Book Review of Gravity’s
Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/27/12
Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 quasi-sci fi novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (named after the trajectory of German V-2 rockets), is not remotely a good novel, and, in places, the 300,000+ word book is a horrible novel, on a par with David Foster Wallace’s ridiculously bad sci fi novel Infinite Jest (in fact, that hack and his horrors, actually were spawned by this earlier monstrosity) and James Joyce’s pointless and ridiculously bad Finnegans Wake. It crests a little bit higher than those works because it ascends to intellectual coherence, if nothing else, on a few occasions, and this is not what most Postmodern novels even seem to strive for- base level coherence or imparting anything of lasting cultural, intellectual, and artistic value. However, despite wading through mounds of reviews of the book (from contemporaneous old media accounts to recent lengthy blog posts), as well as whole websites devoted to the man and even just this one book, perhaps the most cogent comment I read on the book came from an anonymous Amazon reviewer who offhandedly compared Pynchon’s book to Kurt Vonnegut’s lean 1968 masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five- which deals with a great many of the same issues, in the same era, in this manner (I paraphrase): if one views Vonnegut’s book as a world class sprinter running the 100 yard dash, then Pynchon’s book is a fat man attempting to not die while running a marathon. This, more than any other half-assed, mealy-mouthed review by a pseudo-Academic pretending to declaim the book as a masterpiece, gets to the heart of why the book fails colossally.
The 760 page book is divided into four parts, subdivided into unnumbered sections. Part 1 is called Beyond The Zero, and has 21 vignettes. Why it is called this I will defer to the book’s Wikipedia entry:
The name "Beyond the Zero" refers to lack of total extinction
of a conditioned stimulus; that is, as seen in Part One, Laszlo Jamf decreases
to zero the stimulus he conditioned on Tyrone Slothrop as an infant, but
"there can still be a silent extinction beyond the zero." The
events of this part occur primarily during the Christmas
of 1944 from December 18–26. The epigraph
is a quotation from a pamphlet written by Wernher
von Braun and first published in 1962: "Nature does not know
extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me,
and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our
spiritual existence after death."
Well, you can’t help but wonder who’s really the more paranoid of the
Steve’s sure got a lot of gall badmouthing Charles that way. Among the
graffiti of visiting mathematicians,
= log cabin + c
sort of thing, they go poking away down the narrow sausage-shaped
now, two young/old men, their feet fade and cease to ring on the sloping
deck, their forms grow more transparent with distance until it’s impossible
see them any more. Only the empty compartment here, the S-curved spokes
the peep-show machines, the rows of mirrors directly facing, reflecting each
frame after frame, back in a curve of very great radius. Out to the end of
segment of curve is considered part of the space of the Rücksichtslos. Making
a rather fat ship. Carrying its right-of-way along with it. “Crew morale,”
the foxes at the Ministry meetings, “sailors’ superstitions. Mirrors at
midnight. We know, don’t we?”
Slothrop puts a hand on his shoulder. The suit padding shifts and bunches
over the warm bone beneath it. He doesn’t know what to say, what to do:
himself, he feels empty, and wants to sleep. . . . But Sir Stephen is on his
knees, just about, quaking at the edge of it, to tell Slothrop a terrible
secret, a fatal confidence concerning:
The Penis He Thought Was His Own
the penis, he thought-was, his own—
Just a big playful boy of a bone . . .
With a stout purple head,
Sticking up from the bed,
Where the girlies all played Telephone—
Te-le-phone. . . .
voices): But They came
through the hole in the night,
And They sweet-talked it clear out of sight—
voices): Out of sight. . .
Now he sighs all alone,
With a heartbroken moan,
For the pe-nis, he thought-was, his, owwwwn!
voices): Was, his, own!
The figures out to sea have been attending, growing now even more windy
and remote as the light goes cold and out. . . . They are so difficult to reach
across to—difficult to grasp. Carroll Eventyr, trying to confirm the Lübeck
angel, learned how difficult—he and his control Peter Sachsa both, floundering
in the swamp between the worlds. Later on, in London, came the visit from that
most ubiquitous of double agents, Sammy Hilbert-Spaess, whom everyone had
thought in Stockholm, or was it Paraguay?
