Gravity’s Rainbow has the reputation (and rightly so) of being one of the most confusing novels that you can read. It has a huge cast of characters (~400), an intricate plot, and an array of shadowy, acronym-ed agencies to keep track of. It bounces back and forth in time, in and out of dreams, fantasies, drug-induced hallucinations or musical interludes, all without alerting the reader.
Part way through, however, I realized that the difficulty with this book is partly that it operates more like a screenplay than a book. Pynchon uses abrupt scene changes, flashbacks, and musical interludes that are odd in a book but would be perfectly normal in a film. The problem is, in a film we would have all sorts of visual cues that would help guide us. We would see, for instance, that a character looks much younger, or that, for example, we’re now in a childhood home rather than a hospital bed. As a reader, we have to infer all of this from the words on Pynchon’s page, which are often (deliberately) ambiguous. Still, I found it helpful to think of myself as a viewer of this novel rather than a reader, which took some mental shifting.
You might ask then, how is this really different from reading any other book. After all, we usually have some kind of mental picture of what we read. I think that, as opposed to watching a film, reading asks you to take more initiative in the creation of a mental picture from the text. And so I’m used to being able to “direct” the picture myself – choosing which angle to view it from, how to imagine the character’s voices, etc. When reading Gravity’s Rainbow, I had the sense that Pynchon was doing much more of the directing himself. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a scene in the book, where a psychologist is reflecting on his role in the war-time lab:
“From overhead, from a German camera-angle, it occurs to Webley Silvernail, this lab here is also a maze, i’n’t it now…behaviorists run these aisles of tables and consoles just like rats ‘n’ mice. Reinforcement for them is not a pellet of food, but a successful experiment. But who watches from above, who notes their responses? Who hears the small animals in the cages as they mate, or nurse, or communicate through the gray quadrilles, or, as now, begin to sing…(though none of the lab people seem to be noticing) to dance him down the long aisles and metal apparatus, with conga drums and a peppy tropical orchestra taking up the very popular beat and melody of:
It was spring in Pavlovia-a-a,
I was lost, in a maze…
Lysol breezes perfumed the air,
I’d been searching for days. [This goes on for another page.]
“They dance in flowing skeins. The rats and mice form circles, curl their tails in and out to make chrysanthemum and sunburst patterns, eventually all form into the shape of a single giant mouse, at whose eye Silvernail poses with a smile, arms up in a V, sustaining the last note of the song, along with the giant rodent-chorus and orchestra.”
I agree with Sarah Cahill that Gravity’s Rainbow should never be made into a film. That would be a disaster. But once you realize that it is, in a sense, already functioning more like a film than a novel, you might be able to hold back your inner director long enough to enjoy the book.