Pynchon, Thomas (Vol. 3)
Pynchon, Thomas 1937–
Pynchon, a major American novelist, is now considered one of the most important living experimental novelists. His labyrinthine fictions display his familiarity with a mind-boggling range of scientific and technical detail and his dark vision of contemporary social, cultural, and political trends. The central metaphor of his novel V. has remained stubbornly resistant to exegesis, although some critics have called V. no less than a metaphor for the twentieth century. His latest work is Gravity's Rainbow, one of the most vast and stunning novels of our time. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)
V. … is a quest-novel, a form that allows for almost endless episodic performances. Certainly Pynchon seems to have indulged in a great deal of freewheeling improvisation in the early part of his novel, especially in the scenes dealing with Benny Profane, an amiable layabout looking for work in New York, and his friends, who are known as the Whole Sick Crew. Some of these episodes, such as the one in which Benny joins a squad whose duty is to find and shoot the alligators infesting the New York sewers, achieve a fine wild comedy. The tight plotting comes in the other, and increasingly dominant, part of the novel; it describes the attempts of a middle-aged Englishman, Hubert Stencil, to find a mysterious creature called V.… For all the painstaking circumstantial skill with which these episodes are presented, they remain curiously intangible, like a flickering magic-lantern show; recalling, in the end, not the variousness and solidity of history, but the infinite inventiveness of the mind of Thomas Pynchon (and the large amount of research that must have been put into them). Where I find V. most interesting, and at the same time most disturbing, is in the thorough way in which it shows the possibilities of dehumanisation of people being transformed into something else….
My admiration for V., through reluctant …, is, in the last analysis, genuine. But one cannot feel at all happy about the impetus which it and Barth's books have given to countless inferior essays in the absurdist vein by aspiring American novelists; writers who ten years ago would have written efficient, realistic campus novels, are now plunging into the comic-apocalyptic manner, which is of course temptingly easy to adopt, if one has verbal skill and inventiveness and not much experience of life. Like Barth, Pynchon is interested in exploding the traditional 'well-made' novel, by taking its conventions to the pitch of impossible elaboration. V., and still more The Crying of Lot 49, might be described as extended puns on the different senses of the word 'plot'.
Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by the University of Pittsburgh Press), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, pp. 97-100.
[Plotting] is also a distinguishing feature of the contemporary political imagination. V., [Pynchon's] first novel, is designed to indict its own comic elaborateness. The various quests for V. are interwoven fantastically; they are made preposterously coherent. As in Barth, the participation of Pynchon's characters in this maze of fabrication precludes their participation in more human plots, such as the search for love or even the discovery of friendship within their pathetic tribal huddles.
The knotty entanglements of plot in Pynchon's novels are meant to testify to waste—a word prominently displayed on the inside cover of his second novel The Crying of Lot 49—the waste of imagination that creates and is then enslaved by its own plottings and machines, the products of its technology. Except for the heroine of V., Rachel Owlglass, and the heroine of The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas—lovable, hapless, decent, eager girls—both novels are populated by self-mystified people running as if on command from the responsibilities of love to the fascination of puzzles and the power of things. No plot, political, novelistic, or personal, can issue from the circumstances of love, from the simple human needs, say, of Rachel or of Oedipa, and Pynchon implicitly mocks this situation by the Byzantine complications of the plot by which his characters choose, if that is the right word, to be manipulated….
As in some complicated apparatus of modern warfare, the signal "self-destruct" might be said to flash whenever a reader of Pynchon presses too confidently at a point where he thinks he's located the "meaning." Efforts at human communication are lost among Pynchon's characters, nearly all of whom are obsessed with the presumed cryptography in the chance juxtaposition of things, in the music and idiom of bars like the Vino or the Scope or merely in "the vast sprawl of houses" that Oedipa sees outside Los Angeles, reminding her of the printed circuit of a transistor radio with its "intent to communicate."
Even the title V. is cryptographic. Available to all interpretations, it is answerable to none. Though the letter probably did not have Vietnam as one of its references in 1963, the novel so hauntingly evokes the preconditions of international disaster that Vietnam must retrospectively be added to the long list of its other possible meanings. In that part of the novel, nearly half, given to an international melodrama of spying in the years since the Fashoda incident of 1898, V. shows how international, no less than personal, complications accumulate from an interplay of fantasies constructed by opposing sides, each sustaining the other's dream of omnipotence, each justifying its successes by evoking the cleverness of its opposition, each creating the opposition and, in some mysterious and crazy way, the moves and successes of the other side as a provocation to its own further action.
"Plots" are an expression in Pynchon of the mad belief that some plot can ultimately take over the world, can ultimately control life to the point where it is manageably inanimate. And the ascription of plots to an opposition is a way of explaining why one's own have not achieved this ultimate control. Nearly from the outset, the people of Pynchon's novels are the instruments of the plots they then help promote. Their consequent dehumanization makes the prospect of apocalypse and the destruction of self not a horror so much as the final ecstasy of plotting and of power. In international relations the ecstasy is thermonuclear war; in human relationships it can be sadomasochism with skin itself as leather, leather a substitute for skin, where parts of the body are made of jewelry or metal, interchangeable, detachable, unscrewable, in every sense of the word.
Richard Poirier, in his The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life (copyright © 1971 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 23-5.
In Pynchon, the mass man is a man unable to live within and for himself; he seeks community in the mass precisely to escape such a sense of self. Unable to live within the present, he is finally unable to live within civilization and seeks an escape from all reality and all responsibility. Such a man is a man of violence, for his goal in life is to live without an conscience….
When the individual forsakes his conscience and his sense of responsibility, violence itself loses a moral context and becomes totally impersonal…. Most of the important violence of V.—the extermination of the Blacks in South Africa, the siege of Malta, the concentration camps of Germany (which SHROUD refers to), and the potential violence of nuclear radiation—is massive and impersonal.
The increasing role of the masses in modern society threatens the private realm with total destruction. Modern mass society, in its search for an escape from a sense of self, attempts to usurp all privacy and all possibilities of personal transcendence. Pynchon pushes this train of thought even further than Marcuse; he ends by stating explicitly that even nihilism, once a private affair of the romantic quester, has become public property. Hugh Godolphin tells Vera Meroving that Vheissu, his own vision of nothingness, is no longer a private affair; World War I has caused poets and intellectuals to work out their "three-o'clock anxieties" and "excesses of character" on "a real human population". By turning their own nihilism outward, these men make nothingness a public property. On the other hand, what is the modern mass man's search for an escape from the self if not a search for the inhuman, for nothingness? The artist and mass society converge at this fatal juncture.
Hugh Godolphin's plight is the plight of the nineteenth century romantic who has lived to see romanticism become a public affair. Godolphin believes that he has been ripped from the human community by his vision of Vheissu, as had Ahab by his obsession with Moby Dick. Tired of a neat, ordered world which he finds mindless, Godolphin searches for a deeper reality and comes upon the colorless all-color of Vheissu, where he finds that all colors change constantly in a random, inhuman multiplicity which in its very meaninglessness becomes a vision of nothingness…. The romantic quest ends, as it does in Melville, in the ironic perception that the surface, which the romantic quester has tried to pierce, is all there is; beneath that lies only nothingness….
Romanticism arises from a collapse of communal values. Thrown back upon himself and, at least after the initial stage of romanticism, forced to create his own values, the romantic becomes alienated from his fellow humans and from a common reality that is always in danger of seeming stripped of meaning and devoid of interest. This interiorization of values and meaning can lead to a hatred of reality which forces the romantic out of the "real present" into visionary worlds of false nostalgia, willed transcendence, or political utopianism. In any case, Stencil's golden mean disappears before this onslaught of romantic flights from reality. Romanticism becomes inseparable from this extremism, this rejection of reality, which lies at its core. Romantic art becomes entangled in the unresolvable polarities of the hothouse and the street and struggles with increasing desperation to create art in a world it sees stripped of meaning.