TDY Abreaction Ward
St. Veronica‘s Hospital
Bonechapel Gate, E1
I ever bother you, ever, for
anything, in your life?
Lt. Tyrone Slothrop
Kenosha, Wisc., U.S.A.
few days later
The Kenosha Kid
Smartass youth: Aw, I did all them old-fashioned dances, I did the
“Charleston,” a-and the “Big Apple,” too!
veteran hoofer: Bet you never did the “Kenosha,” kid!
S.Y.: Shucks, I did all them dances, I did the “Castle Walk,” and I did the
Bet you never did the “Kenosha Kid.”
Minor employee: Well, he has been avoiding me, and I thought it might be because
of the Slothrop Affair. If he somehow held me responsible—
(haughtily): You! never did the Kenosha Kid think for one instant
. . .
Superior (incredulously): You? Never! Did the Kenosha Kid think for one
you . . . ?
And at the end of the mighty day in which he gave us in fiery letters across the
sky all the words we’d ever need, words we today enjoy, and fill our
dictionaries with, the meek voice of little Tyrone Slothrop, celebrated ever
after in tradition and song, ventured to filter upward to the Kid’s attention:
“You never did ‘the, ‘
These changes on the text “You never did the Kenosha Kid” are
awareness as the doctor leans in out of the white overhead to wake
and begin the session. The needle slips without pain into the vein just
of the hollow in the crook of his elbow: 10% Sodium Amytal, one cc
a time, as needed.
Maybe you did fool the Philadelphia, rag the Rochester, josh the
But you never did the Kenosha kid.
(The day of the Ascent and sacrifice. A nation-wide observance. Fats searing,
blood dripping and burning to a salty brown . . . ) You did the Charlottesville
shoat, check, the Forest Hills foal, check. (Fading now . . . ) The Laredo lamb.
Check. Oh-oh. Wait. What’s this, Slothrop? You never did the Kenosha kid. Snap
a hardon in my fist,
I don’t give a fuck,
give me my “ruptured duck!”
one here can love or comprehend me,
just look for someplace else to send . . . me . . .
my head and mike my brain,
that needle in my vein,
Pynchon has brilliantly combined German political and cultural history with the mechanisms of paranoia to create an exceedingly complex work of art. The most important cultural figure in "Gravity's Rainbow" is not Goethe or Wagner, however, but Rainer Maria Rilke, Captain Blicero's favorite poet. In a way, the book could be read as a serio-comic variation on Rilke's "Duino Elegies" and their German Romantic echoes in Nazi culture. The "Elegies" begin with a cry: "Who, if I screamed, would hear me among the angelic orders? And even if one of them suddenly pressed me against his heart, I would fade in the strength of his stronger existence. For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of Terror that we're still just able to bear, and why we adore it is because it serenely disdains to destroy us."
Well, as mentioned, the book is not complex, and while Rilke does have an impact on the characters in the book, to the reader, it is nil, because it is just an act of branding- or brand mooching; Pynchon being able to say that he referenced a far greater artist in his work for the express purpose of leaching off that greatness. The most obvious way bad writers do this is by using epigraphs in their works- just as Pynchon does in this novel.
Perhaps the most interesting thing that Pynchon does is sprinkle in some Proverbs For Paranoids in the book. Here are the five of them:
You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.
2. The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.
3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.
4. You hide, they seek.
5. Paranoids are not paranoid because they're paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.
This is Pynchon at his most Vonnegutian, and best. Usually, his defenders will pick a lone apothegm to declaim as the man’s genius, such as, ‘There was no difference between the behavior of a god and the operations of pure chance.’ Is this a deep thought? Yes, but (drum roll) nothing comes of it.
