Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Spoiler alert for the spoiler alert: this plot summary likely won't contain any major spoilers. Writing a plot summary would suggest that I had at least a marginal hold on what happened in this tome. That is, in fact, Not the case. I 'read' the book, I digested its 776 pages as best I could, and I was careful to read it slowly and thoughtfully, I might add, but despite this gargantuan effort, I feel no clearer on this book's subject than when I started. I will tell you what I know:
(1) It takes place in World War II.
(2) Slothrop, the main character, has something to do with a rocket weapon - he wants to find it, but he's also highly paranoid that he's being watched (which he is - hey, Joseph Heller said it best - Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't after you).
(3) Lots of other people are interested in said rocket weapon.
(4) At some point, I'm pretty sure the rocket weapon is launched.
Aaaaand, strike three you're out! That's all I got. Honestly. I'm off to read the Sparknotes to find out what it is ostensibly about. Back in a jiff!
Aaaaand, we're back. I will now share my favorite pieces from the world's most reliable research source, Wikipedia:
- "This article refers to the novel by Thomas Pynchon. For the Pat Benatar album, see Gravity's Rainbow (album). For the Klaxons song, see Gravity's Rainbow (song). Apparently, some people (AHEM. Pat Benatar and the Klaxons) liked this book So much they decided to name something after it. I do not share their affinity.
- "The novel's title declares its ambition and sets into resonance the oscillation between doom and freedom expressed throughout the book." Oh it Does, doeS it? This is why I hated the last year of being a Comp Lit major.
- "It features the promiscuous US Army Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, whose erratic story becomes the main plot through most of the novel.' At least we agree that the plot is erratic and it wasn't just me.
-"Many characters are introduced into the plot and then don't appear again at all. Indeed, most of the four hundred named characters only make singular appearances, serving merely to
-"Slothrop spends much of the time as his invented alter-ego Rocketman, wearing an operatic Viking costume with the horns removed from the helmet, making it look like a rocket nose-cone." Oh Really? I completed missed this. It reminds me of when I neglected to look up the word 'aveugle' when I was reading La Symphonie Pastorale and missed the fact that the main character is blind. I guess it doesn't have to be in a foreign language to be lost in translation!
- "These brief, hallucinatory stories are presumed to be the product of Slothrop's finally collapsed mind. At the same time, other characters' narratives begin to collapse as well, with some characters taking a bizarre trip through Hell, and others flying into nothingness on Zeppelins." Again, really? I got none of this. Makes me wonder what else I missed...
-"He launches the rocket in a pseudo-sexual act of sacrifice with his bound adolescent sex slave Gottfried captive within its S-Gerät. At the end of a final episode the rocket descends upon Britain. The text halts, in the middle of a song composed by Slothrop's ancestor, with a complete obliteration of narrative as the 00000 lands (or is about to land) on a cinema. Thus the novel opens and closes in wartime Britain, and opens and closes with the landing of a V-2 rocket. In reality, a V-2 rocket hit the Rex Cinema in Antwerp, where some 1200 people were watching The Plainsman on December 16, 1944, killing 567 people, the most killed by a single rocket during the entire war." Fascinating. I was actually fairly clear on the whole rocket sex slave shenanigan, but didn't realize that bombing was such a major fact of life for Europeans in WWII.
Well, I think we're all
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
Despite the fact that this book was a really painful reading experience, I find I have quite a bit to say. So hunker down with a good cup of coffee, a glass of whiskey, or a cup of your favorite tea, and stay awhile!
- Banana Breakfasts (aka it was all downhill after this)
The book opens with a rather bizarre scene featuring a man named Pirate Prentice, who is growing a sizable crop of bananas on his rooftop in the early years of the war. As he goes up to the roof one morning to pick bananas, he wonders if he will be hit by a rocket that appears over head. This leads to one of my favorite lines in the book, "His companions below dream drooling of a Banana Breakfast."
These Banana Breakfasts are apparently a serious affair, and I'm including the full description for your enjoyment below. Some people I know (AHEM, rhymes with Sloora Giles) aren't big fans of this tasty fruit, but I found the description to be quite dazzling.
--"With a clattering of chairs, upended shell cases, benches, and ottomans, Pirate's mob gather at the shores of the great refectory table, a southern island well across a tropic or two from chill Corydon Throsp's medieval fantasies, crowded now over the swirling dark grain of its walnut uplands with banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas molded in the shape of a British lion rampant, do you want a banana yet? I do! blended with eggs into batter for French toast, squeezed out a pastry nozzle across the quivering creamy reaches of a banana blancmange to spell out the words C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la Guerre... which Pirate has appropriated as his motto ... tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since the summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead ... banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy Pirate brought back last year from a cellar in the Pyrenees..."
