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Professor Irwin Corey accepted the National Book Award Fiction Citation for Thomas Pynchon and Gravity's Rainbow.Gravity’s Rainbow

By Thomas Pynchon

Original Publisher: The Viking Press, Inc.
Current Publisher: Penguin Classics

Casey Hicks writes:

Those who have read Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow know that those 700+ pages add up to more than just a novel; it’s an experience. The hundreds of characters are difficult to follow, the plot is nonsensical, sex is graphically depicted, drugs are smoked out of a kazoo and a poor light bulb goes through many humiliating experiences. But the brilliance of Gravity’s Rainbow is not in spite of its oddness but because of it.

By taking liberties with reality, Pynchon is able to create a world of symbolism and confusion, one where the perversions of violence, drugs and sex are inextricably linked. To try to find meaning behind every detail is a mistake that may trip up some readers. To make it through Gravity’s Rainbow, you have to resist the urge to stare at train wrecks. Instead, the reader must surge on like the V-2 rockets central to the novel. Pynchon has carefully structured his novel, and the reader must surrender to his wild depiction of wartime Britain to make it through the rocket’s path to the end.

Readers have been torn about the quality of Gravity’s Rainbow since its release. The novel nearly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but that decision was overturned. Is it overwritten and obscene, or is it a masterpiece of postmodern fiction that does not shy away from critiquing war and authority? That is for the reader to decide, but if cultural references from Pat Benatar to “Trainspotting” have any weight, then Gravity’s Rainbow has proved itself a substantial literary slap in the face of authority.

Casey Hicks holds a B.A. in English from Case Western Reserve University, and she has been filling notebooks with her own stories since she was seven years old.

Chad Post writes:

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

This is arguably one of twentieth-century literature’s most recognizable opening lines. A “Call me Ishmael” for the paranoids, the pot smokers, the conspiracy theorists who see patterns in everything. “No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into . . .”

I first read Gravity’s Rainbow the summer after graduating from college and was instantly convinced that this was THE BOOK OF ALL BOOKS. Everything is here—high level musings on philosophy, physics, chemistry, psychology, séances and the beyond; outrageous names (lots of outrageous names: Pig Bodine, Teddy Bloat, Pirate Prentice, Captain Dominus Blicero), songs, and a surreal trip down a toilet; information about “Them,” V-2 rockets, and absolute fear. High culture and pop references. History and trivia. And out of all that comes a the obsessive feeling that all these pieces might add up to something of Monumental Importance, or might just be a fun way to kill a few months . . .

It’s almost impossible to even summarize this novel, which features more than 400 different characters and dozens of plot threads. I mean, this is a novel that starts with a top-secret military group studying data on how each of Tyrone Slothrop’s sexual encounters takes place at a location that is hit by a V-2 rocket days later. Is this just coincidence? Or is it a result of experiments done on Baby Tyrone by Laszlo Jamf involving a mysterious substance called Imipolex G? And what the hell is the significance of the “00000” rocket and the S-Gerät component?

Gravity’s Rainbow is not an easy book to read. In fact, it’s probably got one of the highest “owned” to “finished reading” ratios of any book from the past fifty years. It’s been mentioned on The Simpsons. It was even mentioned (in connection with Paris Hilton no less) on The O.C. It’s a novel filled with tricksy chronologies, with reversals of cause and effect (just like that V-2 rocket: since it moves faster than the speed of sound, if you can hear it, you’ve survived), and with winking metaphors, great puns, and digressions about American slang—like the bits on “ass backwards” (“Ass usually is backwards, right?”) and “Shit from Shinola” (“One implication is that Shit and Shinola are in wildly different categories”). It’s all of those things, and it’s also one of the most hysterical, compelling, emotionally moving, and fun books I’ve ever read.

And this doesn’t even scratch the surface . . . or touch on the intriguing nature of Pynchon himself or the wild circumstances surrounding this particular National Book Award (Professor Irwin Corey’s acceptance speech and the infamous streaker). There are a million reasons why this book deserved the National Book Award, why it’s had such an enormous impact on American writers, and why it’s stood the test of time.

Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books (www.openletterbooks.org) and the website Three Percent (www.rochester.edu/threepercent), both of which are dedicated to the publication and promotion of international literature.

ISBN: 9780143039945

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Doris Betts for Beasts of the Southern Wild and Other Stories
  • John Cheever for The World of Apples
  • Ellen Douglas for Apostles of Light
  • Stanley Elkin for Searches and Seizures
  • John Gardner for Nickel Mountain
  • John Leonard for Black Conceit
  • Thomas McGuane for Ninety-Two in the Shade
  • Wilfrid Sheed for People Will Always Be Kind
  • Gore Vidal for Burr
  • Joy Williams for State of Grace

Fiction Judges that Year:

 Donald Barthelme, James Boatwright, Truman Capote, Timothy G. Foote, Cynthia Ozick

The Year in Literature:

  • The Pulitzer Prize was not given for Fiction.
  • Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

In 1974, the fiction jury unanimously recommended Gravity’s Rainbow for the Pulitzer Prize; however, the Pulitzer board vetoed this decision, calling the book "unreadable," "turgid," "overwritten," and, in parts, "obscene."

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Reader Comments (7)

The songs. Someone should mention the songs in GR, which are also great.
I have had a mixed relationship with P's prose -- loved V, loved GR, loved loved loved The Crying of Lot 49... but didn't like Vineland and couldn't finish Mason Dixon.... Then along came Against the Day and even though some of the reviews weren't great, it seemed to me like a return to GR' s fullness of vision.
Can't wait to get my copy tomorrow of Inherent Vice -- I haven't read any of the reviews yet, but am just slightly uneasy that early on I read something that said it's more like Vineland than like his other books.

August 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterelisabeth

I read it striaght through in one week, with few breaks except for sleep. That was 23 years ago. I was an undergraduate visiting friends in London. They were still in school, so I had time to kilI. At the time GR was the one book I felt I had to finally read. I found a nice trade paper copy by Picador in a little bookshop in Golders Green. I read most of it on Hampstead Heath, but took it with me everywhere: pubs, cafes, tube trains, buses. To say the least, London was an amazing place in which to absorb this monumental work. It's a bit remote now to make a critical appraisal, pro or con. I do remember thinking it was a deliberate attempt to write a masterpiece while constantly sabotaging the my notions of what "Literature" was supposed to read like. Radical, exhaustive, exhausting, hilarious and often quite beautiful (Roger and Jessica attending the Christmas service at the country church in Kent). I guess it's time to drag it out for another investigation.


September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

The best postmodern novel I ever read, and one of the very rare novels that combines hilarious sick jokes, grotesque surrealism, sheer poetry and a conving yet stimulating kind of paranoia.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenternico

Read GR 3x -- years ago -- need to do it again. A wild book with many layers, etc. Joe's mention of Roger and Jessica -- one of those sections that really sticks. Yes -- Mason/Dixon was just .. fun ... liked the golem. Elisabeth is right to note that "Against the Day" is deep Pynchon again.

October 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDave F.

People will be reading Gravity's Rainbow in 500 years. I've read it a number of times and it gets richer and more complex with each read. The writing is a combination of loose and highly disciplined. And the abrupt changes in tone from slapstick to high seriousness makes reading this novel like surfing Mavericks. It constantly threatens to derail you but you right yourself and keep barreling down its steep and shimmering face....

October 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTim Ware

The best!

October 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJon

Started reading GR three times, put it down thrice. Tough read. But the fourth time, my friends, was the charm...a 'screaming' indeed! Re-read it a year later and from the last page turned immediately to page one and read it through yet again. I'm convinced this is the ideal way to absord this work. At least it was for me. Sort of a literary mandala. The Bible is called the Good Book. I call Gravity's Rainbow THE Great Book.

'Now everybody...'

November 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNathan
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