But, to those who fawn over Pynchon, one need only compare the relationships between well written scenes and those poorly written ones; such as Katje and Slothrop with that of Mexico and Jessica. In the latter, their relationship is best summed up on pages 41-42:
They have found a house in the stay-away zone, under the barrage balloons south of London. The town, evacuated in ‘40, is still ‘regulated’-still on the Ministry’s list. Roger and Jessica occupy the place illegally, in a defiance they can never measure unless they're caught. Jessica has brought an old doll, seashells, her aunt's grip filled with lace knickers and silk stockings. Roger’s managed to scare up a few chickens to nest in the empty garage. Whenever they meet here, one always remembers to bring a fresh flower or two. The nights are filled with explosion and motor transport, and wind that brings them up over the downs and a smack of the sea. Day begins with a hot cup and a cigarette over a little table with a weak leg that Roger has repaired, provisionally, with brown twine. There’s never much talk but touches and looks, smiles together, curses for parting. It is marginal, hungry, chilly-most times they're too paranoid to risk a fire- but it’s something they want to keep, so much that to keep it, they will take on more than propaganda has ever asked them for. They are in love. Fuck the war.
Compare that with this typical repartee between Slothrop and Katje, on pages 221-222:
Then in the morning Katje comes storming in madder than a wet hen, to
tell Slothrop that Sir Stephen’s gone. Suddenly everybody is telling Slothrop
he’s barely awake. Rain rattles at the shutters and windows. Monday mornings,
upset stomachs, good-bys . . . he blinks out at the misted sea, the horizon
mantled in gray, palms gleaming in the rain, heavy and wet and very green. It
may be that the champagne is still with him—for ten extraordinary seconds
there’s nothing in his field but simple love for what he’s seeing.
Then, perversely aware of it, he turns away, back into the room. Time to
Katje, now. . . .
Her face is as pale as her hair. A rain-witch. Her hat brim makes a chic
halo around her face.
“Well, he’s gone then.” Keenness of this order might work to
“It’s too bad. Then again—maybe it’s good.”
“Never mind him. How much do you know, Slothrop?”
“What’s that mean, never mind him? What do you do, just throw people
“Do you want to find out?”
He stands twisting his mustache. “Tell me about it.”
“You bastard. You’ve sabotaged the whole thing, with your clever
little collegiate drinking game.”
“What whole thing, Katje?”
“What did he tell you?” She moves a step closer. Slothrop watches her
of army judo instructors he’s seen. It occurs to him he’s naked and also,
seems to be getting a hardon here, look out, Slothrop. And nobody here to
it, or speculate why. . . .
“Sure didn’t tell me you knew any of that
judo. Must of taught you it
Sure—little things,” singing in descending childish thirds, “give
away, you know. . . .”
“Aahh—” exasperated she rushes in, aims a chop at his head which
dodge—goes diving in under her arm, lifts her in a fireman’s carry, throws
the bed and comes after her. She kicks a sharp heel at his cock, which is
she should’ve done in the first place. Her timing, in fact, is drastically off
this, else she would likely be handing Slothrop’s ass to him . . . it may be
she wants her foot to miss, only scraping Slothrop along the leg as he swerves
grabs her by the hair and twists an arm behind her, pushing her, face-down,
the bed. Her skirt is up over her ass, her thighs squirming underneath him, his
in terrific erection.
“Listen, cunt, don’t make me lose my temper with you, got no problems
women, I’m the Cagney of the French Riviera, so look out.”
“I’ll kill you—”
“What—and sabotage the whole thing?”
Katje turns her head and sinks her teeth in his forearm, up near the
elbow where the Pentothal needles used to go in. “Ow, shit—”
he lets go the arm he’s been twisting, pulls down underwear, takes her by one
hip and penetrates her from behind, reaching under to pinch nipples, paw at her
clitoris, rake his nails along inside her thighs, Mister Technique here, not
that it matters, they’re both ready to come—Katje first, screaming into the
pillow, Slothrop a second or two later. He lies on top of her, sweating, taking
great breaths, watching her face turned 3⁄4 away, not even a profile, but
the terrible Face That Is No Face, gone too abstract, unreachable: the notch of
eye socket, but never the labile eye, only the anonymous curve of cheek,
convexity of mouth, a noseless mask of the Other Order of Being, of Katje’s
being—the lifeless nonface that is the only face of hers
really knows, or will ever remember.
“Hey, Katje,” ‘s all he sez.
“Mm.” But here’s only her old residual bitterness again, and they
are not, after all, to be lovers in parachutes of sunlit voile, lapsing gently,
hand in hand, down to anything meadowed or calm. Surprised?
