Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Gravity's Rainbow impressions

I'm struck, as anyone must be on reading this odd, odd novel, by all the narrative detours it takes. Without much provocation or build-up, the story will shift to another place and focus on a different character, only to flit somewhere else a few pages later. Thank goodness, for all this hopscotch, there's still a main character in the book.

What's even more interesting about this technique, though, is that not all of the sidetracks are of the same nature. One class is simply a shift to another, more or less contemporaneous scene. Another class is a flashback. A third class is something like a hallucination -- I'm thinking of the passage where Slothrop goes down the toilet (pp. 64-7) -- though the narrative in this class quickly becomes so bizarre as to actually transcend the description of an actual clinical fugue and become something totally different, purely textual and completely aware of its own artifice. [Kind of reminds me of my Circe paper (see below).] Finally, a fourth class verges on the unclassifiable, for it merges two or more of the other classes.

GR in general is not narrated in a traditional way, with partitions blocking first, second, and third person and, by extension, prohibiting certain information that does not relate to the "real" characters. In GR, much that is peripheral is forefronted, like the little sidetrack into the death of Etzel Olsch by exploding cigar (p. 302). GR also makes a lot of use of the second person. Zak Smith in his foreword to the excellent Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow takes all the yous at face value, meaning when the book says you he draws himself. I read the yous a bit more impersonally, translating every "you feel" into "one feels."

Narrative that peaks inside several characters' minds -- as opposed to just one -- has been around since Dostoyevski; but here we have narrative that isn't simply telepathic, so to speak, it's also chronopathic. That's a word I just made up, using the Greek roots for "time" and "feeling." Here and there crop up touchstones where the narrative kind of falls through the slipstream and into places other fiction simply does not go. These scenes are like flashbacks, but they're external to the characters with which they are associated. In other words, we're glimpsing a past that has not been glimpsed by the characters we're reading about. Sometimes we glimpse a future that will not exist, and probably does not exist in the minds of the characters either (e.g. the spaceport passage that stretches out from p. 296). Any other text that needs to reveal something to the reader but not the characters does not use such methods. It's always some other device: a prologue, a new chaper: something clearly marked off from the 'A' story.

The only thing I have to compare this to is the "object reading" skill from Blue Rose, where an adept can actually glimpse significant events in an object's past by touching it. For instance, an adept who finds a knife used in a murder is able to witness the moment that knife plunged into the victim's back. This seems to operate on the theory that momentous events leave some kind of psychic residue.

In GR the setting, far beyond just being described, is also shot through with the stories of past events and significant figures. Then again, the long-dead Laszlo Jamf appears in a number of places but though not at his own mausoleum. The novel must not contain ghosts then, or even necessarily psychic echoes. Something else. In a novel focused so intently on its hero's paranoia, it's strange to have these sidetracks so externalized, that is, distanced from Slothrop and the other characters, rather than sprouting from their "ethical pressure-points and faultlines" as in Ulysses. Not quite sure what to make of it yet.

A coincidence: on page 303 appears a reference to what but the Marie Celeste...

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