Whole graduate theses are written about the meaning of this book and the purpose of given characters, situations and practically any given sentence, so if that’s what you’re looking for, I’ll let you turn to other, more astute and reliable sources. I just want to talk about the experience of reading the book and reading Pynchon. After reading ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ now for the third time since 1974, I am more convinced than ever that the only way to appreciate the book is to approach it in that way, as an experience in itself, not just a “story.”
It’s so odd to admit that I’ve read the book three times or that I even wanted to, because when I first finished it, living alone in my first year of teaching in Fulton, Illinois, my only reaction was, “What in the hell was that?” It was like I had read and understood individual sentences and individual pages and envisioned certain scenes, but I had no facility for putting them all together into some sort of describable comprehensive whole. Twenty years later, I picked it up again because I was just so curious about it and I thought maybe a reading in middle age would help me put it together better. That proved true only to a point, but I will say this third reading led me to a certain level of confidence in understanding how to appreciate the novel.
The book is definitely not for everyone. It is 760 pages of sometimes the most ethereal beauty and others the most putrid and disgusting vulgarity. It is bouts of slapstick humor dancing out of scenes of utter misery and sorrow. It is delicious word play and whole books of poetry, all dressed up in the uniform of war, the symbology of rocketry and the thick liquor of protoplasm. There are at least 4,000 pages of information, dialectic and imagery crammed between the covers of this amazing book, and you dare not overlook a single preposition or risk missing some key fragment which is holding everything else in place.
I was fortunate for this reading to have discovered a podcast, Pynchon in Public, in which a handful of very culturally astute and engaging Pynchon nerds discuss various of his works chapter by chapter. I listened to more than 40 hours of their conjecture, reflection and debate on “Gravity’s Rainbow,” and it helped immensely in getting to understand plot and setting issues as well as various character arcs among the dozen or more key figures in a book with some 400 distinct characters – yes, someone has apparently counted. If you think you might like to read the book, I strongly recommend that you either do it with a friend or colleague or follow along with this podcast. All books are better when you can share impressions and ideas with someone else who has read them or is reading them with you, but it’s absolutely essential to have that kind of interaction while reading ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’
In my limited reading of Pynchon – the only other book I’ve read so far is the engaging “Inherent Vice’” – I feel like I am a little bug experiencing every hair, spine and fleck of dust as I crawl over a blade of grass in an open field. His astute and acute attention to detail is an utter marvel. I get to know each weed or flower in that field with intimate clarity, but it’s very difficult to find a vantage point where I can see the entire field, the entire landscape. That is both the joy and the frustration of a book like this.
I look forward to reading it again in 5 years or so, when I think I’ll have an even better handle on it. In the meantime, I intend to immerse myself in “Mason Dixon” and perhaps other Pynchon. I can see how he could become addicting.
I also have to admit this book makes me have second thoughts about my disdain for “100 Years of Solitude.” I’m still not on board entirely with the whole magical realism thing – which plays no part whatever in “Gravity’s Rainbow” – but I’m willing to acknowledge that the poetry within the story telling and playful use of imagery and symbols has a place in the enjoyment of literature.
Anyway, don’t take this book for summer beach reading, but if you’re serious about a study of a story (or, perhaps more accurately in this case, a collection of scores of short stories) as insights into human motivations, the full scope of human history and the interconnectedness of all things over the course of all time before and after the mystery of death, by all means jump into this book.