My apologies for the somewhat sparse posting of late, dear reader. I’ve been exploring a rather large book. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow tries to fit something approximating the whole of human experience into Europe at the end of and immediately after World War II. Like Pynchon’s immensely more approachable The Crying of Lot 49, it’s a novel of paranoia, as Tyrone Slothrop slowly investigates the truth about mad chemist Laszlo Jamf and the Schwarzgerät rocket, sought after by half the spies in Europe. It’s a novel about control: industrial, personal, sexual. It’s a novel about madness and love and extinction and language and lemmings and pigs. It’s terrifically funny at points and almost unreadable at others. It’s absolutely brilliant, and I have absolutely no problem remembering why I stopped reading it the first three times I gave it a whirl. If I reread it ever — and I may want to; I have a feeling I’ll pick up more the second time through — I will certainly use a reader’s guide. Like certain other famously difficult books (Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, perhaps The Man Without Qualities), I get a sense that I will be immensely helped in my understanding by people who have read it before. This odd little web project is fascinating, but does not make up for my ignorance of Rilke; I have a feeling that I’ve missed a number of referencies to the Duino Elegies, many of them in untranslated German, without even knowing it. Pynchon is famously reclusive, but we know that he studied engineering and worked briefly for Boeing. His scientific training shows in Gravity’s Rainbow, and not just in the convicing scenes of engineers talking about engineering; this is the first work of fiction I’ve ever encountered that made me wish I knew slightly more about organic chemistry.
Gravity’s Rainbow won the National Book Award in 1974 (it split it, actually, with an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel). It was the unanimous selection of the judges for the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, although they were overruled by the trustees who decided they would rather give no prize at all than award it to a 760-page book featuring graphic scenes of sexual humiliation, an extended hallucination involving diving into a Roxbury toilet, cocaine smuggling, and a song about pigs. And fascinatingly, it was nominated for a Nebula, the award given annually by the Science Fiction Writers of America (as compared to the more staid Hugo, awarded by the paid attendees at the World Science Fiction Convention; some works, of course, win both.
It is hard to imagine how broad the term science fiction must be if Gravity’s Rainbow and space opera can be nominated for the same award, but there you have it. In fact, the science-fictional elements — a hidden technological breakthrough in the waning days of the war; the conflicted and self-exterminating Schwartzkommando, the rocket’s one-time keepers; a multi-national conspiracy dedicated to finding the rocket; Slothrop’s ludicrously picaresque adventures — are there, but Pynchon is completely uninterested in treating any of them in any way that hews to a science fiction tradition. He may be entirely unaware of the science fiction tradition. He certainly doesn’t write like anyone in the science fiction tradition, all due apologies to Samuel R. Delany. It is hardly a surprise, then, that the good members of the SFWA decided to give the award to Rendezvous with Rama. Who can blame them for choosing the incomprehensibility they understood?