She has moved away, releasing his cock into the cold room. “What’s it
Slothrop? When the rockets come down?”
“What?” After fucking he usually likes to lie around, just smoke a
about food, “Uh, you don’t know it’s there till it’s there. Gee, till after
If it doesn’t hit you, then you’re O.K. till the next one. If you hear the
you know you must be alive.”
“That’s how you know you’re alive.”
“Right.” She sits up, pulling underpants back up and skirt back down, goes to the mirror, starts rearranging her hair. “Let’s hear the boundary-layer temperatures. While you’re getting dressed.”
Now, compare the two pieces. In the former, Pynchon shows that he is
capable of keen observation of character and knowing when to stop. ‘Fuck
the war’ ends not only a sentence and paragraph, but a vignette, and is a
pithy and realistic end to that scene. In the Slothrop-Katje scene we get trite
vulgarisms, which would be fine if coming from the characters, rather than the
semi-omniscient narrator, but that’s all we get- rote descriptions and
platitudes, and ill wrought and unrealistic lines like ‘his
penis in terrific erection,’
and the scene goes on well beyond the end quoted above. Also, the characters, as
undeveloped stereotypes, not real folks, talk like prigs trying to talk dirty
rather than the way real people talk when fucking. The point is that the lesser
scene is typical of the heaps that litter Gravity’s Rainbow. And it’s
not just the execution, but the very psychology behind the scenes and characters
and their mismatches with each other. Ask yourself if there is anything of depth
revealed of the characters in the second excerpt? No. Now multiply this scene by
a few hundred, or dozens, in lesser characters, and you can see the problems
that affect the book are not only qualitative, but become quantitative. Yet,
even in the midst of a mess, there is some occasional insight: ‘He lies on
top of her, sweating, taking great breaths, watching her face turned 3⁄4
away, not even a profile, but the terrible Face That Is No Face, gone too
abstract, unreachable: the notch of eye socket, but never the labile eye, only
the anonymous curve of cheek, convexity of mouth, a noseless mask of the Other
Order of Being, of Katje’s being—the lifeless nonface that is the only face
of hers he really knows, or will ever remember.’ This actually is a nice
insight, or the beginnings of one. But it fades, and ten to forty pages will go
by before another such moment, just as dozens will go by after the first
But, it’s not just flat, or flat out bad, characterizations, but orgies of overwriting, replete with pointless modifiers (adjectives and adverbs galore). From page 149:
She crosses the complex room dense with its supple hides, lemon-rubbed teak, rising snarls of incense, bright optical hardware, faded Central Asian rugs in gold and scarlet, hanging open-ribbed wrought-ironwork, a long, long downstage cross, eating an orange, section by acid section, as she goes, the faille gown flowing beautifully, its elaborate sleeves falling from very broadened shoulders till tightly gathered into long button-strung cuffs all in some nameless earth tone—a hedge-green, a clay-brown, a touch of oxidation, a breath of the autumnal—the light from the street lamps comes in through philodendron stalks and fingered leaves arrested in a grasp at the last straining away of sunset, falls a tranquil yellow across the cut-steel buckles at her insteps and streaks on along the flanks and down the tall heels of her patent shoes, so polished as to seem of no color at all past such mild citrus light where it touches them, and they refuse it, as if it were a masochist’s kiss. Behind her steps the carpet relaxes ceilingward, sole and heel-shapes disappearing visibly slow out of the wool pile. A single rocket explosion comes thudding across the city, from far east of here, east by southeast. The light along her shoes flows and checks like afternoon traffic. She pauses, reminded of something: the military frock trembling, silk filling-yarns shivering by crowded thousands as the chilly light slides over and off and touching again their unprotected backs. The smells of burning musk and sandalwood, of leather and spilled whisky, thicken in the room.
