Pynchon, Thomas (Vol. 2)
Pynchon, Thomas 1937–
An American novelist, Pynchon is the author of the pyrotechnical V. and Gravity's Rainbow, as well as the more subdued The Crying of Lot 49. He is considered to be one of the most original talents in the country today. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)
A new sort of American novel seems to be emerging in the sixties. I am led to that conclusion by the appearance of a first novel, V., by Thomas Pynchon. It strikingly resembles another recent first novel, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and it has a number of things in common with other first novels of the decade, including two excellent ones, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, and Bruce J. Friedman's Stern. V. is raw and formless in comparison with those two, but it is powerful, ambitious, full of gusto, and overflowing with rich comic invention. Pynchon is a writer of enormous talent and potential….
The least successful feature of V. is Pynchon's whimsy. As in musical comedy, his characters sometimes interrupt their conversation to break into duets. The juvenile names resemble those of Catch-22: Dewey Gland, Baby Face Falange, and such. New York is usually referred to as "Nueva York." The comical behavior of drunken sailors gets to be a bore. When Pynchon's invention flags he flogs it, and the reader may be reminded of Mad.
The garish fantasy of V. dominates the book. We see her first as a 19-year-old Yorkshire girl named Victoria Wren, deflowered by a British agent in Cairo during the Fashoda crisis in 1898; then in Florence in 1899, seducing Stencil's father on a couch in the British consulate; after that, nameless in Paris in 1913, a lesbian fetishist in love with a young ballerina she dresses as a boy; then as Veronica Manganese in Malta in 1919, by which time she has a star sapphire sewn into her navel and a glass eye with a clock for a pupil; then as Vera Meroving of Munich in German South-West Africa in 1922, punctuating a garden conversation by braining a goldfish; finally, disguised as a nameless priest on Malta in 1939, dying in an air raid, during which some children find her unconscious and despoil her, killing her in their efforts to dig out her star sapphire.
These are only the few of V.'s impersonations that we see. Stencil reports that she spent a year disguised as an old fisherman in Mallorca, that she was a partisan in Asia, and that she crashed a stolen airplane in Spain. Beyond that, V. is some great female principle, embodied even in the rat Veronica, who was either Father Fairing's saintly nun-to-be or his mistress, "depending which story you listened to." She is the goddess Venus and the planet Venus, the Virgin, the town of Valetta in Malta, and the imaginary land of Vheissu with its iridescent spider monkeys and Volcanoes. She is Vesuvius, Venezuela, the Violet of a vulgar mnemonic; ultimately, she is the V of spread thighs and the mons veneris, vagina, and vulva….
V. represents a deliberate return to old-fashioned literary conventions. It has the long chapter subtitles of older comic fiction ("In which Rachel gets her yo-yo back, Roony sings a song, and Stencil calls on Bloody Chiclitz"), the comic capitals of George Ade ("a ghetto for Drunken Sailors nobody knew what to Do With"), and an omniscient narrator who explains things to the reader. The British Angry Young Men derive from the tradition of Fielding, Smollett, and the picaresque novel; Catch-22, V., and the others derive principally from Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Twain, and the conventions of digressive oral narrative. What has been lost is the earlier innocence. If Pynchon has been influenced by Sterne, he has also been visibly influenced by our bitter symbolists of the thirties, Nathanael West and Djuna Barnes.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The Goddess and the Schlemiel," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 138-42.
V. is [an] elaborate examination of the relationship between rationality and irrationality, between abstractions and existence…. Pynchon establishes two main narrative lines in his novel, one dealing with existence, the other with "history"; one with aimless feeling and experience, the other with explanations and significance. Benny Profane's narrative emphasizes existence, meaning here a wide range of immediate experience in the present…. As his name suggests, Profane is an unsanctified man, irreverent though not rebellious, passively allowing himself to be carried by the current of experience rather than attempting to steer his own course toward discovery according to some goal. His life, however, though eventful, has had little significance. It has taught him nothing…. It is not that Benny is so ignorant or apathetic that he cannot or will not learn. He simply despairs of any "true" knowledge and so renounces all knowledge. The gap between subjective experience and rational explanation renders, for him, all explanation fatuous. He refuses to search for forms in the world. The perception of causes and effects, the awareness of intelligibility and significance—these are for him purely illusory. Benny is a good-natured nihilist who lets himself float with the stream of experience. It is not enough. He cannot love, and darkling he runs toward death.
