The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)
Towards the end of the 20th century, the world was becoming a smaller place. The accelerating pace of technological advances, particularly in transport and communications, brought about a globalization of trade and cultures on a scale never seen before. Political changes, most noticeably the liberalization of eastern European communist bloc countries and the lifting of the Iron Curtain, also helped to foster ever-greater international links.
At the same time as nations around the globe developed their own distinct postcolonial cultures, Europe and North America became influenced by multiculturalism, which led to a realization within the West that its culture could no longer be considered a benchmark for the rest of the world.
This was a period in which the first generation of writers to have been born in nations that had gained independence from the European empires came of age. Many writers admired the new techniques of postmodernism that some South American authors had adopted as a style, and especially the genre of magic realism. The English language still dominated the literary world, however, and it was people from the old British Empire who came to prominence in the first wave of postcolonial literature.
New national voices
India produced authors such as Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth who, writing in English, portrayed the experiences of the new India after independence and partition. Local voices also emerged in other former outposts of empire, including the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott and the novelist V S Naipaul. In Canada, Australia, and South Africa, where many people had resettled from the UK, British influence on writing waned and literature began to appear that was recognizably of those nations.
New styles of writing were also emerging in East Asia, as writers sought to establish a national identity in a modern China after the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, and in a Korea that was now divided into an authoritarian north and a liberal south by the 38th parallel.
While European culture was losing its monopoly in its old colonies, it was also being influenced by rising numbers of immigrants from around the world. Many cities in Europe became cosmopolitan centres, attracting not only people in search of a new life and a better standard of living, but also writers and artists who still regarded Europe as an intellectual centre.
Ironically, many writers who had helped to establish a literary style in their homeland, such as Rushdie, Seth, and Naipaul, had chosen to settle in England, where their presence inspired younger writers, many of whom were the offspring of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. Such authors described the complex experiences of living in multicultural cities, with Zadie Smith exploring the integration of immigrants into British society.
In the USA, however, issues of race and cultural assimilation had a longer history. US society had long been based on the model of its European settlers’ homelands, while a quite separate culture had developed among the African-American descendants of slaves. Even after many of the political goals of the Civil Rights Movement had been achieved, racial tensions persisted and this was reflected in a distinctive body of literature by writers such as Toni Morrison.
Alongside the development of new national voices, a global trend of adopting postmodern stylistic techniques gave much of the era’s literature an international appeal. The counterculture of the 1960s broke down the barriers between “serious” and “popular” culture, while sophisticated computing and telecommunications technologies were the inspiration for novels such as US author Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Magic realism in particular had become a widely accepted genre, yet new writing continued to draw upon older forms, such as in the allegorical satire of José Saramago and the metafiction of Italo Calvino.
While English is now a second language for numerous people across the world, many novels are also available in translation. The modern readership is international, and authors – no longer restricted by regional boundaries – are quick to reflect on ideas and issues that have global resonance, such as the dysfunctions in modern society and the threat posed by terrorism.
The encyclopedic novel
1851 Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is the first great encylopedic American novel.
1963 Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. anticipates Gravity’s Rainbow in its panoramic and information-packed scope.
1996 Dealing with addiction, family relationships, tennis, entertainment, advertising, Quebecois separatism, and film theory, the encyclopedic novel Infinite Jest, by US writer David Foster Wallace, has 388 endnotes.
1997 Using baseball – and one baseball in particular – as its central conceit, US author Don DeLillo’s complex novel Underworld stretches from the 1950s to the 1990s and involves both fictional and historical characters.
The term “encyclopedic novel” refers to a capacious, complex work of fiction that includes swathes of specialized information on subjects ranging from science to the arts to history. It attempts to create, through a virtuoso effort of imagination, a fictional world beyond the reach of linear storytelling. In his novel Moby-Dick, Herman Melville combined, among other things, biblical and Shakespearean references, facts about whales, and realistic descriptions of life on board a ship. In Gravity’s Rainbow, set at the end of World War II, Thomas Pynchon interweaves wartime secret operations with pop culture, surrealism, perverse eroticism, rocket science, and mathematics.
Determinism and disorder
Within a formidably complex plot, with shifts in time and around 400 characters, the novel is a display of prodigious erudition. Its themes include paranoia, determinism, death, and entropy – a term from thermodynamics that indicates a steady decline into disorder.
The central symbol in the book is the German V-2 rocket, an image both of transcendence and of a frightening, unknown future. The book’s opening words describe the sound of a V-2 hitting London: “A screaming comes across the sky.” Symmetrically, at the end of the novel, a rocket is about to detonate. In between, numerous plots and subplots propel the characters through a succession of wildly improbable scenarios, in which paranoia and fear of death are often rendered with black humour.
The book’s main plot lines revolve around the quest by several characters to uncover the secret of a V-2 rocket numbered 00000. One such character is an American GI, Tyrone Slothrop, whose sexual encounters in London occur at the precise sites where V-2 rockets will fall. Slothrop later rescues a Dutch girl named Katje, who is a double-agent, from an octopus conditioned to attack her. The octopus has been trained by Laszlo Jamf, who had conducted Pavlovian experiments on Slothrop as a child and is the inventor of an “erotic” plastic from which a capsule in rocket 00000 is made. When the rocket is launched, a young boy, Gottfried, is strapped inside this capsule: he is the sex slave of the book’s Nazi arch-villain, who by sacrificing Gottfried seeks to transcend his mortality.
Such bizarre scenes are shot through with a profusion of ideas, including allusions to science and philosophy. The reader, like Slothrop, struggles to find meaning.
The sheer scale and complexity of Gravity’s Rainbow make it notoriously resistant to interpretation. It is possible to tease out themes by looking at the symbolic implications of the rainbow, and their opposites, and pinpointing their relevance to the novel.
All systems by which we might make sense of our lives, whether they are scientific, mystical, religious, or political, are described at a certain point in the novel as paranoid. Against human attempts at rationalization, Pynchon posits a complex reality in which events occur according to inscrutable laws – while perhaps entertaining the idea that true paranoia lies in precisely such a world view.
In his short story “The Secret Integration” (1964), white schoolchildren with a black imaginary friend experience adult racism, after which their dreams “could never again be entirely safe”. Gravity’s Rainbow traces a parallel loss of innocence on a massive scale, and Pynchon no doubt relished the idea that reading itself could no longer be entirely safe after his virtuoso feat of fictional black magic.
The V-2 rocket is a key presence in Gravity’s Rainbow, which features a project to assemble one, while embracing a profusion of chaos, perversity, and paranoia.
Born in 1937 in Long Island, New York, Thomas Pynchon counts among his ancestors the founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, USA. Pynchon attended the high school in Oyster Bay, and went on to study engineering physics at Cornell University, but left before graduating to serve in the US Navy. He returned to Cornell to study English. In the early 1960s Pynchon worked as a technical writer at Boeing in Seattle; he would later draw upon his experiences there in his fiction (especially Gravity’s Rainbow). He spent some time in Mexico before moving to California. After Gravity’s Rainbow his fiction became less stylistically challenging and more humanistic and political. Pynchon is known for being protective of his privacy, and shy of media coverage.
Other key works
1966 The Crying of Lot 49
1984 Slow Learner (stories)
2006 Against the Day
2013 Bleeding Edge
See also: Moby-Dick • Les Misérables • War and Peace • Ulysses • Catch-22 • Infinite Jest