Adapting Ender’s Game

Ender's GameEnder’s Game strikes me as a good example of the pros and cons of adapting novels for the screen. In a novel, psychological complexity is on full display and the internal life of the protagonist generally occupies our attention. Movies are visual and aural, so they are more spectacular, but movies can only show us so much psychology. This is why most adaptations miss the mark.

The book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a beautiful, insightful science fiction novel in which a young cadet comes to terms with his destiny as humanity’s savior in a war against a powerful alien race. His training, begun from a very early age, is emotionally ruthless and isolating, and our hero is deprived of an outlet for his gentle nature. Instead, all his hours are occupied by the schemes of Colonel Graff, whose job it is to hone Ender Wiggin into a mercilessness, strategic genius, even as Ender struggles against bullying and the playground politics of his fellow cadets.

The “plot”, the external actions taken, the strange environments, and the other characters are in the novel totally subservient to Ender’s emotional journey. It’s this journey that makes the novel great, and these elements are the most difficult to translate to the screen. For one thing, Ender’s sustaining love for his sister and the fear he has of his brother are almost completely cut from the film simply to accommodate a normal run-time for a blockbuster.

Much of the emotional nuance also has to be cropped from the screenplay for time, so what remains are the larger emotional notes, the most obvious conflicts with the least subtlety. All the minor wins and losses Ender experiences in the novel must be swept under the rug, and only when they’ve cut that content and finished the screenplay do they begin looking for an actor to portray what’s left.

Actors have a tall order when it comes to adapting literature. They bring their own experiences to bear when they read a screenplay, and do what they can to express their roles. But they can’t really compete with our imagination, which in a novel fills the ambiguous details and idealizes characters and action. Asa Butterfield played Ender and did a fine job, though I felt none of the deep empathy that I felt with the character in the novel.

But movies do have their own weaponry that novels cannot touch. Where the movie really delivers is in its special effects. Unlike reading the novel, watching Ender’s Game is a treat because we actually get to see the amazing sets, the charismatic faces of Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley, and the slow ballet of a zero gravity practice chamber. We get to experience it empirically. The novel describes these elements very well, but it’s a different experience altogether to engage your eyes and ears, visual and auditory cortices with the crafts of Hollywood.

Unfortunately, what I loved most about the book, what I thought truly made it a great one, didn’t make it into the movie. The novel was fairly inspiring while the movie was merely entertaining. I wasn’t surprised by this, as I can probably count on one hand the number of film adaptations that stand up to their prose counterparts.

The True Detective Finale [SPOILERS]

[WARNING: This is not a show you want spoiled for you.]

Easily the hottest new television show this season is HBO’s True Detective. Social media sites have been crackling with theories, projections, analyses, breakdowns, synopses, praise, criticism, and so forth, and speculation on season two is in full swing as we speak.

The build up to the final episode, fueled by social media, was intense and exciting, and the scope and depth of the show made it impossible to forecast what direction the finale would take. Now that it has has come and gone, I find myself feeling a bit deflated. All that hype sweetens the anticipation but contributes to disappointment later; with so much chatter and speculation, it’s easy to feel let down, to be critical and cynical.

True Detective was easily the best show I’ve seen this year. From the start, the show was an example of visual storytelling at its finest. McConaughey and Harrelson gave truly impressive performances, the writing and directing were riveting, the cinematography was beautiful, and the show seemed to open into the mysterious worlds of psychosis and even the supernatural. This stuff is right in my wheelhouse.

The build up to the finale was intense. There were so many questions that needed answers: Who or what is the green-eared spaghetti monster? Has Cohle lost it completely? Has Hart made up his might to end Cohle? With such a network of horror out there in the Bayou, can Hart and Cohle even make a difference?

I thought the finale was great. The bad guy was thoroughly twisted, the chase and showdown made my heart thump in my ears, the denouement was touching and solidified McConaughey as the best performance of the year (as if anyone had any doubt), the detective work was engaging, and the dialogue was sharp and memorable.

So why do I feel let down? It might just be because it’s over (a 2-hour special might have been nice), or it might be because the wild twists I imagined would happen might have been more mind-blowing. Should they have let the bottom drop out and reached into the supernatural abyss of Chtulu? To be sure, a CGI demon would have been stupid, would have short-circuited the whole series. Yet somehow Cohle’s “vortex of chaos” hallucination worked perfectly.

