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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


A Second Order Poetics in Gravity’s Rainbow
Noah Toyonaga

Scheduled in the Hôtel Fleuriau: Wednesday 7 June, from 10:45 to 11:15

Gravity's Rainbow represents, undoubtedly, one of the foremost realizations of contemporary prose and the narrative form. It is often seen as the cornerstone to a tradition of postmodern novels whose characteristics — verbosity, heterogeneity, and internal dissonance (among others) — are reflections of a demystified and globalized moment of post-modernity. Such analyses render the narrative form neutered; according to this understanding, whereas the narrative form once represented simultaneously a social, philosophical, and scientific truth of the 19th century — that of concomitant progress, history, and empiricism — in a contemporary age the aesthetic tools of narrative must be treated with irony. I assert, however, that rather than surrendering to such supposed futility of the narrative function, Gravity's Rainbow represents a bold attempt to reinvigorate the functional and aesthetic capabilities of novel and narrative for a post modern world.

I propose that the ostensibly shattered narrative structures of Gravity's Rainbow can be read as a poetic meta-text. In other words, while the text of Gravity's Rainbow consists of fragmented narratives engaged with subjects all flavors of chaotic, absurd, and paranoid, the organization of individual narrative patterns projects an emergent poetic form which transcends the noise of its foundation. The monolithic and incomprehensible narrative of Gravity's Rainbow under this reading gives way to a coherent musicality of second order structure.  On the first order, Gravity's Rainbow consists of an unceasing stream of disparate narrative objects: indeed, it is often for these stunning leaps of style (between moments of profundity and slapstick, orgies and slaughter) that Pynchon is praised. However, rather than reading the existence of these discontinuous narrative interfaces as incoherence, I consider the interaction between isolated narrative units as a meta-text whose fundamental units are quantized narrative arcs.

This reading is analogous to the interpretations of physical phenomenon suggested by quantum mechanics (a topic frequently breached explicitly and implicitly in Gravity's Rainbow) insofar as I consider the material of study not the narrative material itself, but rather the summation of orthogonal narrative arcs regardless of subject matter. By assembling thousands of narrative moments with varying frequencies and intensities — from self-contained two line songs to Slothrop's periodic (rather, a-periodic) sexual encounters, to the paranoid fascination with the phallic V2 that underlies the entire text — Pynchon can create arbitrarily complex and beautiful tonalities without imposing artificial constraints of style on his subjects. By creating such a second order poetics, Pynchon can engage authentically the overabundance of information and action and so representative of a newly globalized world, while creating a separate space for genuine aesthetics.

Thus, the brusque surface of Gravity's Rainbow — its subject matter a random sample of the full breadth of human activity — belies the ultimate capacity for authentic poiesis, even amidst overwhelming coercion of alienating technology, opaque and distant political agents, and ceaseless erosion of grounding tradition. Gravity's Rainbow attempts to reassert the power of narrative in the domain of a global and broad present, and perhaps ultimately suggests the reinterpretation an ostensibly incomprehensibly vast globalized post-modern present to the scale of the now almost mythical realm of subjective (singular) human experience.