As I've written elsewhere, between the autumn of 1944 and the spring of 1945 the Nazis bombarded London with V-2 rockets. Hundreds of V-2s hit London and thousands of Londoners were killed. The rockets travelled faster than sound so if you heard it, you'd survived.
It's against this background of terror that Pynchon's novel is set. Onto this historical starting point, Pynchon weaves increasingly bizarre and surreal flights of fancy as his hero, Tyrone Slothrop, pursues the secret of the V-2 across Europe and is in turn pursued by enemies and former allies alike.
Gravity's Rainbow has a reputation as a 'difficult' book and it doesn't take long to see why. It's frequently difficult to work out who is speaking, who is narrating and where the scene is taking place. The narrative shifts in time without warning and the chronology is often unclear, as is the scene's place in the overall plot. Oh, and the action regularly stops for song and dance numbers.
The book is split into four sections, each of which is further divided into episodes. The first section, set in London, introduces Slothrop and a supporting cast of scientists, agents and soldiers and is the easiest to understand. The second section has Slothrop transported to France where he is being spied on by his own side, apparently because the rocket is somehow connected to his libido. In the third section Slothrop is chased across The Zone as he hunts for a particular rocket. The fourth section draws everything together, after a fashion.
The book seemed to get more difficult as it went along, with section four being particularly baffling. Perhaps that was because of the density of the novel by that point - there are more than 400 characters - or perhaps I was just getting frustrated with my growing confusion.
Gravity's Rainbow was my rollover book from 2008. I'd read about two thirds of it by the end of the year but didn't have the time to devote to finishing it. It's a book that requires and rewards concentration. Pynchon's writing is stunning. I was constantly in awe of the way he shifted perspective throughout scenes - even when I didn't know what this new perspective was. There's a fluidity and a subtlety in the way Pynchon shifts his gaze that I've rarely seen from any other author.
He alters tone effortlessly too. As I've already mentioned, Gravity's Rainbow is a musical, with characters frequently bursting into song and, occasionally, major dance routines breaking out. There are plenty of moments of comedy: I loved Slothrop ordeal by English sweets and the Nazi architect with the exploding cigar.
Inspired silliness is my strongest impression of the book but there is plenty of seriousness. Pynchon's acknowledgement of the concentration camp labour used to build the V-2 is poignant without being cloying and there's real anger in his treatment of the way major corporations got into bed with the Nazis.
This juxtaposition of raucous humour with real intellectual weight was one of many things about the book that reminded me of Infinite Jest. I'm glad that I read them so close together because it's clear that Pynchon was a major influence on David Foster Wallace. It's there in their love of silly names, the frequent, unannounced shifts in narrator and in the fact that they're the only two writers I've ever come across who have used the word "fantods". (However, the word has been around for a while.)
Another thing that Gravity's Rainbow has in common with Infinite Jest is the shape of the narrative. Both are written in circles, something I would not have known without the aid of Steven Weisenburger's A Gravity's Rainbow Companion, which I read alongside Pynchon's novel.
Weisenburger provides an analysis, virtually line-by-line, of the dense collection of references and allusions crammed into Gravity's Rainbow. If you're more patient than I, you could save the book for a second reading but as I said above, I get frustrated when a book is confusing me and Weisenburger frequently came to the rescue. If you are going to use the guide, and I would recommend it, be sure not to read about a section until you have finished it because there are plenty of spoilers. Read the introduction last of all.
Gravity's Rainbow deserves its reputation for difficulty but it rewards concentration. Don't expect much in the way of resolution and don't expect to ascertain the structure without help. Just let it wash over you and marvel at Pynchon's achievement.