And this sort of Year One, MFA level writing ruins what could be, sans this paragraph, an interesting scene. And, despite the appearance to the contrary in this essay, that sort of writing is a good 90+% of the book. At other times, Pynchon will have his characters utter empty platitudes to pass for depth, yet the essence of these statements is never seized upon and expounded. It’s usually not even left to stew in the mind of the reader, as some inanity, lasting a dozen pages, will make the even the attempt at insight fade:
“The basic problem,” he proposes, “has always been getting other people to die for you. What’s worth enough for a man to give up his life? That’s where religion had the edge, for centuries. Religion was always about death. It was used not as an opiate so much as a technique—it got people to die for one particular set of beliefs about death. Perverse, natürlich, but who are you to judge? It was a good pitch while it worked. But ever since it became impossible to die for death, we have had a secular version—yours. Die to help History grow to its predestined shape. Die knowing your act will bring a good end a bit closer. Revolutionary suicide, fine. But look: if History’s changes are inevitable, why not not die? Vaslav? If it’s going to happen anyway, what does it matter?”
And, if low grade MFA writing cannot suffice, then Pynchon is always ready to wink-wink, nudge-nudge the reader with pointless, snide, and unfunny asides, such as this from pages 38-39:
By now her hand’s reaching out,
about to touch his shoulder. She rests her cheek on her own arm, hair spilling,
drowsy, watching him. Can’t get a decent argument going with her. How he’s
tried. She uses her silences like stroking hands to divert him and hush their
corners of rooms, bedcovers, tabletops—accidental spaces. . . . Even at the
cinema watching that awful Going My Way, the
day they met, he saw every white straying of her
hands, could feel in his skin each saccade of her olive, her amber, her
coffee-colored eyes. He’s wasted gallons of paint thinner striking his
faithful Zippo, its charred wick, virility giving way to thrift, rationed down
to a little stub, the blue flame sparking about the edges in the dark, the many
kinds of dark, just to see what’s happening with her face. Each new flame, a
And there’ve been the moments, more of them lately too—times when
face-to-face there has been no way to tell which of them is which. Both at the
same time feeling the same eerie confusion . . . something like looking in a
mirror by surprise but. . . more than that, the feeling of actually being joined
. . . when after—who knows? two minutes, a week? they realize, separate again,
what’s been going on, that Roger and Jessica were merged into a joint creature
unaware of itself. . . . In a life he has cursed, again and again, for its need
to believe so much in the trans-observable, here is the first, the very first
data he can’t argue away.
It was what Hollywood likes to call a “cute meet,” out in the neat 18th
heart of downtown Tunbridge Wells, Roger motoring in the vintage Jaguar up to London, Jessica at the roadside struggling prettily with a busted bicycle, murky wool ATS skirt hiked up on a handle bar, most non-regulation black slip and clear pearl thighs above the khaki stockings, well—
“Here love,” brakes on in a
high squeak, “it’s not backstage at the old Windmill or something, you
She knew. “Hmm,” a curl dropping down to tickle her nose and put a
bit more than the usual acid in her reply, “are they letting little boys into
places like that, I didn’t know.”
“Well nobody’s,” having learned by now to live with remarks about
his appearance, “called up the Girl Guides yet either, have they.”
“Hurrah, that qualifies you for a ride, in this Jaguar here you see,
all the way to London.”
“But I’m going the other way. Nearly to Battle.”
“Oh, round trip of course.”
Shaking hair back out of her face, “Does your mother know you’re
out like this.”
“My mother is the war,” declares Roger Mexico, leaning over to open
“That’s a queer thing to say,” one muddy little shoe pondering on the running board.
The pseudo-profundity of Mexico’s claim that his mother is the war rings hollow, though, for, at that point, we know little of the character, and even when one does get to know more of him, it still rings hollow, because this is not a character from All Quiet On The Western Front, The Naked And The Dead, nor a James Jones novel.
And if pseudo-profundity does not suffice, then Pynchon can simply name-drop an idea or philosopher and think that the mere mention of the ‘thing’ equates with an understanding of it, or a good application of the principles it contains.
This from pages 48-49:
Imagine a missile one hears approaching only after
it explodes. The reversal! A
piece of time neatly snipped out. . . a few feet of film run backwards . . . the
blast of the rocket, fallen faster than sound— then growing out
of it the roar of its own
fall, catching up to what’s already death and burning . . . a ghost in the
sky. . . .