In the other narrative, Herbert Stencil searches for significance, but in that search, he seals himself off from experience. Born in 1901, in the same year Queen Victoria died, he represents a form of twentieth century man, one who, as Stencil says of himself, "sleeps" between the two world wars and then awakens with an appetite for making sense out of the years of his life…. Stencil sets out to put together a history of V., an entity both imaginary and real in the same way that the world we know and experience is imaginary and real. V. has as many facets as there are eyes to view her (it, him)….
Out of a welter of symbolic names and tantalizingly meaningful events, Stencil (the copier of reality rather than reality in itself) draws a vague pattern. His sources are his father's journal, where he first saw any reference to V., and interviews with those who might give him information. In this pattern, Stencil sees a "grand cabal," and thus gives an intelligible form to the past. But that form is "history," in which facet upon facet appears, detail upon detail, all flashing in and out of the investigator's sight like the constantly changing reflection of light off the prisms of a crystal chandelier…. But in its nature the past that V. represents cannot be objectified, except as history….
The figure of the letter V. for which Stencil searches embodies the elusiveness of the identification of intellectual explanation and subjective experience. As Benny Profane walks down a street in Norfolk, Virginia, he sees that the streetlights overhead form an "asymmetric V," and in the distance the V's legs converge in the darkness. But it is a convergence which, as he approaches it, recedes. This is precisely the experience of Stencil in his search; it is the experience of any investigator who probes for some absolute truth that appears to make itself accessible in the patterns we perceive. Absolute comprehension and absolute existence are mutually exclusive.
Stencil looks for knowledge. The way he goes about it demonstrates the theoretical exclusiveness of history and existence. He strives to remain free of his subject, avoid becoming involved in it…. But the investigating mind inevitably distorts reality in itself in the attempt to objectify it….
This is the weakness of all historians: their knowledge is neither an objective knowledge of some ultimate reality nor a subjective knowledge of existence. Stencil can experience the dramatis personae of the past whose center is V. only through the information of others. Whatever else he adds is "impersonation and dream." The episodes he shapes out of his evidence—which form his account of the past—are pictures that result from guesses, models of a reality he can never know fully, rather than reproductions of the reality that once throbbed with life. Any model he creates, because he does not have access to the original, will be the result more of invention than of observation…. History shows only the intellect abstracting, not existence in itself transpiring as the individual subject.
But because history cannot reproduce existence does not mean it is not basic to man's life. The pursuit of historical explanation is one of the poles of the human condition's paradox. When that pursuit is absent, we as human beings die….
[Stencil] fears that actually finding V. will mean his annihilation, for that would be the equivalent of substituting history for existence…. The "sense of animateness" that Stencil feels in his search for V. both betrays existence in itself and makes him feel like a human being. Yet, when history and explanation are unmixed with existence, it constitutes the death of rejecting its opposite. At least Stencil, in the end of the novel, is still open, still pursuing leads. Profane, for whom explanation is futile, runs into Malta's darkness toward the sea.
Jerry Bryant, in his The Open Decision (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Open Decision by Jerry Bryant; © 1970 by The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.), The Free Press, 1970, pp. 252-57.
An interesting example of a novel struggling (somewhat nervously) with the moral imperative might be Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Only superficially comic, the novel operates within a tension between the desire to explore matters of structure and form and the impulse toward engagement with contemporary social issues. The protagonist attempts, with increasing frustration, to find the significance of an apparently absurd organization with the unlikely name of Tristero; if the outcome of the tormented search is uncertain, Pynchon leaves little doubt as to its moral importance…. For such novelists, the work of art seeks relevance—active or alienated, practical or paranoid—to America and contemporary society.
Campbell Tatham, in Contemporary Literature (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter, 1971, p. 62.
