Gravity’s Rainbow: A Love Story

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There’s a dirty secret tucked away in Thomas Pynchon’s novels, and it’s this: beyond all the postmodernism and paranoia, the anarchism and socialism, the investigations into global power, the forays into labor politics and feminism and critical race theory, the rocket science, the fourth-dimensional mathematics, the philatelic conspiracies, the ’60s radicalism and everything else that has spawned 70 or 80 monographs, probably twice as many dissertations, and hundreds if not thousands of scholarly essays, his novels are full of cheesy love stories.

Personally, I like the cheesy love stories. If reading a Pynchon novel is like running a marathon, then the love stories are the little gooey snacks that you pick up at aid stations. You could probably finish the run or the novel without the gooey parts, but having them raises your spirits and gives you the energy to cruise to the end. Still, I know the love stories are dirty secrets because I spend an inordinate amount of time in the world of Pynchon studies. I’ve read through mountains of work on his novels. I’ve written one of the aforementioned dissertations, a few of the essays, and one of the monographs. I’ve presented papers on Pynchon at academic conferences. I regularly teach a semester-long class on Pynchon. I hang out sometimes with other Pynchon scholars. And I notice that the love stories are never discussed openly. We get together after class, we gather in conference break rooms, we share a beer and confide in each other. We say things like, “I think Maxine and Horst make a better divorced couple than they do a married one” and “I’m so happy that Kit and Dahlia finally got together. I sure hope it works out.” We talk of characters as if they’re real people, and we talk about ourselves as if we’re characters. But we never write about the love stories.

What Pynchon scholars do write a lot about is sex and its relationship to death in his books. This is natural, especially when we’re talking about a war novel like Gravity’s Rainbow. Sex and death are inherent in our conceptions of war. Everything about modern warfare is riddled with sexual imagery. We’re constantly shoving, thrusting, or otherwise forcefully inserting dick-shaped objects into places where they’re not wanted, then triggering them to explode. War is such a homoerotic enterprise, so laden with the language and imagery of rape, that Pynchon couldn’t avoid it if he wanted to. And one thing that’s clear to everyone who reads Gravity’s Rainbow: he doesn’t want to avoid this. The novel is many things. Among these things, it’s a 760-page-long dick joke.

But I don’t want to talk about dick jokes, here. I want to talk about Pynchon’s love stories.

My favorite is the one between Roger Mexico and Jessica in Gravity’s Rainbow. They’re minor characters in the context of the novel, but they come about early in the book, before you know which characters the narrative will focus on and which ones will fade into the background. Their role in the plot is negligible. In short, Roger is a statistician for a governmental organization called the White Visitation. His statistical mapping of the V-2 bomb strikes in London is an exact match of protagonist Tyrone Slothrop’s map of girls he’s slept with in London. This correlation leads the White Visitation into pursuing Slothrop. The hijinks of the novel ensue.

Pynchon could have dealt with the correlation in a sentence or two, never having to name Roger Mexico or give him a role. Yet four of the first 21 chapters are dedicated to Roger and Jessica. The first section ends with Roger’s meditation on the future of their relationship. Even if their love affair isn’t important plot-wise, the attention it is given and its placement in the novel suggests that it’s important on some level.

When we first meet the couple, Roger is starting to sag under the weight of the war. Jessica is tougher. She teases him, saying, “Poor Roger, poor lamb, he’s having an awful war.” Even so, Roger is smitten. He has “the feeling of actually being joined” on some spiritual level with Jessica. In a novel full of the occult, séances, clairvoyants, astral travelers, and telekinetics — which Gravity’s Rainbow is — this type of metaphysical connection can’t be taken too lightly. And Roger doesn’t take it lightly. Even though he’s a statistician, a specialist trained in the cold, rational world of numbers, he recognizes that “here is the first, the very first real magic: data he can’t argue away.” In the midst of the chaos of a world war, Roger and Jessica have found a way to fall in love. In the midst of the chaos that is a Pynchon novel, readers find a way to fall in love with them.

Book reviewers have a long history of attacking Pynchon for his flat characters. Roger and Jessica are susceptible to this criticism. Neither is given much of a history. We don’t know where they grew up or who their parents were. Chapters are told from their perspectives, but we’re given only glimpses into their fear. Their desire — the most compelling thing about characters in fiction — doesn’t stretch much beyond their desire to stay alive among the falling bombs, to share this moment of love for as long as it lasts. Who are they, then, other than young Brits in love against the backdrop of World War II?

