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The 15-Minute Pulitzer 1974: I made a lot of notes on this one

by Craig B | Jun 23, 2017

cover of Thomas Pynchon's novel, Gravity's RainbowBook Review: Thomas Pynchon’s almost-winner of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize, Gravity’s Rainbow

(14:41) I begin this review by speculating that the literary mantle has been passed from James Joyce to Thomas Pynchon, and when I Wikipediaed Gravity’s Rainbow, I found I was in good company making such an observation.  Critics with actual credentials have been spewing this connection into the literary aether for the past 40 years or so.  As I am a somewhat pretentious reader-of-Pulitzer-Prize-winning-novels and would like to believe that “great minds do indeed think alike,” you can imagine my delight.

(12:01) I guess I would put it this way.  If Joyce’s Ulysses is one long, straight-faced joke (and it is, believe me -- long, that is) Gravity’s Rainbow is one long, clown-eyed tragedy.  There are silly songs, adult-type antics, and a general surreality that drives one to giggles, but it’s also about the Holocaust.  Thus, the unofficial epithet I’ve decided to give it is "The Difficult Pulitzer."  Because, yes, it is very long (so long, in fact, I was certain for a while it was going to become “The Longest Pulitzer” … but then I remembered Gone With the Wind).  It is more notably “difficult” however, not only because of the WWII subtext, but also because, in all seriousness (paying no attention to any quirking of the lips you might cognate), it feels like I’ve been reading this thing for six months, though it’s only actually been 8 weeks.  The novel is dense and wandering -- combined with the above-mentioned surreal nature of many of its episodes, this made for some tedium, but also some interesting notes.  For example:

“too many characters but who am I kidding, it’s brilliant”

“what’s with all the singing?”

“images and lines like that of Lot’s wife seem to make this go”

(7:19) And that last note, I would like to comment on.  Much of this novel I didn’t try too hard to understand, because it’s just way out there sometimes, but there were these sterling moments (like the image of Lot’s wife, evidently) that kept it ticking, that even caused me to imagine I might one day return to Gravity’s Rainbow to read it again.  It’s a puzzle strewn with bread crumbs, and somehow, despite its difficulties, those crumbs kept me going and will probably bring me back (BTW, I’m pretty sure this is also something people say about Finnegans Wake).  And with that in mind, I have to wonder if this is actually the technique that Pynchon has used to keep his career alive.  (Maybe more than alive, an all-star cast just recently brought one of his newer books to life for the silver screen).  Is it by becoming a famous recluse, allowing only snippets of his lifestyle and developing biography to slip out into the public, by maintaining personal mystery even through martial denial of detail -- is it through these bread crumbs, that he has kept the general readership interested, not to mention famous movie directors?  Like, “Hey, Paul Thomas Anderson, hey, over here, look at me!  New book!  New movie!?!”  A match made in heaven.

(29 seconds left) And so, to bring this full circle, you did not read me wrong up there.  I may read Gravity’s Rainbow again someday, in fact it’s almost certain I will, and that pretty much sets it above and beyond Joyce for me.  Although Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow have much in common, being two sides of the same 3 dollar coin, I will probably never revisit that early mid-20th century novel of Joyce’s for anything under 10,000 of those coins.  Ulysses, not to mention Finnegans Wake, is less coherent, less hilarious, and LONGER!  I mean, can you imagine the notes?

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  • Craig B is a thirty-something lover of books, movies, and rock and roll whose grandmother still worries that he might not be eating enough. (Love you, Grandma!) A favorite book of Craig’s is Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.
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