It wasn’t pretty, but after six months of following Slothrop through the debris of post World War II Europe, I’ve finally arrived at the end of Gravity’s Rainbow. Our attempted reading group crashed and burned as members, including me, were pulled away by their respective realities. There was a solid 8 weeks or so where I was hunkered down on my teaching gig and didn’t even open GR. But when I found a block of several days where I could focus, I kept going, alternating between passages from Pynchon’s text and “A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel” by Steven C. Weisenburger. The companion book was invaluable in helping me get my head around how expansive and sweeping the novel is. Before each section of GR, I read Weisenburger’s intro to that section. Then after reading the relevant GR passage, I went back to read the detailed notes and textual explications.
After I finished, I read another critical work, the more succinct but still useful “Gravity’s Rainbow Handbook: A Key to the Thomas Pynchon Novel” by Robert Crayola. It was a great way to review the entire thing when all was said and done, making the work whole in my mind after spending much time sussing out fragments of it.
And the payoff? It definitely was worthwhile. My biggest surprise was how accessible the book is. Despite some brutal sections, it’s generally very readable and approachable, even hilarious. At times it’s a picaresque farce that’s incredibly funny. It’s also appallingly offensive, gross and rude. And there are passages where the writing is nothing short of dazzling in its incendiary flourishes. Part of me felt as disembodied as Tyrone Slothrop at the novel’s close. But the key themes have been cycling nonstop through my mind for the past several weeks, particularly the trials and tribulations of the Herero/Schwarzkommando. I was ignorant of Germany’s colonial genocide against the Herero, but thanks to GR I’m now quick to click when stories like this pop up in my news feed, detailing current-day efforts to atone for this shameful tuneup for larger-scale atrocities.
As the novel drifts off into cosmic diaspora, there’s a passage where Jessica Swanlake emerges from The White Visitation, scene of all manner of strange psycho/Pavlovian experimentation during the war. It’s now “a loony bin again,” and among the post-war entropy around her she also sees signs of the eternal.
The barrage-balloon cables lay rusting across the sodden meadows, going to flakes, to ions and earth—tendons that sang in the violent nights, among the sirens wailing in thirds smooth as distant wind, among the drumbeats of bombs, now lying slack, old, in hard twists of metal ash. Forget -me-nots boil everywhere underfoot, and ants crowd, bustling with a sense of kingdom. Commas, brimstones, painted ladies coast on the thermoclines among the cliffs.
That passage made me think immediately of Robert Bly’s “Johnson’s Cabinet Watched By Ants,” particularly the final stanza:
Ants are gathered around an old tree.
In a choir they sing,
in harsh and gravelly voices,
Old Etruscan songs on tyranny.
Toads nearby clap their small hands,
and join the fiery songs,
their five long toes trembling
in the soaked earth.