Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow Turns 50 - by Ted Gioia:
In retrospect, Gravity’s Rainbow must be seen as an end-of-an-era work—an ironic verdict given how its most fervent fans embraced it, at the time of its initial release, as a pathway to the literary future. But such disappointed expectations were part and parcel of many things that arrived on our doorstep around the time the promises of the 1960s gave way to the realities of the 1970s. After Gravity’s Rainbow, the rules of literary fiction changed again, mostly in ways Pynchon could not have anticipated. Different styles came into ascendancy—minimalism, magical realism, postcolonial fiction, genre mashups of various sorts, trailer park verism—in the years following its publication. In more recent decades, an even more surprising twist, namely the avoidance of almost any sort of ideology (you can call this the Franzen syndrome, if you like), has begun to permeate the world of literary fiction, as more and more novelists focus on plot, character development, pacing and plain old fashioned storytelling.
In such an environment, Pynchon may still have many admirers, but few who are willing to follow in his footsteps. Even an explicitly Pynchonian novel of more modern times, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, eventually rests its fictive universe on a compassionate, humanistic foundation, one that has no equivalent in Pynchon’s worldview. If Pynchon’s books were boats, they would be ones without a sea floor on which to set anchor.
I have started Gravity’s Rainbow a bunch of times, but I am not sure I have ever made it more than halfway through. I certainly have never finished it. It is one of those books I feel like I should like, but I never actually do. Mostly, I appreciate that it exists as a thing in the world.
The less said about Infinite Jest, however, the better.