The overarching theme of Brian McHale’s argument in “Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text: The Case of Gravity’s Rainbow” is that Gravity’s Rainbow doesn’t quite fit into the typical mold of other Post-Modern works, and that it is closer to Modernist works than most of its contemporaries as well as more complex. He argues this for two primary reasons:
1) because Pynchon builds on the unreliability of Modernist narrators within his narrators through manipulating the ontological perceptions (their perceptions of what actually exist) of characters, rather than just their epistemological perceptions (their perceptions of their own knowledge); and
2) because Pynchon employs “more than one mediating consciousness” (various narrative points of view), as in Mrs. Dalloway, for anyone who’s read it.
The first of McHale’s arguments stems from the fact that Pynchon, McHale claims, makes his characters unreliable by ensuring that they are all hallucination-prone, albeit in varying sorts of ways: Slothrop is paranoid, Tchitcherine is a druggie, Pointsman is megalomaniacal, Pokler often dreams, and Pirate is constantly in other characters’ heads. The core of McHale’s argument seems to be that Pynchon jars reality through dream sequences and hallucinations, and he provides us with scenes that do so: the opening scene (Pirate’s dream), Pokler’s dream of incest with his daughter, and a joint fantasy of Roger Mexico and Seaman Bodine about being “spitted.”
Pirate’s talent threads uncertainty through this entire narrative, as McHale points out, and this justifies some of the strange goings on as plausible activity occurring in his world — though McHale warns against leaning too hard on this crutch.
The second of McHale’s arguments alludes to the frequent shifts in narration, which was a practice of the Modernists that Pynchon improved upon in Gravity’s Rainbow. The Modernists were able to shift between multiple points of view through a series of characters’ perceptions of one event, as Woolf did in her famous skywriting scene and her various characters’ perceptions of a car backfiring in Mrs. Dalloway. Pynchon built on this practice by extending the time periods it could include from only one moment in the present or a linear sequence of events to shifting from the past to present directly through characters’ minds, as was the case with Eventyr and Sachsa.
He begins to wrap up his essay with a final claim: “The Post-Modern, I would like to suggest, is less an indiscriminate shotgun-blast than a kind of sharpshooting directed at specific target” (McHale, pg. 108). This is probably his most important statement, the one which directly addresses the Pulitzer committee and highbrows who discount Pynchon’s work as slapstick vulgarity, and it is well supported by the arguments that he has already made. Pynchon, based on McHale’s claims, does not seem to be a rogue artist of the Duchamp variety calling toilets art to make a point, he has extended the artistic practices of the Modernists into his age. This, though it is revealed late, seems to be what is ultimately at stake in McHale’s arguments.
To cut to the heart of the matter, I agree with McHale’s ultimate claim that Gravity’s Rainbow is art (“a kind of sharpshooting”) and not slapstick (“an indiscriminate shotgun blast”), and I think those are the terms McHale was actually working in, given the proximity of this essay’s publication to the Pulitzer committee’s snubbing of the book and his explicit mention of the committee. I can’t know firsthand, but I’m sure there was a tendency in some communities to write this book off because of the Pulitzer’s rejection of it, and that seems to be what McHale was resisting, and justifiably so. I agree with him because he’s provided solid evidence of Pynchon’s extension of Modernist traditions, such as Woolf’s shifts in point of view, which he’s revolutionized.
I would also venture to say that he built on them in at least one more way that McHale did not mention. As we saw with Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the Modernists were known for creating antiheroes who tended to set out to achieve goals but ultimately fell short of them. If this doesn’t describe Slothrop during his time in the Zone, I don’t know what does. Of course, Pynchon has thrust this tradition into the Post-Modern age as well by placing Slothrop in a setting he couldn’t hope to ever understand and setting up his paranoia.
In addition to this, Pynchon has revolutionized another Modernist tradition in Gravity’s Rainbow. By the end of most Modernist stories, you’ll notice that the antihero has not really gotten anywhere by the end of their journey, and that their experience failed to change their lives in the way they expected it to. I haven’t finished Gravity’s Rainbow yet, but given the fact that we know it’s a “circular” novel, I think it’s safe to assume that Slothrop won’t get quite where he’s hoping to go either. The revolution here, though, is that where Modernist novels come to a halt, this one, again as a “circular” novel, sounds likely to reconnect with its own beginning to close that circle.
McHale, Brian. “Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text: The Case of Gravity’s Rainbow.” Poetics Today 1.1/2 (1979): 85-110. Print.
Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Viking, 1973. Print.