The Whole Sick Crew is the dead end of romantic art. The Crew live in a hothouse because they are merely repeating the gestures and attitudes of an earlier bohemianism. With the Whole Sick Crew modernism has been conquered by the public realm and has lost all meaning and direction….
Pynchon allows himself no escape from his vision of decadence. He is consistent enough to admit that his own novel must be part and parcel of this pervasive decadence. Decadence is to be seen for what it is, but decadence is better than its alternative—death…. Pynchon's expansiveness, whimsy, changes of style, and intricateness proceed from the perception of decadence. The matrix of the novel is a perception of death and nothingness; in the face of such a perception artistic decadence becomes a necessary act of life….
Pynchon's conscious artistic decadence is a reaction against the more fundamental decadence, defined in terms of the victory of the inanimate over the animate, found everywhere in the novel, but most especially in the character of V., who represents Henry Adams' Virgin turned into something more closely resembling his conception of the Dynamo. V. represents a new feminine principle, one that finds its apotheosis in violence and in threats of the final holocaust….
V. is finally a symbol of pure inanimateness, of the nothingness of death. Her desire for death and nothingness is a desire which Pynchon sees as the hidden urge of modern history….
Theoretically, sexuality should give a human dimension to history, but V. herself represents a new sexual principle which denies our humanity. In fact, most of the sexuality in V. seems closer to the inanimate than to the human….
Ultimately, the polarities of V. achieve no resolution. They are left standing as a monument to the idea of art-as-process. If there is an ultimate resolution, it is one best avoided, for in the logic of V. everything comes to rest in the inanimate void which Pynchon projects as the end of history and which always awaits us just outside our human sphere. Against this void, V. is its own affirmation: art is what allows us to go on living. During the bombing of Malta, Fausto Maijstral realizes that poetry is the central human act, since it enables civilization to continue by covering the inanimate with human metaphors. At the same time, the poet, supremely conscious of the arbitrariness of his own metaphors, cannot rest in illusion and must move on to new metaphors. Therefore, Stencil never finishes his quest, and V. is only a temporary metaphor or stay against confusion which has value only in itself. The bounteous creation of the book is the book's affirmation against the exhaustion, the surrender to the inanimate, which always threatens man in our century.
In Pynchon humanity is something we must earn. The world we live in is our arbitrary creation; it is we who endow the world with human qualities and we who either succeed or fail in attaining our humanity. In previous history, man, never aware of the arbitrariness of his own metaphors, was never aware that his humanity could be so easily discarded. Modern man, tired of that guilt and that relentless intellectual searching which characterize civilization, realizes that his humanity can be abandoned and comes to desire such abandonment. Of all the characters in V., Foppl is most successful in achieving this abandonment….
Offering its own affirmation by its very art, V. offers us humor as a response to the void, for humor, as Twain knew, is man's best defense before an indifferent universe.
Robert E. Golden, "Mass Man and Modernism: Violence in Pynchon's V.," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1972, pp. 5-17.
A central theme of Thomas Pynchon's novel, The Crying of Lot 49, is that, because of its entropic tendencies, American society has produced a failure in communications which leaves its citizens intellectually and spiritually dead at the core. [Abernethy recommends the reading of Norbert Wiener's The Human Use of Human Beings as background for the terms and general situations described in The Crying of Lot 49.] Pynchon pictures America as a series of closed systems in which the meaning of life, like the receding image of the cow on the pet milk can, is echoing itself into nothingness. Like the nymph, Echo, the redundancy ultimately results in a failure in the ability to love, for love is the ability of one human being to communicate—to make meaningful contact—with another human being at a spiritual as well as at a physical level. Without such contact, we can bring identity neither to our situation nor to ourselves. The irony for America, which Pynchon brings out so well, is that our human ability to communicate seems to decrease in proportion to the increase in our technical ability to communicate….
Thermodynamics defines entropy as "the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity." In communications it is "a measure of the amount of information in a message that is based on the logarithm of the number of possible equivalent messages" (i.e., the more ambiguous the message, the more entropic it is)…. Synonyms for entropy are tendencies toward disorder and chaos….
Disorder and chaos … do not mean a random jumble of things but rather uniformity, a lack of distinctions, a sameness, a lack of individuality, a tendency toward complete conformity. It is a "steady-state" in which "matter and energy" are evenly distributed so that no real exchange of information is possible—since the shifting of similar items to similar places leaves one at the same place he began, for all practical purposes….
Therefore, the principal threat to modern man … is not from an active force driving humanity toward chaos but from passive tendencies within ourselves and our society which leave the direction of our destiny to the inhuman, random "logic" of technology and bureaucracy. This entropic tendency is the real source of "evil" in the world…. Like Echo in the myth, we will become unable to originate a meaningful human message, but, instead, will only be able to repeat what we have heard. While we deceive ourselves by inventing Manichaean devils to combat, the Augustinian devil of nothingness will slowly eat away our humanity.
This Augustinian devil waits silently behind Pynchon's vision of contemporary American society….
For Pynchon, American society is a closed system composed of many component closed systems. In all these systems, entropy has reached a crisis state….
Lot 49 abounds in closed systems. Consider, for instance, Yoyodyne, the main source of "useful" employment in San Narciso. It is a vast industrial research laboratory in which "inventing" has become a business in which the individual's role has been replaced by "teams" of engineers who are forced to sign over their patent rights to the company upon signing their contracts. In other words, they sign over their individuality, and they produce, as a result, only what the machine-oriented company wants them to produce…. The image of the yoyo fits: it represents energy expended in a cycle of activity which, for all its apparent dynamism, is esentially meaningless mechanical repetition.
The result is a society composed of faceless minions of a useless machine.
Peter L. Abernethy, "Entropy in Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1972, pp. 18-33.
Understanding Thomas Pynchon's mysterious novel V. is like understanding the twentieth century. Pursue V. and you are like Herbert Stencil, the "century's child," born in 1901, buried in the outrageous facts of contemporary experience, and convinced that "events seem to be ordered in an ominous logic." V. is everything that happens in the twentieth century and everything that might happen—as if you could clutch a handful of the times from our atmosphere and tack a letter on it, making it palpable so it can be poked around and examined, if not known. Pynchon has attempted to show us the essential qualities of our time. Like a prose version of Eliot's The Waste Land, V. pictures a world where love and mythology have failed, and it points out the path we follow….
In a sense, Pynchon is creating the mystery of Fate itself. For, ultimately, understanding V. is understanding the compulsive direction we take in our headlong plunge down the street of our century. As always with Fate, V. leads us to wonder if we take that plunge because of mysterious forces guiding us, or if the plunge as well as Fate, V., and everything else is the way it is because we are the way we are. For Herbert Stencil, V.'s "emissaries haunt the century's streets." For the more reliable Fausto Maijstral, "There is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane." Thus, we have the two poles of Fate, and the essential mystery of V.—either there is some ominous logic to the direction of man's life or life is a series of random accidents defined only by the impulses of the living. In either case, however, the direction of our plunge is clear to Pynchon. Insofar as Fate is knowable, insofar as V. is identifiable, and insofar as our future is predictable, it all points to a "dream of annihilation." V. as woman, V. as war, V. as conspiracy—it all adds up to what old Godolphin discovers about Vheissu in 1898 or what Von Trotha puts into effect in 1904—"Vernichtungs Befehl" (Annihilation Orders). Annihilation is the nightmare of the twentieth century, and it is perhaps our Fate—a possibility brought to our attention in 1945 when young Herbert Stencil begins his quest and the United States drops the Atomic Bomb. The mystery of V. is the mystery of why we pursue our destruction; it is the mystery of fact in the twentieth century, which points repeatedly to the madness of annihilation—not to the hope of love, but to the waste land after the holocaust….