Pavlov was fascinated with “ideas of the opposite.” Call it a cluster
of cells, somewhere on the cortex of the brain. Helping to distinguish pleasure
from pain, light from dark, dominance from submission. . . . But when,
somehow—starve them, traumatize, shock, castrate them, send them over into one
of the transmarginal phases, past borders of their waking selves, past
“equivalent” and “paradoxical” phases—you weaken this idea of the
opposite, and here all at once is the paranoid patient who would be master, yet
now feels himself a slave . . . who would be loved, but suffers his world’s
indifference, and, “I think,” Pavlov writing to Janet, “it is precisely
the ultraparadoxical phase which is the base of the weakening of the idea of the opposite in our
patients.” Our madmen, our paranoid, maniac, schizoid, morally imbecile—
Spectro shakes his head. “You’re putting response before stimulus.”
“Not at all. Think of it. He’s out there, and he can feel them coming, days in advance. But it’s a reflex. A reflex to something that’s in
the air right now. Something
we’re too coarsely put together to sense—but Slothrop can.”
“But that makes it extrasensory.”
And, if still not sated, Pynchon can descend to the puerile scatological realms of a Pier Paolo Pasolini, such as this, from pages 446-447:
It’s early morning now. Slothrop’s breath is white on the air. He is
just up from a dream. Part I of a poem, with woodcuts accompanying the text—a
woman is attending a dog show which is also, in some way, a stud service. She
has brought her Pekingese, a female with a sicken-ingly cute name, Mimsy or
Goo-Goo or something, here to be serviced. She is passing the time in a garden
setting, with some other middle-class ladies like herself, when from some
enclosure nearby she hears the sound of her bitch, coming. The sound goes on and
on for much longer than seems appropriate, and she suddenly realizes that the
sound is her own voice, this interminable cry of dog-pleasure. The others,
politely, are pretending not to notice. She feels shame, but is helpless, driven
now by a need to go out and find other animal species to fuck. She sucks the
penis of a multicolored mongrel who has tried to mount her in the street. Out in
a barren field near a barbed-wire fence, winter fires across the clouds, a tall
horse compels her to kneel, passively, and kiss his hooves. Cats and minks,
hyenas and rabbits, fuck her inside automobiles, lost at night in the forests,
out beside a water-hole in the desert.
As Part II begins, she has discovered she’s pregnant. Her husband, a
dumb, easygoing screen door salesman, makes an agreement with her: her own
promise is never stated, but in return, nine months from now, he will take her
where she wants to go. So it is that close to the end of her term he is out on
the river, an American river, in a rowboat, hauling on the oars, carrying her on
a journey. The key color in this section is violet.
Part III finds her at the bottom of the river. She has drowned. But all
forms of life fill her womb. “Using her as mermaid” (line 7), they transport
her down through these green river-depths. “It was down, and out again./ Old
Squalidozzi, ploughman of the deep,/ At the end of his day’s sowing/ Sees her
verdigris belly among the weeds” (lines 10-13), and brings her back up. He is
a classically-bearded Neptune figure with an old serene face. From out of her
body streams a flood now of different creatures, octopuses, reindeer, kangaroos,
“Who can say all the life/ That left her womb that day?” Squalidozzi can
only catch a glimpse of the amazing spill as he bears her back toward the
surface. Above, it is a mild and sunlit green lake or pond, grassy at the banks,
shaded by willows. Insects whine and hover. The key color now is green. “And
there as it broke to sun/ Her corpse found sleep in the water/ And in the summer
depths/ The creatures took their way/ Each to its proper love/ In the height of
afternoon/ As the peaceful river went. . . .”
This dream will not leave him. He baits his hook, hunkers by the bank, drops his line into the Spree. Presently he lights up an army cigarette, and stays still then for a long while, as the fog moves white through the riverbank houses, and up above the warplanes go droning somewhere invisible, and the dogs run barking in the back-streets.
This is bad writing, not because of the bestiality but because of the poor word choice, stilted melodrama, and silly premises. Look at the so-called dream, above. Forget the silly premise, for a bestial dream could be interesting. But this one is not, precisely because of the Burroughsian puerility and the fact that nothing before nor after this excerpt puts this excerpt in any intellectual nor artistic context that makes anything of the puerility. And, as mentioned earlier, there is no sustained good writing, at any point, in the novel, that shows that anything that, indeed, is good in the novel is anything more than the lucky bull’s-eye of a dart toss.
