Saturday, October 1, 2011

Big, big milestone in my reading life

Except for James Joyce's Ulysses, which I never got to finish, I've never felt so exhausted after reading a novel until I got to the last page of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.  They say only ten percent of people who start reading this work actually finish it. And I see why: the writing is simply overwhelming, featuring some 250 plus characters, many of whom disappear after a few paragraphs, only to resurface again in the ending chapters. There are unpredictable shifts from first- to third-person, and these occur quickly. Poems and song lyrics (95% of them I couldn't understand) are interspersed in the long sentences that remind me of the works of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude) and Mario Vargas Llosa (The Green House).

Just finished Gravity's Rainbow!

It is a massive work, alright, and the emotions I felt during the month-long duration of my reading ranged from excitement to curiosity to boredom, and eventually to exhaustion. Many were the times when I wanted to ditch the book and start on a new one. But I like challenges. And what really encouraged me, aside from the fact that a good friend had finished it (the classic "if he can do it, why can't I?" attitude), was this advice from Bill in
Accept that you won't understand everything...Don't be concerned if you can't follow the many digressions or keep track of every minor character that pops up. As with other famously difficult novels, Gravity's Rainbow's real payoff comes in the rereading, so you shouldn't feel obliged to linger over each passage until it makes sense. Pynchon isn't trying to lord it over you by writing a book this dense; it's just his way of giving you your money's worth. Just follow what you can the first time through, which fortunately is a lot.
The book speaks volumes about Pynchon who, like JD Salinger, is a recluse, with hardly any trace of photographs for public viewing. This man is a genius. He writes from different viewpoints, ranging from physics to calculus (yes, there are mathematical formulae) to history. He even mentions Leyte and Mabalacat in a breezy fashion, pretty much like an afterthought. And he can get downright funny at times, especially with Tyrone Slothrop's character, where the story mostly revolves, assuming, of course, that I've understood any of it.

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

After this experience, the Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels has started to make much more sense.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the last page of Gravity's Rainbow. I'm not sure if I really understood the entire story, but I hope the time comes that I find another motivation to reread this brilliant work, hopefully with deeper insight and appreciation.

Last page

(Many thanks to Renan Laruan for lending me his copy.)



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