Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Patron Saint of Death From Above

Wow. Been a while.... but Kiki and I are back and better than ever. We are loaded with new features and unique selling propositions that will transform your home business into a $5000/wk enterprise, dazzling your friends, your family, even your former employer!

Last time, Kiki and I read a small book. A very small book that didn’t need to be so small.
I am proposing this time that we read a big book: Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.

In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to say that I am part of the Gravity’s Rainbow Death Pact – a group of mostly e2 refugees (long story) that has made a pledge to read the book as a group, starting in May 2007. I (mis)interpreted this to mean that we would read the book in a month, and I am currently on pace to do that. But after venturing into the first 100 pages or so, it occurred to me that GR was actually very compatible with the slow speed fast food slow match project, and that there was nobody I would rather read this book with than Kiki.

Gravity's Rainbow and I have gone around a number of times, a chunky girlfriend that I keep breaking up with but despite the way she talks to me in front of my friends and keeps calling me all the time... there's just something about her that makes it so hard to let go. My first go was as an undergrad at NC State. Kit Knowles, a WW2 vet himself and my American lit survey prof suggested that I might really get the Pynchon Thing (like malaria), given my own tendencies toward a hard science/ high art mashup in classroom conversation. I loved GR – but had learned enough by my senior year to know when I wasn’t getting traction on a text. This began my 15 year hobby of listening to people tell me that they had read GR, and then engaging in a self-control serenity now! moment of not wanting to flip out dennis hopper style on them, "Listen you dumb motherfucker, do you even know the difference between a Poisson distribution and a Gaussian Distribution? Saying you read GR is like me saying I can do tensor calculus because I looked at the formulae on the chalkboard..." But you know, saying that kind of thing out loud might make people think you are an asshole.

Gravity's Rainbow: a history of failure
1990: Laughable undergrad attempt. Like spurned lover I am hurt but also plot revenge while praying for a reunion.

1994: Abortive English PhD at University of Virginia = Abortive 2nd try at Gravity’s Rainbow. Also featuring near-bankruptcy inducing independent film effort! The theme? Year of Thwarted Ambition.

2004: I tried again at Iowa, summer of 2004, and really made it a long ways in. I’m feeling somewhere near the end of “In The Zone.” Sixhundredish. I was getting the book – all my WW2 reading, along with another decade of history, science and literature under my belt had me feeling a real clarity as I read. I too was in the Zone. But then I had a vital depression and alcoholism project that required my close attention. I lost the thread. Cue bumper-roll music for second Year of Thwarted Ambition. Year of Thwarted Ambition is now a thrilling new reality series that follows aspiring novelists, filmmakers, architects, and small business owners through their thwarted ambitions and into lucrative, soul-killing careers in automotive advertising!

However, now I had something more valuable than gold, rubies, or processed uranium – I knew I could read and finish Gravity’s Rainbow. All that was needed was focus, sobriety, and a block of time. It was never that I found GR boring. My failure to complete always had its roots in a desire on my part to comprehend the books many projects and agendas– it was so dense as an intellectual and artistic work that I found myself defeated trying to unpack it all. GR became a kind of literary level-boss for me, something that I need to develop the skills and tools to confront.

For me, I feel like the missing component was the artistic comprehension. Formally, why does Pynchon do the things he does in GR? Let’s accept that nothing in the book is random – the book behaves according to a logic, cryptic and nonlinear at times, but a sinister logic. How is this enacted on the page, or inside the structure of the story? I’ve had the historical and scientific perspective, but it was the literary game that he was playing that was the missing piece.

I was thinking about how the conversation began to spin down after Kiki and I finished Hannibal. It was the fault not of our subject, evil (Evil?), but rather the very limited scope of the text itself. My guess is that our answers will be deeper, and there will be more of them with a larger book, and I mean larger in terms of ambition and project.

Evil. It’s not the first thing I thought when I considered making this 4th (and hopefully 1st successful) run at GR. At the surface the book is an exploration of the War. Sure, there is plenty of opportunity for evil inside a war, but GR is far more interested in what the war does, as a moral action, an event, and as a state of being.

Most importantly, I think GR is an exploration of free will inside the larger technosocial and moral forces of history. Are we the pawns of circumstance, victims of a divinity (secular, infernal, or otherwise) that shapes our ends? Any book that explores the ideas of individual accountability vs. aggregate/corporate responsibility, predestination vs. free will and then sets it against the backdrop of the war in Europe… well, you’ve got a book that at least part of the time is going to be talking about the nature and origins of evil.

I also want to talk about Pynchon’s language. There is something both uncompromising and goofy in the way Pynchon conflates pop culture with fine art gesselschaft, opaque in-text asides about the nature of statistical distribution with turgid ruminations of buggery, seshual pree-version and general assbanditry. Who is this guy writing for, anyway?

The Robert Hass answer is that he is writing for himself: a brilliant, reclusive, recovering technical writer and jazz fiend in his late 30s. A guy who lost his best friend and needed to disappear from the world so he could understand it.


Kiki and I will be writing essays on each of the chunks, plus a wrap-up perspective on the book as a whole. Here are the chunks:

Section 1 “Beyond The Zero” Start up to approximately page 180. - or about 23% of the way through the text

Section 2 "Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering." This is the start of the second major book inside GR. Approximate pages - 180 to 283.

Section 3 Start of Book 3 "In The Zone" - 36% completion. We’ll read up to the middle of ITZ (the biggest book), around page 455. There will be a line of Pynchon Narrative Discontinuity Boxes (PNDBs), followed by the line, "When emptied of people, the interior is steel gray."

Section 4 carries us from 455 to page 629, the start of Book 4 "The Counterforce" - 81%, a big jump.

Section 5 will cover “The Counterforce,” thru to the end story.

Keeks, what say you?