As readers of his first novel V (1963) can attest, Pynchon is an enormously well informed man. Gravity's Rainbow is a 760-page affidavit that he knows his Freud, he knows his Pavlov, he knows his comparative religions, he knows his rocket technology. He can write a gloss on Abraham and I saac or a program note on forties jazz. He is equally up on mandalas and Deanna Durbin movies. He is perhaps the only novelist alive who would use a sine curve as a metaphor for life, complete with the appropriate formula….
Pynchon appears almost too resourceful. His prose is gusty, propulsive, sputtering as a last resort into Brechtian verse or the shorthand of one-act playlets. It is as if he were trying to say everything at once, on every page. One has the impression that inside his head is a movie screen on which an endless series of very funny and very ghastly one-reelers is being projected: Pynchon Presents World War II, with radioactive custard pies for a cast of thousands and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse chased by Keystone Kops….
Pynchon, for all his antics, is a theologian, laying out the road to damnation…. Gravity's Rainbow serves as Pynchon's occasionally nauseous measure of twentieth century degradation. (One passage of virtuosic scatology might be described as the Great Toilet Flush: five pages long.) For Pynchon, as presumably for Slothrop [the protagonist], the supreme obscenity is that ordinary people are "willing to have life defined for them by men whose only talent is for death."…
[What] Pynchon is staging is the tragicomedy of modern man engineering himself into a thing, damned to become one with his own machinery, only "in love with his, and his race's, death."
At his worst, Pynchon is the scat singer of Apocalypse, making one-line jokes about the I Ching, indulging himself in whimsy on the First International Runcible Spoon Fight. But at its best, Gravity's Rainbow is a kind of American Dog Years. Like Günter Grass, like Hieronymus Bosch, Pynchon has the power to make death seem as vital as life itself. As "fantasist-surrogate," he assumes the reader's case of the cosmic horrors and manages them for him. Is this called "therapy" or "moral vision"? No matter—it is a frightening and extraordinary talent.
Melvin Maddocks, "Paleface Takeover," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1973, pp. 98-100.
The fantastically variegated and multi-structured V., which made Thomas Pynchon famous in 1963 and the wonder ever since of anyone who has tried to meet or photograph or interview him, is the most masterful first novel in the history of literature, the only one of its decade with the proportions and stylistic resources of a classic. Three years later came The Crying of Lot 49, more accessible only because very much shorter than the first, and like some particularly dazzling section left over from it. And now Gravity's Rainbow. More ambitious than V., more topical (in that its central mystery is not a cryptogram but a supersonic rocket), and more nuanced, Gravity's Rainbow is even less easy to assimilate into those interpretive schematizations of "apocalypse" and "entropy" by which Pynchon's work has, up to now, been rigidified by his admirers.
At thirty-six, Pynchon has established himself as a novelist of major historical importance. More than any other living writer, including Norman Mailer, he has caught the inward movements of our time in outward manifestations of art and technology so that in being historical he must also be marvelously exorbitant. It is probable that he would not like being called "historical." In Gravity's Rainbow, even more than in his previous work, history—as Norman O. Brown proposed in Life Against Death—is seen as a form of neurosis, a record of the progressive attempt to impose the human will upon the movements of time….
The ultimate whip in Gravity's Rainbow, the end product of the system, is the supersonic rocket, the German V-2 of the Second World War. It is Moby Dick and the Pequod all in one, both the Virgin and the Dynamo of Pynchon's magnificent book.
If in the structure of his books Pynchon duplicates the intricate networking of contemporary technological, political, and cultural systems, then in the style and its rapid transitions he tries to match the dizzying tempos, the accelerated shifts from one mode of experience to another, which characterize contemporary media and movement….
In Pynchon we "return" to ourselves, come back to the remembered earth of our primal being, reified by the objects to which we have joined our passions, our energies, and our needs….
In Gravity's Rainbow there are some 400 characters all bearing Pynchonesque names (Old Bloody Chiclitz is back, by the way, from The Crying of Lot 49), along with a fair number of people who, if you bother, can be found in reference books (e.g., such pioneers in organic chemistry as Kekulé, von Liebig, and Clerk Maxwell)….