This passage also reminded me of when I went to a diner with my friend Daniel-ay Dittrick and the Banana Boat Song appeared on the jukebox list. Dan gleefully started singing it and I told him he had made it up because it sounded too ridiculous. He steadfastly denied making it up, and ordered it on the jukebox to illustrate his point. I am including it here for your enjoyment (click on "The Banana Boat Song" in case you hadn't figured out that's what the kids call a 'hyperlink').
On war and loss
While most of this book was nonsensical, odd, and often times downright disturbing, it did paint a quite poignant picture of the effects of the war on people. Here are two eloquent passages:
--"One by one they are being picked off around him: in his small circle of colleagues the ratio slowly grows top-heavy, more ghosts, more each winter, and fewer living ... and with each one, he thinks he feels patterns on his cortex going dark, settling to sleep forever, parts of whoever he's been now losing all definition, reverting to dumb chemistry..."
-- "The status of the name you miss, love, and search for now has grown ambiguous and remote, but this is even more than the bureaucracy of mass absence - some still live, some have died, but many, many have forgotten which they are."
I mustache you to take a deep breath
There's a great passage where Slothrop starts to grow a mustache: "At some point, apparently on a whim, though how can a fellow be sure, Slothrop decides to raise a mustache.
'What kind?' Katje wants to know, soon as this one is visible.
'Bad-guy', sez Slothrop. Meaning, he explains, trimmed, narrow, and villainous.
'No, that'll give you a negative attitude. Why not raise a good-guy mustache instead?"
I loved this description of 'good guy' and 'bad guy' mustaches; it immediately made me think of the villain from a super-old Strawberry Shortcake video my sisters and I used to watch.
And now for something completely different - Words that start with "Z"(and colors that end in 'urple')
zwingli - At one point, they reference 'Zwingli's town, the man at the end of the encyclopedia'. This immediately made me think of my family and our obsession with naming a book after one of our favorite encyclopedia volume titles, 'Pumps to Russelville.' It also reminded me of this picture, which was captioned in the Metro paper today with, "No thank you, I would not like any encyclopedias."
zeugma - If you know me AT ALL, you know my favorite literary device is zeugma. First of all, it Sounds AWESOME. And second of all, it is delightful and Loads of fun. (Didn't you know literary devices can be great fun? You're missing out!) For those who aren't familiar with it, zeugma is the pairing of a literal and metaphorical object. Here's an example I enjoyed from the book:
"For political reasons, the party is made up of Pointsman, Mexico, Mexico's girl, Dennis Joint, and Katje Borgesius. Pointsman wears rope-soled shoes, his prewar bowler, and a rare smile." Wasn't that a TREAT?
Zwölfkinder - One of the other most poignant passages deals with a man named Franz Pökler, who is designing the rocket weapon and aware that he is working 'for the bad guys' so to speak, but not really able to extricate himself from the situation. At one point, his bosses/captors start sending him a woman, Ilse, who they claim is his long lost daughter. They send him Ilse and sponsor a vacation once a year to a bizarre child-fantasy town named Zwölfkinder, and amidst the terrors of the war and the suffering around them, Ilse and Franz ride Ferris Wheels and eat carnival food. It is not until later that Franz realizes that Ilse is not only not the same woman each year (and therefore clearly not his daughter) but that she is also being pulled from a concentration camp to 'vacation' with him. I thought this was fascinating (and obviously morbid) and one of the best written parts of the whole novel. Here are a few of my favorite passages on their interactions.
--"He sits tonight by his driftwood fire in the cellar of the onion-topped Nikolaikirche, listening to the sea. Stars hang among the spaces of the great Wheel, precarious to him as candles and goodnight cigarettes. Cold gathers along the strand. Child phantoms - white whistling, tears never to come, range the wind behind the wall. Twists of faded crepe paper blow along the ground, scuttling over his old shoes. Dust, under a moon newly calved, twinkles like snow, and the Baltic crawls like its mother-glacier. His heart shrugs in its scarlet net, elastic, full of expectation. He's waiting for Ilse, for his movie-child, to return to Zwölfkinder, as she has every summer at this time."
--"He out to know if this child was his own or not. But he didn't. Too much had happened between. Too much history and dream..."
