“Entertainment” and “pleasure” are somewhat devalued words when it comes to reading novels, subject to inflation both through overuse and through association with commercial fiction. With that caveat, I am being mightily entertained, and deriving much pleasure from, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I’ve come to the novel after many months of speed reading and of fragmented reading, and reading that lived up to the promise of the text: which is to say, if the text itself isn’t doing much interesting, then why not power-skim it? It only matters what’s going to happen next anyway.
But seventy-five pages into Gravity’s Rainbow (and 18,000 words into my next [short] novel, which is creating lightning bolts in my brain), Pynchon’s novel has proven resistant to restless eyes, to sideways glances, to anything other than slow, immersive reading, and I’m thankful for it. Is it effect or cause that during this time I’m developing a resentment toward answering email, or performing any tasks not connected to reading or writing?
The first thing about the novel that strikes me is the language—its precision, power, and ambition in support of the multiple ways in which Pynchon approaches entry into narrative and character. Its rollicking good (black) humor and assuredness also impress. It’s hard for a text to make me laugh, disturb me, and move me all in the space of a few pages.
What makes the novel so difficult? A lot of characters, and many abrupt transitions into other points of view or into internal reveries that can jolt the reader initially.
Which is fine with me—I’m willing to be ignorant for awhile. I’m willing to live in the dark.** I’m also willing to go back and search for clues, which is why I have now stopped forward progress to re-read the first 75 pages, after which I’ll lurch forward with the context further strengthened in my mind.
Gravity’s Rainbow, in my humble opinion, forces the reader to adapt to its strategies, and the first thing it requires is a careful read. If you’re not willing to give it a patient, honest read, there’s no point in starting.
Other basic ground rules I’ve found useful.
—Don’t assume who the POV character is at the beginning of a scene until Pynchon makes it explicitly clear.
—Don’t expect the normal context and anchors and foundations provided by most authors, at the points at which you might expect them elsewhere.
—Therefore, be prepared not to understand a scene fully until later, when other clues or scenes illuminate it.
—Therefore, be at peace with the idea of being puzzled, even deeply perplexed, and try to enjoy the prose in the moment.
—Further, the lack of context will mean you encounter scenes that will make you deeply uncomfortable, even upset, until you find the later key that puts it in the proper context. Even then, you may feel vaguely disturbed.
—A re-read, especially “regrouping” re-reads while encountering the text for the first time, is a good idea, as this will prove essential to fortifying connections, making bridges between events and characters, and in general bringing the novel into focus.
—Recognize that some terms you may not grok because they’re specific to the World War II era, or specific to the idioms of writers working in the 1970s. Treat such terms as learning opportunities, or treat them like the small, benign, knotted tumors of made-up words you find in some forms of science fiction.
Yesssss, very basic, but has worked well for me. Once I’ve gotten back to page 75, I’ll post about the experience more directly…i.e., engage the text.
**My first major reading experience was The Lord of the Rings trilogy at the age of eight or nine. My parents gave it to me and in some ways it was a bit like a Rosetta Stone combined with the monolith from 2001: I didn’t understand all of it at that age, the vocabulary being beyond my reading skills a lot of the time, but I understood enough to be intrigued and to keep reading, and in some ways the mystery of what I didn’t know made the novels more compelling than they would’ve been otherwise, because I had to create connections, motivations, and narrative to fill in my blind spots. Indeed, my most complete understanding of the trilogy, in a future reading, left me sad and disappointed because the reality of what was on the page couldn’t compete with what I’d conjured up in my mind (even though it was still triggered by Tolkien’s own imagination).