Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Thanks to the miracle of audiobooks (because I have more time to “read” via this method and retain things better through sound for some reason), I was able to give this book my full attention and conquer the literary milestone that people seem to think it is. All my life I’ve heard the same things about this book. I’ve heard that hardly anyone finishes it, and those who do seldom understand it. But I’ve also heard that for those who do understand it, it’s one of the greatest books ever written.

That’s high praise. And from where I’m sitting, sorry to say it… it’s also an over-saturated load of bull butter.

I’ve read some bad books in my time. We all have. In my experience, Gravity’s Rainbow is one of the worst reads I’ve ever encountered. I have found zero redeeming qualities in it. None. Zip. Zilch. I give it one star because I can’t give it -5 or lower.

I realize this book has a lot of defenders, and I trust this review will be taken with the understanding that my disdain for this work has nothing to do with attacking those who enjoyed it. If you enjoyed it, great. Glad you did. Clearly, you were the target audience, and I’m sorry that this review might hurt your sensibilities. Not sure why you’re still reading what I have to say about it, but that’s on you, just as it’s on me that I actually bothered to finish Gravity’s Rainbow. That said, I am inspired to a level of anger requires an exorcism and/or should have me channeling the powers of the Dark Side like a master. And so, like the author himself, I write this rant of a review because I felt obliged to word vomit about it. The difference, of course, is that I freely admit I’m not literary, I don’t try to be, and I can make my point in considerably less time. You’re welcome.

I own up to my biases. I am not that “literary minded” as I’ve said, although I have read Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Homer for fun, mixed in with all of the other stuff I enjoy. I also have very little tolerance for the drug culture of the 1970s, from whence this rodent killer of a tome was spawned. It comes down to a matter of taste. I found this book had none, nor was it to mine. I’d find more ready appreciation in a Leonardo or a Monet than in a Pollack. I have a lot better things to do with my time than looking at a canvas spraypainted via firehose or maps drawn by kids with crayons. Give me Beethoven, not the Bee Gees. At the same, though, I did go into this with the idea that there are exceptions to everything, and if so many praise its literary qualities, there had to be something to it. I honestly looked forward to the discovery of what that might be. Having made it to the end and found nothing, I not only feel cheated, I actually feel violated because I’m this angry about it.

Most tell me that if I don’t like the book, it’s because I don’t understand it. To be honest, it’s just not that difficult to figure out. I’ve encountered and appreciated many “difficult” books before, and I’ve typically come away the better for the experience. That’s not the issue I found here. Instead, I found it to have all of the depth of MAD Magazine, with about the same maturity level, but with no ability to land on a punchline, meaningful or otherwise. I’ve read Choose Your Own Adventure stories with more plot than this. The overall message of the book is a good one: “make love, not war.” Sadly, even that basic positive got pulled down to the level of horny farm animals to the point where anything resembling humanity was lost. I’m certain that was the point too. I’m supposed to applaud this? I got the impression Pynchon thinks he deserves a standing ovation. I object to any writer on moral grounds that says fighting is bad and yet forces the reader to resist epic levels of “HULK SMASH!” urges for the duration of the read.

The writing style is my largest gripe. People have described it as “crystalline prose,” whatever that means. It tries way too hard to impress the idea upon you that it’s raw, visceral, and somehow “artsy” without being artsy. Whatever tone he was trying to achieve, I grant that he achieved it, which is quite a feat considering he did it by using the largest amount of semi-coherent babble I’ve ever ever seen at one time. The readability of this had all of the appeal of watching somebody shave an animal, remove the top layer of its skin, and then feed that skin back to the animal. No, I don’t have personal experience with anything like that, but I can imagine quite a bit without the use of drugs that the author clearly needed to achieve the same effect. And it wasn’t so much what Pynchon wrote that made me feel the way I do about it. Instead it was more the way he wrote it that caused that reaction. So if that’s your benchmark of literary, ok, point Pynchon. He got a bona fide reaction out of me. Good job in making the reader want to turn away from the work in disgust.

The rest of my issues stem simply from a lack of characters that I cared about or wanted to, and a lack of anything resembling an actual plot beyond the general need of the characters to want to screw everything. It takes absolutely zero talent for anyone to take drugs and get this kind of effect. It boggles the mind that when somebody acts on their visions and writes something down, the “literati” out there prop up both author and book like a pagan idol or a new prophecy or whatever. All it proved to me is that the author was driven to write. There’s a fine line between genius and madness, and he crossed it long before the end of his first paragraph. Still, I can’t tell anyone not to read it. Everyone makes their own call in that regard. I simply offer my own counterpoint to the choir of would-be angels circling Pynchon’s throne in endless hallelujah. I’ll be kneeling in reverence over at the altar of Tolkien, if it’s all the same. As long-winded as he could be, he at least got to the point and presented it with some manner of coherence. And what do you know… it’s the SAME POINT, that war is bad. Tolkien created multiple languages and dialects for his masterpiece. Pynchon spent 1000 pages mangling only one.

Bottom line: I found this book to be pretentious in the extreme and insulting to the very core of my being. I managed to finish it only because I had an audiobook that could force some kind of forward momentum that the author certainly didn’t provide, and I willed myself to do so only because apparently the ending was supposed to make me change my mind and help me to see how brilliant this work is. Calling this literature is like calling either FOX News or CNN “fair and balanced.” At least I can get back my Audible credit and trade it in on something that won’t potentially cause an aneurysm. I prefer my reading to be enlightening, educational, entertaining, relaxing, or some combination of any of these factors. This was none of the above. Almost anything would be an improvement over this lamentable mess. Almost.

More worthy tomes await. I feel better now. I’m done with one.

1 star

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4 thoughts on “Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

  1. Good review!! Given how much you hated DeLillo, I thought this would have had a more scathing review. I can tell you hated it but you aren’t having an aneurysm…this is good. 🙂 “Gravity’s Rainbow” is one that I would say never too, but I do have “The Crying of Lot 49” on my TBR. I hope it doesn’t make me vom.

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    • Believe it or not, you’re the only one so far who’s read this on various sites and thought I wasn’t popping a blood vessel. And truth is, I very likely did. It’s been a while, so I don’t remember, but I do remember editing it down so that it’d make some kind of sense.

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