No one, for example, will want to keep track of the hundreds of alphabetical agencies from World War II and the international cartels that are mentioned in the book, nor is anyone expected to. The confusion is the point, and CIA is not what you think it is, but Chemical Instrumentality for the Abnormal. The book is full of disguises, of changes and fusions of identity….
Aside from the main plot, which deals with a competitive effort to see who can first put together a facsimile of Rocket 00000, there are at least four other major plots, one of which would alone make or enhance the reputation of anyone now writing fiction….
There are also dozens of wondrous ancillary plots featuring characters whose motives and activities are essential to the movement of all the major ones….
The central character is the Rocket itself, and all the other characters, for one reason or another, are involved in a quest for it, especially for a secret component, the so-called Schwarzgerät, which was wrapped in Imipolex G. Because the multiple search gradually exposes the interlocking relationships among the cultural, economic, and scientific aspects of contemporary life and its historical antecedents, Pynchon can properly refer to it as "the terrible politics of the Grail."…
It can and will be said that such a book as this would have no audience except one prepared by the kind of analytic study of literature that has been in vogue for some thirty years. It's been said already of V. and of the works of other related contemporary novelists like William Burroughs, who shares, by the way, Pynchon's marvelous sensitivity to the metaphysical implications of technology, especially film technology, and the way the mind can schizophrenically work like a film projector. But the argument that writers like Pynchon and Burroughs are a by-product of contemporary literary criticism is trivial, since, for one reason, the two books—Moby Dick and Ulysses—that come to mind most often as one reads Gravity's Rainbow indulged in the same kind of complexity, not because criticism had made it fashionable to do so, but because the internal nature of culture made it necessary. And it is further beside the point because Gravity's Rainbow marks an advance beyond either book in its treatment of cultural inheritances, an advance that a merely literary education and taste will either distort or find uncongenial….
[What] distinguishes Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow, especially from such writers as John Barth and Borges, is that he does not, like them, make use of technology or popular culture or literary convention in an essentially parodistic spirit, though he tended to do so in V. He is not so literary as to think it odd, an in joke, that literary techniques are perhaps less powerfully revealing about human nature and history than are scientific ones….
Readers who get impatient with this book will most likely be too exclusively literary in their responses rather than not literary enough. They'll stare at designs without listening to voices, wonder about characters when they should be laughing at grotesques, and generally miss the experience in a search for the meaning. Above all, they'll be discomfited by a novelist who posits a world in which experience is often most meaningfully assembled in ways considered alternative, often antithetical to literature, like science, or inferior to literature, like film and comic books. It is not possible dogmatically to feel this way about literature and enjoy Gravity's Rainbow, or, I would suppose, read the times with much comprehension….
This is a terribly haunted book. It is written by a man who has totally isolated himself from the literary world of New York or anywhere else. This remoteness is what has freed him from the provincial self-importance about literary modes and manners….
Pynchon is almost unbearably vulnerable to every aspect of contemporary experience, open to every form of sight and sound, democratically receptive to the most common and the most recondite signatures of things.
Richard Poirier, "Rocket Power," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, March, 1973; used with permission), March, 1973, pp. 59-64.
Gravity's Rainbow will be compared with Ulysses; Gravity's Rainbow will be compared with "Duck Soup." It is at once a farce and an extended, most extended, meditation on the ache left behind when They amputated free will. Pynchon's first book was also a farce of epic reach, a quest novel concerning the search for the mysterious and elusive V. Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon's third, takes up the hunt again. This time the quarry is the elusive and deadly V-2. The first was a female spy, the second is a rocket. Nothing connects them save a letter of the alphabet, what we may call a "character." Yet Pynchon is so prodigal with his talents that it would not be beneath him to deliver a novel from so casual a conception as the symmetry between V and V-2.
Let's get one thing straight now: you won't learn from this review what really happens in Gravity's Rainbow. It isn't that I want to keep suspense alive. It's that I don't always know what's going on. Nor does anyone else, except Pynchon. He knows, believe me. He's got his work under control, and the reader can sense rather than articulate the system that connects its contrary qualities and rowdy disarray. Any plot outline of Gravity's Rainbow (or of V., for the matter of that) sounds like a Lenny Bruce routine, or a parody of a Lenny Bruce routine….
