dense with its supple hides, lemon-rubbed teak, rising snarls of incense, bright optical hardware, faded Central Asian rugs in gold and scarlet, hanging open-ribbed wrought-ironwork, a long, long downstage cross, eating an orange, section by acid section, as she goes, the faille gown flowing beautifully, its elaborate sleeves falling from very broadened shoulders till tightly gathered into long button-strung cuffs all in some nameless earth tone—a hedge-green, a clay-brown, a touch of oxidation, a breath of the autumnal—the light from the street lamps comes in through philodendron stalks and fingered leaves arrested in a grasp at the last straining away of sunset, falls a tranquil yellow across the cut-steel buckles at her insteps and streaks on along the flanks and down the tall heels of her patent shoes, so polished as to seem of no color at all past such mild citrus light where it touches them, and they refuse it, as if it were a masochist’s kiss. Behind her steps the carpet relaxes ceilingward, sole and heel-shapes disappearing visibly slow out of the wool pile. A single rocket explosion comes thudding across the city, from far east of here, east by southeast. The light along her shoes flows and checks like afternoon traffic. She pauses, reminded of something: the military frock trembling, silk filling-yarns shivering by crowded thousands as the chilly light slides over and off and touching again their unprotected backs. The smells of burning musk and sandalwood, of leather and spilled whisky, thicken in the room.

  And this sort of Year One, MFA level writing ruins what could be, sans this paragraph, an interesting scene. And, despite the appearance to the contrary in this essay, that sort of writing is a good 90+% of the book. At other times, Pynchon will have his characters utter empty platitudes to pass for depth, yet the essence of these statements is never seized upon and expounded. It’s usually not even left to stew in the mind of the reader, as some inanity, lasting a dozen pages, will make the even the attempt at insight fade:

  “The basic problem,” he proposes, “has always been getting other people to die for you. What’s worth enough for a man to give up his life? That’s where religion had the edge, for centuries. Religion was always about death. It was used not as an opiate so much as a technique—it got people to die for one particular set of beliefs about death. Perverse, natürlich, but who are you to judge? It was a good pitch while it worked. But ever since it became impossible to die for death, we have had a secular version—yours. Die to help History grow to its predestined shape. Die knowing your act will bring a good end a bit closer. Revolutionary suicide, fine. But look: if History’s changes are inevitable, why not not die? Vaslav? If it’s going to happen anyway, what does it matter?”

  And, if low grade MFA writing cannot suffice, then Pynchon is always ready to wink-wink, nudge-nudge the reader with pointless, snide, and unfunny asides, such as this from pages 38-39:

  By now her hand’s reaching out, about to touch his shoulder. She rests her cheek on her own arm, hair spilling, drowsy, watching him. Can’t get a decent argument going with her. How he’s tried. She uses her silences like stroking hands to divert him and hush their corners of rooms, bedcovers, tabletops—accidental spaces. . . . Even at the cinema watching that awful Going My Way, the day they met, he saw every white straying of her

ungauntleted hands, could feel in his skin each saccade of her olive, her amber, her coffee-colored eyes. He’s wasted gallons of paint thinner striking his faithful Zippo, its charred wick, virility giving way to thrift, rationed down to a little stub, the blue flame sparking about the edges in the dark, the many kinds of dark, just to see what’s happening with her face. Each new flame, a new face.

  And there’ve been the moments, more of them lately too—times when face-to-face there has been no way to tell which of them is which. Both at the same time feeling the same eerie confusion . . . something like looking in a mirror by surprise but. . . more than that, the feeling of actually being joined . . . when after—who knows? two minutes, a week? they realize, separate again, what’s been going on, that Roger and Jessica were merged into a joint creature unaware of itself. . . . In a life he has cursed, again and again, for its need to believe so much in the trans-observable, here is the first, the very first real

magic: data he can’t argue away.

  It was what Hollywood likes to call a “cute meet,” out in the neat 18th century

heart of downtown Tunbridge Wells, Roger motoring in the vintage Jaguar up to London, Jessica at the roadside struggling prettily with a busted bicycle, murky wool ATS skirt hiked up on a handle bar, most non-regulation black slip and clear pearl thighs above the khaki stockings, well—

  “Here love,” brakes on in a high squeak, “it’s not backstage at the old Windmill or something, you know.”

  She knew. “Hmm,” a curl dropping down to tickle her nose and put a bit more than the usual acid in her reply, “are they letting little boys into places like that, I didn’t know.”

  “Well nobody’s,” having learned by now to live with remarks about his appearance, “called up the Girl Guides yet either, have they.”

  “I’m twenty.”

