The Ultimate Modern Experience

Tony Tanner’s argument in his critical essay “Gravity’s Rainbow: An Experience in Modern Reading” explores the parallels between reading the novel and the modern day reality of the reader. In the opening paragraphs of his essay, he discusses Pynchon’s use of “well-informed technological reference,” which he argues demonstrates how technology has “created its own kind of people (servants) with their own kind of consciousness (or lack of it)” (Tanner 69-70). Technology is advancing incredibly swiftly in modernity, and along with increasingly “intelligent” technology comes more and more information and data for humanity to process. Tanner emphasizes that we are, by nature, decoding machines. To maintain our sanity, we constantly strive to find the meaning in that output. According to the author, arriving at a singular meaning satiates us and pacifies us. What Tanner is putting at stake in his critical interpretation is, much like the experience of living in the modern world, Pynchon overwhelms the reader with details, symbols, and allusions to tempt him to reduce the novel into one terminal meaning. The catch is: it doesn’t exist.

Tanner argues that the way a reader moves through Gravity’s Rainbow is analogous to the way someone moves through his or her life today. He or she does not “move comfortably from some ideal ‘emptiness’ of meaning to a satisfying fullness but instead becomes involved in a process in which any perception can precipitate a new confusion, and an apparent clarification turn into a prelude to further difficulties” (70). He supports this interpretation further by stating Pynchon’s characters move in a world of “both too many and too few signs, too much data and too little information, [and] too many texts but no reliable editions” (71). Sense-making for the characters is all but impossible in the space of the novel itself, just as it is for the reader: there is simply too much information to process all at once. Thus, Pynchon’s behemoth of a story gives us a “renewed sense of how we have to read the modern world” (72). It is the act of reading it, sifting through information, and deciphering reality from fantasy that sucks us into Pynchon’s world perversely similar to our own. We the readers, however, can shut the book at any time; we can walk away from Pynchon’s confusing, frustrating story. What we cannot walk away from is our modern day reality that he so astutely (and chillingly) mimics in his fiction.

A major supporting example for his argument the author utilizes in his essay is a key similarity between Slothrop and the audience of Gravity’s Rainbow. The paranoia and anti-paranoia Pynchon showcases in his character Tyrone Slothrop as he moves from the System to the Zone and vice versa intends to mimic our own oscillation between paranoia and anti-paranoia as we make our way through the text. There are points in his narrative where Pynchon tempts us to believe certain people and events are connected and things suddenly make sense. We begin to succumb to paranoia. However, the proverbial rug is always pulled out from under us when Pynchon thrusts us back into a realm of anti-paranoia in which nothing is connected and nothing makes sense. Tanner describes that process as Pynchon’s method of dramatizing assemblings and disassemblings (75). In essence, Tanner’s ultimate argument is that there is no singular narrative “system” of the book, only oscillations between modes.

I do agree with Tanner’s critical interpretation. I had observed both Slothrop’s and my own movement between paranoia and anti-paranoia while reading the novel, but failed to link the two together. One of the novel’s main plots is Slothrop searching for information about the rockets while wavering between connecting everything and believing absolutely nothing is connected. At times I, too, would fixate on some of the many connections in the novel, which I was sure would reveal the ultimate meaning of Pynchon’s work only to be completely disoriented once again in a matter of pages. I felt compelled to satisfy my own need for meaning, or reduce such overwhelming information into one neat, tidy statement. Formulating such a statement, however, cannot be done—just as we cannot summarize life in a sentence or two. Pynchon’s art excellently imitates modern life in that way, but I only realized it after reading Tanner’s analysis of Gravity’s Rainbow’s deliberately overwhelming structure.

If I were to extend the argument presented in the essay, I would choose to examine the short passage: “To believe that each of Them will personally die is also to believe that Their system will die—that some chance of renewal, some dialectic, is still operating in History. To affirm Their mortality is to affirm Return” (Pynchon 540). One facet of Tanner’s argument deals with the regenerative powers of the Earth and how new life is created even in the midst of so much death during the War. Harkening back to the Banana Breakfast scene, Pynchon makes a point to emphasize that new and wonderful things (like bananas) can come out of utter filth. By discussing the mortality of Them, the possibility of Them fueling something positive later seems tangible to the preterite. When there are no more leaders of the Establishment, a “return” could be made. Would that return be to a utopian society? Yet, in groups of people, there is always a ruling/controlling figure or class. Pynchon could be saying that a return to “normalcy” (a utopia?) is not possible because human nature itself will not allow it. It is a very broad idea, but I feel that analyzing it further could strengthen the parallels Tanner draws between the reality of the novel and the modern reality of the reader.