V. is the essential nature of our century, pointing always toward our haunting communal "dream of annihilation"; however, only after we have examined the symptoms and manifestations of that dream, all the public and private appearances of V., can we say in what sense Pynchon feels V. to be an actually existing entity. It is the same question we have seen before—is it possible that deep in the soul of our century we will discover not the American Dream but a dream which proves we ourselves are the source of a waste land world gone mad; or is there really an unknown Master Conspiracy, a Big Bad Wolf? The question itself may sound like ripe material for a joke, and so it is at times, but that only makes it one more example of black humor, of the comic becoming nightmare; the fear of conspiracy is a real fact in contemporary life—it is perhaps the stuff that V.'s are made on.
By using a series of repetitions, verbal echoes, and baffling coincidences, Pynchon interrelates the private, the public, and the metaphysical realms of his book, and gives us the sense that V. is omnipresent. Any thing we learn in any realm contributes toward an overall understanding of V. What is true about Victoria Wren is true of Vheissu and helps us understand V., the essential nature of the twentieth century….
The two major symptoms of the twentieth century, as both Pynchon and Eliot have described them, are the inversion of love and the inversion of religion. Thus, every public and private appearance of V.—as woman, place, or concept—is connected to these two characteristics. The inversion of love is demonstrated in the abuse of sex and in the continued appearance of war. The inversion of religion appears not only through the distorted beliefs of Father Fairing and Victoria Wren but through the substitution of belief in conspiracy for faith in a supreme Being. If, for example, we were to follow the progressive appearances of the Lady V.—Victoria Wren in 1898 and 1899; V., the lover of Melanie l'Heuremaudit in Paris 1913; Veronica Manganese on Malta in 1919; Vera Meroving and her accomplice Hedwig Vogelsang in South West Africa in 1922; and the Bad Priest in Valletta, Malta 1943—if we were to scrutinize these appearances of one kind of V., we would find in each case the inversion of love in transvestitism, fetishism, lesbianism, or simple exploitation; we would find the intimation of one of our wars; and we would find religion transposed into a private extreme and into a mystical suspicion of some controlling malicious Force that connects the Lady V. with all the master cabals of the century….
In V. conspiracy is an illusion, but in The Crying of Lot 49 Pynchon seriously considers the possibility that conspiracies could exist. The range of this much shorter and less impressive second novel has been narrowed; Pynchon's imagination is as fertile as ever, but he is almost entirely concerned with a single question: what possibilities are left for twentieth-century man, particularly in America? The novel is built around the pursuit of Tristero, a mystery manifested in an underground organization dating from about 1300 which has challenged the established postal systems of the world and has concentrated on America since about 1853. Tristero has represented the disinherited, has operated for the use of the alienated, and has been a constant threat of ominous destruction. Although Tristero is as omnipresent as V., the pursuit of this desperate mystery is not like the pursuit of V. In one sense, V. is a metaphor for the direction in which the contemporary world is headed, but Tristero is a metaphor for the narrow scope of contemporary human possibilities or alternatives. Therefore, we may trace our alternatives in an examination of the Tristero Conspiracy: either Tristero exists or it does not exist. If it exists, it is either malevolent or benevolent; it is the instrument of our annihilation or it provides a whole new means of human communication, an escape from human isolation and from the arid inanities of contemporary life. If it does not exist, then we are all trapped in an "orbiting" paranoia that could provide the solace of a new fantasy, a new illusion, or could initiate a spiral ending in madness. Our only remaining possibility is that Tristero is a put-on; Pynchon, the black humorist, could be putting us on, or Oedipa Maas, the heroine who pursues the mystery of Tristero, could be a victim of a joke.
Raymond M. Olderman, "The Illusion and The Possibility of Conspiracy," in his Beyond the Waste Land: A Study of the American Novel in the Nineteen-Sixties, Yale University Press, 1972, pp. 123-49.
[The Crying of Lot 49] is both an indictment of America and an exploration of the possibilities latent in America; and an indictment of language and an exploration of the possibilities latent in language. First, what is Pynchon saying about America? That something has gone terribly wrong here? Yes—obviously—and yet, in spite of that, something very right has also been maintained, or, at least, potentially so. For, among the glaring neon lights of plastic motels and endless freeways, amid the showy glamour, or squalid backstreets, in spite of—or even because of—the "spiritual poverty," there are those who "shared Tristero's secret, as well as its exile."…
[The] betrayal is not merely "corporate," or "political," or "social," it is linguistic. What has cheated inventors like Nefastis is not so much Yoyodyne—"one of the giants of the aerospace industry" …—but the ability of that giant to alter language to suit its own purposes. Words which we hear every day and accept without a moment's hesitation—"project" and "task force" and the like—really mean anonymity for the individual; the man who happily thinks he has been enlisted to invent or create discovers only a "ritual," a prescribed method of investigation already set down for him "in some procedures handbook." In response to this kind of betrayal, Pynchon has written his novel….
For Pynchon, metaphor is the linguistic tool for expressing such possibilities; multiplicity, diversity, simultaneity of meaning, all the surprise and magic our culture has so carefully defined as outside its limits, remain with us, inevitably the essence of metaphor. And all of these—possibility, diversity, multiplicity—are what Pynchon, and so many others, hold onto as the dream of America, a dream, unfortunately, betrayed. Betrayed as much by corporations like Yoyodyne and Galactronics-Aerospace as by language itself. DT's, for instance, can mean more than just an insanity to be locked up and forgotten. But, to leave the straight-and-narrow furrows of conventional thought and conventionalized language can prove a very unsettling experience. The surface meaning of a word—that is, the word denuded of its metaphorical possibilities—not only denies that metaphorical possibility, but also protects us from an experience that may prove not just disrupting, or unsettling, but perhaps too painful or even too joyful to bear.
Annette Kolodny and Daniel James Peters, "Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49: The Novel as Subversive Experience," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1973, pp. 79-87.
Gravity's Rainbow sometimes takes over the novel-as-theater which Thackeray used in Vanity Fair, updated to films so that Pynchon is scriptwriter and director and fellow flickfreak too, pouring lore out alternately with camera cut-schedules and music suggestions. This is serious and funny. Funny because the novel is endlessly unfilmable. Serious because, in this novel, films have a direct hegemony over the lives of characters. They actually determine life in several cases—notably when the filming of a pornographic scene grows too exciting, becomes a gangbang, and a child is actually conceived in the film….
Like those movies spawning children, but more than anywhere else in fiction, Pynchon is trying to conceive us anew, beget us out of wedlock. Thus the most important aspect of this novel is not its awesome compendium of disparate information, but its emotional lightning. An image repeated variously is that of a rocket (or is it a new star, or merely incoming mail?), descending at nearly a mile a second, poised with its very point just at the tip of the top of your skull….
The bomb is an image, it turns out, just as centered in the novel as the rocket, and just as centered in Slothrop's life. But it announces a new dispensation of even greater fission than the rocket. When nothing can surprise us … something will. Therefore the surprises don't stop with the buried hint of the A-bomb…. Slothrop is the novel's main character, but he disappears. The arc of the rocket is the novel's visible movement, but Pynchon belittles it. There is nothing more characteristic of his style than this disappearance and making-small. He habitually undercuts his solemnities with a "foax" (= folks), a "sez" (= says) or a "hardon" (the opposite of "softoff"). Conversely the most ephemeral trivia offer the most significant meanings, just as the picture of the bomb is on a "scrap of newspaper" found on harbor street cobblestones….
Pynchon is the prime absorber of contemporary literature, glomming up the styles and energies of everything around him: the decomposed city from Conrad, precise death from Emily Dickinson, märchen from Frazer and Eliade and the brothers Grimm, hysteria from Heller, excremental vision from Swift and Burroughs (both of whom he surpasses here), Scientific American lore, Jungian archetypes, Rilke's despair, Tennyson, Dodgson and Tenniel, Eliot, Gilbert and Sullivan, West's surrealism, and more. But then what's this about "papyromancy" (the ability to foretell the future from the way a person rolls a joint), or Tarot cards that really work unlike Eliot's deck in "The Waste Land," or rocks that feel a history we've never known? And what's all this about movies, the discussions of King Kong, Metropolis, The Wizard of Oz? What of Dumbo, Shirley Temple, Nayland Smith, Wonder Woman, John Dillinger, Porky Pig, Plasticman? Pynchon makes more connections in more unexpected places than were ever dreamed of by Ma Bell's best long distance operator, thank you Jesus. But also like Ma Bell in Manhattan, Pynchon can't make all the connections, and that is the risky brilliance of where he is pushing fiction.
