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Of Course It Happened: The Paranoid Structure of Gravity’s Rainbow
Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is arguably the second-greatest work of postmodern fiction, after James Joyce’s Ulysses. The novel is immense, impossible, breathtaking at times and aggravating at others. By the end–for those few who can stick it out–the reader is left floored by . . .the power of Pynchon’s writing. The man writes in sheets, torrents. It is like listening to Coltrane at his most powerful and experimental. One hallmark of Pynchon’s writing that occurs all throughout GR is the abundance of songs. Of course, in the book they are just lyrics with no music, but the reader is meant to hear as well as read. The work becomes musical. Pynchon is a famous recluse. There are only a few pictures of him in existence and he never gives interviews, leaving his persona as much a mystery as his work. Here, Thriller contributor Ashley Belanger tries to make sense of it all.
Words by: Ashley Belanger
Gravity’s Rainbow is a story set in war times, and so it seems perfectly natural for it to start off with a bomb. But that’s not exactly what happens. The screaming that’s identified in the famous first line, “A screaming comes across the sky” is not, as you might assume, the sound of a bomb falling. No, the sound of the A4, the rocket that provides the motivation for nearly every character’s actions in the story, is only heard after the bomb has made impact. So, if you’re hearing the bomb, the good news is, you haven’t been hit. Yet.
What’s interesting is that the structure of the entire novel seems to mimic this characteristic of the bomb. Imagine that the screaming of the bomb represents a linear timeline, in which you would get to hear the complete story of each character going through all the events in his life in perfect succession to be in total understanding with how they came to be who they are in the present moment. Pynchon doesn’t let his readers hear the scream until well after they’ve experienced the chaos of the current moment for that character, which, if you can humor me, is what might be considered the impact of the bomb. The impact always comes first. The screaming comes later. Try to be patient.
The purpose of this, in my opinion, is to instill the same paranoia in the reader as all the characters are feeling throughout the book. You aren’t supposed to totally understand a character’s purpose right at the moment of introduction, and with 400 characters in the whole beastly novel to keep track of, that’s almost a godsend. Instead, readers can react organically to the characters and form opinions naturally, the way they would if they were also part of the sordid world that Pynchon created (or narrated). Have you ever had a friend who revealed too much about a person that you were soon to meet? Suddenly, you have so much prior knowledge that you’re judging them based on someone else’s perception instead of your own. Who really wants that sort of filter?
So, you’re reading the book, and you’re getting these intense scenes thrust your way right and left: an octopus attacking a woman on a beach, a hijacking of a Red Cross vehicle, a humongous banana breakfast feast, and countless oversexed party scenes. And you’re terrified, the whole time: Am I not getting the point?
Paranoia is a major theme in this novel. It’s only right that the readers be just as nervous, with plots raining down like bombs all around them, that they might make it to the end without hearing the scream. It’s the discussion of paranoia that provides the most illumination, though, linking together the different lives and demonstrating for the reader why the examination of these characters is worth the investment of time. Pynchon explains it best in the book when he’s describing the Rorschacht inkblot test:
“The basic theory, is that when given an unstructured stimulus, some shapeless blob of experience, the subject, will seek to impose, structure on it. How he goes about structuring this blob will reflect his needs, his hopes— will provide, us with clues, to his dreams, fantasies, the deepest regions of his mind.”
It’s not that the reader is going to suddenly have access to some great personal revelation through reading this book. But if you pay attention to what there is in the book that attracts you, no matter how bizarre, disconcerting and at times completely vulgar, there’s this potential to connect in a unique way with the story that I think lacks in a lot of books that are much more straightforward.
Some of the best opportunities to connect to the text come through the discussion of paranoia. And really, paranoia might be too strong a label for many people to describe the way they feel about the events in their lives. But if you’ve ever questioned a decision, if you’ve ever felt like someone was watching you, if you’ve ever worried about who was listening to your conversation, these basic feelings are explored by some of the most reprehensible people you can think of in the book, and yet you find yourself strangely pulling for them, because you’ve been there, too, in a way.
“. . . she is also a dweller, down inside the little city, coming awake in the very late night, blinking up into painful daylight, waiting for the annihilation, the blows from the sky, drawn terribly tense waiting, unable to name whatever it is approaching, knowing— too awful to say— it is herself, her Central Asian giantess self, that is the Nameless Thing she fears.”
Pynchon wants you to understand these messages so much that he literally explains it using every discipline he can find. He weaves these very easy and straightforward party scenes with in-depth references to science, math, psychology, religion, superstition, physics, and in this effort, he does a curious thing where he uses the party scenes to explain the science behind the bomb, and he uses the academic theories to explain the humanity that’s being examined in the book. At one point, he even pauses to point out that one party scene could very well be the same exact party that the reader was in earlier in the novel, which indicates just how unimportant the debauchery is and signals you to please, please pay attention to the connection Pynchon is drawing between the scenes and the science.
The main character, Slothrop, makes an observation late in the novel that the worst thing that can happen to a paranoid is to find out that nothing is connected. This is also the worst thing that can happen to a reader who has invested a lot of time in a very, very big book. Fortunately, Pynchon doesn’t subject readers to this fate, although he teases them with it:
“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.”
As the reader moves through the novel, paranoia leads to a number of conclusions, any of which are up for grabs in order to cement the personal conclusion you want to draw. Slothrop suggests that immobility is the goal for paranoids. Simply stop moving forward and stop thinking. “So far and no farther, is that it? You call that living?” It’s also suggested that the ultimate freedom comes through isolation. “Could it be that there’s something about ad hoc arrangements, like the present mission, that must bring you in touch with the people you need to be with? That more formal adventures tend, by their nature, to separation, to loneliness?”
And special attention is given to silence, as the descriptions become more and more obsessed with sound at the novel’s end, which is perhaps because the characters and the readers both are growing tired of waiting to hear the sound of the screaming and almost just ready for the bomb to hit and end it all for them. It “. . . is not the usual paranoia of waiting for a knock, or a phone to ring: no, it takes a particular kind of mental illness to sit and listen for a cessation of noise.” Are we all so deranged that we could come from so many different places and still want the same thing? By the end of the book, this final connection is what brings it all together, perhaps the ultimate resolution of all that paranoia.
If this sounds too loosey-goosey, then the structure of this book is likely to drive you mad. By faithfully sticking to the model of impact first, followed by the scream, what Pynchon creates is this perfect moment of understanding at just the right moments during the narration, where your brain gets this fantastic reprieve from total concentration. You just have to have faith that just like the bomb, gravity will cause each character to fall eventually, and when it does, you, as the reader, are pretty much the only one left standing to put your own tune to the book’s final song.
With that in mind, I leave you with the most maddening of all summations any character offers in the novel: “Of course it happened. Of course it didn’t happen.”
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