[Deserted Isle Books is our new series in which our contributors discuss the one book they would choose if they were, well, stranded alone on a deserted isle forever. Read other installments of the series here, get your own copies at Powell's, and explore other series like this on our Special Features page.]
The read of a lifetime
Stranded on or banished to a lush, uncharted island in the middle of nowhere, having around 12 hours per day uninterrupted free time, for 40 to 50 years… I’d need a book with some heft. I’d need a book that can stand up against around thousands of hours of free time. I’d need something long enough, and complicated enough, a book that will take me more than one read just to get the characters straight, one that will reveal new charms even after decades.
But I also want—if I’m to have only one book forever—a richly detailed world, packed full of bizarre characters and events. I want as close as I can get to a simulacrum of a universe, because this book will be the primary universe I inhabit for the rest of my life.
So, for all these reasons, I want Gravity’s Rainbow, which clocks in at over 300,000 words and features more than 400 characters. It’s as richly detailed and realistically complex as perhaps any fictional world, ever. (There’s also the fact that, without that uninterrupted free time stretching out toward the horizon, there doesn’t seem to be any way I’ll ever actually finish it.)
Every English major, it seems, takes a run at Rainbow. I’ve tried three times, never making it past the quarter-pole. There have been a number of contributing factors to my failure.
The characters are outstanding—entertainingly grotesque, sometimes even scatological, and often raucously funny (Slothrop eating Mrs. Quoad’s horrible candies is, for my money, one of the funniest scenes in all of literature). But there’s just so damn many people, literally hundreds of characters crowding the narrative, and they overlay and tangle with each other in a slithering, quivering Gordian knot.
The prose is likewise dense and labyrinthine. Take this passage that I picked more or less at random, about a map Tyrone Slothrop makes of his sexual conquests:
The map does puzzle Tantivy. It cannot be put down to the usual loud-mouthed American ass-banditry, except as a fraternity-boy reflex in a vacuum, a reflex Slothrop can’t help, barking on into an empty lab, into a wormholing of echoing hallways, long after the need has vanished and the brothers gone to WW II and their chances for death. Slothrop doesn’t like to talk about his girls; Tantivy has to steer him diplomatically even now. At first Slothrop, quaintly gentlemanly, didn’t talk at all, till he found out how shy Tantivy was. It dawned on him then that Tantivy was looking to be fixed up. At about the same time, Tantivy began to see the extent of Slothrop’s isolation. He seemed to have no one else in London, beyond a multitude of girls he seldom saw again, to talk to about anything.
Like the novel itself, this passage is stylish and muscular, a bit confusing, digressive, thorny, and entirely coy about what I think is its most interesting point: the reason Slothrop seldom sees these girls again is that each of his conquests narrowly precedes the explosion of a V-2 rocket as if the Germans are able to home in on his sperm.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to dig out that nugget on the first go-round, but if you read it three or four times, the particular rhythms and patterns of Pynchon’s style begin to expose themselves to you. The twists and turns of characters’ thoughts, like the forking grammar paths of Pynchon’s baroque sentences, take getting used to.
It continues to baffle me that Pynchon wrote not only this book, but others in his lifetime—it might be a life’s work just to read it. In fact, there are two full-sized companions to Gravity’s Rainbow. And of all the books I’ve abandoned through the years, this is the only one that bested me, that I enjoyed and learned from up until the point I couldn’t go on.
Essentially, if I’m to be confined to an island for the rest of my life, I want a challenge, and an experience, I want a massive tome, written by a genius, that not only benefits from but actually necessitates a superhuman amount of free time. With Gravity’s Rainbow, I have the feeling not just that it would suck up a lot of that endless time, but also that a life spent reading it wouldn’t be entirely wasted.