Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon is my favourite book. Published in 1973, it is a wondrous, sprawling, hysterical, disturbing, metaphysical satire set in and around both imagined and real events of World War II – notably the German development and deployment of the V2 rocket bomb and its impact upon the lives of an enormous number of people.
I was introduced to it (and Pynchon) by someone I met on my gap year in 1998, while staying at a bush camp near Halls Gap in the Grampians National Park – about 150 miles west of Melbourne.
She was English, tall and attractive in a laid back, intelligent, stoner, fashion, and I’m pretty sure her name was Rebecca, although she was known as Wallaby and was going out with the camp leader, having settled there for some time on her travels. Slightly older, she was ridiculously intriguing to teenage me – both physically and intellectually (girls I had known growing up in rural Berkshire had generally been horsey, occasionally good looking, but never remotely arty and even less interested in me) – and on my travels all sorts of artistic and cultural leanings were stirring (I would very soon after discover Jeff Buckley’s Sin-e ep which would change many things going forward as well). Our brief encounter lasted all of three days, but has stayed with me forever – largely because of this book – introduced around a drunken campfire evening as something, wide-eyed, I simply had no choice but to try. A week or so later I arrived in Adelaide and sought out a copy…
Gravity’s Rainbow is hard work, be in no doubt, and not conducive to completion without the recognition you need a significant amount of time to get through it and maintain engagement without too many interruptions. Certainly not when travelling around Australia with only random opportunities to visit the book.
Over the next month or so I probably started it a dozen times, never getting past the first fifty odd pages before having to start again after some time away. The vast array of characters; jumps in and out of their consciousness; and myriad plot lines were partly responsible for this, together with an overall level of complexity – sentences seemingly pages long, that with any other book would result in giving up completely after a couple of attempts. What keeps you going though is the quality of writing and level of detail, which for me at times verges on the magical. It was actually the case that continually revisiting the first few chapters was on one level frustrating but never ever a chore – a perverse pleasure despite desperately wanting to get further in.
There are moments throughout the book where a couple of pages, or even a couple of paragraphs, could be removed and, out of context, stand alone as pieces of art. I could read them over and over, again and again and again. In the same way, I suppose, that one can listen repeatedly to the same song of a favourite artist or album, without tiring of what it gives you in any or all of emotional, physical and imaginary terms. This is proving not unhelpful with respect to the ‘soundtracking’ concept of my current efforts.
Moments such as:
– Pirate Prentice’s banana breakfast – covering all of the historical, the horticultural, the haute (cuisine), the hungover – amazing the reader with wondrous smells and textures. More to come in the next post around the soundtrack, however I have (and I have no idea how) happened upon a period 1940s piece – Ausgerechnet Bananen – a Germanic version of Eddie Cantor’s ‘Yes We Have No Bananas’. I cannot tell you how pleased I am with myself about this. It will be on the final tracklist.
– Or the bureaucratic smegma of Slothrop’s desk – almost verging on the geological or archaeological in layers and ages – physically placing you amongst it all, a la Land of the Giants, to explore a new world before returning to the story.
Such instances are just stunning, beautiful, in both their craft and its effect.
Eventually, exasperated, I packaged Pynchon up with a consignment of souvenirs, photos and travelling paraphernalia to be sent back to England.
I arrived back home about nine months later. The box with the book turned up, after seemingly a longer overall trip via SeaMail than I had undertaken on my travels, about six months later. I like to imagine it travelled for a while with pirates in the south seas, maybe experienced the wonders of the Orient, saw Suez, wintered in the mediterranean, before arriving back in the home counties.
Some time after its return to me, around the turn of the century, I finally set about the book in a concerted effort to finish it…