Last month, Studio 360 (a co-production of Public Radio International) ran an installment of their “Aha Moment” series, in which they interviewed Gerald Joyce, a professor of biochemistry, about the book that changed his life. It happened to be one of my all-time favorites — Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern epic, Gravity’s Rainbow.
And this is great, because I feel like no one talks about Pynchon anymore. Maybe it’s because he’s always been one of the only true hermits of American literary culture, maybe it’s because he’s a slow worker (only seven novels over five decades), or maybe it’s because his last piece of work, Inherent Vice, was more of a personal joyride than a novel. But, as it is, I’ve met too many fellow English majors — or so they call themselves — who don’t have the slightest inkling of who this guy is, or the nature of his work. So, of course, I take every opportunity I can to talk about him.
In the segment, Joyce says that Gravity’s Rainbow (which was published in 1973) struck him, then as a student of biochemistry, because of Pynchon’s exploration of what the novel terms “The Force,” the tendency all things material to inevitably creep towards a state of entropy. It wasn’t the first time Pynchon had employed the concept, but it was the grandest: set in the final year of WWII, we follow, among others, members of the British military as they attempt to find some pattern to the launches and hits of the new German V-2 missile. They find that the blasts are, in fact, totally random.
“It’s a depressing thing and humans really can do nothing about it,” Joyce tells the host. “Perversely, they seem to make it worse.” And in many ways that’s true. But not just for scientists. This is one of the novels that it just wouldn’t hurt my generation to read, if only because it grapples so poignantly with a fundamental question — What the fuck is going on here? — that everyone watching the American sociopolitical climate these days has to be asking themselves. By the ‘80s, it seems that the language of postmodern fiction had become so necessarily ironic and self-referential that actually asking those questions began to take a back seat to this semi-academic dissection of the motivations for asking. Which is fine for professors of the stuff, but to me, it doesn’t really feel like a positive step forward for the other 99.99% of readers.
Which is why it’s so worth recalling, as Joyce does, a piece of work that addressed these feelings while the basic questions themselves were still somewhat fresh, and therefore so much more penetrating. This isn’t to say that Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t unbelievably dense (and I can think of plenty of people my age who would rather take a buzz saw to their right hands than read it cover to cover), but that it provides us with a more direct glimpse at the sentiments of a period that I think is lot more like our own than people like to admit. It’s a WWII novel, but it’s written with the same late-‘60s/early-‘70s urgency that marks most of Pynchon’s work — even that which was written before or after those years.
The chaos of The Force is something Joyce found in the molecules he studied and would go on to experiment with at length; I find it everyday when I turn on the TV. Listening to Rick Santorum, or a journalist rushing to cover a school shooting, or the latest celebrity controversy, all steer me back to the Proverbs for Paranoids, which show up at various times throughout Gravity’s Rainbow:
1:You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.
2: The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.
3: If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.
4: You hide, they seek.
5: Paranoids are not paranoid because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.”
There’s a kind of knowing uncertainty that creeps like The Force itself into Pynchon’s prose, and I know that it, in itself, is dated, but who the fuck cares? Not only is all of the half-assed avant-garde lit of the 21st pulled directly from this tool chest — the stuff still resonates because, in the end, people still feel this way about their surroundings. And, from both a critical and emotional standpoint, that’s worth revisiting.
By the end of the radio segment, Joyce turns his attention to recalling the final portion of Gravity’s Rainbow, titled “The Counterforce.” Amid all the random white arrows that reveal the entropy of the V-2 rocket, and, in effect, the universe, we find one that goes against the grain. “There’s an arrow that points the other way that makes order from randomness,” Joyce tells the host, seeming to regain the curiosity that drove to devour the novel three decades ago as a student. That arrow is what Pynchon calls “the living green against the dead white,” and I find the search for that living green just as relevant today as is all of the depressing stuff that comes beforehand.
When we get a chance see the fundamental sparks of humanity that exist beneath the shell of the power structures that govern our society — often by accident and rarely in ways that makes us happy — we see the shadow of that green arrow. And the Counterforce is a scary thing, even within its innately optimistic position, because it can, of course, feel weirder to try to attribute the nature of our fucked-up-ness to something rather than nothing, or to something visible rather than something so intangible that we don’t even find it worth describing. This is the weight that Pynchon was trying to push up that Sisyphean hill in ‘73, but it’s also where we’re at now.
So it’s nice to hear someone like Joyce so enlighteningly revisit a text like Gravity’s Rainbow, but it isn’t just science that must come to terms with the entropy of the building blocks of civilization. And, no matter how universal — or how distant — the theme feels, that too is an illusion. It’s more personal, and more urgent, than anything. You live it when you watch the news.
To hear the full Studio 360 radio segment, visit Studio 360.