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.
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.
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."
- Thomas Pynchon's Wikipedia Entry
- The Thomas Pynchon Wiki
- YouTube Video featuring Thomas Pynchon's 1974 NBA Acceptance Speech
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