Tanner, Tony, “Gravity’s Rainbow: An Experience in Modern Reading” (1982), in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: Modern Critical Interpretations, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), 69-84.

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4 Responses to The Ultimate Modern Experience

  1. jcm93pitt says:

    I think this essay seems to capture my feelings while reading Gravity’s Rainbow perfectly! The difficulty is in the lack of immediate understanding. Great post.

  2. Mike Wilson says:

    I think you’re correct in saying that no singular meaning exists in this novel, there’s just too much to parse from every single section to pick out one ultimate, overarching truth from it. I think this is also an extension of the modernist philosophy into post-modern writing. One of the functions of modernism was to reject moralism, so when this book was written in the post-modern age, the deliverance of a single message to support the idea that a clear right and wrong existed in a black and white world was already a generation removed from being passé. What I’m noticing with regard to this literary evolution and your post is that Pynchon’s writing not only supports that initial function of modernism, but builds on it.
    As we saw in Heart of Darkness, modernists tended to build ambiguity into their stories in terms of meaning, and this was intended to spark debate about them. In the opinion of the modernists, this is what made their writing art. It inspired debate. Of course, with Gravity’s Rainbow being a post-modern novel, Pynchon extended this thinking in his own work. In this novel, Pynchon’s goal was not to create a dichotomy and set up two opposing ways of thinking about the topic of war. The goal was to set up a network of hundreds or thousands of ways of thinking about war and overwhelm the reader the same way they are likely to find themselves overwhelmed in their own modern-day reality, as Tony Tanner mentioned in his essay.

  3. Steph Roman says:

    You have a ton of stuff going on here! (Excellent summary/ research.) So I’m just going to focus on one little bit of it:

    You write, “The paranoia and anti-paranoia Pynchon showcases in his character Tyrone Slothrop as he moves from the System to the Zone and vice versa intends to mimic our own oscillation between paranoia and anti-paranoia as we make our way through the text.”

    I’m not so sure the reader’s oscillations are quite as dramatic as true “paranoia” (or else reading would be a miserable, harrowing experience) but I get the gist of what you’re saying. And I think Mike addressed it much more eloquently than I’ll be able to.

    Now that I think about it, this is going to sound like an advice column, my bad. But I think the idea is that yeah–nobody’s ever going to be able to exhaust GR. And it’s perfectly okay. If everyone in our class walks out with something–ONE thing–useful to say/ interpret about GR I think will be enough. It’s ridiculous, over-the-top, and a confusing, seemingly utter mess at times. But if we do take Slothrop as a guide, then it’s perfectly okay to fall off and on the boat of understanding. He never knows what’s going on, either.

    • patriciafox17 says:

      Steph, I completely agree that the reader’s oscillations aren’t nearly as dramatic as Slothrop’s–that’s part of why GR is so bizarre. I probably should have called that out in my post, and I, in fact, hesitated using the term “paranoia” when I was first writing it, since it has such a negative, extreme connotation in our day-to-day lives. Tanner in his essay actually takes the time to define paranoia to avoid some confusion/misinterpretation, which I may have paid inadequate attention. He says Pynchon makes paranoia out to be “nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is concocted, everything in the Creation, a secondary illumination–not yet blindingly One, but at least connected” (74). Along that line, Pynchon’s novel could be seen as some kind of abstraction of Creation (life) itself. What I was trying to say was that we the audience have been trying to connect the dots Pynchon draws for us in that abstraction, trying to arrive at a meaning. Slothrop is a true paranoid psychologically speaking, whereas we’re just trying to make GR one “thing” or message–none of us come close to Slothrop’s level of consuming, paralyzing paranoia. While the two degrees of paranoia are on totally different levels, the idea of experiencing the urge to form connections is similar. What you point out it is a critical detail I overlooked and is very interesting. Thanks! 🙂

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