Sure, I would have loved to learn more about the occult ethos, sure I would have loved it if the ending involved Maggie, the daughter, or that cellphone-selling rocket that Marty…did things to. Sure I would have been okay with one or both of the main characters dying, and of course I would have loved some sort of bizarre black magic showdown, but what would I be willing to trade away from the finale as shot to accommodate these speculations?

A dip into the supernatural would have been a mistake. True Detective is not Twin Peaks. The latter wove the supernatural or dream elements into the fabric of the show from the start, which allowed them to knock the roof off in the mind-blowing finale. But True Detective was always about real people chasing real people who may or may not be insane.

A wider focus on the evil underground network of child abusers might have meant a less penetrating look into our main characters. To delve into the occult rituals and sacrifices might have been delicious, but those details would never be the focus in a police investigation. There is only so much narrative, and I think Nic Pizzolatto made strong decisions throughout.

The one decision I immediately questioned—something that usually rubs me the wrong way in detective shows—is that the final episode showed us Errol’s world, even showed us three or four of his personalities without any detective work. The infraction here being that, in a detective show, the audience should learn about the bad guy at the same pace as the detectives. But if Pizzolatto had shown only what the detectives saw, the finale would have been 45 minutes of detective work and then a five minutes showdown. The audience wouldn’t have tasted Errol’s mania, which drives the anticipation through that beautiful Heart Of Darkness chase scene.

We can all nitpick from our couches, but here’s the thing: I don’t know what would have made True Detective better. What are your opinions?

Journals, Art, Journeys

When I was young my oldest brother Jeff showed me what an amusing pastime it was to keep a journal. I’ve found this essential. Without keeping a record of the day’s events, we forget most of the coincidences, oddities, and revelations of our lives. Even when we remember the facts of our experience, it’s impossible to recapture the exact feel of events. Most of my life I’ve kept some kind of book on the go, whether it’s just funny lines or ideas or scenes from movies I’d like to see.

It seems important because of this main fact: memories are not real. When you think about an event in your past, (spoiler alert) your brain does not magically go into the past. Our brains attempt to reconstruct our reactions to that experience, but our brains are different now, so the reconstruction is imperfect. Plus, memories can be bent and changed.

Regular journal entries give us a window into our state of mind at the time. This is crucial if you want to understand your life as a journey or narrative, or if you want some sort of proof that you’re getting closer to your goals or developing intellectually.

The same can be said, on the macroscopic scale, of art and science in culture. Art expresses the zeitgeist while science improves our understanding of each moment. We could never have had The Wire without ancient Greek literature, and we could never have invented smartphones without first understanding how radio waves work. This only works when people write it down.

Occasionally an artist makes a conscious effort to draw our attention to cultural development by retelling ancient, fundamentally human stories with current language and culture. The best example is Ulysses by James Joyce. The story is not about a guy named Ulysses in ancient Ithaca, but a man named Leopold Bloom in 20th century Dublin. The title and structure of the novel showcase thousands of years of human values in flux.

“This race and this country and this life produced me…I shall express myself as I am” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

It can be great to read old, embarrassing journal entries because it means you’ve grown. Without writing it down we have no proof. And without a record it’s sometimes impossible to understand how we could have believed the crazy notions we’ve outgrown. This blog is likely full of ideas I’ve outgrown. I’m fine with that. Years from now I’ll be glad I was observant, honest in my assessments, and most importantly, that I wrote it down.

 

P.S. There will be no blog post next week because I will be busy eating food. Happy Holidays everyone.

Coherence

My 9000-word short story “Coherence” has been published in a new anthology from Dreamscape Press®. Nuclear Town U.S.A. is an anthology of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction now available at Amazon.com.

Nuclear Town USA - CoverThis short story is currently my longest, just slightly longer than many publishers’ maximum allowable word count, so I’m glad it found a home. “Coherence” is a story about a scientist who tries to prevent the apocalypse using time travel. Guess what, things don’t work out for him the way he expects. (#conflict)

Shortly after I finished writing the story I read Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and I found it really strange because all these little, weirdly specific details from my story were in his story. Is it possible that all the books and movies I’ve seen that were inspired by Childhood’s End somehow implied those details to me through context?

