- Author: Thomas Pynchon (b. 1937)
- Rank: #67
- Published: 1973
- Publisher: Viking
- Pages: 887
- First Line: “A screaming comes across the sky.”
- Last Line: “Now everybody -“
- ML Edition: none
- Acclaim: All-TIME Top 100 Novels; National Book Award; Pulitzer Prize (voted unanimously by fiction jury; over-turned by board and no award given)
- Film: none
- First Read: Fall, 2000
The Novel: With those opening words of “A screaming comes across the sky.” Thomas Pynchon fired his own missile across the breadth of literary conventions. This was a novel that was really unlike anything else in the literary canon. His previous work had done little to prepare readers for this. His first work, V, had been long and complex, but much more approachable. His second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, though strange and filled with the same kind of cultural weirdness that would be ever-present in Gravity, was quite short. But this, a nearly 900 page work, with over 400 different characters, with a story that ranges across the second World War with an epic storyline, a novel that manages to somehow mix humor and war, limericks and songs, epic modernism with a post-modernist sense of style is a clear departure. Much of what would come later from Pynchon would, sadly, echo the style and confusion of Gravity without nearly approaching its depth or fascination (Mason and Dixon, Against the Day). This novel would forever brand Pynchon as an extremely difficult author to read, something that I have had to argue with people about when recommending Inherent Vice, his newest novel.
I’m not even sure how to begin talking about this book. I don’t understand it all. I don’t understand a lot of it. I read it and let its prose pull me down until I understand the individual words but can’t figure out where the hell they lead. I have quotes that I have marked in my copy, such as:
For some reason now, she who never laughs has become the top surface of a deep, rising balloon of laughter. Later as she’s about to go to sleep, she will also whisper, “Laughing,” laughing again.
The film has broken, or a projector bulb has burned out. It was difficult even for us, old fans who’ve always been at the movies (haven’t we?) to tell which before the darkness swept in.
I could relate the basic plot, I suppose, but really, what good would that do? The story consists of four main parts and individual episodes in each part. The individual episodes are separated by small squares. If you were to look up the novel on Wikipedia, it notes “It has been suggested that these (squares) represent sprocket holes as in a reel of film, although they may also bear some relation to the engineer’s graph paper on which the first draft of the novel was written. One of the book’s editors has been quoted as saying that the squares relate to censored correspondence sent between soldiers and their loved ones during the war.” So, in other words, just like everything else with Pynchon, nobody really has a damn clue and they’re guessing. I’m gonna go ahead and say they represent pieces of cake.
What they really represent is that Pynchon allows us to bring our own experiences to the novel and he keeps his own devices somewhat mysterious. It is a novel to be experienced, but I find that any attempt to get to the underlying meaning is an exercise in futility. It’s kind of like Mulholland Drive. Don’t think too hard about it. If you attempt to think too hard about it, you could spend your entire life trying to break down all of the meanings. Artist Zak Smith even put together a piece of art consisting of 760 drawings designed to explicate each individual page of the novel (his copy must be paginated different than mine – yet another example of the fruitlessness of attempting to analyze Pynchon). Just let it wash over you.