The same is true of almost any digression that Pynchon makes. It all reeks of artifice, and a way of just breaking the narrative, just to break the narrative, for no organic reason. On pages 687-688, as example, comes this titled digression:
Shit ‘n’ Shinola
“Now,” Säure wants to know, “you will tell me about the American expression
from Shinola.’ “
“What is this,” screams Seaman Bodine, “I’m being set tasks now?
This is some Continuing Study of American Slang or some shit? Tell me you old fool,” grabbing Säure
by throat and lapel and shaking him asymmetrically, “you’re one
Them too, right? Come on,”
the old man Raggedy Andy in
his hands, a bad
of suspicion here for the usually mellow Bodine, “Stop, stop,” snivels the
amazed Säure, amazement giving way, that is, to a sniveling conviction that
hairy American gob has lost his mind. . . .
Well. You’ve heard
the expression “Shit from Shinola.” As in, “Aw, he don’t
Shit from Shinola! ‘bout that.” Or, “Marine—you don’t know Shit from
And you get sent to the Onion Room, or worse. One implication is that
and Shinola are in wildly different categories. You would envision—maybe just
because they smell different—no way for Shit and Shinola to coexist. Simply
A stranger to the English language, a German dopefiend such as Säure, not
knowing either word, might see “Shit” as a comical interjection, one a
lawyer in a bowler hat, folding up papers tucking them in a tan briefcase might
smiling use, “Schitt, Herr Bummer,” and he walks out of your cell, the oily
bastard, forever . . . or Scchhit! down
comes a cartoon guillotine on one black &
politician, head bouncing downhill, lines to indicate amusing little spherical
patterns, and you thought yes, like to see that all right, yes cut it off, one
less rodent, schittja! As
for Shinola, we pass to universitarians Franz Pökler, Kurt
Bert Fibel, Horst Achtfaden and others, their Schein-Aula is a
Albert Speer-style alabaster open-air stadium with giant cement birds of prey up
at each corner, wings shrugged forward, sheltering under each wing-shadow a
hooded German face . . . from the outside, the Hall is golden, the
gold precisely of one lily-of-the-valley petal in 4 o’clock sunlight, serene,
the top of a small, artificially-graded hill. It has a talent, this
posing up there in attractive profiles, in front of noble clouds, to suggest
through returns of spring, hopes for love, meltings of snow and ice,
Sunday tranquillities, smells of grass just crushed or cut or later turning
hay . . . but inside the Schein-Aula all is blue and cold as the sky overhead,
blue as a blueprint or a planetarium. No one in here knows which way to look.
Will it begin above us? Down there? Behind
us? In the middle of the air? and
Well there’s one place where Shit ‘n’ Shinola do come together, and
that’s in the men’s toilet at the Roseland Ballroom, the place Slothrop
departed from on his trip down the toilet, as revealed in the St. Veronica
Papers (preserved, mysteriously, from that hospital’s great holocaust). Shit,
now, is the color white
are afraid of. Shit is the presence of death, not some abstract-arty character
a scythe but the stiff and rotting corpse itself inside the whiteman’s warm
private own asshole,
which is getting pretty
intimate. That’s what that white
for. You see many brown toilets? Nope, toilet’s the color of gravestones,
columns of mausoleums, that white porcelain’s the very emblem of
and Official Death. Shinola shoeshine polish happens to be the color of Shit.
Shoeshine boy Malcolm’s in the toilet slappin’ on the Shinola, working off
whiteman’s penance on his sin of being born the color of Shit ‘n’ Shinola.
It is nice to think that one Saturday night, one floor-shaking Lindyhopping
Malcolm looked up from some Harvard kid’s shoes and caught the eye of
Kennedy (the Ambassador’s son), then a senior. Nice to think that young
may have had one of them Immortal Lightbulbs then go on overhead—did
suspend his ragpopping just the shadow of a beat, just enough gap in the
there to let white Jack see through, not through to but through through
shine on his classmate Tyrone Slothrop’s shoes? Were the three ever lined up
way—sitting, squatting, passing through? Eventually Jack and Malcolm both
murdered. Slothrop’s fate is not so clear. It may be that They have something
different in mind for Slothrop.