How am I supposed to know?

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NaNoWriMo 2014

One year ago I attempted writing a novel in a month as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It motivated me because it was essentially a contest with myself. Well, it’s November again and NaNoWriMo 2014 has begun, but I am not writing another novel this year. This morning, I finished a long, grueling edit of last year’s novel Residuum. One more polish and I’ll send it out.

50,000 words in a month felt like a steep hill to climb. Writing while working a day job meant I had only a few hours every weekday to make my word count (much more on weekends). In this sense the contest offers great training for hopeful novelists; if you can’t make your word count consistently, you will not be the next Stephen King.

My new draft sits right around 90,000 words, which is about three hundred double-spaced pages. I generally find it easier to overwrite at first and then pare down, taking out all the non-essential bits. I aimed at 50,000 last November and ended a little over 60,000 words, but I was left with the tough task of adding to my novel.

I added to Residuum because it wasn’t finished. Many subplots or themes weren’t properly developed because I was rushing to meet the deadline, and since I wanted to make this novel as good as possible, I needed time to think about those peripheral issues and develop them in a thoughtful way that integrated seamlessly with what I had already written. So I took my time. I knew my second pass would seriously fill out my page-count, but I had no idea I’d be coming up with 50% additional material.

Something I didn’t realize when I began my novel is that many speculative fiction markets won’t even accept a 50,000-word book. 75,000 seems to be the agreed-upon minimum for genre fiction, and many prefer novels 85,000 words and up. I can only imagine the disappointment some must feel when they bust their asses to finish their 50,000 word masterpieces to realize many publishers and agents won’t even look at it.

NaNoWriMo inspires people to be creative, and for that I consider it a great project. Anything that motivates people to push their creative potential nudges our world in the right direction. For someone’s first attempt at a novel, I highly recommend it. Their motivational emails and forum discussions really do make one feel like a part of something exciting. But considering that one year later I’m still working on the same novel, I don’t feel I’m missing out this year. Maybe next year.

Dreamscape Press

I have only a brief update this week. A novel, a feature film script, and a handful of short stories have consumed most of my recent writing efforts. I’m encouraged since I learned that Dreamscape Press® will be featuring two of my short stories.

Dreamscape Press is a new publisher entering the speculative fiction market with a number of anthologies. I contributed two very different stories to 100 Worlds, and Nuclear Town USA. The former contains 100-word stories from 100 authors, the latter is apocalyptic science fiction.

My friend Michael Stasko, who made Iodine and co-wrote Things To Do and The Birder, will also be featured in 100 Worlds.

I’ll be sure to post here when these anthologies become available.

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Breaking Bad, Raising The Stakes On TV

Everybody and their brother will blog about Breaking Bad this week, so I don’t need to chime in on that…so…what else are we going to talk about? Please. Some say we’re in a new Golden Age of television. Some say Breaking Bad is one of the best series of all time. Both ring true to my ear. There will be some spoilers here, in red.

So what made Breaking Bad so great? Was it the Nietzschean “will to power”, expressed in an honest way for the first time on television? Was it the lethally hip admixture of high chemistry and street drugs? Was it the character of Walter White? Jesse? Was it the magnetic acting? I could argue all these points, and strongly, but I think the setting in which all these facets found their gleam is the vision and execution of creator Vince Gilligan.

And execute he did. One of the strongest elements of Breaking Bad is its narrative economy. The storytelling is very straightforward, 96% pure, and doesn’t waste a lot of our time with non-essentials. Walt’s journey reaches very clear milestones regularly throughout the show, and the clarity of his journey make the simplistic narrative a deeply affecting one.

Walt’s journey, the central story, demonstrates perfectly this fundamental of storytelling: in a narrative, the stakes must rise toward a climax. Breaking Bad might be one of the best examples of how to raise the stakes. The magic of the show is that while the stakes went up continually and intensely, the story never felt like it was reaching beyond itself. Each new plateau of was handled realistically (at least in the psychology of the characters), and only until it was time to raise the stakes again. I have never seen a show escalate its dramatic action so consistently and effectively before now.

