not worried about it


a … screaming … comes … across … the … sky

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I have a dirty secret: I’m not actually a very good reader.  Not in terms of skills or development; what I mean is that the whole process of reading doesn’t come naturally to me, and finishing any book, no matter how simplistic, requires a certain amount of unpleasant, unglamorous work on my part.

Curiously, my natural inclination towards non-reading is the primary reason I have spent my past year and a half of between-semester “leisure” reading knocking off two titans of impossibly difficult modern American fiction: last summer, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and, now, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.  I read these books because if I’m going to make myself go through the uncomfortable motions of reading—and I am—I want said books to stand a pretty good chance of changing my life.  (Lest this come across as snobby, I’ve been known to lose Saturdays to marathons of SVU.  My admittedly highbrow literary criteria do not extend to any other area of my life.)

My last real entry on this blog detailed some of my frustrations with Infinite Jest, frustrations that have mostly faded with the passage of time.  I will not make that mistake twice, though I am experiencing some of the same symptoms with Gravity’s Rainbow, which I finished yesterday, six months to the day after I started it.

Most of those six months were not spent actively reading Gravity’s Rainbow.  I started the book en nervous route to Ghana (journalism program, see here for deets:, knocked out about 80 pages of it during an interminable Heathrow layover, then promptly shelved it for the six wonderful weeks I spent in Accra.  Immediately after that, during a comparably wonderful week in Barcelona, I tore through the next three or four hundred pages, mostly outdoors, usually with a cerveza buzz on.  Then school started and I put it out of my mind for three months, picking it up again with grim determination come winter break.  And here we are.

Long story short, my (sporadic, tipsy) method of reading Pynchon’s magnum opus is not conducive to complete clarity or comprehension, but, then again, Gravity’s Rainbow is not conducive to complete clarity or comprehension.  I will say that I’m very glad I read Infinite Jest first.  When I was about 100 pages from the end of Wallace’s novel, I had a panicky, “oh shit!” moment when I realized that there was just no fucking way for Wallace to pull all his hanging plot threads together in time.  The resulting disappointment almost ruined the book for me.  Because Pynchon’s prose is demonstrably harder to understand than Wallace’s—and because my reading of Gravity’s Rainbow was already hampered by long gaps and hazy memories—the stakes were higher when that same “oh shit!” moment rolled around.  My experiences with Wallace helped me weather the storm.

Because even more so than Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow‘s absurdly numerous parts do not converge into any conventionally satisfying whole.  Main characters disappear (“scatter”), unresolved.  Timelines are altered.  The truth of the novel’s central plot point—that horrible childhood experiments have caused Tyrone Slothrop to become sexually excited by rockets—is called into question.  The entire novel becomes such an exercise in anti-linearity that one wonders if Dan Brown was created in a lab somewhere as a response, a protest.

I’ve worried (a lot) that literary culture over-values difficult novels because of their very difficulty.  We don’t want to be suckers.  If a book is 760 very dense pages long, it has to be good, right?

Well, no, it doesn’t.  But, at least in the case of Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow, length is an undeniable feature of both novels, and its importance cannot be overstated.  The best way to illustrate this is practical, by transcribing the last segment of Gravity’s Rainbow.  Here we go (no worries, there’s no plot to spoil):

“And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely and forever without sound, reaches its last immeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.

There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs . . . or, if song must find you, here’s one They never taught anyone to sing, a hymn by William Slothrop, centuries forgotten and out of print, sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:

There is a hand to turn the time,
Though thy Glass today be run,
Till the Light that hath brought the Towers low
Find the last poor Pret’rite one . . .
Till the Riders sleep by ev’ry road,
All through our crippl’d Zone,
With a face on ev’ry mountainside,
And a soul in ev’ry stone. . . .

Now everybody—”

Out of context, this is unremarkable.  I mean, it is remarkable.  Any given excerpt of Pynchon’s prose is remarkable.  But it’s not emotional.  And yet, this last page moved me in a way very few pages ever have because it wasn’t just another excerpt, it was the culmination of six months of my life, an eventful six months, a six months that didn’t have much connecting thread beyond the fact that I was reading Gravity’s Rainbow during all of it.  This page, this moment, cannot be divorced from its time or context.  The manpower I put into reading this book is inseparable from its ultimate impact.  You can’t sparknote this shit.

Because more than any other art form, books are about the journey, I think.  Movies are two hours (ideally).  Albums are usually less.  They can grow in time and gather new meanings, but you don’t grow with them.  I think why I love long novels is the way they force me to devote a very tangible slice of my life to such an intangible, transient thing as reading.

A lot of other people love Gravity’s Rainbow, and most of them probably didn’t read it on three different continents during their 21st year of life.  But this is what it means to me, for me.  It was six months worth of alternately maddening and intoxicating material, vulgar and profound, ridiculous and fucking deep.  My inability to reduce this experience into one single thesis probably means that I will never make it as a literary critic (not that I was planning on it), but this inability is also somehow appropriate.  Gravity’s Rainbow is not the postmodern American masterpiece, it’s not the “most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II,” it just is.  And I’m glad I read it now and not later.


Written by Tim

January 30, 2011 at 5:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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