Paradoxical Pynchon; or, The Real World inside Gravity's Rainbow

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Author: Brian Stonehill
Editors: Roger Matuz and Cathy Falk
Date: 1991
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,387 words

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If self-consciousness can sustain satire, as in William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon shows us how it can also sharpen the edge of a particular wedge of paradox.

Gravity's Rainbow creates a paradoxical effect: some readers rave about the book, while others cannot read it. Although the Fiction Jury of the Pulitzer Committee unanimously recommended Pynchon's novel for the 1973 Pulitzer Prize, the Committee at large found it "turgid," "obscene," and "unreadable," and voted to withhold its fiction prize that year. Books have already been written on Pynchon, critical studies calling him "the greatest living writer in the English-speaking world"; and even the semi-official gate-keeper, PMLA, admitted Pynchon's four-year-old novel into the Academy. Other critics, meanwhile, have called his work "American plastic" and "a failure." Gravity's Rainbow is highly controversial; even the fact of its authorship is in dispute.

I would like to suggest that the response to Gravity's Rainbow has been paradoxical because the novel is itself paradoxical in genre. The entire novel, that is, seeks to produce the specific esthetic effect which I shall call the Power of Paradox: the peculiar suspension of the intellectual and emotional faculties between two equally plausible but mutually exclusive modes of perception or belief. The novel's self-consciousness reinforces its paradoxical effect.

We are already familiar with paradox as an esthetic power—as the "final cause," the "intended effect"—of works of art in other media. In drawing, for example, paradox is sought as the final power in much of the work of M. C. Escher. In the folk art of verbal humor, the power of paradox underlies many jokes, especially puns. Paradox is rarer as the intended effect of literature since it is primarily a local effect, not easily sustained without becoming tedious. (pp. 141-42)

Gravity's Rainbow creates its own paradoxical effect by offering the reader two antithetical perspectives on everything that happens in its pages. Everything in it can be seen either as related causally, or as related casually: the novel provides evidence for both conclusions. If events in Gravity's Rainbow are related causally, then a massive conspiracy envelopes Tyrone Slothrop and the other characters. This is confirmed by the novel. If events are related casually, however, then the apparent links are no more than the characters' (and reader's) paranoid imaginings. This, too, is confirmed by the novel.

Slothrop's amorous successes coincide point for point with the rocket strikes in London: surely cause-and-effect, either precognition or psychokinesis. But both patterns conform to a Poisson distribution: perfect randomness, each point ideally independent of any other. Where does Slothrop see the most pervasive web of conspiracy surrounding him? In a casino—hazard's home. This is the essence of the paradoxical effect of what happens in the novel: the insistence, in every episode, that everything is fixed; inseparable from the insistence, in those same episodes, that everything is random. Does Slothrop escape into the anarchic chaos of "the Zone," asserting his independence of plots and conspiracies? Then the first person he meets there will spontaneously...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100000675