So many people died in the show. But think about Walt’s involvement with these deaths and the moral implications of each: in season one he kills someone in self-defense. Then he kills someone when there is no other safe option, when letting the person go would endanger his family (and think about how much he struggled with this conflict). Eventually we see him stand by and watch a girl die. He could have saved her life, but he lets her die because she has become inconvenient to him. Through coincidence, his negligence causes the death of an entire passenger plane full of people.

But still Walt remained reticent to take a life. We saw him bowl over a couple hood rats with his Aztec in order to save Jesse’s life (in one of the most intense television episodes I’ve ever seen). And on and on, Walt slowly lowers his criteria to the point where he orders the slaughter of a dozen prisoners in order to sever ties and stay clean.

The fact that his moral barriers were struck down so methodically makes me jealous of Vince Gilligan and all the people who got to work on Breaking Bad. What an impressive feat to sustain over 5 seasons without letting up or losing steam.

The storytelling of Breaking Bad might not be quite as nuanced as other dramas like Mad Men or The Wire, but its simplicity makes it more effective in many ways. Some of the “higher-brow” shows require slower action, more time for reflection and character development. But Breaking Bad kicks into high gear early on and doesn’t let up. And while it’s efficiently telling its story, highbrow concepts (such as the Nietzschean “will to power,” grey-scale ethics, etc.) present themselves as a digestif to the intense action.

And unlike many of those other shows, Breaking Bad sought to tell a finite story about one person with a beginning, middle, and end. The series closer Sunday night was a great piece of drama and the developments in it made perfect sense, whereas many other shows leave me without a strong sense of closure.

If the last episode didn’t seem quite as mind-blowing as you had hoped, consider the beautiful realm of possibilities created by the writers during the lead up to the finale. In the heat of the previous season, we could have cast our minds forward to any number of fantastic climaxes. It’s only because those potentialities were reduced to an actuality that the final episode might have left people a bit lukewarm. That, and the somewhat telegraphed convenience with which Walt’s final plan came together (to borrow a phrase from The A-Team).

The show ended as I hoped it would, without abandoning Walt completely to an immoral demise, but redeeming him just enough (through Jesse) so that people wouldn’t hunt down and kill Vince Gilligan. Way to watch your back Vince. He originally intended to kill Jesse.

For those 10.3 million of us who watched the finale together, Breaking Bad truly gave us one of those “shared moments” of TV legend. I’m naturally disappointed there is no more to look forward to, but I prefer a firm ending to a diluted story. Breaking Bad was somehow succinct in its 60+ hours, and I look forward to watching it again.

Determine If You’re A Writer In 1 Easy Step

When people learn that I write, some try to engage me with stories, usually from their own lives, that they feel would make a good story. Some people have told me their life story would make a great movie. Naturally, a person’s subjective highs and lows seem very significant to that person, but I rarely carry the conversation any further. I like hearing stories, of course, but I tend to reserve my critical storytelling skills for other writers.

Because I’ve had my head wrapped up in the nuts and bolts of storytelling for a little while now, I assume that honestly discussing story with people will sound cold and mechanical. I ask, “What is the climax in the movie of your life?” and the person answers, “My kids.” I say, “Did having children resolve some central conflict that stood in the way of your motivations throughout your life? Was your life just a series of occasions, or was it a driven narrative wherein you tried to achieve your goals through a series of mounting conflicts?” By then the person is across the room with a stiff drink. (Even in Children Of Men, a dystopian tale where humanity has become infertile, the birth of a child is not the climax. I can think of one seriously awesome science fiction novel where a birth is the climax, but I can’t spoil it.).

I feel that a story is just a story until it engages the imagination with something meaningful and new, at which point story can become art. Most people don’t have lives that reflect anything remarkably new. Even horrible conflicts and disasters throughout life don’t guarantee that the movie of one’s life will be interesting. And few things make me yawn harder than a story about being hard-done-by.

Many people think they are full of good stories, and surely they do get interesting ideas, but ideas don’t make a person a writer. Plumbers get good ideas just like judges and filmmakers do. So what makes a writer? Fortunately there is an easy, one-step test to determine this.