--"A daughter a year, each one about a year older, each time taking up nearly from scratch. The only continuity has been her name, and Zwölfkinder, and Pökler's love - love something like the persistence of vision, for They have used it to create for him the moving image of a daughter, flashing him only these summertime frames of her, leaving it to him to build the illusion of a single child..."
--At the war's end, Franz finally enters a concentration camp. It's the first time he has seen with open eyes the horrors he has been inadvertently perpetrating. "All his vacuums, his labyrinths, had been the other side of this. While he lived, and drew marks on paper, this invisible kingdom had kept on, in the darkness outside... all this time..."
Maté and Fiume
There were two passages that reminded me of my incredible grandmother, Doris Lyon Rose. The first was this: "In the air was a grassy smell, a smell of leaves burning, that was strange to the Argentine who, terminally homesick, had only the smell of freshly brewed maté after a bitter day at the racetrack to connect it with."
A few months ago, I was looking for a tin to store some scones I had made at my mother's house, and as I pulled one off the shelf marked 'maté', I knew instantly the handwriting on the label was my grandmother's, but I didn't recognize the word. This led to a hilarious and informative dictionary delving with my Aunt Amy to determine what in fact maté was, and why my grandmother would have had a tin reserved just for it. The tin still smelled lightly of tea, and I was struck by how long our physical possessions last, and how intense the memories they arouse.
The other passage was a reference to the town Fiume, which I wanted to mention here, because it is the free city my grandmother was born in. Grandma Rose, I'm thinking fondly of you, and your dedication to my 'blob' and the immense enjoyment your responses gave me. Give us a squnch, won't you?
And now, a section dedicated entirely to inside jokes
Slothrop's faithful Zippo - there are several references to Slothrop's faithful Zippo, which in case you weren't aware, is a lighter. This reminded of the visit my mom and aunt and I paid to the Zippo factory and museum once, completely by accident, and the hilarious Zippo car. Do you remember, Mom?
10,000 pounds sterling - at one point, there is a reference to something costing 10,000 pounds sterling, at which point I burst out laughing. At my old job, I used to receive emails from a "Miss Rita", who wanted to 'help me out' by asking for my social security number and telling me if I gave it to her, she could provide me with the one MILLION pounds sterling I had earned. This led to a lot of hilarious dramatic readings of her future emails, and my coworker Phyllis signing all of her emails to me "KEES REGARDS, MISS RITA".
Lounge suit - Another one of the minor characters is expected to wear a lounge suit, but doesn't have one. I recently attended a wedding in Belgium, and when I tried to translate the dress code, 'stadskledij' (sounds like, STAAD-SKLEHH-DAY) from the Flemish, I was helpfully provided with "city clothes" and "lounge suit". Having never heard of a lounge suit, and having assumed my whole life that city clothes were no different from country clothes (SILLY ME!) I was baffled. The hilarious thing was that when I got to Belgium and told them this joke, Julie (the bride) informed me that in fact ALL of her Belgian friends were confused by the dress code, and no one knew what to wear. Thus, me and my international friends greeted each other happily at the ceremony and complimented each other vigorously on our excellently chosen lounge suits.
Moneybags - this is throwback story about Marah (aka Mimi Light). She is the youngest child of my next door neighbors and bosom friends, the Lights. Marah got a pet rabbit when she was about ten years old, and notoriously told us the following. "I wasn't sure what to name it, so I thought of all the TWO syllable words I could think of. So I thought, Sarah, Blackie, MONEYBAGS!" ahgahgahgahgahgahghaghaghagh. I can't believe Marah's graduating from college already this year! Congrats, Mimi!
The World-War II equivalent of putting your coworker's stapler in Jell-O...
Some of the characters play pranks on each other - this was my favorite:
"Tchitcherine one morning finds all the pencils in his conference room to have mysteriously vanished. In revenge, he and Radnichny sneak in Bobadjian's conference room next night with hacksaws, files and torches, and reform the alphabet on his typewriter. It is some fun in the morning. Blobadjian runs around in a prolonged screaming fit." This is also how I felt typing on computers in Belgium. This computer LOOKS the same as mine - why can't the keys just be in the same pLace!?