In their final chapter together, Roger worries about Jessica leaving him. He’s convinced she’ll go back to her lieutenant boyfriend, who represents everything that’s wrong with the war and the ideology behind it. Roger sees the relationship between him and Jessica as representing the only thing that makes him want to keep living among the falling bombs. He wants to hang on to it, but he’s convinced he can’t. He believes Jessica will go back to the lieutenant and “remember Roger, if at all, as a mistake thank God she didn’t make.” He can’t take this. He knows the end of the relationship will feel like a death. This is a death he can’t abide. And so the reader is set up for the typical end of the first act of a romantic comedy, when the characters who are so right for each other hurtle toward their relationship’s doom.

On the one hand, Roger and Jessica can be read as a stock characters. Roger is a man afraid of love and war and anything beyond his control, so he retreats to the safe space of numbers, to the world where objects obey rational systems. Jessica — like any female lead in a romantic comedy — is the free spirit who allows Roger to abandon his illusions of control and live life, if only for the moment. On the other hand, Roger and Jessica bring in a lot of the third dimension. Roger seeks some control among the chaos, but not that much. He relies on his statistical analyses. He makes sense of the bombs using advanced mathematics. Still, he’s open to the spiritual, the unexplained, the metaphysical. He’s always up for the madcap and romantic. It is he, after all, who yearns and mourns most for the relationship. And for a free spirit, Jessica isn’t that free. She enjoys her tryst with Roger, teases him, and finds ways to laugh and love in the face of bombs and a world war. Yet she doesn’t completely let go of her lieutenant and a life in which she’ll “become a domestic bureaucrat, a junior partner.” In other words, Roger fears that she’ll trade both her independence and her job for a postwar role as a lieutenant’s housewife. Jessica does little to disabuse Roger of this notion.

The first time I read Gravity’s Rainbow, I didn’t think about the criticism of Pynchon’s flat characters or the scholarship about the bomb as a metaphor for our sexual attraction to death. I thought a lot about Roger. I thought a lot about love. Roger Mexico, to me, was more than character. He was my doppelgänger in the book.

I was 25 during that first reading. Roger was around my age. Like me, Roger was very intelligent about a narrow field of things. He was obsessed with ideas that most people chalk up as obscure, academic, irrelevant. These ideas helped him make sense of the world — a better sense than most people make of their own surroundings — but they’re still ideas that are culturally dismissed. For him, it was statistics. For me, it was novels. In my mind, we were a pair of savants bumbling through some difficult years. We both were in middling places in our lives: Roger a mid-level statistician at poorly-funded government research center; me a graduate assistant at a poorly-funded state school. And, regardless of any intellectual feats we may have tackled on a daily basis, we were both idiots when it came to emotional intelligence. Both of us were deeply in love and far too incompetent at relationships to foresee anything but a doomed future.

The fact that Roger was enmeshed in a world war while I was plodding through grad school didn’t dissuade me from seeing the similarities in our situations. My presence in graduate school felt like a furlough to me. It sounds melodramatic for me to say it now, but at the time I really felt like I was in a class war. I’d grown up in a blue-collar world. I started working for my father on his construction sites when I was 13. During summers when my white collar classmates were going to the beach or swimming in backyard pools or heading off to summer camps or just sitting in air-conditioned rooms, I took on a series of grunt jobs for various construction crews. Mostly, I worked as a framing carpenter. I did this through high school, my undergrad days, and a couple of years after getting my B.A. By the time I headed off for graduate school at age 24, I’d spent half my life working construction. In my corny, early-20s way, I saw my series of non-union construction jobs in Florida as a time spent in the infantry, another example of poor people giving their lives so rich people can get richer.

The funny thing about reflecting on it now, 20 years later, is that objective research partially supports my corny point of view. More American construction workers died in on the job during any year of the Iraq War than American soldiers died in Iraq. The same can be said about the war in Afghanistan. The same can be said about both wars combined. Outside of the statistical side, there’s this: I worked on a four-man framing crew in 1987 and a five-man crew in 1989. Of those eight carpenters, I am the only one alive today.