A writer writes. Get out of the habit of trying to figure out what people and things ARE and focus on what they DO. If you do not write, and make a habit of it, then I hate to break it to you, but you’re not a writer. If you have amazing ideas that seem like they want to come out of you and take on a life of their own, you had better find an outlet for them—be it film, campfire stories, news articles, a useless blog, etc.—and work at it every day. I write every day and still rarely call myself a writer.

A carpenter has the vision for a table and knows the techniques to achieve it. He understands the form and function and can bring his vision into reality. His neighbour says, “You know what would be cool? A three-legged, cubist mosaic table with a hole in the middle.” The carpenter might ask, “Why would that be cool?” If the idea has merit, the carpenter, not the neighbour, will know it. He also will know how it should be put together, where to compromise vision for function, and when you can expect it finished.

Editing, Short and Long

Outside of blog posts and my novel, most of my writing these days turns into short stories. Usually the combination of two or more ideas—be they characters, situations, themes, etc.—will spark something I want to express, and my goal is to twist those ideas in a new, interesting way.

For speculative fiction, which is generally what I write, the short story is an essential form. With this format writers can wrap the kernel of some great idea in a tight little package, and do it quickly and efficiently enough that the reader doesn’t have time to get bored. Usually a short story is meant to be punchy enough and gripping enough that the reader will not put it down without finishing it.

Consequently when I edit short stories I find myself cinching everything down, stripping out all extraneous detail that doesn’t turn the story (the kernel) in crucial and compelling ways. The idea should roll out naturally and passionately and there should be no lulls in the story. So when it comes to economy of prose, I get ruthless.

The phrase “kill your darlings”, clichéd as it is, remains a good maxim. It’s easy to fall in love with little phrases, descriptions, or dialogue that were written spontaneously and turned out pleasing. But if these darlings are just aesthetically pleasing and they aren’t crucial to the unfolding of the story, they must be removed. People don’t generally read short stories for aesthetically pleasing descriptions; they want a story. If they just wanted pleasing sentences, they can read poetry.

Usually when I come up with a short story I will outline it thoroughly so that I know all the essential elements of the telling, then I will overwrite my first draft, including anything that comes to mind. But when it comes time to edit, I can usually strip away a substantial amount of what I’ve written. It is common for me to pare down the word count of my first draft by a third. I take out anything extraneous, condense scenes by making them more efficient, and tighten up the sentences because I want my idea expressed in short order.

For the past few months I’ve been slowly editing my first novel Residuum, which I wrote for NaNoWriMo. I was surprised to find that going from a rough first draft to a fine first draft, my word count expanded considerably. This has to do with the form. If people decide to take on a whole novel, they have decided to invest more of their time for a fuller expression of ideas, so I try to make each element as full and satisfying as possible.

While I think the reader of a novel will be more forgiving of a less terse style of prose, there is still no excuse for inefficiently rolling out the story for them. Many darlings have been killed in the making of my novel. I still want to tell the story in a relentless way while giving the ideas room to grow and fulfill themselves in a way that feels natural to me.

A novel is much more weighty, can deal with bigger issues in a more detailed way, and I think my first rough draft left many subplots and minor interests unresolved. Particularly in my third act, the seeds that were planted in the early parts of the book need to come to fruition in a more satisfying way. I find it hard to add to a draft. It’s much easier to take stuff out.

I found that I took short cuts, leaving out secondary ideas to emphasize the main, A-story. But in a novel of any length, a reader should be interested in more than just the central protagonist. I’ve taken the time to set up the world and flesh out the secondary and tertiary characters, so I owe it to myself to see their storylines through to completion.

When I was participating in NaNoWriMo last November, the goal was fifty thousand words in one month. It was a bit of a struggle to make that word count while working a day job, but that made it more satisfying when the end of the month came and I had made it. But I kept writing at that point because the story wasn’t finished.

In my hurry to write, I narrowed my focus to the main protagonist and the spine of the story while some of the supporting ideas and characters didn’t receive fair page-time. Looking back on how I treated those secondary parts of the novel, I feel like I was half-assing it. I kept writing after November and ended with a word count of around sixty-one thousand words. Then, because I had my head so far up my first pass, I handed it off to one trusted friend to read.

