Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now."
In the beginning was the earth, and above the earth was the sky.
The earth consisted of land and water. The sky consisted of air, the moon, the sun and the stars in the heavens.
The land consisted of rock. Water was everywhere, but still precious.
The sky was light by day and dark by night. By day, the light came from the sun and sometimes the moon. At night, a lesser light came from the stars and the moon.
On the land, things were still, but then they began to change.
The sun made rock hot by day and the night made it cold, and the rock became stone, and the stone soon became soil.
The Creation of Life
In time, the soil and the water came together with the air and the sunlight to form life.
The life was green and did cling to the soil.
The air and the heavens were the realm of gravity.
Everything on earth was made to fall and to disperse and to dissipate as time goes by.
To rise was to challenge the laws of nature. Nothing could rise, except one thing, invisibly, vapors.
Water mixed with the heat of the sun and became a vapor, and the vapor ascended to the sky and became clouds. At night and sometimes by day, the clouds became rain, and the rain fell and spilled water onto the earth.
Some water remained on the land in rivers and streams and lakes. Other water, sliding and falling and dropping across the land, found its way to the oceans.
The Life of Fruit
In time, life conspired to defy gravity little by little.
Life combined with the soil and the water and the air and the light to make trees and shrubs (some bearing bananas or mangoes or pawpaws), and these plants reached skyward to the sun.
But these plants could not be severed from the soil, because their roots sought nourishment there. Any plant severed from the soil would fall to the earth, obedient to gravity.
In time, many plants were severed from the earth and covered by soil and water and became hard and part of the rock. Beneath the surface of the earth, dead plants formed coal, and sometimes oil and gas.
The Origin of Man
After much time, other forms of life were born, including animals that did grow heads and arms and legs and tails and eat the plants.
Some animals became humans, some male, some female, all of whom wished to walk on two legs and become higher than other animals and plants.
Men were not always bigger and stronger than other animals and so sought refuge in holes in the ground and caves.
The caves were darker than night and men grew frightened of the dark, not knowing what was out there, until they discovered fire, which they used for light and heat.
Sometimes, men used fire to warm the flesh of other beasts and they grew stronger.
Life was good, and men tended to live within and surrounded by nature as one.
Man on the Move
Men began to move across the earth in search of food and learned how to construct homes of rock and stone and bricks made of soil and water.
Their homes grew taller than trees and animals and began to defy gravity.
Then men learned how to make machines that could move across the land and water at speeds faster than men or horses could walk or run.
And they consumed coal and oil and gas, so that they were not dependent on horse power.
Man Turns the Power Switch On
Men learned how to make electricity and switches that would turn the power on and off.
Men made glass bulbs that turned darkness into light.
Men had finally become enlightened.
Men looked at the sky for beauty and meaning and portents of the future.
They wondered what lived in the heavens and whether they had been created by gods.
They made drawings and pictures of what surrounded them. One day they would make photographs and moving pictures and shiny silver discs.
Men observed what occurred in nature and, over a great duration, started to learn about cause and effect.
Man Dominates Himself
Then men created gods in their own image.
They invented religions and superstitions and sometimes it was difficult to tell them apart, men and their gods, religions and superstitions.
Men used their religions to explain what they could and couldn’t do.
Then they created churches and holy men and scriptures to dictate to them what they must and must not do, and the holy men and their gods punished them if they did not do what they must do, or did what they must not do.
Man Discovers Matters of Life and Death
Men observed decay and destruction and death around them, and wondered whether they too would die one day.
Men didn’t like this prospect and decided that they alone amongst the plants and animals had a soul and, after death, would live in eternity.
Except that, if they disobeyed the commandments of their holy men and gods and scriptures, they would be punished by eternal damnation and made to live in hell. Which was not meant to be a good thing.
Some scientists conducted experiments and tests on dogs and other animals and learned how they were governed by stimulus and response.
Men wondered whether their souls and their capacity for reason elevated them above the animals.
They did not recognise that, even with their gods, men would do evil things to each other that animals would never do.
Man Engages in Some Empire State Building
Men built their homes in cities and formed nations. They conquered other cities and nations and established empires.
They established workforces and armies.
They organised men and their possessions into rows and columns, and they made men and women wear uniforms, so that they might look and think and do alike.
They developed systems to punish those who would dissent and they used force to hold their empires together.
They looked down upon any man or woman who would not conform or wear a uniform.
Those that they did not incarcerate or hang or inject with life-sapping solutions or electricity, they cast off into the wilderness, where they would disperse or die of thirst.
