Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Pynch Me! Pynch Me Hard!

Warning: Long, meandering post.


After a relatively breezy two and half week study, NF is pleased to admit that he's done with Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow - often claimed, by the hottest in literary criticism, like Harold Bloom and Steven Moore, to be probably the greatest American novel ever written. Frankly speaking, NF's a bit overwhelmed by what he's experienced, is still reeling under the influence of the thick, viscous spirits he's imbibed and will need perhaps more time to digest the big, fat book, but do indulge him a bit as he tries to navigate through the rather inchoate, vague and unfortunately, necessarily inarticulate rumblings regarding the weighty masterpiece.

Here's a little blurbish introduction to the plot (no spoilers, promise):

(By the way, NF found a fabulous, fabulous Picador cover art for the book which he's attaching here. If one image could summarize the book, this has got to be it!)


The stage is late WW2 and the allies can sniff victory around the corner. That doesn't mean that people aren't dying however. In fact, the recent bombardment of London by the newly devised V2 rockets is wreaking havoc not only on the physical integrity of the denizens of London but also on their psyche, since the supersonic speed of the rocket causes the sound of the rockets crashing into the environs to be heard after it unleashes heavy destruction on the ground. This apparent reversal of conventional cause and effect will be seen again and again in the (many, many more) pages to come. (Apparently, the technical term for this reversal is hysteron proteron.)

However, all hope is not lost, for a group of secret service men - officers and statisticians and biologists and doctors and seers and occultists are all there to help - and have in fact closed in on a rather funny phenomenon: the sexual conquests of a certain American lieutenant posted in London, Tyron Slothrop, when plotted on the map, are exactly the same as the impact site plots of V2 rockets on the London maps - only that the conquests have happened a little earlier than the rocket bombardment; and both of these phenomena follow the Poisson distribution! Which of course means that the best predictors (in the sense of Statistics) of rocket fall sites are the coordinates of Slothrop's latest adventures in seduction! (And of course, the converse would mean that if only the damned American not been so promiscuous, perhaps the citizens of London would've been spared the V2 destruction.) Hysteron proteron rears its ugly mug again!

Perhaps all this is a result of Pavlovian conditioning experiments done on Slothrop in his early childhood. Although the child was at the end, deconditioned; and all those memories have nary a trace left, perhaps a leftover residual of that early conditioning may be responsible for this weird phenomenon. If only there was a way to use this knowledge in an effective way...

(Interestingly enough, there were actual such conditioning experiments done on infants - one of them by the famous behavioralist John Watson! See Little Albert Experiment.)

Add to this rather zany plot, Operation Backfire, Operation Paperclip and the governments of the US, UK and the Soviet Union all scrambling to get their hands on the engineers and scientists who worked on the V2 rocket technology - not to try them or put them behind bars but to use them for building their own rocket propulsion systems which would prove more than handy in the impending to all but the blind, Cold War, the American government in particular, going so far as to erase the political histories of the Nazi scientists and whitewashing their anti-semitic, Nazi past - exactly opposite to what Tarantino's Basterds set out to do, their grisly forehead swastika engravings ensuring instant recognition: once a Nazi, always a Nazi. In fact, the Nazi scientist Werner von Braun was smuggled to America where he went on to work for NASA and was critical to their successful space missions while his assistant Helmut Gröttrup was captured by the Soviets and was of course dumped in a gulag (actually a sharashka, where Solzhenitsyn spent a few years too - the roman à clef The First Circle being a thinly disguised version). In this very complex cat and mouse game, Slothrop, with his secret (even to himself) powers can be more than instrumental - a fact all three governments can agree on!


The book has hundreds of characters, most of which have guest appearances only; but the most important one is Tyrone Slothrop whose misadventures we trace through a Pynchonian lens as he runs and moseys and waddles and stumbles and rolls and fucks across war torn Europe singing funny, vulgar, sometimes nonsensical songs, spotting danger a mile away and then plunging headlong into it, and in general, prompted by his increasingly intense paranoia, trying to run away from Those who are controlling him, yet quite powerless to rise above the supposed residual conditioning that compels him in ways he sometimes isn't even aware of.

Gravity's Rainbow is undoubtedly a quite staggering, overwhelmingly accomplished achievement written by someone possessing obscene, crushingly high intelligence. The fact that it was published in 1973 is enough to qualify the effort as nothing short of miraculous! It's long, complex, dense, hard, heavy, perverted, spectacularly funny, sickeningly transgressive, unapologetically scatophlic, brilliantly plotted, fantastically well written and in short, unbelievably brilliant. 

The only minor complaint, which NF would like to be subsumed in the sea of praise he hopes to inundate this "review" in, is the rather silly and sophomoric way in which Pynchon likes to use certain mathematical concepts - naming names like Hilbert Spaess, describing rocket trajectories in their constituent $\Delta x$s and $\Delta y$s and $\Delta t$s which don't add much to the text either in terms of comedy or in terms profundities. (Though truth be told, when, in a recent, somewhat upscale-ish party in The Brook, the subject of Pynchon was raised (...hence the adjective 'upscale-ish' for the party!) and NF whined about this so called irritant, the ever-so-suave Michael Budassi interrupted him mid-sentence to observe how (rather hypocritically) NF himself, in one of his ''Short Fictional Pieces'' named his protagonist "Limp Member"! However, instead of being somewhat embarrassed, the shameless NF quietly glowed golden for being featured in the same sentence as Thomas-fucking-Pynchon!) One may surmise that this anality about being not silly or flippant about mathy concepts comes from NF's being a worshipper at the altar of Greg Egan whose unapologetically hardcore science fiction sometimes is way too much for even specialists to follow. (His story Planck Drive, which NF read in a moving train going to Lucknow, accompanied by AK and SatyaVrat is one such piece. Another one is Schild's Ladder - which ladder is a construction in Differential Geometry - the reading of which has been postponed by NF until he can learn more about the said construction, completely ignorant as he is, about Differential Geometry.) But NF digresses...

The book is semi-science fictional - indeed it was nominated for the prestigious Nebula Award when it was published, but lost out to Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. The breathtaking erudition on rocket design, organic chemistry, psychological behavioralism, astrology (yes...the occult) and the deep knowledge the book exudes about German and Soviet history; and the way it weaves these into a complex whole, with a good deal of really funny slapstick comedy thrown in, is a mark of genius. The only reason NF thinks Pynchon will never be awarded the Nobel is because of his rather aggressive hostility to publicity or photography of any kind. Indeed the year the book got awarded the National Book Award, Pynchon refused to either show up or acknowledge it and in fact sent a goofy impersonator to give a random speech! No wonder the uptight Swedes, having balked at his stunt will probably refuse to honor him. The monarchs will probably not want the annual festivity being gatecrashed by an enterprising streaker.

Their loss though. They didn't give Gandhi a Nobel either.

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