It’s not difficult to maintain objectivity when writing; it’s impossible. Having an outsider read it who is very familiar with science fiction and “novels of ideas” was absolutely crucial. He pointed out many of the gaps where I hurried through things and posed questions to me. A few conversations back and forth and some detailed notes (for which I owe him in a big way) highlighted the flaws in my first pass.

The second pass, which will bring me to what I refer to as my “first draft”, already sits at over seventy-seven thousand words. The whole book has expanded by about 25% so far, and I still have the last fifty pages to work through. These final pages are where many of the unresolved plot elements need to be, so I expect the word count to climb up as high as eighty-five thousand.

It surprised me to be putting in so much when I’m used to taking out. The editing process for the novel has involved a good deal of rewriting, plus brand new writing, even the addition of completely new chapters. I imagine this is a blunder because it’s my first novel. Next time I will outline more fully, considering the ideas underlying the story. I expect that the edit of my second novel will find me stripping away the fat, cutting flowery prose, and returning to the ruthlessness of my short story editing. We’ll see.

 

P.S. Next week will be my first week off from the blog. I will be without a computer for a couple days and doubt I will have time to prepare anything, so there will be no post. Enjoy your Canada Day weekend and try not to be too depressed when there is no new pretentious nonsense to read here. – ERS

Pynchon News Is Good News

Shortly after it was released, Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day was gifted to me and quickly became one of my favorite novels of all time. This novel is a monster. And because it’s so huge, and his previous novel Mason & Dixon came a decade prior, and it was also huge, and Pynchon is getting on in years, I had this impression it might be his last book.

Fortunately I was wrong and he quickly tossed off Inherent Vice, a hilarious detective novel set at the end of the hippy era. Supposedly, Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie adaptation of Inherent Vice is filming now with rumors of a ensemble cast full of stars. But what’s even more exciting is that Pynchon has a new novel coming out later this year. The novel is called Bleeding Edge and it is set in New York between the collapse of the dot-com bubble and September 11, 2001.

Read the first page of Bleeding Edge here.

I’ve read just about everything Pynchon has written, and his longer novels are my favorite. I particularly love Gravity’s Rainbow and Against The Day because there is so much going on in them, so many different angles to the narratives, and so many different ways to read them, that every person who reads the novel comes out of it with a different experience.

A while ago I picked one angle and wrote a review of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Article first published as Book Review: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon on Blogcritics.

GRAVITY’S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon

Dubbed “The most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II” (The New Republic), Gravity’s Rainbow is a massive, freewheeling, paranoid journey through Europe at the tail end of the Second World War. Novelist and esoterica buff Thomas Pynchon is in top form for this, his third novel. A dense, challenging epic, Gravity’s Rainbow is highly rewarding for those with the attention span and patience to take it on.

From the first line we know the concept of The Preterite, or passed-over, is going to be a prominent theme. “A screaming comes across the sky…” A screaming what? The allusion is to a rocket, faster than sound so its target has no way to hear it coming. And the hunt for this preterite rocket, codename “00000″, and its mysterious black device, the S-Gerat, is a loose analogy of our main character, Tyrone Slothrop. In Pynchon’s own post-modern, self-reflexive words, “Some called [Tyrone] a ‘pretext.’ Others felt that he was a genuine, point-for-point microcosm.” (p. 753) This atypical approach to writing defies expectations, assuring Gravity’s Rainbow a prominent place in the history of the novel, even if it is often overlooked.

Pynchon loves to play with the form. The book introduces a madman’s variety of characters in a stunning array of literary styles. Often hilarious, sometimes shocking, Gravity’s Rainbow is no simple story. Perhaps not since Ulysses by James Joyce has an author swung through the canopy of styles so freely, offering up slapstick, scientific realism, hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness and more. The novel slides from one heterodox story to the next, immersing the reader in the chaos spread across Europe by World War II. Some characters hide, some fall in love or dive into obsession to distract from the reality of wartime, while others charge in headfirst, hungry for glory. And all the while, the real question is being asked – why? Why was there a war? Who made the decisions leading up to it, and how was it determined that war is the best option?