There was a longstanding joke among the members of one of the framing crews I worked on: if you were in your early-20s, you were middle aged. Because who the hell was going to make it to 50, anyway?

If I live five more years, I’ll be the only one.

So the bombs were different for me, but I felt like any love I might feel in my early-20s was tinged with a backdrop of death, and an early death I was warding off just barely.

Roger was an outcast at the White Visitation. The others were all mystics of some sort, predicting the future, speaking with the dead, tapping into the mysteries of the human brain. Roger, with his rational statistics, fit in about as well as I did in a graduate school full of rich kids whose graduate program ranking was being boosted by scholarship kids like me.

But what really made me relate to Roger was Jessica. I, too, was dating a woman who’d just ended a relationship with a guy who, by all cultural standards, was a better choice than me. My girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend had his own business. He made real money. He could’ve supported my girlfriend as a housewife or graduate student or many other things. He didn’t spend his days with a nose deep in a 760-page novel full of rocket bombs and other erections.

My girlfriend and me, like Roger and Jessica, were in a temporary space. War or grad school. Neither ever really ends, but personal involvement in it typically only lasts a couple of years. We’d all drifted into these worlds where the rules seemed different, where we could indulge in love and dreams and spirit until the cold austerity of life takes over. Like Roger, I wanted the world, or at least the romance within it, to last. Like Roger, I felt like losing my girlfriend would feel like a death. Facing the doom of our affair felt like facing my own mortality.

At least that’s how I thought then. This cheesy Pynchon love story was exactly what I needed.

I was a young man at the end of the century. Cultural stories about love were dominated by television sitcoms and romantic comedies. In the former, people thrust together by circumstances beyond their control grate on each other’s nerves until they finally realize they’re in love. In the latter, love was portrayed as a co-dependence catalyzed by scenes of stalking (really, go back to any of them and imagine those events happening in real life. Lloyd Dobler would’ve been arrested with his boom box; Sally would’ve changed her phone number and gotten a restraining order long before Harry sang karaoke into her answering machine).

When I read Gravity’s Rainbow in 1996, it was the first time in my life when a man I respected told me a story about love in a real way. It was the first time great art gave me permission to be sincere. Roger Mexico gave voice to so many of those corny thoughts that kept me up at night.

For me, this story worked on a personal level. I stuck with that girlfriend. I’m married to her now. I probably would’ve found a way to give myself permission to love her whether I’d read Gravity’s Rainbow or not. Still, when I reread the novel now — which I do more than I should admit — I love those early sections with Roger and Jessica. They connect me to an earlier version of myself. They remind me of my wife’s Jessica days. They also remind me that, beyond all the depth we mine from novels, there’s that connection — so simple and human — that brought us into the books in the first place.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

The Slow Violence of the Flyover States: On Joe Meno’s ‘A Marvel and a Wonder’

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In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon coined the term slow violence to describe “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a…delayed destruction…, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” Nixon explored the slow erosion of cultures, of places, of the ability to survive for so many people in poor communities across the world. He argued that this violence is so pervasive because it’s not spectacular. Sudden violence captures our attention. We react to it. We rally around events like typhoons or nuclear meltdowns or hurricanes or wars. But it is harder for the world to focus on the gradual decay of poor communities.

While Nixon’s book is deep and complex, he’s far from the first to talk about slow violence. Writers, artists, documentary filmmakers, and others have been struggling to shine a light on slow violence for decades, at least since Michael Moore released Downsize This! and placed, in the first couple of pages, a picture of the bombed out federal building in Oklahoma City next to a picture of a General Motors factory after GM had moved those jobs to Mexico. The two buildings look almost identical. Both communities were devastated after the sudden violence of the bombing and the slow violence of the downsizing. Together, these photos ask us how we define terrorism, and whether it’s any less terrorizing when it happens gradually and results in a more thorough destruction.

The most recent addition to this discussion is Joe Meno’s novel A Marvel and a Wonder. In it, Meno explores the slow violence of the flyover states through the characters of Jim Falls and his grandson Quentin. Jim is a chicken farmer in rural Indiana. He’s a widow. His daughter struggles with her addiction to crystal meth and has more or less abandoned her son, Quentin. Jim and Quentin work the farm together. Despite the fact that they spend almost all of their time in close proximity, they’re worlds apart in their own heads. Jim worries about the farm. Money is tight and will likely run out in the next couple of years. If he were younger, it would be time for him to leave his dying town and do something else. But he’s in his 70s and has farmed his whole life. It’s all he knows. It’s who he is. Quentin, in the meantime, is a biracial kid in a rural white world. Though he doesn’t articulate it, he knows like we all know that race is a performance. We’re taught to act white or black or whatever. He has no role models and turns to his Walkman and his N.W.A. cassettes for guidance.