It is Pynchon's peculiar grace that between the mess of this world and the terror of space he has located all the atoms. Any student of Heisenberg will tell you the sad fact that we can't know an atom's location and its velocity—one or the other. Pynchon's novel is so difficult (and so wonderful) because he won't give up trying to bring us the word that gets us the fix on both at once, location and velocity. Sanity and paranoia. Freedom and the social contract. Metaphor and truth.
Geoffrey Wolff, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 11, 1973, pp. 1-2.
Looking back … it seems to me that of all the American novelists who emerged with Pynchon in the 1960's only Vonnegut, Barth and Heller are his peers….
Pynchon's new book ["Gravity's Rainbow"] is thus an event—it breaks seven years of silence and allays the fear that he might never go beyond his early success. "Gravity's Rainbow" is longer, darker and more difficult than his first two books; in fact it is the longest, most difficult and most ambitious novel to appear here since Nabokov's "Ada" four years ago; its technical and verbal resources bring to mind Melville and Faulkner. Immersing himself in "the destructive element" and exploring paranoia, entropy and the love of death as primary forces in the history of our time, Pynchon establishes his imaginative continuity with the great modernist writers of the early years of this century. "Gravity's Rainbow" is bonecrushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, pastoral, historical, philosophical, poetic, grindingly dull, inspired, horrific, cold, bloated, beached and blasted.
It could have been titled "V-2."…
The most important cultural figure in "Gravity's Rainbow" is not Goethe or Wagner … but Rainer Maria Rilke…. In a way, the book could be read as a seriocomic 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."…
Pynchon's novel is strung between these first lines of the "Duino Elegies" and the last: "And we, who have always thought of happiness as climbing or ascending would feel the emotion that almost startles when a happy thing falls." In Rilke, the "happy thing" is a sign of rebirth amidst the dead calm of winter: a "catkin" hanging from an empty hazel tree or the "rain that falls on the dark earth in early spring." In "Gravity's Rainbow" the "happy thing" that falls is a rocket….
The arc of a rocket's flight is Gravity's Rainbow—a symbol not of God's covenant with Noah that He will never again destroy all living things, nor of the inner instinctual wellsprings of life that will rise above the dark satanic mills in D. H. Lawrence's novel "The Rainbow." Gravity's Rainbow is a symbol of death: Pynchon's characters "move forever under [the rocket] … as if it were the Rainbow, and they its children."…
Thus, for Pynchon, rocket technology is the final expression of Romantic love-death…. [And] it is Pynchon's ambition to relate the history of Germany to that of America and indeed the entire Western world. He carefully integrates American characters and references within his European scene … and he writes in an unmistakably American style….
Pynchon is obviously capable of the most intricate literary structures—plots and counterplots and symbols that twist and tangle in time and space. His expert knowledge encompasses: spiritualism, statistics, Pavlovian psychology, London in 1944, Berlin, Zürich and Potsdam in 1945, chemical engineering, the Baltic black market, plastics, rocket propulsion and ballistics, economic and military complexes, international industrial cartels …, Tarot cards and the Kabbala, witchcraft, espionage, Rossini operas, pop songs and show tunes of the thirties and forties, limericks, cocaine and hashish fantasies, and the history of American clothing styles and slang….
For a literary standard by which we can measure Pynchon in this book we must turn to Nabokov, the master of fictional chess, magus of Anti-Terra, mirror world to our own, the realist-surrealist of fabulous skills. The operative emotion in Nabokov's work is nostalgia, a melting sentimental remembrance of Russian things past…. The operative emotion behind Pynchon's literary creations is not Nabokovian nostalgia but a fear of the void, which Pynchon converts into the very semblance of megalomaniac paranoia, the construction of plots and counterplots, epic catalogues, unifying symbols and metaphors, intense verbal energy, detailed descriptions of natural and man-made environments, local life styles, manic good times, college humor and rowdiness leading to drunken and drugged orgies, sexual perversions and reversals of role, and finally to an obsession with the sadomasochistic conversion of human flesh to mechanical contrivance, dead matter.