Some might say he's irresponsibly debased the limits of fiction. He has. Pynchon has de-based our understanding of fictional provenance by exploding it. In the highest, most nay-saying sense, Pynchon is an "irresponsible bastard." Ralph Ellison gave us the phase 21 years ago in Invisible Man, though he didn't mean it positively then as I now take it. Ellison's invisible man went underground, found rewards there, but ultimately rejected this alternative when he returned to mainstream culture. He rebuked life outside the mainstream as too thin, too mindless, for, happy as he was down there, his mind kept on working and had to have a richly sustaining matrix: Culture. Or so Ellison said, and thereby affirmed the credo of the American novel: say No to society any way you want but embrace and enter it in the end. Or die.
Pynchon is the foremost of the irresponsible bastards who've refused that accommodation to consensus culture. In modern literature up through Ellison, only in the society's main culture might one be fully human, fully responsible, fully a man. But since Ellison, that man has become The Man; that matrix of full humanity has become a grid of intolerable structures; that responsibility has become the plume of global irresponsibility….
Pynchon's underground rooms are filled with heretical outcasts intrepidly performing profound rites, though from above they are irresponsible bastards engaged in "mindless pleasures," which last, not incidentally, was an original title for the novel.
If it is common sense that the connections are not being made by the Ma Bells of the world, industrial or literary, though they constitute a wider and more evil international cartel-state than most people see, Pynchon's importance is that he suggests the forms, significance, hopes and fears of the adversary life beneath the visible histories in which we have always lived. Among the mindless pleasures remain the new-but-old connections, because they are preterite: real and true as the polite ones, but repressed, called irresponsible, so suppressed. A more priggish speaker than Pynchon, Joyce's Stephen Daedalus was trying to do the same thing at the beginning of the century: he called it the forging of the uncreated conscience of his race. Not even in Finnegans Wake, however, did Joyce go as far as Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow: "Somewhere," Pynchon says, "among the wastes of the World, is the key that will bring us back, restore us to our Earth and to our freedom."…
Writing about a world of bizarre irresponsible bastards paranoiacally besieged by systematic cabals, plots, secret cartels within secret conglomerates, Pynchon shows the perpetual paradox of this necessary but inadequate pushing of things to be omens and pushing of omens to be systems: "If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long." Needing those systems, we will construct them. We will imperialize the universe. But the novel is about the collapse of several imperial systems, or maybe it's the collapse of one hidden system producing the war as a diversionary tactic. In any case, Pynchon is on the side of those trying to produce a We-system as complex as the They-system….
Reading Gravity's Rainbow is a primary experience. I felt anguish about reading it alone, needed to touch the person next to me, as Pynchon urges throughout. I felt alone confronting a mysterious world without a sure explanation: felt humble then angry without an adequate culture to comprehend these fermenting codes. But with the review finished, and while reading it over, out my window I saw a large, beautifully clear rainbow. An omen. My feeling was right; our best fictions will always be about the need for more adequate fictions, about the construction of life's meaning from scratch. Like Joyce's Ulysses, this novel will surely go into the seminars all over the land. May it not be buried there. Academic minds can't possibly resist chasing its clues, nor should they. Yet if Gravity's Rainbow is read only around seminar tables to display one's gumshoe work in the stacks, the tragedy will be even greater than in the case of Ulysses, because Gravity's Rainbow comes cyclically out of people and people's culture and should return to Us and Ours, resonantly. It should not be routed into a "no return" solitary confinement among the tastes of academe. Read this novel: it's one of the finest ever.
W. T. Lhamon, Jr., "The Most Irresponsible Bastard," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), April 14, 1973, pp. 24-7.
[Mr. Pynchon] views the human situation as a grand and terrible subject, as deep as myth and as broad as dreaming. His novels ridicule the concept of invention; they toy with our perception of what he calls preterition, the holes of memory that disable the present; they cast doubt on every human act. It is the work of the cruelest of metaphysicians, the art of disappointment, religious and therefore despairing of this world. With each novel he darkens and enlarges the cloud he casts. One wonders why he bothers to speak at all. It is the same question that must be asked of any Jeremiah. What is the force that impels them to the lonely act?…
Mr. Pynchon makes [the] pleasure [of reading] into a task. The man is nearly deaf, he has some sort of vendetta against the simple stage direction of dialogue "he said," and he writes in spasms. It is a brave effort, this seeking of one's own pulse and daring to hew to it, but the pulse Mr. Pynchon has found is not a rhythm that sweeps us up into it; he writes in the most bruising, hobbling prose style this side of a German philosopher. A Calvinist doggedness is required to read all 760 pages of Gravity's Rainbow….
The pity is that Mr. Pynchon's stylistic goals are admirable; he is searching for the same complex imitations of complexity that Joyce, Proust, Faulkner, and now William Gass use so beautifully. There is no reason to think that he will not soon succeed. The man is only thirty-five years old, and the language of each of his novels is more interesting than the last….
[The Crying of Lot 49] is a terrifying novel. There are few other places in literature where the idea of the void is more certain. Even Beckett is overshadowed here, for he lacks California as a prop. Even Beckett cannot give us the anguish of a woman married to a former used-car salesman who has become in his middle years a Top Forty disc jockey and an eater of hallucinogens. There is no better guidebook to the society that has grown up in California, no more fierce admonition against getting lost in its mores….
Man, as conceived in Gravity's Rainbow, is the creature known to Orphism; he has eaten the ashes of the Titans, punishment awaits him in the Netherworld of a universe born of Night. One may only wait for the release of the soul from the body, the end of the terrible transmigrations in the freedom that comes after purification.
The Orpheus of the novel finds the Underworld by descending through a toilet. He chases the secret rocket from England to France to Germany. As Orpheus belongs to Apollo and Dionysus, the hero of Mr. Pynchon's novel is a mathematician and mouth organ player and a lover of drunkenness and sex. In his journeys up and back from the Netherworld he not only encounters most of the Greek Pantheon but ranges across Babylonian astrology and Hebrew myth, sails on a ship called the Anubis for an Egyptian weighing of the hearts of the dead, meets himself in Rilke's version of the Orpheus myth, gives us reason to think of the twins of Mani's vision, and manages to find entrance to Christianity through the ravages of science gone berserk. The characters range from Hansel and Gretel to Hades, from the Titans to the Erinyes, from General Electric and I. G. Farben to Athena. Incarnations mix and fade; the palimpsest is fluid, no erasure is complete; the myths of Western civilization evolve, for we are the society of history and accumulation, an idea that Mr. Pynchon has caught exactly.
In arriving at that exposition of Western civilization, the author demonstrates his astonishing erudition and ability to integrate ideas, but in so doing he sacrifices the novel. What is left is a comic tour of the history of Western thought, a history that finally overwhelms even Mr. Pynchon and leads his novel to a soggy end. It could not be otherwise; the time is too late for cosmogonies. Men have walked on the moon, teaching us that it is not the silver egg of Night from which Eros was hatched; mysticism is a hideout for fools….
Of course we laugh, but it is dire comedy; we laugh from uneasiness, hoping to save ourselves, to avoid his sneer by staying out of the circus. Satire has its failings as art, but Mr. Pynchon's work fails beyond that, for it allows us the luxury of cruelty and it lures us into smugness by being a puzzle, a game of Botticelli at which only the most literate can play.