Just as Jim and Quentin’s situation seems hopeless, mysterious circumstances bring a horse to Jim. She’s a thoroughbred worth tens of thousands of dollars. Jim sees her as a gift from his dead wife, Deedee. Quentin sees her as a test from God. Both grandfather and grandson fall in love with the horse. She’s a companion, a way of bringing them together, and, if they make the right moves, a way of gaining a little financial security while Quentin finishes high school and Jim lives through his golden years. Unfortunately, having tens of thousands of dollars in your backyard in an economically recessed town is an invitation to trouble, even if that money is in the form of a quarter horse. A pair of local meth dealers steal the horse. Jim and Quentin descend into a violent world of drugs and gambling to get the horse back. Their journey brings them closer and threatens to kill them.

There is a fair amount of sudden violence in the book. Characters carry guns and shoot them at each other. Bones are broken. People are beaten. People die. Meno handles it all with the skill of a writer who has studied Jim Thompson and Nelson Algren. The depravity of the situation feels real. The worlds Jim and Quentin live in and travel through are bleak and gritty. What sets this novel apart, though, is the slow violence.

All of Jim and Quentin’s problems — and their slim hopes for a solution — are the direct result of an unjust economic system. From the view of American mainstream culture, a guy like Jim is white trash. By that very language, his life is disposable. Whatever happens to him is justified. Quentin can be dismissed on a racial level. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that black lives don’t matter much to people in power. And Quentin lives in a world 20 years removed from us, when even the thought of a black president seemed remote. So both grandfather and grandson are invisible and untouchable from the point of view of power. It’s nothing for those who craft federal and state policy to craft a policy that tilts the economic playing field toward agribusiness conglomerates and away from family farmers. And systems that enable someone like Quentin to have a future — public education, food stamps, libraries — become the first programs on the budget chopping block. So the two are left to struggle through the detritus of this slow violence. There is no suggestion of Quentin taking over the farm that has been in the Falls family for generations. The farm won’t be profitable through his high school years, much less through his adulthood. It’s really nothing more than a few acres of Indiana that Monsanto will take over for cheap once Jim dies. The sooner, the better for Monsanto.

Even the horse that appears like a godsend is really more toying of the excessively wealthy. Jim receives the horse through the execution of a will. His ownership of the horse is a mistake, but there are so many more valuable things the heirs are fighting over in the will that no one wants to fuss about a $50,000 quarter horse. This juxtaposition of greedy heirs grabbing for so much money that $50,000 is beneath their concerns with Jim and Quentin, who are barely able to scrape together money for the electric bill, is striking. And, while it’s not wealthy people who steal the horse, only about one percent of the American population can get away with buying, boarding, training, and racing an illegal quarter horse. Without someone to buy the stolen horse, it’s worthless to the thieves. The fact that the buyer is a one percenter on his death bed, someone who already has exponentially more money than he has life left, someone who will never be able to ride or even see the stolen horse he has bought, someone who set this whole series of events into motion simply to add to his sociopathic accumulation of wealth, is perhaps the most violent and poignant part of the book.

In telling the story of Jim and Quentin, Meno broadens the conversation about the winners and losers of the global economy.

Jim Falls is a complex character. He’s a racist whose last great love is his biracial grandson. He’s a good person who wants to be better. He wants to give to his community and to do right by way of his daughter and grandson. It’s just that the value system he was raised with is losing its relevance. The world is changing. His identity is crumbling. All of his ideological oases have dried up. In these ways, both Jim Falls and Marvel and a Wonder seem like a reimagining of those great old depression era novels by John Steinbeck and William Faulkner and Meridel Le Sueur. The book makes visible the typically invisible victims of unjust economic policies. It makes these characters people — flawed and beautiful. It resists too much judgment or proselytizing and explores complex situations with appropriate complexity. In the end, it not only demonstrates the injustice of our contemporary society, it forces us to confront our own role in these cultural conditions.