  “Hurrah, that qualifies you for a ride, in this Jaguar here you see, all the way to London.”

  “But I’m going the other way. Nearly to Battle.”

  “Oh, round trip of course.”

  Shaking hair back out of her face, “Does your mother know youre out like this.”

  “My mother is the war,” declares Roger Mexico, leaning over to open the door.

  “That’s a queer thing to say,” one muddy little shoe pondering on the running board.

  The pseudo-profundity of Mexico’s claim that his mother is the war rings hollow, though, for, at that point, we know little of the character, and even when one does get to know more of him, it still rings hollow, because this is not a character from All Quiet On The Western Front, The Naked And The Dead, nor a James Jones novel.

  And if pseudo-profundity does not suffice, then Pynchon can simply name-drop an idea or philosopher and think that the mere mention of the ‘thing’ equates with an understanding of it, or a good application of the principles it contains.

  This from pages 48-49:

  Imagine a missile one hears approaching only after it explodes. The reversal! A piece of time neatly snipped out. . . a few feet of film run backwards . . . the blast of the rocket, fallen faster than sound— then growing out of it the roar of its own fall, catching up to what’s already death and burning . . . a ghost in the sky. . . .

  Pavlov was fascinated with “ideas of the opposite.” Call it a cluster of cells, somewhere on the cortex of the brain. Helping to distinguish pleasure from pain, light from dark, dominance from submission. . . . But when, somehow—starve them, traumatize, shock, castrate them, send them over into one of the transmarginal phases, past borders of their waking selves, past “equivalent” and “paradoxical” phases—you weaken this idea of the opposite, and here all at once is the paranoid patient who would be master, yet now feels himself a slave . . . who would be loved, but suffers his world’s indifference, and, “I think,” Pavlov writing to Janet, “it is precisely the ultraparadoxical phase which is the base of the weakening of the idea of the opposite in our patients.” Our madmen, our paranoid, maniac, schizoid, morally imbecile—

  Spectro shakes his head. “You’re putting response before stimulus.”

  “Not at all. Think of it. He’s out there, and he can feel them coming, days in advance. But it’s a reflex. A reflex to something that’s in the air right now. Something we’re too coarsely put together to sense—but Slothrop can.

  “But that makes it extrasensory.”

  And, if still not sated, Pynchon can descend to the puerile scatological realms of a Pier Paolo Pasolini, such as this, from pages 446-447:

  It’s early morning now. Slothrop’s breath is white on the air. He is just up from a dream. Part I of a poem, with woodcuts accompanying the text—a woman is attending a dog show which is also, in some way, a stud service. She has brought her Pekingese, a female with a sicken-ingly cute name, Mimsy or Goo-Goo or something, here to be serviced. She is passing the time in a garden setting, with some other middle-class ladies like herself, when from some enclosure nearby she hears the sound of her bitch, coming. The sound goes on and on for much longer than seems appropriate, and she suddenly realizes that the sound is her own voice, this interminable cry of dog-pleasure. The others, politely, are pretending not to notice. She feels shame, but is helpless, driven now by a need to go out and find other animal species to fuck. She sucks the penis of a multicolored mongrel who has tried to mount her in the street. Out in a barren field near a barbed-wire fence, winter fires across the clouds, a tall horse compels her to kneel, passively, and kiss his hooves. Cats and minks, hyenas and rabbits, fuck her inside automobiles, lost at night in the forests, out beside a water-hole in the desert.

  As Part II begins, she has discovered she’s pregnant. Her husband, a dumb, easygoing screen door salesman, makes an agreement with her: her own promise is never stated, but in return, nine months from now, he will take her where she wants to go. So it is that close to the end of her term he is out on the river, an American river, in a rowboat, hauling on the oars, carrying her on a journey. The key color in this section is violet.

  Part III finds her at the bottom of the river. She has drowned. But all forms of life fill her womb. “Using her as mermaid” (line 7), they transport her down through these green river-depths. “It was down, and out again./ Old Squalidozzi, ploughman of the deep,/ At the end of his day’s sowing/ Sees her verdigris belly among the weeds” (lines 10-13), and brings her back up. He is a classically-bearded Neptune figure with an old serene face. From out of her body streams a flood now of different creatures, octopuses, reindeer, kangaroos, “Who can say all the life/ That left her womb that day?” Squalidozzi can only catch a glimpse of the amazing spill as he bears her back toward the surface. Above, it is a mild and sunlit green lake or pond, grassy at the banks, shaded by willows. Insects whine and hover. The key color now is green. “And there as it broke to sun/ Her corpse found sleep in the water/ And in the summer depths/ The creatures took their way/ Each to its proper love/ In the height of afternoon/ As the peaceful river went. . . .”

