This Plan is a study of four American novels, Moby-Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Infinite Jest, examining their experimental technique and the thematic concerns that compelled their innovators. All of these novels are concerned with the forces that overwhelm the individual’s capacity to understand: the divine, time, war, capital, addiction — all of these are present in each of these books. I think theses forces push each author to respond in his (yes, they’re all white men and I wish I hadn’t let that happen) own time with the sense of the individual self (suffering all those maladies) alone in a society (also suffering all those maladies). All of them want to bridge that gap and all of them find a quasi-way of doing it. Finally, all of them find in fiction the best means of approximating what they could not fully achieve.
What drove Melville to abandon contemporary forms of representation was the scope of Ahab’s quest: to see the everything. The truth beyond perception is beyond knowing. Melville symbolizes this unknowability through Ahab’s death, which is predicted by Fedallah, the devilish Parsee harpooner who appears mysteriously in the middle of the Pequod’s voyage. “Hemp alone can kill thee,” Fedallah tells Ahab. Ahab interprets this prophecy to mean that he can only be killed by hanging and, hubristically, declares himself “immortal on land and on sea!” He’s not. The hemp Fedallah anticipates turns out to be the line that connects the harpoon to the whaling boat: “The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the groove;—ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone.” The hemp that kills him is emblematic of what is unrepresentable in Moby-Dick, the unknowable All that threatens to consume Ishamel’s “pantheist.”
Gravity’s Rainbow is a catalogue of the moments before events. While it’s often grouped with Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five — the seminal, experimental World War II novels — Pynchon is more concerned with the post-war world and its genesis during the war. Amid the ongoing events of WWII and in its immediate aftermath, the edges of the accepted picture of reality lift, and the things we are not meant to know about the latter half of the twentieth century are exposed. Through these glimpses into the machinations behind the scenes, Pynchon provides us the opportunity to remember in spite of our conditioning. Forgetfulness is presented as a tool of the many villainous entities in Gravity’s Rainbow, providing the opportunity for military, corporate, and media dominated culture, as well individually and societally repressed racism and sexism. But remembering, a constant dialogue between past and present, offers the closest thing to an antidote to plutocratic and stratocratic dominance that can be found in the despair-ridden pages of Gravity’s Rainbow.
The faculty was wonderful. I remember many hours of work, and the most interesting part for me was my Gravity’s Rainbow paper. I wanted to come to a better understanding of complex novels I care about. After Marlboro I aim to continue to study similar things.