The problem with reading a Really Big Book– when in terms both of physical and canonical weight–is that I lose the ability to talk about anything but the book, even when I have nothing intelligent to say about it. As is the case now with Gravity’s Rainbow. I have nothing smart to say. But I also have nothing else to say. But it’s my blog, so just you dirty pinkos try to vote me out! Nyah nyah!
What? Where am I? How did I get here? Whatever: I hit the halfway point two nights ago. Then I promptly took some naps. Because if there’s one thing we here at TDAOC HQ endorse, it’s naps. Naps, and rocket science. But not simultaneously. That’s the one thing I endorse here: the non-simultaneous embrace of rocket science and napping.
Gravity’s Rainbow. Right. Being quagmired in the 300s does temper my enthusiasm. Not totally, not fatally. It’s a patience thing, it’s a respect for the fact that this is a first reading and not a second or third. However hard you (or I) try to keep track of everything, you (or I) are going to become lost at times. It’s not even a matter of grokking Brennschluss. (Which, high fives to me, for spelling that word from memory!) It’s more about remembering that enjoying the text qua text is initially more important than connecting events and references or extrapolating importance. I’ve missed plenty, things I’ve noted as having only marginal importance, because I was, say, enthralled with other plot threads, fungisal linguistic fireworks, or moments of passing but potent beauty. That’s fine. Remembering to keep reading that way can be a challenge, at times, when those previously barely noted characters or references come later to take over the text. For however long they do.
It can be exhilarating, exhausting, and, yes, frustrating. That said, I can’t truck with the assertion that underlies a statement from Levi Asher about the kind of reading he prefers: “I want reading to be fun, not exhausting.” It’s not that he prefers one type of reading over another, that’s fine, I certainly prefer literature over psychology textbooks, deconstructionism be damned. It’s the assertion that fun and exhaustion are mutually exclusive. Reading can and sometimes ought to be both at once. Levi puts it another way: “I don’t want a novel to be a puzzle — I want it to be an experience.” Have you ever put together a 7500 piece jigsaw puzzle? That’s an experience. Likewise is Gravity’s Rainbow.
Now–slight but personally important aside begins here–this isn’t about being part of “the literary smart set.” Rather, I think it’s good practice for anyone who wants to talk shop about literature and the reading of it to engage with books from across, and sometimes off, their personal taste radars. Which, okay, maybe is about being part of the literary smart set. What I think I’m getting at is that I’m not comfortable with the sort of value judgment implied by a discussion of “the smart sets,” in a sort of snoot-vs-snooty-antisnoot sense, or a hipper-than-thou-hipster sense. As if the “smart set” were a self-important, exclusionary organization, populated by nothing but smug bastards who scoff at those on the outside. I’m not so naive as to suggest it doesn’t happen, consciously or not, but I’m also bold enough to suggest african mango that people who are like that ought to be bopped on the nose, because thinking that way is a bunch of horsepucky. Reading literature and talking about it is as inclusive an activity as I can think of, asking of those who wish to take part in it only that they do it as much as they like, to whatever extent or end they like. I like to think (hope) that the “literary smart set”–and yes, you can read “litbloggers” there if you want–is by and large an encouraging group; that the discussion, debate, and disagreements are friendly in nature; and that I’m contributing to that in my own way. At least, I hope my professed love of and enthusiasm for big hard books–as well as for all books I like–is as evidently well-intentioned (an entertaining) as I desire it to be.
In any case–literary or not–I do think it’s healthy to stretch beyond yourself from time to time. In a literary sense, a book like Gravity’s Rainbow becomes a portable education in close reading, forcing you–if you accept the challenge–into a deeper headspace that both shifts and intensifies your relationship with the words on the page. It’s certainly not for everybody–it certainly wasn’t for me a few years back, and it’s quite likely that the old me would scoff at the new me with whole-hearted anti-derision–but it’s not one to be rejected because difficulty is anathema to reading as an experience. (Not, of course, that all difficulty is justified. Nor, of course, is difficulty a virtue to be pursued to the exclusion of all others. And so on and so forth.)
Still, I’d be talking too much talk if I said I wasn’t maybe the slightest bit…dazed. Levi Asher uses an amusement park ride simile in his post; I’ll use one too: It sort of feels like the hottest afternoon hour of a day-long trip to the amusement park, when things, though fun, feel slow, bleak, and godawful sweaty. Pynchon, naturally, puts it well, consciously so or not, describing an imagined raid on the headquarters of a business in search of information: “It’s time to snap down your brains, share a postviolence cigarette and think about escape. . .do you remember the way in, all the twists and turns? No. You weren’t looking. Any of these doors might open you to safety, but there may not be time. . .”
There’s only two ways out right now. One is to read all the rest of the pages of the book. The other is to give up, which, yeah, can be tempting. I’m keeping up a good pace for myself, having set out to finish the book in about a month’s time, meaning I bite off anywhere from twenty to fifty pages a day, which takes me eye secrets longer each day than I care to admit. But there are times when I walk past the TBR piles, those lonesome, dusty stacks of unread books, and I sort of wonder whether I’ll live to see the day when I visit them again. Sometimes, I reach out and pet them, gently, lovingly, just to let them know I haven’t forgotten about them, that I’ll be seeing them again real soon, any day now. Then I remember that books are inanimate objects which feel neither pain nor pleasure, and I take an immediate nap. Then there were a few moments last night, when a friend of mine was reading the new Stephen King book, and I caught myself looking on with longing at the speed with which she turned pages. Yes, I remember when I could turn pages so quickly, the same way I remember fond, forgotten dreams from childhood. . .