In 1991 I was hanging out occasionally with a wine magazine editor who lived in New York and would visit San Francisco once a month to work on the magazine layout and make forays into wine country for tastings and interviews with winemakers. He had graduated from Princeton and was a real east coast snob, but when I was young many of my self-improvement activities were attempts to win the approval of various snobs. The editor had written his thesis on Pynchon, so in order to prove to him that I was not the California air head I thought he thought I was, I devoured Pynchon’s V, then slogged through Gravity’s Rainbow.
V was a fairly accessible novel to me (although I can’t remember a single thing about it) but it took me several readings of the first few chapters of Gravity’s Rainbow to understand what the heck was going on. A bunch of military guys seemed to be in a dormitory situation somewhere and had a fantastically abundant supply of bananas. The vocabulary was intense, to the point that I started writing down every word I didn’t know and it’s definition. It was tedious but rewarding. As I read and read, I noticed that I had to look up fewer and fewer words the deeper I got into the book. It wasn’t that I suddenly developed a Pynchian vocabulary, it was as if Pynchon gradually stopped making his reader work so dang hard. Maybe he exhausted himself. He certainly exhausted me and it took all the discipline and ambition I had to finish the last, very boring, 200 pages.
I mentioned this to the Princetonian and he confirmed that I wasn’t imagining it; the book got less difficult after the first third or so.He explained to me that the rainbow of the title refers to the arc, the upside down smile, of a missile flight. The first third of the book represents the rocket fuel it takes to get the missile up. Gravity brings it down, making the “rainbow.”
I got the idea to create a “Cliff Notes” sort of document consisting of a list of all the tough words in Gravity’s Rainbow and their definitions so that other people reading it wouldn’t have to thumb through a complete dictionary to find the GR words. There was no internet in those days, so having an English dictionary as well as a German one at hand was the alternative and I thought my little glossary would be a great asset to readers.
I sent the manuscript to the publisher of Cliff Notes and he actually called me to follow up. He wasn’t going to publish it, but he wanted to hold on to it and would contact me if they every wrote a Cliff Notes on Gravity’s Rainbow. He also told me, interestingly, that they had been asked to mock up a fake Cliff Notes of Gravity’s Rainbow for a movie called Miracle Mile. I rented the movie and there it was, being read by one a character played by Denise Crosby. Anyway, that was a very cool part of my Gravity’s Rainbow experience. It was pretty gratifying to be able to tell the wine magazine editor that the Cliff Notes publisher had taken the time to contact me and have a phone conversation about Gravity’s Rainbow.
As far as the plot of GR goes, I never really understood when I read the book the first time that that the main character, Tyrone Slothrop, could predict a German rocket launch with his erection. I was never really sure of what was happening in the overall arc of the story. On the other hand, several scenes were so memorable that I will never forget them. First, the British candy scene in which Slothrop, being polite, accepts horrid British candies from his hostess. Second, the scene where Slothrop imagines he is going down a toilet and the disgusting things he encounters in the sewer pipes. And third, the S&M scenes in which Katja and the wretched man who is her I guess client, watches her defecate onto a glass table and also eats her shit. Not the usual Pulitzer or Nobel subject matter.
Sometime after I read Gravity’s Rainbow I read Richard Farina’s incredible book Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, published in 1966. I learned that he and Pynchon had been friends. I was dumbfounded at what seemed to be Pynchon’s complete rip-off of Farina’s style, especially the crazy character names; by how without BDSLILLUTM, there would be no GR. I wondered if Farina hadn’t died at the age of 29, right after his novel was published, would Pynchon have been able to write GR gotten such acclaim?
Then I realized that V had been written in 1963 and the Crying of Lot 49, which also had trippy character names, was published in 1966, same as Farina’s book. The two were literary twins. Who stole from who? Maybe it was all the result of 1960s college and party scene influence.
Crazy character names: Pirate Prentice, Teddy Bloat, Tyrone Slothrop, Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake, to name just a few.
On one of my re-readings of GR, I noticed the tiny dedication to Farina on the very crowed second page with all the many many printings and editions information. So at least Pynchon was forthright enough to give Farina a nod. This reading I am particularly interested in the Wernher von Braun quote before the first chapter: “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.”
Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to waste my time rereading this one, I think I might burn it in a ritual. I won the approval of the snob (he gave me a job as the west coast editor of the wine magazine), then outgrew him (besides, he became a major fan of Cormac McCarthy, who I also can’t stand and who also seems to be a favorite with misogynistic snobs) and I feel confident enough in my intelligence to be able to say that scenes of a cruel Pavlovian scientist eating a beautiful woman’s feces and a soldier coming out of the sewers with a “Negro’s” dingleberry lodged in his nose are not the stuff of great literature.
Gravity’s Rainbow definitely improved my vocabulary, but how often are you gonna use “saccade,” “albedo” or “rallentando” in conversation? I’m grateful for the experience of reading it back in 1991. It gave me a lot of confidence in the power of my mind and the ability to get through difficult reading material. I read Ulysses and Infinite Jest many years later and found them much more rewarding and entertaining, but without having read Gravity’s Rainbow first I would not have been so undaunted by them. I wouldn’t have had the marvelous, “This is easy!” feeling that the climbing the most desolate, tedious mountain with the least spectacular view at the top gives you for the next, very slightly less steep mountains offering awe-inspiring scenery and much more likable characters on the trail.