The novel skates along the macrocosm but fails to touch the limits of the universe; they are perhaps more easily reached through the inspection of a single point from which lines may emanate that touch infinity's curve. Even if it is dreamed, the world must be made of things, beginning at some point. So novels are made of chapters, paragraphs, sentences, words. It is there, in the words, that Mr. Pynchon's novels falter: the earlier novels lack things, the new novel has its things in lists. In neither case do the things have flesh, and without flesh there cannot be character….
For all of its inventions, Mr. Pynchon's work lacks imagination; it is never more than an argument with the world. The art of fiction demands more. Whether the writer proposes comedy or tragedy is of little matter; the heart has its requirements.
Earl Shorris, in Harper's (copyright © 1973, by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the June, 1973 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), June, 1973, pp. 78-82.
As for Mr. Pynchon, yes, he is brilliant. If he reads his reviews, he must be fatigued by the number of people who pump on that brilliance as though it were a goat's bladder. And yet … for sure, he satisfies the criterion of one critic in another magazine, who said that a great writer today can't be accessible to the general reader. His prose is rich almost to the wretching point, like skin of roast duck; fatty metaphors; paranoia as orange sauce. It is the imaginative equivalent of the Watergate affair.
John Leonard, "The Third Law of Reviewer Emotion," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 10, 1973, p. 47.
A measure of intellectual machismo these days is the number of pages of Gravity's Rainbow one has been able to read, the number of puns and literary games one has been able to detect. The book is, as almost everyone knows by now, an exceptionally difficult one. It makes V., Pynchon's massive and brilliant first novel, look like a two-finger exercise, a model of simplicity and clarity. Still giddy from three months of reading through it, I want to confess at the outset to remaining awestruck, to being convinced that Pynchon has become the most important American novelist now writing.
But it's not comforting committing oneself to Pynchon's writing, and his critics and reviewers are bound to have a hard time. The discomfort comes not because he knows so much about technology, popular culture, history, and the street, nor because he creates long sequences of perverse and nauseating intensity, but because his writing challenges fundamental, usually unspoken literary and cultural assumptions. The assumption, for example, that order and unity are intrinsically valuable, that characters and objects are unequivocally distinguishable, that vulgarity and obscenity and what are conventionally called "cheap jokes" may be used but not taken on their own terms, that there are clear demarcations between fantasy and reality, between the physical and the metaphysical, that man's fate is in man's hands, and, perhaps, that there is such a thing as freedom. Perhaps most disturbing, these challenges are playful, implied frequently with the kind of deliberate banality or comedy that makes such solemn formulations as mine seem inappropriate.
No writer I know of is more resistant to form, nor more sensitive to it. The Crying of Lot 49 finds a shape for the chaotic energies Pynchon first released in V.… In Gravity's Rainbow chaos is (if it's imaginable) the center, not the periphery. Perhaps there is a central character—Slothrop, the conditioned paranoid New Englander whose sexuality is attuned to the rocket for which everybody is searching. But Slothrop literally dissolves as a character in a world of hundreds of characters, thousand of objects, each with its own story, its own paranoia….
Paranoia allows plot—is plot. But to carry the pun that far is to turn narrative into madness. This was part of the game in V., but here the parody of the plotted novel is already old hat and rather too comforting since parody gives us the old form to hang on to. The choice between paronoia and chaos, between Herbert Stencil and Benny Profane of V., is further complicated here….
Pynchon makes everything, even monstrosity, imaginable, and in doing so he has forced his art to catch up with the possibilities of feeling and action in our own times, to register them, to transcend them. He understands, especially, the peculiarly modern experience of being victimized into victimizing, of being forced to submit to anonymous energies in bureaucracies and computers and machines while becoming oneself an element in that energy. But even in simple conventional terms of realistic correspondence to the actual present, Gravity's Rainbow is a remarkable achievement….
In making his own the central motifs of American literature and by subjecting them to the questions that our nonliterary culture forcibly implies, Pynchon has created a great historical novel, a great fantasy, a great parody. But more than that, he has found a potentially liberating literary mode. By making us wallow in our fantasies, our products, our bad jokes that we use to help redeem us from our numbness, he severs our connection with any of the mythologies which have contributed to our dehumanization, our transformation of people into objects. In V., we watched how our myths, when acted out, not only removed us from the particularities of our own lives, but helped us to reduce those who didn't fit the myths to objects. Mass slaughter (we call it genocide these days) was one of the consequences….
Pynchon may seem to be describing, even celebrating, the death of a culture. But his style and language are the signs of life, not death. In a passage which might be taken as a metaphor for his own writing, Pynchon gives us a characteristically vulgar and authentic boogie-woogie song called "Sold on Suicide."… Gravity's Rainbow is a defense against suicide, not a celebration of it. Nobody in it really dies. Nobody exhausts reality or even the possibilities of myths of unity…. Even Pynchon's style, as he knows, cannot exhaust everything in the suicidal catalogue, but the catalogue itself is a vital achievement. The style, denying and asserting connection, creating metaphors, being "simply here," becomes the real possibility of freedom. It challenges us to take the risk of letting ourselves loose from the destructive myths which support us, and to face, with Pynchonian confidence and authority, an irrational world of objects.
George Levine, "V-2," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1973 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 3 (Summer, 1973), pp. 517-29.
Opacity as one of the fine arts in rhetoric is broadly used [in Gravity's Rainbow] with conspicuous effects, so that characters often appear in a blaze of light only to fade imperceptibly, then perhaps emerge later at some unanticipated moment. Paranoia is a dominant theme with variations by Rilke in a book that could be interpreted as a form of post-war German expressionism, aloof and remote in its appeal, by an author already half in love with easeful death.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Summer, 1973), p. civ.
In Thomas Pynchon's first novel, V., everyone and everything declines toward inanimate passivity. The emblem of this pandemic decline, its hypostasis, is the woman V., whose history is reconstructed by one Herbert Stencil, who is perhaps her son. The life of V. is a series of coincidences and connections, all relating to the world's progress toward entropy and the inanimate…. Pynchon's second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, records its heroine's discovery of a clandestine postal system whose existence comes to represent the possibility of transcendence, of "another mode of meaning behind the obvious." Yet both novels, while offering the possibility of significance and order beyond human measure and understanding, also allow the possibility that the transcendence and design that they postulate are merely illusions, or the result of deliberate conspiracies to confuse and control. Each of Pynchon's novels, including his latest and most extraordinary, lets itself be read as a paranoiac vision, yet in each book paranoia is only a vehicle that bears a larger significance. Despite their surface iteration of the paranoiac mode, none of Pynchon's novels is concerned with the self. Gravity's Rainbow asserts that paranoia is in fact "nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the Creation." Pynchon's subject, throughout his work, is not self-obsession but the connectedness and coherence of the minute particulars of the world—a rare concern in modern fiction, and one that demands of an author exceptional resources of intelligence and compassion….
The amount of intellectual and emotional ground covered in Pynchon's novels is so enormous that, on first reading, each one appears insurmountably difficult—Gravity's Rainbow has already been described as "indescribable"—yet each book connects each element in its vast network to a common thematic center. Once these centers are recognized much of the difficulty vanishes. Gravity's Rainbow is Pynchon's most extraordinary example of breadth and compression. While the main action of the book is set in London and occupied Europe, covering a gestative nine months in 1944 and 1945, the narrative also extends back to colonial Massachusetts and seventeenth-century Mauritius (and glances at tenth-century Germany and at Abraham and Isaac), includes scenes in Southwest Africa and the Kirghiz, extends forward to the next war, and includes characters ranging from sailors and dope peddlers to scientist-polymaths and the ghost of a cabinet minister—and an immortal light bulb for good measure. The book is an immense synthesis of modern literature and modern science—it is equally adept with Rilke and organic chemistry—and it interprets brilliantly both modern history and the processes of historical thought. It is also an exceptionally funny and terrifying novel….
