This post is the first of a summer-long series, describing my reading for my PhD Comprehensive Exams in the autumn. (The explanation of the series is here — “What am I doing this Summer?“.)
I decided to start my summer reading with a big, difficult, famous novel: Gravity’s Rainbow.
It’s one of those books, along with Infinite Jest and Ulysses, that are held up as marks of literary erudition (one should feel vaguely lacking for not having read them) and as one of the high points of the modern novel, the examplars that show what the form can do.
Like Ulysses, it’s very hard going in parts–less because you have to make sense of the language, but because you aren’t sure what’s actually happening. Many of the scenes only make sense once you’ve read the whole novel. Yeah. This kind of complicates the attempt to read for pleasure.
The novel’s wikipedia page conveys quite well, despite (or because of) that studiously balanced wikipedia tone, the challenges involved.
To say that Gravity’s Rainbow is set at the end of WWII, during the German rocket attacks on Britain, beginning with the attempts of the UK’s Psi Section to predict where the next rocket will hit, is to say something true about the novel, but the reading experience was (for me) so complex, so absurd and frustrating, sometimes terrifyingly brilliant, sometimes boring and perplexing, that merely describing the setting doesn’t tell you much at all. Without describing the novel’s style, I can’t begin to convey what it’s like to read.
Here’s a paragraph from the early part of the book, describing the British statistician Roger Mexico:
And the war, well, she is Roger’s mother, she’s leached at all the soft, the vulnerable inclusions of hope and praise scattered, beneath the mica-dazzle, through Roger’s mineral, grave-marker self, washed it all moaning away on her gray tide. Six years now, always just in sight, just where he can see her. He’s forgotten his first corpse, or when he first saw someone living die. That’s how long it’s been going on. Most of his life, it seems. The city he visits nowadays is Death’s antechamber: where all the paperwork’s done, the contracts signed, the days numbered. Nothing of the grand, garden, adventurous capital his childhood knew. He’s become the Dour Young Man of “The White Visitation,” the spider hitching together his web of numbers. It’s an open secret that he doesn’t get on with the rest of his section. How could he? They’re all wild talents–clairvoyants and mad magicians, telekinetics, astral travelers, gatherers of light. Roger’s only a statistician. Never had a prophetic dream, never sent or got a telepathic message, never touched the Other World directly. If anything’s there it will show in the experimental data, won’t it, in the numbers… but that’s as close or clear as he’ll ever get. Any wonder he’s a bit short with Psi Section, all the definitely 3-sigma lot up and down his basement corridor? Jesus Christ, wouldn’t you be?
Pretty great, right?
The lyrical phrases press up against the dull, plain sentences; the list of psychic types is just the right length. Clever touches like the adjectival use of “garden.”
Here, is a speech by a German scientist, also early in the book:
“Consider coal and steel. There is a place where they meet. The interface between coal and steel is coal-tar. Imagine coal, down in the earth, dead black, no light, the very substance of death. Death ancient, prehistoric, species we will never see again. Growing older, blacker, deeper, in layers of perpetual night. Above ground, the steel rolls out fiery, bright. But to make steel, the coal tars, darker and heavier, must be taken from the original coal. Earth’s excrement, purged out for the ennoblement of shining steel. Passed over.
“We thought of this as an industrial process. It was more. We passed over the coal-tars. A thousand different molecules waited in the preterite dung. This is the sign of revealing. Of unfolding. This is one meaning of mauve, the first new color on Earth, leaping to Earth’s light from grave miles and aeons below. There is the other meaning… the succession… I can’t see that far yet…
My question is this. If you were a creative writing teacher, and a student arrived wanting to write like this, this kind of style, how might you try to teach them? Let’s say the student already has a pretty good grasp of telling a story.
Now, he or she wants an improved style. Can it be taught?