We Men are Scientists
So men acquired knowledge and wisdom, and accumulated science and technology beyond the wildest dreams of their predecessors.
They converted their knowledge and wisdom into zeroes and ones, so that they might store them on silver discs.
Some men wondered whether there was more to life than zeroes and ones, and was there anything beyond zero or between zero and one, and they were scorned.
Man Defies Gravity
Slowly, man’s dreams became more ambitious.
Some men dreamed about how they might fly like a bird, and one day men learned how to make flying machines.
Men did not always live happily with other men, and they made tools and machines that would maim and kill their enemies.
Men used their aeroplanes to drop bombs on other men, and the planes and the bombs grew bigger, and the maiming and the killing grew more widespread and efficient.
At the same time, men learned how to make bigger and taller buildings that reached higher and appeared to touch the sky.
Many men lived and worked in these skyscrapers.
In Case of War
Then there were two wars between many nations of the world.
In the first war, many men died in trenches dug into the soil of their farms.
In the second war, it was not necessary to get into a trench to die. Many people died in their homes and their buildings. It was easier to kill more quickly in the cities that housed large numbers of people.
Men made new bombs that were meant to end the wars, but when they continued, men invented rockets that could maim and kill even greater numbers of people.
Some rockets made a sound that warned people that they were coming.
If you heard the sound, you might be able to escape to safety.
When they did not end the war, scientists invented more and better ways to kill more and better people. They built rockets that made no noise and could kill you before you heard them coming.
They were the perfect machinery of death, because nowhere was safe and you could not escape them.
These rockets defied both gravity and the imagination.
While nobody had been looking or thinking about it, man’s buildings and vehicles and aeroplanes and rockets and bombs had made the earth dark again.
A Voice in the Wilderness
Well, maybe not nobody. A man called Slothrop had been watching.
Every time a rocket was launched, Slothrop was blessed with a hard-on, an erection.
He would look at the rockets and he would be turned off.
At the same time, he would look at the rockets and he would be turned on.
Slothrop’s hard on was a hard one for the scientists to explain.
What the Fuck?
Somewhere in Europe, scientists were erecting buildings, platforms, rockets that could bring death to people like Slothrop.
Slothrop suspected that the best use of an erection was not to build an edifice, but to fill an orifice.
Slothrop wondered, why had men become obsessed by Death, when they should have been preoccupied with Life?
Surely, there is no life without sex, no progress without congress, no creation without procreation?
“Make love, fuck the war.”
“Fuck war, fuck each other.”
How do you convince everybody else that this is the solution?
“Fucked if I know,” sez Slothrop.
The Prophet Debunked
Slothrop is cast out of the mainstream and sets out across Europe in pursuit of love, sex, and rockets (and those who would launch any one or more of them at him).
Still, even equipped with his hard on, Slothrop prefers bananas to buildings and rockets, he is bent but never straight.
He is the ultimate non-conformist, hedonist and sybarite, who gives pleasure to himself and to many women, Katje, Margherita, Bianca, three of the foremost amongst them.
Slothrop’s skepticism and excess threaten the System, Religion and Culture. He is an anarchist Counter-Force to Binary Code, Mono-theism, Uniformity and Over-the-Counter Culture.
He is the unwitting counter-cultural Prophet who threatens the methodical, ordered and conformist backbone of Mainstream Society.
He is a spanner in the works. He is a virus that must be eliminated. Like Trotsky, he is a Prophet that must be netted.
They, the powers that be, with their uniforms and their weapons and their switches, chase Slothrop through Europe, but he remains free.
In time, people came to doubt whether Slothrop ever actually existed at all.
Some would ask, “Slothrop? What kind of name for a prophet is that?”
Still They did not stop their pursuit, even when They were certain that he must be dead. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
If you can’t see him or hear him, deprive him of oxygen. Wipe out his disciples. Stifle his message. Prevent it from reaching any children. If the medium is the message, remove his medium. That way the prophet and his prophecy will cease to exist.
Revelations? What Revelations?
Was Slothrop a fabrication? A ghost in the machine? A shadow in the light of day? A figment of someone’s imagination? A fiction? Just a character in a novel? Just a story in a holy book?
As Slothrop would say, “I’m fucked if I know.”
Outside the novel, the world continues as before, only more so. Buildings reach higher. Rockets and aeroplanes fly further. Wars drone on. Civilians die. Men line up in rows and columns and uniforms. Power perpetuates itself eternally. Evil perpetrates itself on people via people. Darkness masquerades as light.
The sky is silent. We can no longer hear the screaming. It’s all theatre, even within our homes.
I re-read this as part of a group read started by Stephen M:
I kept my reading notes in My Writings:
A Letter from Vlad the Impaler of Butterflies Dated April, 1973
Vera and I very much appreciated your gift of a signed first edition of your novel.
It actually caused a little friction in the Nabokov household.
I don't mean to be ungrateful or vulgar, but we both wished you had given us one copy each. (I guess we could purchase one, but we were too keen to read it.)
Naturally, I started it first, immediately it arrived, but quickly found I couldn't put it down.
The reason being that, every time I did, Vera picked it up and commenced reading.
Initially, our respective lepidopteran bookmarks were quite far apart, but when she passed my place, she asserted her right to be the dominant reader, and I had to wait until she had devoured the entire offering, which she did by the time of Maundy Thursday.
Fortunately, this left me Easter to finish it, so we were able to compare notes by Easter Monday, appropriately with a sense of renewed faith in literature.
I am convinced "Gravity's Rainbow" is one of the finest works of modern fiction.
It is very much an artistic and logical extension of "V.", which as you know we also enjoyed greatly.
If your first novel was a pursuit of "V", then "Gravity's Rainbow" is a pursuit of V, too.
In fact, it is a pursuit of both V1 and V2.
Vera was bold enough to suggest that V1 and V2 might connote Vlad and Vera, though we were unable to reach consensus on who might be noisy and who might be silent.
We did, however, hypothesise that Slothrop could be a reversal of Humbert.
To put it bluntly (these are Vera's words, not mine), Humbert, European in origin, fucks his way around the New World, more or less.
Slothrop, on the other hand, American to his bootstraps, fucks his way around the Old World.
I admire the way you, even more so than Slothrop, carried off Bianca.
It is some of the most delicious erotic writing I have read.
Bianca echoes Dolores nicely.
Even the sound of her name...Bi-an-ca.
The way it rolls off your tongue, it reminds me of, forgive me for citing myself, "Lo-lee-ta".
It's also close enough to the German acronym B.N.K. (which even a faint-hearted German reader or patient would appreciate stands for the "Bundesverband Niedergelassener Kardiologen", cross my heart and hope not to die).
Vera was the first to detect how you reversed the reader's response to this relationship.
Humbert knew damned well how old Lolita was. It was crucial to his enterprise.
On the other hand, Slothrop "believed" Bianca was a minor of barely 11 or 12, but when you work through the arithmetic of your puzzle, you realise that in reality (and therefore fiction) she was 16 (or was it 17?) and consequently of age.
So, what Slothrop did was legitimate, but what the reader (who was as yet unaware of this detail) did was not.
In "Lolita", I allowed readers to believe they were jurors with a legitimate interest in the proceedings, whereas in "Gravity's Rainbow" they are complicit in a crime that the protagonist did not actually commit.
The reader's voyeurism comes at a cost, at least metaphorically.
Only time will tell whether America and the world is ready to be confronted with their culpability.
Even if they are not, I hope your novel receives the acclaim it deserves.
So, well done, Tom, Richard would have been proud.
I would have been proud to call you my pupil, too (Pupil 2?), if only you had enrolled in one of my classes.
Perhaps you learned more and better from my example?
In the hope that you might continue to do so, I have asked my Publisher to send you a copy of my "Strong Opinions".
I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed expressing them.
Yours, with all my admiration,
Slothropod De-Feets Cephalopod, Dutch Girl Almost Pops Her Clogs
And Katje Borgesius
We were meant to meet.
The Thoughts of An Erotic Clausewitz
Fuck Death, Fuck Rockets,
Says Erotic Clausewitz,
Make Love, Fuck the War.
Jim Carroll Watches the Earth Recede
How can I propel
My missile 'gainst the pull of
Slothrop's Dewy Glans
Slothrop's cock, un-cropped
Slots into sweet spot, then, spent,
Flops soft in wet spot.
Who knows what worldly wisdom I might find
When I discover myself at the peak,
Gravity-defiant, all nickels spent,
Trying to work out what it could have meant,
And you're already there, reposed, asleep,
Your trousers down and crimson phallus bent,
And scattered on the snow are streaks
Of your rocket-powered ejaculate
That have fallen moist, arc-like to the earth,
Still rainbow-coloured and immaculate.
So I read 200 sullen words worth
Of the dry wit and onanistic mirth
That appeal so much to the daisy chain
Of acolytes standing at your rear.
As one who's usually come before,
They call you a poet and a seer.
It's sad we only see your back side,
Though we're the ones forever left behind
By all your avant garde sorcery and
The flaccid disquisitions of your mind.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Babe You Turn Me On
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