9. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon (American, 1973)
An English teacher in my high school, who later became a friend and was known for being something of ‘a freak,’ hearing I’d read a bunch of Vonnegut and had recently made it halfway through Ulysses, told me about a crazy book, published a few years before and deemed ‘unreadable’ by the Pulitzer committee, that featured a character who goes down a toilet bowl. He offered it as perhaps the most challenging work of recent fiction.
Not much later, I accepted the challenge. The trip down the toilet didn’t put me off, but I do remember one morning in homeroom reading the infamous Brigadier Pudding shit-eating masochism scene and feeling a bit peculiar in my first few classes that day. I kinda let my reading of the book drift a bit after that, which was spring of 1977. The next time I remember reading the book at length was at the beach in June of 1978. That return was in part inspired by picking up a copy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies in May of ‘78 (see 'Whatcha Readin? 6'). But even then I didn’t get through GR.
It wasn’t until September 1980 that I finally got through the final third of the book: the end of 'In the Zone' and 'The Counterforce,' and it was then, living in Philadelphia, that I got to know other readers of the book. And every time I crossed paths with someone who had “been there,” who could recall some improbable, baffling, hilarious, inspired, mind-expanding scene in Gravity’s Rainbow, there was a starry-eyed high, a contagious elation. Yes, it’s true, it’s really there because someone else has read it too!
Given my feelings about literature as a field of study (as expressed via Rimbaud in 'Whatcha Readin? 4'), I must’ve needed to find a living literary hero I could believe in. And Pynchon, in his weirdly insular refusal to be a public person, to be, basically, unseen and unheard of since sending a comedian to accept the National Book award for him in 1974, was the ideal figure. In addition to Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, a book I was in love with in those closing months of high school was Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). The deregulation of the senses, capiche? Pynchon’s novel, like nothing else I’d ever seen, felt like the wild imaginings of someone completely outside or beyond the rational norms, the parameters of conventional thought -- whether of history or of narrative or of literature or of myth. The book was paranoid and psychotic, but absurdly so, pushed to the point of clairvoyant vision, or to where that vision must break down before the unprincipled rationales by which the world is run and governed.
Pynchon wasn’t a person. I couldn’t care less about what the guy who perpetrated this did with his days and nights or how he had gotten this incredible thing produced and published. Pynchon was prose, or, even more, 'Pynchon' was the name given to what was going on in my mind while reading this prose. Then I read his previous two novels and saw something else: it’s not 'Pynchon,' because that author has written two other books that, no matter their merits, don’t do what GR does. So, it was the narrator of GR, that unique and unrepeatable performance itself, that was the mainline. And the only place to find that was in GR.
Thus began a love affair that lasted for another four years, or until Slow Learner’s Intro (1984) introduced a guy named Thomas Pynchon who was a writer and who had the proprietary rights to GR (even though he said nothing about that book in the SL intro). And this Pynchon was going to go on with his career, write blurbs and reviews and produce more novels. Fine. But that guy isn’t the narrator of GR. To be a fan of GR was like, oh pick your own example, being a fan of Blonde on Blonde and having someone put one of Dylan’s ‘80s albums on... or of 'You Never Give Me Your Money' and someone puts on 'Silly Love Songs.' Or Kind of Blue, Miles with Coltrane, and now you’re hearing Miles with Chick Corea. There’s a wide difference, not just a difference in the perpetrator of these things, but in the times themselves, in what was possible or imaginable.
It’s here, perhaps, that the point of this exercise of '15 Books That Stayed With You' becomes clearest to me. Because Pynchon is the first person on this list who still has an ongoing career, and so he becomes the best example for how definitive it is, that moment in which a book finds you -- in your own life (I’m insisting on pre-30) -- and in its life. GR found me in the first decade after its publication when it simply made every other work of fiction published in that period feel like an also-ran, written by someone who had largely missed the point of what the decade previous to its publication -- from the assassination of JFK to the impeachment of Nixon essentially -- was 'like.'
Pynchon got it, and he translated that feel into a vast cinematic retrospect on the era --World War II -- he was a child in, and which we all, post-WWII brats, grew up teething on. In other words, it was as timely and as necessary, to my conception of things, as any work of fiction could be. It has been hard for me to imagine ever since how any mere novel could beat its time.