Adieu, "Gravity's Rainbow"

As today is the last day of National Novel Reading Month, I'll offer these closing words about "Gravity's Rainbow", copied from the comment I just left over at John Wiswell's blog:
Reading "Gravity's Rainbow" was like running a supermarathon blindfolded over unfamiliar rough ground, while being intermittently tickled by octopi and slapped by BDSM fiends who misinterpreted your acceptance of their way of life with an unspoken desire to join it.

Exhausting, exhilarating and the kind of thing I'm proud of having finished. I'd brag about it if I thought anyone would care.
Unless you're in an MFA program (which I'm not) or hang out with the kind of people who discuss classics in experimental postmodern American literature (which I don't), you will have zero occasion to casually mention that you just finished "Gravity's Rainbow".

Even if you do manage to work it into conversation somehow ("Hey, the Phillies are looking pretty good this year. Think that new power hitter will pan out?" "If he can get under the ball and hit some homers. The way the ball curves when it's hit right reminds me of the way rockets fly in the same parabolic arc, what Thomas Pynchon called 'Gravity's Rainbow'. I just finished that book, actually.") you'll look like an idiot when faced with the obvious follow-up question ("Oh, yeah? What's that book about?" "Um... well... it's hard to explain..."). The book is "about" so much, there's no way to encapsulate it that will do it any kind of justice.

I will say that the book will be almost incomprehensible unless you have a decent working knowledge of all of the following:
  • the history of the London Blitz, the Nazi rocket program and WWII in general
  • polymer chemistry
  • physics, especially as related to ballistics, low-temperature phenomena and metallurgy
  • jazz composition
  • sadomasochistic sexual dominance and submission
  • ESP and paranormal phenomena
  • song lyrics from 1930s and 40s popular music
  • Russian and German
  • mood-altering drugs of all kinds
  • film-making
  • spycraft in the OSS era
Those are just the major areas. If I'd had working knowledge of a dozen other arcane subjects (and if my German were a bit better) , some of the more whipsawingly confusing parts might have made more recognizable sense.

There is a value in reading difficult books. They make you think, they make you slow down to consider every phrase, every nuance. Books like this one serve a different purpose than books that are quicker and more easily digested. I could never write a book like this, nor would I want to. I'm glad such books exist, though, and I'm glad I read this one.

Next year, maybe I'll try Middlemarch.

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