Gravity's Rainbow, despite its occasional genuflections to Borges, is an "impure" novel, passionately concerned with the way we live now. But because it is a book about the nature and consequence of origins it takes place not in the present but at the end of the Second World War. The book's totem is the V2 rocket, which until the very end of the book appears either before its flight, in the process of design and construction, or at the dead end of its trajectory, in the wreckage it has visited on London. Only as the book closes—and a more terrifying and skillful conclusion to a novel has rarely been written—is the rocket seen in flight. It "rises on a promise, a prophecy, of Escape," yet when its engine shuts off, its "ascent will be betrayed to Gravity." The first moments of the flight determine its entire course. The shape of the parabolic arch of the rocket's trajectory—gravity's rainbow—is fixed by its brief first moments of origination and possibility. Pynchon's novel of the modern condition dwells on the initial moments of ascent, when the important alternatives were considered, when the means of control were set in operation, when the direction we were to follow was chosen once and for all. The Potsdam conference occurs near the middle of the novel. Yet this is not a despairing book: it is instead a deeply moral one. Pynchon knows that it is only the inanimate rocket that is fully and irrevocably determined—the rocket and anything or anyone else that yields to the systems of control, who refuses to make the continuous effort demanded by freedom…. Gravity's Rainbow is a tragic, not a pessimistic, novel. It is perhaps the most extensive and profound synthesis yet written of the ways in which the contemporary world lives with and accepts the obstacles to freedom, yet with all its knowledge of the obstacles and barriers it insists on the necessity and possibility of freedom….
When a book is proclaimed a masterpiece within days of its publication it is usually a sign that the book has merely confirmed the reviewers' theories and prejudices. But Gravity's Rainbow, which by now has received every conceivable adjective of praise, is far too complex and disturbing, and demands far too extreme an adjustment in its readers' conception of the scope of the novel, to give much comfort to anyone. Few books in this century have achieved the range and depth of this one, and even fewer have held so large a vision of the world in a structure so skillfully and elaborately conceived. This is certainly the most important novel to be published in English in the past thirty years, and it bears all the lineaments of greatness.
Edward Mendelson, "Pynchon's Gravity," in The Yale Review (© 1973 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1973, pp. 624-31.
The acclaim conferred upon Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow probably reveals more about the uncertain state of our literary culture than about Pynchon's novel itself, which is brilliant in parts but confused and exceedingly tedious as a whole. There is, to be sure, a compelling seriousness in this immensely long book, and its author's remarkable verbal gifts are matched, even surpassed, by an extraordinary knowingness concerning modern literature, history, popular culture, statistical method, rocketry, the occult, Puritanism, the history of chemistry, and much, much more. But the claims made upon us by good novels, not to say great ones, surely differ from the claims put to us by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and we do well to be suspicious of reviewers who think to win our regard for Pynchon's book by offering us elaborate inventories of its literary allusions or by expressing wonderment over its compulsive inclusiveness concerning historical and scientific lore….
There is special irony in the fact that so many reviewers found Pynchon's undeniable intricacy and the prodigious scale of his book to be the ground of their excessive respect. For Gravity's Rainbow, far more effectively than Pynchon's two earlier novels, cultivates a tone of obsessive insouciance, and its comic (if finally wearying) irreverence is directed in part against the very pieties that have moved the reviewers to such extravagant praise. The peculiarly American and Puritan respect for laborious steadfastness, our culture's largely unexamined reverence for achievements of labyrinthine size, for all massive, intricate structures and enterprises—this reverence is at once absurd and contemptible to Pynchon, whose "heroes" are aimless victims, their lives damaged if not entirely absorbed by obscurely powerful systems—cartels, governments, espionage agencies—whose massive scale and complexity defy merely individual attempts to escape or simply to explain them. What is large and complicated, Pynchon tells us in his best (and self-judging) moments, what has taken years to build, is not therefore lovely or valuable, and may indeed be aberrant, grotesque, even murderous. The V-2 rocket—whose trajectory is described in Pynchon's title—is the novel's master emblem for this perverse misdirecting and abuse of living human energies, and one imagines that the reviewers' awed praise for the jigsaw-puzzle elaborateness of the book, for its sheer monumentalness, is less a source of pleasure than of discomfort for its author.
There are powerful and moving signs within the novel itself of precisely such discomfort, an unresolved, recurring suggestion that the haunted sensibility behind the book is more victim than master of the paranoia, solitariness, and necrophobia that are its principal themes. A balanced assessment of Gravity's Rainbow, it seems to me, would concede the genuine seriousness, the honesty, of Pynchon's efforts to confront and to dramatize his deepest fears and obsessions, and would concede as well that there are many dazzling passages in which these efforts succeed. But such an estimate would also involve the recognition that Pynchon's control of his materials is partial, radically imperfect. Put bluntly, by page 400 even the committed reader must begin to feel that he has had enough; by page 600 one begins to understand that Pynchon cannot stop himself, that he is in the grip of a compulsion to elaborate his design for its own sake and to repeat variations on themes long since extended and clarified. The fantastic doublings and triplings and quadruplings of plot and subplot, the wildly unchecked impulse to surreal enlargement and exaggeration, the desperate, bizarre puns and jokes, the comic-strip fragmentation of scene and narrative line, the apparently uncontrollable need for variations and reenactments that do not advance or deepen or qualify but merely repeat again, and yet again, what has come before—all this creates an inescapable impression not of imaginative vigor and fullness but of simple frenzy: a frenzy that muddles the distinction between literature and pathology and that leads ultimately to self-defeating confusion.
The essence of Pynchon's argument, his root subject, is human freedom, or perhaps more accurately, the absence of freedom. In V. and more compellingly in Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon seeks to expose the men and especially the institutional and theoretical systems that stand in totalitarian opposition to individual fulfillment. His programmatic flouting of the conventions of realism is a direct and necessary consequence of this enterprise because he is concerned to represent the enemies of freedom not exactly as they exist outwardly in the "real" world, but rather as they are perceived in grotesquely distorted enlargement by the world's imprisoned or manipulated victims—the Preterite of the earth as they are called in the latest book, the great mass of ordinary individuals who are without privilege or station and who are not infected with Faustian ambitions. From this perspective, although their manic proliferation in Gravity's Rainbow is open to challenge, even Pynchon's extended, vividly concrete scenes of surreal degradation, masochism, and aggression must be regarded as a crucial, wholly legitimate aspect of his work. For these externalized enactments of his characters' fantasies—and the extraordinary tenderness with which Pynchon renders them—are intended to ratify a vision of the world in which our outer lives are so controlled and manipulated and unfree that only the inner life, in all its shocking elemental idiosyncrasy, remains as a precious sanctuary of individuality and freedom. Indeed, the tone of mordant comic desperation in Gravity's Rainbow, and the book's main plot as well, originate in part in Pynchon's fear that even this last line of defense, the vital inward life of our fantasies and repressions, is being menaced by a monstrous alliance of technology, political power, and behaviorist psychology.
To see Pynchon's intentions in this light is to understand the quality of his seriousness, if not finally to applaud his actual achievement. One need not accept his vision of things in order to acknowledge its integrity, and it is essential to recognize that Pynchon's work is far superior to that of a writer like William Burroughs, whose scenes of degradation and apocalypse have no authentic source beyond a desire for shock and self-gratification. Despite its extravagance, the critical enthusiasm for Gravity's Rainbow will have been valuable if it encourages a recognition of Pynchon's lonely integrity in a fictional mode currently infested with a whole swarm of trivial counterfeit Kafkas.
But intentions are not achievements, and Gravity's Rainbow remains, I think, a deeply confused and finally unpersuasive work. The heart of the confusion is the book's failure, or its inability, to convince us of the individuality of its characters, even those who play major parts in its tangled, extended drama….
