Sunday, 9 May 2010

Fictional influences part 3

A third major influence on me was Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973).

The term is a metaphorical term for (though not a literal description of) to the trajectory of rockets, in this case V2 rockets launched by the Germans at London in the latter stages of World War 2. This was the first point in history that missiles arrived faster than sound, so the first you knew about the V2 was the explosion – the sound of its arrival followed afterwards. I remember this idea of the bang coming before the sound of its arrival being a motif at various points in the novel but maybe that's a false memory...

It's a huge sprawl of a novel with over 400 characters (I haven't counted but Wikipedia says so) and a complex interweaving of different narrative threads, dreamlie/druglike sequences and descriptive sections that often relate to highly technical aspects of rocket design and launch. The ostensible plot can be roughly summarised as a search for a mysterious device that may or may not have existed and may or may not have been intended to be installed in V2 serial number 00000. The purpose of the device is unknown, but there are some clues, or maybe they're not clues, about its magical, numerological, Tarot, sexual, and other significances. In the early part of the novel there is an American soldier based in London who, if I remember aright, gets an erection when he is at any location where a V2 will later land. Do the erections predict the V2 targets or somehow precipitate them?

The book has a whole lot of bawdy and deviant sex in it, but it's treated very much as a normal part of life for people living in a fucked-up world (this is World War 2, remember). Mostly, the characters don't know if they're going to be alive this time tomorrow and, if they're soldiers, are often in situations where sex is not a realistic possibility (though they frequently remember, recount, fantasise etc.); or are in situations where sex is routine (brothels, women bartering a fuck for some food or a pair of stockings); or where sexual fantasy and fetishism is a way of dealing with the strangeness of the world. In particular I remember a scene in which an actress (Margehrita) persuades one of the other characters (Slothrop) to re-enact an S&M scene with her in an old movie lot; the scene was one she'd played in a Nazi film years before. On another occasion, she (or maybe one of the other women, I haven't checked!) tantalise Slothrop by going out for days at a time to engage in kinky sex with military police, returning home expecting to be punished for it.

There's a lot of by-play with language, incidentally. In the Soviet sector, one of the characters - who had previously been a spy of sorts - re-emerges as the member of a committee for the development of a Turkic alphabet, with special responsibilities for a letter that doesn't exist or have a parallel in the English language...

To be quite honest I don't think I can summarise any 'lessons' I learned from this book, other than that it was a wonderful read and stuffed full of highly inventive stuff that kept me reading. One description of the book is a 'Disney-meets-Bosch panorama of European politics, American entropy, industrial history, and libidinal panic which leaves a chaotic whirl of fractal patterns in the reader's mind'. Sounds fair to me.

I've had a go at his first novel, V, but found it harder going; ditto The Crying of Lot 49. He's published other books since and I want to try Against the Day, which Pynchon said he set in 'a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.' Oh yeah? Come to think of it, that's pretty much the world I'm planning to set my next novel in...

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