In all of Pynchon's books there is also an element of soft lyrical sadness, a longing for a tryst with a lost love. But this tenderness is most often inextricable from a drift into passiveness, self-pity, withdrawal, emotional impotence, or it is the feeling that links victim and executioner. In Pynchon's world there is almost no trust, no human nurture, no mutual support, no family life…. This is most unlike Nabokov at his best, when he allows his feelings for people, family and sexual love to stand revealed at the center of his dextrous verbal work. Pynchon doesn't create characters so much as mechanical men to whom a manic comic impulse or a vague freefloating anguish can attach itself, often in brilliant streams of consciousness.
The risk that Pynchon's fiction runs is boredom, repetition without significant development, elaboration that is no more than compulsiveness. For all its richness and exuberance, "V." is more a wonderful, concatenated jigsaw puzzle than an esthetically coherent literary structure. "The Crying of Lot 49" is smaller but better built. In "Gravity's Rainbow" the structure is strained beyond the breaking point….
[Pynchon's] imagination—for all its glorious power and intelligence—is as limited in its way as Céline's or Jonathan Swift's. His novel is in this sense a work of paranoid genius, a magnificent necropolis that will take its place amidst the grand detritus of our culture. Its teetering structure is greater by far than the many surrounding literary shacks and hovels. But we must look to other writers for food and warmth.
Richard Locke, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 11, 1973, p. 1ff.
Pynchon's immense new novel [Gravity's Rainbow] takes on his largest, fiercest apocalypse yet, the childhood of rocketry, V-2s from Peenemünde released by our death wish, the phallic fingers of God pointing down the sky, describing parabolas that mimic the rainbow, defeating gravity only to succumb to it and defeat us, world without end without world. They reverse nature, travel faster than sound, they strike and then you hear them. That is, if you are alive to hear them….
Gravity's Rainbow is literally indescribable, a tortured cadenza of lurid imaginings and total recall that goes on longer than you can quite believe. Its people, like the characters in V., are marginal people, layabouts, dropouts, gangsters, failed scientists, despairing spiritualists, spies, SS men, dancing girls, faded movie stars. A number of old friends from V. crop up, and the names all round are a bit too doggedly whimsical for me….
The reconstruction of wartime London is meticulous, down to bandleaders and tunes, radio programs and the brand names of cough lozenges. I have no idea how Pynchon does this. Even if Pynchon were in London getting bombed in 1944, I can't see how he could remember so much. And the reconstructions concern things that hardly make history books. There is clearly a mind at work here that forgets nothing and that can intuit huge canvasses from small details, whole cultures from a fragment of stone, an archaeological imagination, whose business is the impersonation of lost times….
Gravity's Rainbow, like many other modern novels, like all novels in one sense, is set in the writer's mind, but Pynchon's mind, by virtue of his imaginative anxiety or historical care, is full not only of personal obsessions (lavatories, sewers, shit, sadism, Germans) and personal B-movie fantasies (the windswept wastes of Kirghistan, the Argentine hero, Martin Fierro, as played by Jorge Luis Borges) but also of more major recent historical deposits than it seems a single mind could take. Webern's historical death by mistake at the hands of the occupying American army, when it enters the book, is a perfect fictional detail, and this is how the book works, weaving all the history we are likely to remember (and then some) into a fantasy of nightmare and doom and inexplicable glee, an old movie (this metaphor for the book occurs literally dozens of times in its pages) done up and projected personally for as many as will buy or borrow the book. It is crowded, technical, serious, self-indulgent, frivolous, and very heavy going. It doesn't let up….
I have only one hesitation about this book, about Pynchon's whole opus. Pynchon tends to write the way the evil Duke speaks in his Jacobean play: with ritual reluctance. And then also with an overeagerness to inform, to name names. Here, as in V. and The Crying of Lot 49, things are too often either densely obscure, impossible to decipher, or excessively neat, rounded up, clicking sharply into place. We waver between lonely incomprehension and an oppressive understanding, like the heroine of Lot 49: between the tower and the Tristero….