  This dream will not leave him. He baits his hook, hunkers by the bank, drops his line into the Spree. Presently he lights up an army cigarette, and stays still then for a long while, as the fog moves white through the riverbank houses, and up above the warplanes go droning somewhere invisible, and the dogs run barking in the back-streets.

  This is bad writing, not because of the bestiality but because of the poor word choice, stilted melodrama, and silly premises. Look at the so-called dream, above. Forget the silly premise, for a bestial dream could be interesting. But this one is not, precisely because of the Burroughsian puerility and the fact that nothing before nor after this excerpt puts this excerpt in any intellectual nor artistic context that makes anything of the puerility. And, as mentioned earlier, there is no sustained good writing, at any point, in the novel, that shows that anything that, indeed, is good in the novel is anything more than the lucky bull’s-eye of a dart toss.

  The same is true of almost any digression that Pynchon makes. It all reeks of artifice, and a way of just breaking the narrative, just to break the narrative, for no organic reason. On pages 687-688, as example, comes this titled digression:

Shit ‘n’ Shinola


Now, Säure wants to know, “you will tell me about the American expression

‘Shit from Shinola.’ “

  “What is this,” screams Seaman Bodine, “I’m being set tasks now? This is some Continuing Study of American Slang or some shit? Tell me you old fool,” grabbing Säure by throat and lapel and shaking him asymmetrically, “you’re one

of Them too, right? Come on, the old man Raggedy Andy in his hands, a bad

morning of suspicion here for the usually mellow Bodine, “Stop, stop,” snivels the amazed Säure, amazement giving way, that is, to a sniveling conviction that

the hairy American gob has lost his mind. . . .

  Well. You’ve heard the expression “Shit from Shinola.” As in, “Aw, he don’t

know Shit from Shinola! ‘bout that.” Or, “Marine—you don’t know Shit from

Shinola!” And you get sent to the Onion Room, or worse. One implication is that

Shit and Shinola are in wildly different categories. You would envision—maybe just because they smell different—no way for Shit and Shinola to coexist. Simply

impossible. A stranger to the English language, a German dopefiend such as Säure, not knowing either word, might see “Shit” as a comical interjection, one a lawyer in a bowler hat, folding up papers tucking them in a tan briefcase might smiling use, “Schitt, Herr Bummer,” and he walks out of your cell, the oily bastard, forever . . . or Scchhit! down comes a cartoon guillotine on one black &

white politician, head bouncing downhill, lines to indicate amusing little spherical

vortex patterns, and you thought yes, like to see that all right, yes cut it off, one less rodent, schittja! As for Shinola, we pass to universitarians Franz Pökler, Kurt

Mondaugen, Bert Fibel, Horst Achtfaden and others, their Schein-Aula is a

shimmering, Albert Speer-style alabaster open-air stadium with giant cement birds of prey up at each corner, wings shrugged forward, sheltering under each wing-shadow a hooded German face . . . from the outside, the Hall is golden, the

white gold precisely of one lily-of-the-valley petal in 4 o’clock sunlight, serene,

at the top of a small, artificially-graded hill. It has a talent, this Seeming-Hall,

for posing up there in attractive profiles, in front of noble clouds, to suggest

persistence, through returns of spring, hopes for love, meltings of snow and ice,

academic Sunday tranquillities, smells of grass just crushed or cut or later turning

to hay . . . but inside the Schein-Aula all is blue and cold as the sky overhead, blue as a blueprint or a planetarium. No one in here knows which way to look. Will it begin above us? Down there? Behind us? In the middle of the air? and how soon....

  Well there’s one place where Shit ‘n’ Shinola do come together, and that’s in the men’s toilet at the Roseland Ballroom, the place Slothrop departed from on his trip down the toilet, as revealed in the St. Veronica Papers (preserved, mysteriously, from that hospital’s great holocaust). Shit, now, is the color white

folks are afraid of. Shit is the presence of death, not some abstract-arty character

with a scythe but the stiff and rotting corpse itself inside the whiteman’s warm

and private own asshole, which is getting pretty intimate. That’s what that white

toilet’s for. You see many brown toilets? Nope, toilet’s the color of gravestones,

classical columns of mausoleums, that white porcelain’s the very emblem of

Odorless and Official Death. Shinola shoeshine polish happens to be the color of Shit. Shoeshine boy Malcolm’s in the toilet slappin’ on the Shinola, working off whiteman’s penance on his sin of being born the color of Shit ‘n’ Shinola. It is nice to think that one Saturday night, one floor-shaking Lindyhopping Roseland