The epic proportions and strategies of Gravity's Rainbow, its historical range, its immense cast of characters, all these continually insist on the book's universality: they make an unmistakable claim to represent not the agonies and obsessions of a single sensibility but the true nature of the modern world and, beyond this, of Western culture as a whole. To authenticate such a claim Pynchon must populate his book with people who are distinguishable from one another and from himself; he must imagine a world whose amplitude can be perceived not simply in its temporal or spacial extensiveness but also in its human variousness; he must not imprison his characters so narrowly as to force their every thought and act to betray their origins in his own imperial intentions for the structure or meaning of his novel….
Moreover, Pynchon's reductive characterization is a source of further confusion exactly because his seminal theme is our menaced personal freedom. If his characters have no autonomy to lose, if they appear mainly as virtual puppets—creatures of his abstract design or his inner needs—then Pynchon's argument is enfeebled beyond cure; and what is intended to be a rich paradigm for the human circumstance becomes merely a self-validating if ingenious artifact whose coherence has been established only by ignoring precisely those qualities of personal idiosyncrasy and autonomy that the novel claims as its generative concern….
Relying on an apparently limitless fund of knowledge and commanding a prose style whose richness and suppleness justify comparison with Dickens and Joyce, Pynchon is capable of overwhelming scenic vividness. I think it possible, in fact, that Pynchon himself, along with most of his reviewers, was simply swept along by this extraordinary gift for dramatic immediacy and particularity. Admirable as this gift is, however, it cannot do everything, and in the end, I think, it becomes clear that no amount of historical knowingness, no inventory of brilliantly authentic external details, can answer for Pynchon's failure to allow his characters an imaginative space of their own.
David Thorburn, "A Dissent on Pynchon" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; © 1973 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, September, 1973, pp. 68-70.
Here is Thomas Pynchon's first novel in seven years; his third after V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). It is a serious novel and a giant put-on, an ambitious work and an imaginative failure. Gravity's Rainbow, ostensibly about the German V-2 rocket project, is a mixture of science fiction, history, economics, myth, comics, film, humor, and limericks. It is hard to say what the novel is actually about, for Pynchon likes to complicate his plots only to undermine, in the course of the novel, the very act of plot making in fiction and in reality. Plots, conspiracies, coherence, synthesis, control, the belief that the rocket is "a clear allusion to certain secret lusts that drive the planet," spiritualism, that people were meant for each other, and coding and explicating the Text are all, according to Pynchon, manifestations of paranoia. Therefore, Pynchon's Text is a negation of itself; a celebration of the negative and the void, a salute to death….
The intricate plotting is dazzling, and the lyricism moving. But the 760 pages lack soul, the dynamism and the quality of feeling that distinguish great novels. The serious parts in the novel turn the book into an argument that has the rigidity of a television morality play. Pynchon's obsessions and self-indulgent games make this novel a bore, specially as one nears the last hundred pages. If "film and calculus, [are] both pornographies of flight," so is this novel, but it is crippled by its subservience to a self-conscious, inhuman logos.
M. Arjamand Sabri, "Salute to Death," in Prairie Schooner (© 1973 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1973, pp. 269-70.
[Gravity's Rainbow] is black comedy on an epic scale, a transcontinental totentanz, interweaving networks of every kind—spy rings, black markets, connections for refined forms of drugs (another product of wartime technology)—with inner rings of guilt, loss, mystical yearning and sexual inversion. At the deepest level, it represents identity threatened by the massive machinery of war. In this respect, it comes surprisingly close to Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy. The wartime consciousness is also updated by certain contemporary issues: the role of giant international cartels, for instance, and the ramifications of drug experience. At the same time, this novel must represent the ultimate in self-inflating fantasy.
It works by a principle of spontaneous expansion, whereby the mention of any item—a toilet bowl, for example, or a light-bulb—may suddenly balloon into revealing the infrastructure of a global conspiracy. Marvellously effective the first time, but not as a novel's sole structural principle, a trick endlessly repeated: one is reminded of William Burroughs's junkie, spending eight hours staring at the pattern on his shoe. It seems an inevitable concomitant of this labyrinthine but simplistic vision that there are few insights into character or feeling, but rather a continual oscillation between the extreme and the sentimental—and as Pynchon himself warns us: 'There's nothing so loathsome as a sentimental surrealist.' Gravity's Rainbow has fine details, hilarious moments. In America at least, it has sustained Pynchon's reputation by its apparently audacious size and complexity: but it is audacity of a pretty safe kind.
Roger Garfitt, in The Listener, November 15, 1973, p. 675.
[A part of Pynchon's] attractiveness is attributable to a voice which can move in a flash from insouciant, unbuttoned dopesterism to high rhetoric …; a voice which has no interest in scoring points off its character, nor in moralising about the faceless American city or the silliness of popular mysticism—even Bridey Murphy is granted a place in things. Now with Gravity's Rainbow Pynchon has written an enormous, exhausting book in which the voice soars to audacious heights (nothing less than are demanded by the rocket whose path the title acknowledges), then dives into the vast profound of popular culture—stage, screen, radio, comic books—mainly as encountered in the 1940s. But just as often the 'culture' comes wholly out of Pynchon's zany resourcefulness….
Gravity's Rainbow registers an urgency, a suggestion that the voice is not unmoved by its own sound. The nostalgic lament which sees through itself yet persists in lamenting, as in the vision of America granted Oedipa Maas at the conclusion to The Crying of Lot 49, is now extended and amplified to cosmic, supersonic dimensions….
Gravity's Rainbow is filled with elaborate, bewilderingly juxtaposed plots which propel us through speculative imaginings, always grounded in minute particulars, about theoretical chemistry, physics, mathematics (Pynchon, like Mailer, studied engineering in his university days); about the history of West Africa, Argentina, Central Asia; about—and the old phrase takes on new point—psychical research. Pynchon's way of fantastic speculation often begins with 'Seems' or 'Turns out' after which he is off and running….
Most of The Crying of Lot 49 was told through the wide-eyed, yearning, but also toughly sensible Oedipa Maas, American Girl. Slothrop is the American Boy, of good Puritan stock, with memories of growing up in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. Although this American-boy stuff is appropriately mocked, Pynchon loves it too and probably suffers from it, so can animate Slothrop in a way he does less convincingly when the figure is a pathetic German scientist, or a hero of the Schwarzkommando, or a communist agent—to name some leading characters in the other plots….
What in another novelist would be merely a self-consciously wacky idea is typically made more of by Pynchon with the transfixingly right evocation of Rooney's Andy Hardy face as an 'am-I-losing-my-mind' one. The upshot is that a reader feels exhilarated, made generously aware of new possibilities rather than smugly superior to the material being handled.
Pynchon's best critic, Richard Poirier, has boldly placed the new book with Moby Dick and Ulysses (and not to Pynchon's disadvantage) in that all three share the obligation 'to shape the world occasionally in techniques developed outside literature or high culture', and Poirier guesses that readers who became impatient with Gravity's Rainbow are likely to be too exclusively literary in their responses. Perhaps so, but the book will endure only if readers, including too-exclusively literary ones, don't suppress their occasional impatience. Mine was more than occasional, and I take it to be a necessary element of reading through this extraordinary and impossible text. Rich in parodistic, comic life, it is also unashamed to be elegiac, tender, wistful about sex, seasonal change, mortality (a wonderful war-time pre-Christmas vespers scene Somewhere in Kent comes to mind) as well as scatological. Brutal and unfunny too when, alas, the William Burroughs syndrome looms large. There is a marvellous inwardness, inexplicably so, with regard to wartime London and post-war Germany; there are also grindingly boring stretches, where Pynchon repeats himself or where the jokes don't work, that are only redeemable for those who never tire of listening to the voice spinning itself out endlessly. It never lets up, never takes a breath. It's all theatre, and achieves in its many best parts a sustained inventiveness and alertness that strike one as very human too, and that make other new novels by comparison a bit simple-minded.
William Pritchard, "Theatre of Operations," in New Statesman, November 16, 1973, pp. 734-35.
