Recently I’ve been reading Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon. It’s a book I’ve heard about. And some times a book like that will just grow and grow until I finally find a way to get it and read it. In this case the library had it, yeah.
One of my first impressions was that the language was – well, different, hard to read. Long sentences. Let’s take a closer look. I am going to base this little analysis on the first few pages, 1077 words.
If I look at the whole text, I get this result from haubergs.com: “The index is 31. The text should therefore be considered normal to read. There were 89 sentences, 1077 words, and in average 12.1 words per sentence.”
The third paragraph begins with this beauty:
“Inside the carriage, which is built on several levels, he sits in velveteen darkness, with nothing to smoke, feeling metal nearer and farther rub and connect, steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage’s frame, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others pressed in around, feeble ones, second sheep, all out of luck and time: drunks, old veterans still in shock from ordnance 20 years obsolete, hustlers in city clothes, derelicts, exhausted women with more children than it seems could belong to anyone, stacked about among the rest of the things to be carried out to salvation.”
There’s a period at the end and a colon sort of in the middle. This time the verdict is: “The index is 75. The text should therefore be considered very difficult to read. There were 2 sentences, 98 words, and in average 49 words per sentence.”
So there. The feeling that this is hard to read is real.
I’ll try to construct a picture of some of the structure here, only showing which sentence bit refers back to which other bit. This is important because you have to decode this structure on the fly. (The picture is also a link to a larger version.)
Parts of the structure:
- “Inside the carriage, he sits in velveteen darkness…” (colored green) could work on its own, but “which is built on several levels” is added in the middle. So, when you reach “he sits”, you have to decide, does this continue “which is built on several levels” or “Inside the carriage”?
- Part of the sentence could be shortened to a list: “feeling metal, steam, a vibration, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others”. While reading that you have to decide, is this one more item in the list or a continuation of something earlier?
- “all the others pressed in around, all out of luck and time” (colored yellow) could work on its own, but “feeble ones, second sheep” is added in the middle. So, does “all out of luck and time” refer back to the sheep or something earlier?
- Part of the sentence could be shortened to a list (again!): “feeble ones, sheep”. While reading that you have to decide, is this one more item in the list or a continuation of something earlier?
This is one more reason these sentences are hard to read. You keep skipping back and forth to connect things up correctly.
Another long sentence:
“No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into—they go in under archways, secret entrances of rotted concrete that only looked like loops of an underpass . . . certain trestles of blackened wood have moved slowly by overhead, and the smells begun of coal from days far to the past, smells of naphtha winters, of Sundays when no traffic came through, of the coral-like and mysteriously vital growth, around the blind curves and out the lonely spurs, a sour smell of rolling-stock absence, of maturing rust, developing through those emptying days brilliant and deep, especially at dawn, with blue shadows to seal its passage, to try to bring events to Absolute Zero . . . and it is poorer the deeper they go . . . ruinous secret cities of poor, places whose names he has never heard . . . the walls break down, the roofs get fewer and so do the chances for light.”
And one more, bold added by me:
“All this while, light has come percolating in, along with the cold morning air flowing now across his nipples: it has begun to reveal an assortment of drunken wastrels, some in uniform and some not, clutching empty or near-empty bottles, here draped over a chair, there huddled into a cold fireplace, or sprawled on various divans, un-Hoovered rugs and chaise longues down the different levels of the enormous room, snoring and wheezing at many rhythms, in self-renewing chorus, as London light, winter and elastic light, grows between the faces of the mullioned windows, grows among the strata of last night’s smoke still hung, fading, from the waxed beams of the ceiling.”
Who’re snoring? The wastrels. Everything between these 2 words could be left out, grammatically speaking.
Here’s another technique:
“There is no way out. Lie and wait, lie still and be quiet. Screaming holds across the sky. When it comes, will it come in darkness, or will it bring its own light? Will the light come before or after? / But it is already light. How long has it been light? All this while, light has come percolating in, along with the cold morning air flowing now across his nipples: it has begun to reveal an assortment of drunken wastrels…”
What happens here is the revelation that everything before “But it is already light” was a dream. Deal with that.
A few more quotes:
- girders old as an iron queen
- more children than it seems could belong to anyone
- Only the nearer faces are visible at all, and at that only as half-silvered images in a view finder
- the rush of souls, of cold plaster where all the rats have died, only their ghosts, still as cave-painting, fixed stubborn and luminous in the walls
- un-Hoovered rugs
- London light, winter and elastic light
How old is an iron queen? How many children can belong to one person? Ghosts of people/souls or rats? Etc. Every time you hit something like this, you have to stop and decide on a meaning.
Remember that sentence “All this while, light has come percolating in”? This sentence does a lot. It describes the light, the air, a “him”, the wastrels, the furniture, the house keeping and the room. This could have been done in shorter, simpler sentences. It also leaves out bits at this stage. Who is “him”? Who are the wastrels? What is this place? Note these questions, they will hopefully be answered later.
All of this combines to this is hard to read.
I think some people love this. They find a beauty in this kind of language. I am not one of those people.