night, Malcolm looked up from some Harvard kid’s shoes and caught the eye of

Jack Kennedy (the Ambassador’s son), then a senior. Nice to think that young

Jack may have had one of them Immortal Lightbulbs then go on overhead—did

Red suspend his ragpopping just the shadow of a beat, just enough gap in the

moire there to let white Jack see through, not through to but through through

the shine on his classmate Tyrone Slothrop’s shoes? Were the three ever lined up

that way—sitting, squatting, passing through? Eventually Jack and Malcolm both

got murdered. Slothrop’s fate is not so clear. It may be that They have something

different in mind for Slothrop.

  Now, ask yourself, what do you get from this digression? It has no place in the narrative, before nor after, where it is put to any use, in terms of character building nor narrative progression, much less and Negatively Capable reason for its existence. Yet, there is cultural hay to be made of this product and comparison. Instead, we get an easy sloughing off of that potential.

  Hence, I have shown a good cross-section of all the reasons why Pynchon’s writing fails: out and out bad writing, in terms of lack of music, no character development, descents into cliché and stereotypes, as well as assorted gimmickry, puerility, name-dropping, and just pointless preening. The fact of the matter is that great writers simply don’t have paragraphs like the many I have excerpted herein in a book, much less having 95% of the book, or more, consist of such. The defenders of such demonstrably bad writing, naturally, shrug, and declaim that art is all subjective, therefore their praise of the slop is as valid as demonstrable refutations of that claim, even as their supposed embrace of subjectivity logically makes invalid the subjectivist’s claims of praise. Hence, one gets a case of artistic psychosis, wherein breaks from reality, no matter how well wrought or not, are seen as good because….well, just because. And this is and was where art stood at the time of the book’s release, in 1973.

  But, the four decades since have seen even the most recalcitrant Postmodernists and subjectivists grudgingly give in on the claims that there are no artistic standards, and such folly has generally been ceded over to a younger generation of artistic non-entities: the Politically Correct Elitists that have supplanted the Postmodernists in the MFA writing mills. In a sense, rather than being a new work that became a prosaic bottleneck work, in the manner of Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass, Gravity’s Rainbow has since been ceded over to the fin de siecle sort of work that it truly is: a work larded with the worst excesses of its era. And this is because of one overriding reason: it’s a bad work of art. It is, in prose terms, far closer to the Collected Poems of a Eugene Field than it is to Whitman’s revolutionary, and- far more importantly- great, work, and the proof of this can be seen in the work most like it, which preceded Gravity’s Rainbow by five years- Vonnegut’s masterful Slaughterhouse-Five. Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t even read by wannabe David Foster Wallace types any longer, whereas Vonnegut’s work has rightfully taken its place in the canon of great American novels taught in middle and high schools.

  Yet, despite the fact that the book offers little, has never been read widely, did not sell well, has never sold well, and is all but hermetically sealed in its time, there are still those who insist it has lasting value, having won a National Book Award, spawned a cottage industry of hermeneusis on the book (including online sites like this and this), and being listed by Time magazine as one of the greatest American novels written between 1932 and 2005 (an arbitrary set of dates if there ever was one). Yet, if there ever was a book that was, to beg Williams Shakespeare and Faulkner, all sound and fury signifying nothing it’s….ok, finish the sentence.

  Gravity’s Rainbow is not difficult, just a sloppy and ill wrought and thought out mess of a book. There is a difference. Let me reiterate, there is a difference….despite Postmodern dictates and bad contemporary criticism. PoMo ideas are, like PC, not necessarily bad, in theory, nor in the abstract, but almost invariably their execution is (this book would rather just toss in a scene of Catherine the Great getting fucked by a horse rather than using her as a metaphor or developing a real character)- in fact, it is almost always more than merely bad, but atrocious. One can have a strong, compelling plot, but it has to come out of strong, compelling characters, as a base. This is simply how humans are wired. Plot alone is the stuff of fluff and mere genre works. Real literature deals with great ideas, and does so in great, and often nonpareil, ways. And these can be given a wide, digressive berth. The tools that PoMo employs are also not necessarily bad, just that there are almost no writers, in any -ism, that practice their preaching, because once one restricts oneself to a small corner of the arts one simply must rebel and react against such strictures. Thomas Pynchon did not do this. He painted himself into a hipster pose, an intellectually vacuous corner, and then got swallowed in his own ego, and Gravity’s Rainbow sinks under its titular force. Woe betide the reader who dares spelunk its dull and pointlessly filigreed orifices!


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]


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