Reading Gravity’s Rainbow: First 75 Pages, Initial Contact

“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).

19 comments on “Reading Gravity’s Rainbow: First 75 Pages, Initial Contact

  1. Rick says:

    Waiting for it to come back to the library! (You don’t have it checked out, do you?)

  2. Paul Jessup says:

    You should title these posts Reading Rainbow…or maybe that’s just my said nostalgia for my childhood talking…

    Haven’t read this yet, but I have read V and Crying of Lot 49, and they seem to have that same approach to the text, the way you have to learn how to read each one, and come to the narrative on it’s own terms. It’s a bold thing, one I greatly admire Pynchon for doing.

  3. T.N. Tobias says:

    Wow. That’s a lot of insight considering 75 pages is approximately 10% of the book.. I may have to attempt this sooner rather than later.

  4. Dan Schmidt says:

    I guess I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow five times by now, so for me reading it is like listening to a symphony for the nth time – you know where everything is going and how it is constructed, and can revel in the details instead of expending brainpower just on parsing it. So it’s a little hard for me to remember just how difficult it is to read it for the first time. I definitely bounced off the first couple dozen pages a few times before finally getting a foothold. It can be really frustrating to be multiple pages into a scene and still not really understand where it’s set or what’s going on, and I remember it taking a while even to realize that the first few pages were a dream.

    Glad you’re enjoying it so far, and it’s really just getting started; it’s pretty amazing the places (high and low) it ends up going.

  5. Will Humphreys says:

    Took me several attempts to finally read through this amazing book. I went with a kind of ‘go with the flow’ approach, immersing myself in the language and imagery. I think you can adopt a variety of reading strategies with such a dense and complex work, so I might try something different next time. I have to say that I still haven’t got through Against the Day… I like the comparison to Lord of the Rings.

  6. Yeah, Will–I totally agree with that. Oddly enough, it’s the same approach I would use for reading Proust.

    JeffV

  7. Oz says:

    My husband is the Gravity’s Rainbow reader in house. I never could. He’s the engineer, and I have some issues with some of the plot points. My limitation, I’m sure.

    But…I wanted to say “amen” to your comment about Tolkien. I read the books when I was pretty young as well. And I totally agree with you that one’s own imagination fills in the landscape of words that are outside one’s ken. And that when one later reads it with full understanding, it’s just not as powerful, though it is indeed mighty.

    See you at Capclave. Looking forward to meeting you and Ann.
    Oz

  8. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Oz:

    Thanks for that re Tolkien and see you soon!

    JeffV

  9. JimO says:

    My experience reading Tolkien was very similar. Re-reading the trilogy 20 years later they were a different book.
    I tried V in college and thought it was brilliant but unfathomable. Had to put it down. I put Our Lady of the Flowers, Rats and Gargoyles (Mary Gentle), Cyclonopedia, and anything by Cordwainer Smith in that same category.
    On other hand I can re-read 77 Dream Songs by Berryman over and over again despite not knowing what the hell is going on.

  10. Steve Tem says:

    If you haven’t already, you might want to check out Zak Smith’s Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated: Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow (intro by Steve Erickson), which is exactly what it says–he drew a full page illustration for every page of the 1973 edition. I don’t know if it helps explain the novel, but it was a seriously interesting art project.

  11. serendipity says:

    Just came by this on my way here,
    http://thomaspynchonfakebook.org/
    Gravity’s Rainbow set to music.

  12. Though it’s been a few years, I am in Dan’s position. During my twenties I was sort of obsessed with Gravity’s Rainbow (I first read it on a road trip through Central America at twenty-one), and re-read it every couple of years for a total of four or five times. And he’s right, it’s hard to remember what it was like that first time down the rabbit-hole. I remember slogging through the first hundred pages or so, wondering whether I was going to make it. Then Part 1 ended, and something clicked, and it suddenly became the most amazing book I had ever read.

    It’s a shame so few people read it, even though every person of letters thinks they should or claims they have. It really is an incredible ride, that rewards engagement at almost any level for almost any length of time one cares to put into it.

    It’s funny. I not long ago did a first lines exercise to jump-start myself out of a bit of a slump, and one of the projects that came out of it was a flash version of Gravity’s Rainbow. I think it’s probably your fault, Jeff, since I saw the cover on your pictures of your to-read list not long ago, which I’m pretty sure is what got me to thinking about this book again in the first place. Maybe when I’m finished, I’ll send it to you and you can tell me if I remembered it right.

  13. Hey, Dallas–yeah, please do.

  14. Don’t miss the giant wiki, http://gravitys-rainbow.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page .

    GR is an astonishing book. Many fans accumulate stories around their experience of GR. I have two.

    One: when first reading the book, I cracked my head, suffering a concussion, along with some short-term memory loss. I had GR in my backpack during the accident, and reached for it from the hospital bed. The book *felt* familiar, and I could remember that I had been reading it, but I couldn’t recall a single thing. Paging through, I found that’s I’d annotated it frequently, but couldn’t make much of those notes. a-a-and yes, one wonders, was this *really mine*? Or was it a plant, for some dark purpose?

    Two: in the summer of 1995 I was riding in a military vehicle, crossing a temporary bridge over the Neretva River in Mostar, during the war (long story). A friend sat next to me, and we were discussing recent Balkan politics (of course) as the driver tried to ignore sporadic shellfire. During the course of our jittery conversation my friend mentioned Novi Pazar and its role in Serb politics, then smiled, opened his arms wide, and *burst into song*: “…the sanjak of Noviiiiii Pazarrrr! Right, Bryan?”

    I assumed he’d flipped out from the shelling, and must have made a polite-to-the-insane smile, but he only looked disappointed. “I thought you said you were a Pynchon fan, man.” Yes, he was quoting the song from GR.

    All best, while waiting for Finch –

  15. Tom says:

    I wish I were smart enough to read this book and David Foster Wallace…

  16. fish says:

    Tom, i don’t think it has that much to do with smart, more with knowledge. I think of Pynchon a bit like free jazz. I kinda see what they are trying to do, i get that they are bored with old structures(i think that was it in free jazz), but it’s still noise to me.
    What i wanted to say: For my two cents gr has the best first sentence of a book i’ve ever read… which is good because i had to read that one a lot, e.g. everytime when trying once more to actually read it.

  17. Daniel says:

    I will be starting in on GR this week. How is your reading of it coming along?

  18. I have been through GR many times and taught a class on Pynchon. Many of the students resembled Pynchonian characters. I wrote an a article abot a surprise birthday party for Pynchon’s then 38th birthday, the surprise being if he showed up. If he did, none of us knew what he looked like.
    Pynchon is America’s greatest living writer, despite what the late Gore Vidal said.

    Michael Corrigan

Comments are closed.