This is not too important. Pynchon's mind is so fertile and engaging that it doesn't matter if his books seem stilted now and again. The mind is plainly not stilted, indeed I wonder whether it could ever find a book to fit it, whether it is even, in the end, a writer's mind at all, and not a mind of some general, undefined brilliance which has happened to find itself writing. Obviously the manner of these books corresponds closely to their matter: my difficulty in reading is the characters' difficulty in being part of their world.
Still, there is a whole region missing in Pynchon's fiction, the region of the suggested but not said, the shown but not expressed, the assured over-all imaginative success, as distinct from the hundreds of dazzling local successes these novels contain. Pynchon seems to feel this, since he has given us at least two marvelous comic metaphors of the communion that fails between us and him, between some of his characters and others of them, and among most of us out here, outside of fiction, perhaps, most of the time.
Michael Wood, "Rocketing to the Apocalypse," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), March 22, 1973, pp. 22-3.
Gravity's Rainbow is a reviewer's nightmare. It is too rich in character and incident, too wide-ranging historically and geographically, too mercurial in its shifts of mood and fictional mode, to be summarized at convenient length. Nor is there any hope of finding some simple metaphor that will adequately convey the essence of this dense, demanding novel. So one begins as one will probably end—simply by asserting that though this jampacked, misshapen book threatens to defeat us on every page—life is, after all, short, and this is very long art—it also compels us, time and again, to try to make some sense of Thomas Pynchon's strange found object: the world….
The range of references is endless, though that phrase is too formal, too academic in tone. Better perhaps to say that the book is one long rummage through the junk heap of Western cultural history, a self-conscious search there for old weapons that might prove useful in defending ourselves against the new technological and bureaucratic culture of which the magical, mythical rocket is product and symbol. About that new culture, Pynchon manages to create a great air of knowledgeability. For all I, or any other common reader, can tell, the great gobs of information he imparts about the chemistry of plastics, the physics of rocketry, the farther reaches of psychological experimentation may be novelistic inventions as pure as his lonely lemming and his pig festival. But, no less than those, it sounds right. At a certain point the outreaching of the scientific mind, even though it retains its ability to reduce its speculations to logical-looking syllogisms and equations, becomes as irrational as the folk mind's primitive explanations of history or natural phenomena, as loony as the visions of the individual far gone in the condition an excess of science is blamed for creating: loneliness, alienation, whatever we're calling the modern tragedy this season.
The novel comes to no thumping conclusion on this, or any other, point. Indeed, it tails off at the end into a series of dreams, visions, or (more likely) dope-inspired hallucinations that bear little relationship to what has gone before or to each other. In a sense, this is a disappointment. We have, after all, certain expectations of a novel as long as anything Irving Wallace ever typed out, and one of them is that our long attention span shall be rewarded by some sort of moral, intellectual, characterological Q.E.D. We want to know what becomes of the people we were engaged with, what meaning their lives had—especially in a novel as richly imagined, as manically detailed as this one….
[As] Pynchon explodes form, so does he explode language, style. He will use the American idiom to render a German or Russian stream of consciousness. Or he may drop in a long, comic song lyric of his own devising when the spirit moves him. And if his straining for intensity and originality of expression is occasionally tiring, one cannot help but admire it. To sustain it at high levels for close to 800 pages is really an awesome achievement. And one that taken together with his free-flowing and fantastical inventiveness keeps us continuously on the alert to the fact that we are in the presence of an original—and a major one at that. All along he warns us that his book will come to no good—that is, conventional—end….
The conclusion of Gravity's Rainbow lies not … in the fate of its people but at that point—sooner or later, depending on our powers of perception—when we realize that the novel is not about the paranoid vision, but is one—a labyrinthine, closed system that is not, as most novels that deal with the world's madness are, a microcosm but a paradigm—an example in itself of what it's talking about. Turning ever inward on itself, like one of the characters it contains, it must inevitably self-destruct in our hands.
It is, I think, a daring and brilliant conceit—if one no one now has to attempt again. And even if it offends some readers, I don't see how anyone who cares the least bit seriously about modern fiction can deny Pynchon's richness of imagination, his mastery of his craft, or power of vision. Attention must be paid to him as an artist of the very first—and most dangerous—quality.
Richard Schickel, "Paranoia at Full Cry," in World, April 10, 1973, pp. 43-4.