Pynchon: Busby Berkely in Prose

The new Book Forum is out, and its cover feature – “Rocket Redux: Gerald Howard on Gravity’s Rainbow: Remembered, Reread, Reconsidered” – is one of the best literary essays I’ve read in some time. Incredibly smart, lively, informative, and funny. Just a few quotes:

“The novel in which Slothrop yo-yo’d around seemed to sum up everything American fiction had attempted and achieved up to that point. It was polyvalent, polyphonic, and polymorphously perverse. Its contents were by turns phantasmagorical, hyperreal, surreal, and saturnalian. Like Moby-Dick, it made a complete hash of formalist or genre distinctions, obliviously mixing high and low. Pynchon shuffled scenes of horror and sexual obscenity with music-hall burlesques, with Busby Berkeley production numbers in prose, with historical tableaux of virtuoso authenticity, with anachronistic, pun-besotted humor of the sort more often found on comedy albums by Cheech and Chong or Firesign Theatre. The latter was fine with us; we were usually smoked anyway, and floating free from linear thought was a fruitful frame of mind in which to approach Gravity’s Rainbow’s labyrinthine complexities.”

“Now the real problem presented itself: How to publish a seven-hundred-plus-page book at a price that would not be grossly prohibitive for Pynchon’s natural college and postcollegiate audience. V. and The Crying of Lot 49 had each sold more than three million copies in their Bantam mass-market editions. (Let us pause here to contemplate what these numbers say about the extent of literacy in the America of the ‘60s. Then I suggest we all commit suicide.)”

As a generous bonus, set into the essay are brief authors’ remarks about Pynchon and his influence. These include:

George Saunders: “The result is gorgeous madness, which does what great literature has always done – reminds us that there is a world out there that is bigger than us and worthy of our utmost humility and attention.”

Don DeLillo: “He found whispers and apparitions at the edge of modern awareness but did not lessen our sense of the physicality of American prose, the shotgun vigor, the street humor, the body fluids, the put-on.”

Lorrie Moore: “The narrative mosaic that emerges is strong and dazzling as a mirror, depthlessly reflective as a mirror, and, not unlike a house of mirrors, each novel manages to ensnare an entire era, its facts and wandering energies enticed and held captive there, though rarely without mercy.”

Jim Shepard: “No one alive works so tirelessly to remind us of the need to be obsessive readers of our world.”

It’s a fabulous feature. Book Forum has quite generously put the whole piece online. Don’t miss it.