Tyrone isn’t introduced until page 61, but even before that we get a sense of his complicated personality. Tyrone has been the subject of bizarre, pseudo-Pavlovian conditioning that somehow leads him to be sexually aroused just before a rocket strike. Stranger yet is that he seems to have subconscious knowledge of exactly where the rocket will hit, though he thinks he’s just following his libido. We begin to understand that Tyrone’s motivations are not wholly his own. Like everyone in the war, Tyrone is deeply affected by a terrifying situation beyond his control. And like the 00000, we sense that he will only become aware of his true role in all this when it’s too late.

Gravity’s Rainbow has been called meta-historical fiction. The historical context of the story is completely true, but Pynchon draws the reader into the mania of the characters, little tangents and cul-de-sacs of fantasy that elevate the story to the realm of mythology. This sounds intellectual and heady, and it is, but the story never feels dry; sex, drugs, love and mystery drive the plot forward with a knowing humor that is both laugh-out-loud and profound.

Following a variety of WWII fringe groups brings the story into even stranger realms. Shadowy organizations like The White Visitation, PISCES, and Operation Black Wing look at the war through lenses of parapsychology and the occult. Delving into Nazi legend, corporate conspiracy, Kabbalah, the elusive Schwarzkommando, ballistic hermeneutics and a unique brand of rocket mysticism, Gravity’s Rainbow offers up a paranoid dream for hippies and soldiers alike. The novel seems to say that some special form of mass insanity must be responsible for something on the magnitude of a World War. What the cause of this insanity is, exactly, is a little more elusive.

Tyrone is an American-born rocket specialist, a guidance man who frequently peeks his head up into the realm of superhero. His irresistible urge toward sex and predilection for drugs find him stumbling into situations oblivious to the big picture, though he often ends up in the right place. When a hashish pickup goes awry Tyrone raids an opera costume trunk and becomes “Rocket Man”, a stylish WWII hero if ever there was one. Tyrone is not a typical hero, just as Gravity’s Rainbow is not a typical novel. Tyrone is both Preterite and Elect. He is a Chosen One, the special subject of strange experiments in behavioral conditioning. But he always manages to stay out of the limelight, passed over at crucial times while danger misses him by a hair. In one of the more brutal scenes in the book, pair of doctors search a spa for Tyrone, who by now is dressed as a giant pig. Through a case of mistaken identity, Tyrone avoids a horrible future that would more than dampen his sex life. Both his preterition and election save him from the worst of the war.

The same goes for the novel. It is a Bible of countercultural intellectualism, an underground epic for dope smokers and mystics that by its undeniable brilliance was awarded a National Book Award. On the other hand Gravity’s Rainbow was passed over for a Pulitzer Prize despite a unilateral vote. The Pulitzer committee decided instead to hand out no prize that year, presumably because of the morally questionable material throughout the book. Despite the real horrors of WWII and the Nazi party, apparently this fiction was too much for the Pulitzer board to handle. A book like this will likely never be given the prestige it deserves because it deals with too many fringe elements in a sympathetic way. Gravity’s Rainbow blurs morality, details too much real-world corruption and power politics, discloses too much about the business of war, GE and IG Farben, looks at behavioral conditioning and fetishism, and all with strong undertones of anarchy. Books like this are almost always passed over by the Establishment.

Gravity’s Rainbow takes place in the tumultuous fallout of war, and much like the victims of a rocket strike, swirls and writhes to recover what has been destroyed. “My mother is the war,” says mathematician Roger Mexico. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and in a war like this one everyone is affected. Everyone reacts in his or her own way to the visible and invisible causes of war. Despite the chaotic and multifaceted paths taken by our heroes, the many become unified in their loves and fears, all raising a glass in song at the absurd, sublime condition of our world. Nothing is the same after the war. And those who make it through the dense prose of Gravity’s Rainbow will remember it as a benchmark novel like no other.

Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel to be read and re-read, a companion to be studied over a lifetime. Thanks to the grandness of the story, the prodigal complexion of the prose, and Pynchon’s ability to weave minute detail and lofty abstraction into the telling, Gravity’s Rainbow reveals more and more of its secrets with subsequent reads. It grows with the reader, like an old man dispensing wisdom through the years, unafraid to offend or enlighten.