[Gravity's Rainbow is] full of unnecessary and self-conscious involutions and neologisms. At first I entered what I thought to be the atmosphere of the novel, a subterranean world full of shuttered rooms, but I came to realise that this was the effect of the style itself. It is a crammed and choking prose, replete with images and allusions that slide out of one consciousness and into the next. It is, of course, a very deliberate rhetoric which is supposed to replace the conventional pieties of realistic narrative but it succeeds only in murdering them. It is the definitive Orwellian new-speak, and one which relies heavily upon James Joyce's—what Pynchon would no doubt call—kollidoscrape. See, I can do it too. Experiment is the easiest kind of writing.
But Pynchon is not, in fact, in an easy relation to his material and there is a continuing, perplexing amalgam of what purists call language and reality. Joyce created a style, and Pynchon merely borrows stylistics. His prose does, occasionally take off in a lyric song and this is when he is at his best. Passages of natural description and urban blues are the finest in the book, and I was left regretting that Pynchon was not simply an old-fashioned 'beat' writer who could fashion a private rhetoric out of the surface of language. Instead, he invades his narrative with an irony which is anxious as much as it is dead-pan, and leaves it in the throes of self doubt….
The obscenity is, for all you censorious majority, pure obscenity and has no redeeming features of art or significance. This is not altogether a surprise in the context of Gravity's Rainbow, but it does suggest the central problem of the narrative. It is discontinuous and indirect, and we are prevented from observing anything other than the odd dash of local colour….
This is not, in fact, a terribly "difficult" book. It has its ups and downs, but nowhere reaches the level of experimentation of a Joyce or Sarraute. It remains gloomily and sullenly esconced within the realistic tradition, making an occasional foray into the wastes of surrealism and neologism but always returning to that bankrupt heritage which it carries as a dwarf would carry a blind giant….
Thomas Pynchon has obviously taken great pains over the book, and presumably a great deal of his time. I salute his craftsmanship and dedication, and I only suggest that he fashioned it to more immediate and less apocalyptic ends. I had the comfortable [sic] feeling that there was a grand symbolic design which I was continually missing, and if this is the case I blame Mr. Pynchon. He has written a novel which would deter and baffle any but the most avid research-student pursuing a thesis. Gravity's Rainbow becomes a specimen of Eng. Lit. as soon as it comes off the presses, and this is the heart of my suspicion of it. When the novel becomes the Great Novel without a tincture of self-doubt then the climate of writing becomes very unhealthy indeed. I might put the same point differently by noting that Pynchon offers us the rhetoric and the appearance of the grandslam, ring-a-ding real thing but does not provide the substance. It is as if his entertainment were more theatrical than anything else, and that what is on stage is the Life and Tragical Death of the Serious Work.
Peter Ackroyd, "Somewhere over the Novel," in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 17, 1973, pp. 641-42.
Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" … is one of the longest, darkest, most difficult and most ambitious novels in years. Its technical and verbal resources bring to mind Melville, Faulkner and Nabokov and establish Pynchon's imaginative continuity with the great modernist movement of the early years of this century. "Gravity's Rainbow" is bone-crushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, poetic, dull, inspired, horrific, cold and blasted….
Pynchon is capable of the most intricate literary structures—plots and counterplots and symbols and facts that twist in time and space. In his universe the characters become mechanical men whose trajectory toward death is touched by a manic and comic impulse or a vague free-floating anguish. For all its power and intelligence Pynchon's novel is a magnificent ruined necropolis, but its teetering structure towers above the surrounding literary shacks and hovels.
The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 2, 1973, p. 1.
Pynchon is a keener as well as slyer mind than most current practitioners of absurdity. The Crying of Lot 49 is a very short novel but imaginatively and stylistically the fable of the wild-goose chase that something now sets up for minds that still seek order, source, tradition, divinity. Pynchon's comic exuberance is often merely smart, but it also reflects a mind distinctly attuned to the proliferating confusions he writes about. In V. his rhythms, though distinct, are still rhetorical; in The Crying of Lot 49 there is a most satisfactory matching-up of his quickness of mind with the needlessly deceitful thing he is writing about. There seems to be a private mail delivery system all over the United States that may very well be a network for other purposes. People are secretly exchanging messages all the time, and the symbol that identifies them all is a muted post horn.
This may be conspiracy, it may be delusion, it certainly reflects the distinct American feeling that the power grid by which we live is out of our control. Pynchon is an expert at identifying all traces of the thing-dominated, apparatusladen, Disneyland-looking southern California that seems to be all cardboard, and isn't.
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 278-79.
If I am mistaken and if Gravity's Rainbow really is the masterpiece, the classic many reviewers have claimed it to be, then it is a fairly forgettable classic and one that I have little desire to re-read. Gravity's Rainbow is Pynchon's apocalyptic, World War II-postwar extravaganza in which normal, even near-normal, human beings are nowhere to be found. The world has gone positively mad. Technology has gotten as completely out of hand as politics. People are slaves to the machines and systems of their own design. Death is in the air both figuratively and literally (V-2 rockets scream through the sky). Plots and counter-plots are conceived. Paranoia is on the rise. Everyone is a victim. Everyone is a criminal….
Along the not-always-so-merry way Pynchon introduces, develops, drops at will, a host of other characters … and constructs a number of incredibly labyrinthine plots and sub-plots bound to boggle the mind of even the most determined Pynchon admirer (V. and The Crying of Lot 49 seem like busy work next to this production). Throughout the long haul, Pynchon impresses us with how much he has read and even more amazingly, how much his brain has retained. It seems, in fact, to have become a cerebral junkyard, filled indiscriminately with both trash and precious items. For in the novel we find, among an infinite number of other things, allusions to Rilke, the Bhagavad-Gita, Orson Welles ("The Kenosha Kid"), references to King Kong, Charlie Parker and Anton Webern, brand names of various wartime items, names of radio shows of the period, songs, bandleaders. Pynchon touches on paranoia, history, death, demonstrates a wide knowledge of philosophy, physics, psychology. Folks, everything is in this novel but the kitchen sink—and that may be in there as well (at one disgusting point, a virtuoso fecal passage, Pynchon gets a lot of mileage out of a toilet bowl).
What does it all add up to? Pynchon is, to be sure, an extremely gifted man. His sheer ability to write, to imagine and capture places quite foreign to him both geographically and historically, his ceaseless energy and imagination, must impress anyone who has ever tried his hand at fiction. In Gravity's Rainbow we are treated to a feast, often an orgy, of language….
The real problem is not Pynchon's talent per se, but rather how that talent is applied. The sameness of tone throughout Gravity's Rainbow makes for tedium. By the time the reader is halfway through the book (assuming he gets this far), he feels that he has reached a point of diminishing returns. The always cool, hip voice of the constantly winking creator (Look, Ma, I'm writing, playing games, being clever) becomes less and less attractive. Pynchon's canvas, which at first seemed so vast, now appears limited, closed. The reader senses the somewhat sophomoric sensibility behind the book and seeks relief. There is none. Only more characters and events filtered through that same irritating sensibility. Scenes accumulate, there are often striking setpieces of writing, but the book lacks tension and fails to build. Although Pynchon traces the progress of paranoia, shows men constructing the systems and machinery that will eventually destroy them, creates a nervous world of total confusion and sudden death, he has no particular point of view about any of these things. He demonstrates and records in minute detail, but he doesn't probe, penetrate or seek to illuminate. He merely markets chaos, produces one crazy incident after another to his and his fans' delight. Pynchon does not convince us that what he has to say is worth 760 dense pages. Ideas, a point of view, might have held the book together and given it the tension it so badly needs. Though much shorter in length, Beckett's Malone Dies is much more abstract, and it is held together not only by marvelous rhythmic language, but also by a guiding intelligence with a very firm point of view about the world it has created. With Pynchon, despite his talent and brainpower, all we get is annoying laughter in the dark.
Gerald Weales, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74, pp. 773-75.