Gravity’s Rainbow is one of the great white whales of fiction, the book everybody tries to read and generally gives up on around page 158. Considered Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece, it was published in the early 70s and won the National Book Award, focusing a lot of unwelcome attention on the famously reclusive author by an audience zonked out of their skulls on LSD and weed. The novel is ranked up there with other unreadables which include James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake; Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy.
As a novelist manque in the early 70s I did my best to make it through the novel and after a few stops and starts finally did with the assistance of a compendium which helped footnote some of the more obscure references. I’m glad I made it through the book, and to this day, if a password reminder asks me the question: “Who is the person you’d most like to meet?” It always come down to Pynchon. Why? To ask him what the hell the deal was with Byron the Bulb.
Anyway, in a discussion with a colleague this morning on writing,I recounted how a professor of mine held up the following excerpt from Gravity’s Rainbow as a masterpiece of list writing. To set the stage, it’s World War II in London. The protagonist, Lieut. Tyrone Slothrop, has been brought home by a girlfriend to meet her mother, Mrs. Quoad, for afternoon tea. Candy is offered. Slothrop takes a piece that looks like a WW I hand grenade:
“Under its tamarind glaze, the Mills bomb turns out to be luscious pepsin-flavored nougat, chock-full of tangy candied cubeb berries, and a chewy camphor-gum center. It is unspeakably awful. Slothrop’s head begins to reel with camphor fumes, his eyes are running, his tongue’s a hopeless holocaust. Cubeb? He used to smoke that stuff. “Poisoned…” he is able to croak.
“Show a little backbone,” advises Mrs. Quoad.
“Yes,” Darlene through tongue-softened sheets of caramel, “don’t you know there’s a war on? Here now love, open your mouth.”
Through the tears he can’t see it too well, but he can hear Mrs. Quoad across the table going “Yum, yum, yum,” and Darlene giggling. It is enormous and soft, like a marshmallow, but somehow—unless something is now going seriously wrong with his brain—it tastes like: gin. “Wha’s ‘is,” he inquires thickly.
“A gin marshmallow,” sez Mrs. Quoad.
“Oh that’s nothing, have one of these—” his teeth, in some perverse reflex, crunching now through a hard sour gooseberry shell into a wet spurting unpleasantness of, he hopes it’s tapioca, little glutinous chunks of something all saturated with powdered cloves.
“More tea?” Darlene suggests. Slothrop is coughing violently, having inhaled some of that clove filling.
“Nasty cough,” Mrs. Quoad offering a tin of that least believable of English coughdrops, the Meggezone. “Darlene, the tea is lovely, I can feel my scurvy going away, really I can.”
The Meggezone is like being belted in the head with a Swiss Alp. Menthol icicles immediately begin to grow from the roof of Slothrop’s mouth. Polar bears seek toenail-holds up the freezing frosty-grape alveolar clusters in his lungs. It hurts his teeth too much to breathe, even through his nose, even, necktie loosened, with his nose down inside the neck of his olive-drab T-shirt. Benzoin vapors seep into his brain. His head floats in a halo of ice.”
That remains one of my favorite comic passages ever.