Now, ask yourself, what do you get from this digression? It has no place in the narrative, before nor after, where it is put to any use, in terms of character building nor narrative progression, much less and Negatively Capable reason for its existence. Yet, there is cultural hay to be made of this product and comparison. Instead, we get an easy sloughing off of that potential.
Hence, I have shown a good cross-section of all the reasons why
Pynchon’s writing fails: out and out bad writing, in terms of lack of music,
no character development, descents into cliché and stereotypes, as well as
assorted gimmickry, puerility, name-dropping, and just pointless preening. The
fact of the matter is that great writers simply
don’t have paragraphs like the many I have excerpted herein in a book, much
less having 95% of the book, or more, consist of such. The defenders of such
demonstrably bad writing, naturally, shrug, and declaim that art is all
subjective, therefore their praise of the slop is as valid as demonstrable
refutations of that claim, even as their supposed embrace of subjectivity
logically makes invalid the subjectivist’s claims of praise. Hence, one gets a
case of artistic psychosis, wherein breaks from reality, no matter how well
wrought or not, are seen as good because….well, just because. And this is and
was where art stood at the time of the book’s release, in 1973.
But, the four decades since have seen even the most recalcitrant Postmodernists and subjectivists grudgingly give in on the claims that there are no artistic standards, and such folly has generally been ceded over to a younger generation of artistic non-entities: the Politically Correct Elitists that have supplanted the Postmodernists in the MFA writing mills. In a sense, rather than being a new work that became a prosaic bottleneck work, in the manner of Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass, Gravity’s Rainbow has since been ceded over to the fin de siecle sort of work that it truly is: a work larded with the worst excesses of its era. And this is because of one overriding reason: it’s a bad work of art. It is, in prose terms, far closer to the Collected Poems of a Eugene Field than it is to Whitman’s revolutionary, and- far more importantly- great, work, and the proof of this can be seen in the work most like it, which preceded Gravity’s Rainbow by five years- Vonnegut’s masterful Slaughterhouse-Five. Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t even read by wannabe David Foster Wallace types any longer, whereas Vonnegut’s work has rightfully taken its place in the canon of great American novels taught in middle and high schools.
Yet, despite the fact that the book offers little, has never been read widely, did not sell well, has never sold well, and is all but hermetically sealed in its time, there are still those who insist it has lasting value, having won a National Book Award, spawned a cottage industry of hermeneusis on the book (including online sites like this and this), and being listed by Time magazine as one of the greatest American novels written between 1932 and 2005 (an arbitrary set of dates if there ever was one). Yet, if there ever was a book that was, to beg Williams Shakespeare and Faulkner, all sound and fury signifying nothing it’s….ok, finish the sentence.
Gravity’s Rainbow is not difficult, just a sloppy and ill wrought and thought out mess of a book. There is a difference. Let me reiterate, there is a difference….despite Postmodern dictates and bad contemporary criticism. PoMo ideas are, like PC, not necessarily bad, in theory, nor in the abstract, but almost invariably their execution is (this book would rather just toss in a scene of Catherine the Great getting fucked by a horse rather than using her as a metaphor or developing a real character)- in fact, it is almost always more than merely bad, but atrocious. One can have a strong, compelling plot, but it has to come out of strong, compelling characters, as a base. This is simply how humans are wired. Plot alone is the stuff of fluff and mere genre works. Real literature deals with great ideas, and does so in great, and often nonpareil, ways. And these can be given a wide, digressive berth. The tools that PoMo employs are also not necessarily bad, just that there are almost no writers, in any -ism, that practice their preaching, because once one restricts oneself to a small corner of the arts one simply must rebel and react against such strictures. Thomas Pynchon did not do this. He painted himself into a hipster pose, an intellectually vacuous corner, and then got swallowed in his own ego, and Gravity’s Rainbow sinks under its titular force. Woe betide the reader who dares spelunk its dull and pointlessly filigreed orifices!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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