Words that sound made up (for the next time you play Balderdash)
smegma - not appropriate to define here (look it up yourself, lazypants!)
doodle - another name for a V-1 flying bomb in WWII (and a scribble. and that Google thingy.)
ctenophile - a lover of combs (clearly I need to find a reason to use this word)
fricative - okay, so I knew this one from my linguist friends - denoting a type of consonant made by the friction of breath in a narrow opening, producing a turbulent air flow [ex: the 'z' in 'zebra']
dessiatina - an archaic land measurement
ogive - a cumulative frequency graph
fantod - a state or attack of uneasiness or unreasonableness
Farmhouses and refuge
Slothrop is on the run for a while (much like Jay-Z and Beyoncé) and he spends many of his nights in abandoned farmhouses. It reminded me of The Stand, and the characters inhabiting buildings that have been vacated. The circumstances are terrible, but the imagery was lovely.
--"Much of the time he's alone. He'll come on farmhouses, deserted in the night, and will sleep in the hay, or if there's a mattress (not often) in a bed. Wake to sun glittering off some small lake surrounded by green salted with blossoms of thyme or mustard, a salad hillside, sweeping up to pines in the mist. Sapling tomato-frames and purple foxgloves in the yards, huge birds' nests built up under the eaves of the thatched roofs, bird-choruses in the morning, and soon, one day, as the summer turns ponderously in the sky, the clang of cranes, on the move."
--"As he moves on he finds these farms haunted, but amiably. The oakwork creaks in the night, honest and wooden. Unmilked cows low painfully in distant fields, others come in and get drunk on fermented silage, barging around into the fences and piles of hay where Slothrop dreams, uttering moos with drunken umlauts on them. Up on the rooftops the black and white storks, long throats curved to the sky, heads upside down and looking backwards, clatter their beaks in greeting and love." I love the idea of cows mooing with umlauts. One of the first things I learned to say in French was 'what sound does a rooster make? Coco-rico! Coco-rico!" Heh heh heh.
Ludwig and his lemming
One of the aforementioned random side characters is a portly child named Ludwig who has lost his lemming. Yes. That's what I said. And no, he doesn't know Neville or why he lost his toad.
--"Well Ludwig. Slothrop finds him one morning by the shore of some blue anonymous lake, a surprisingly fat kid of eight or nine, gazing into the water, crying, shuddering all over in rippling fat-waves. His lemming's name is Ursula, and she has run away from home. Ludwig's been chasing her all the way north from Pritzwalk. He's pretty sure she's heading for the Baltic, but he's afraid she'll mistake one of these inland lakes for the sea, and jump into that instead-"
--"A hundred meters away, huddled into another white paraboloid, watching them, is a fat kid in a gray tanker jacket. Out of its pocket peer two furry little bright eyes. It is fat Ludwig and his lost lemming Ursula - he has found her at last and after all and despite everything."I am including the happy part of this reunion and choosing not to include the dirty backside of it. You can thank me later.
Other contenders in the running for the title of this blog...
= "When it comes, will it come in darkness, or will it bring its own light?
= "Will we have to stop watching the sky?"
= "What happens when paranoid meets paranoid? A crossing of solipsisms."
= "As long as the rocket was in research and development, there was no need for them to believe in it."
Some Scintillating Sentences
- It was one of those great iron afternoons in London: the yellow sun being teased apart by a thousand chimneys breathing, fawning upward without shame. This smoke is more than the day's breath, more than dark strength - it is an imperial presence that lives and moves.
- Day begins with a hot cup and a cigarette over a little table with a weak leg that Roger has repaired, provisionally, with brown twine. This image particularly resonated because I have provisionally done the same thing with one half of our futon after it refused to sit up on its own the day after a party. ;)
- The tiara is gone: in the electricity her hair is new snowfall.
- He has marched here, with his limp as permanent as gold, out of coldness, meadows, mystery.
- He gets back to the Casino just as big globular raindrops, thick as honey, begin to splat into giant asterisks on the pavement, inviting him to look down at the bottom of the text of the day, where footnotes will explain all. He isn't about to look. Nobody ever said a day has to be juggled into any kind of sense at day's end. I love this image - if today had footnotes, what would they say?
- It's a Sunday-funnies dawn, very blue sky with gaudy pink clouds in it.
- The smooth-faced Custodian of the Night hovers behind neutral eyes and smile, coiled and pale over the city, humming its hoarse lullabies.
"We have a moment together,
We'll hum this tune for a day...
Ev'ryone's dancing, in twi-light,
Dancing the bad dream a-way..."
Dance away that bad dream, and I'll see you again (hopefully sooner, this time) pour Les Trois Mousquetaires! Lise-le avec moi si t'en veux. (psst - that means Read it with me if you Want!)
Cocoa to all!