Sat, 5 May 2007

I’m seventy pages into Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and I’m wondering whether to bother going on.

thomas pynchon gravity's rainbow

A couple chapters back (page 55 in the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition) I came upon this sentence:

His little bureau is dominated now by a glimmering map, a window into another landscape than winter Sussex, written names and spidering streets, an ink ghost of London, ruled off into 576 squares, a quarter square kilometer each.

And I wondered, why “ink ghost”? What does the “ghost” have to do with anything else here? Please don’t take me for a dimwit, I understand what the words mean. But, why does Pynchon have to drop this little metaphor just here, into the middle of an already well-stuffed sentence? Perhaps it’s meant to evoke the “glimmering” of the map described a little earlier – I guess a ghost might glimmer – although come to think of it, the glimmering is never explained, either.

I think the problem is that Pynchon has a Shakespearean – and here I’m using the word in its least flattering sense – love of his own voice. Just as Shakespeare can’t let a messenger or a crowd of tradesmen cross the stage without giving a speech or engaging in some irrelevant japery, Pynchon can’t bring himself to compose a simple expository sentence: “His little bureau is dominated by a map ruled off into 576 squares, a quarter square kilometer each.” Would that be so damn hard? Pynchon himself is the ink ghost, shimmering his fingers spookily between your face and the text, keening “Oooooo! Notice me!”

I’ve previously read The Crying of Lot 49 – twice – and although the same irritating over-writing is on display, the story moves along briskly and I never found myself tempted to just chuck the whole thing in. But Lot 49 is only a couple hundred pages, while Gravity’s Rainbow is over seven hundred. Maybe if I push in a little deeper the story will come into focus and I’ll be more indulgent of Pynchon’s showoffiness. Gravity’s Rainbow is, after all, a Twentieth-Century Classic. It’s a book one should read, if only so one can say, Yep, I’ve read it. Don’t see what all the fuss is about.

But then, life is short, and there are bunches of books I’ve never read that I have reason to suspect I would actually enjoy reading. All those “minor” Dickens novels – Dombey and Son, The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit. And didn’t Graham Greene write, like, five hundred books? Every one of them, I’d bet, more fun to read than Gravity’s Rainbow.

But then, I recently forced myself to complete Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and found myself coming around from my initial hatred to a measured admiration of the book. The experience of having read is distinct from the experience of actually reading. In my mind, I can now skip backward and forward through The Sound and the Fury and pick out the parts I actually liked, and ignore the reams of bullshit. I suspect Gravity’s Rainbow is the kind of book one might enjoy having read. If only I could have read it without having to read it.

Update, August 13, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker