Gravity's Rainbow has divided critical and popular opinion ever since its release. Baffling and bewitching in equal measure, it is an extremely difficult novel to love, yet also an extremely difficult one not to be captivated by. In 1974, the Pulitzer Prize jury recommended it for the fiction prize, but they were overruled by the board who ruled it 'turgid' and 'overwritten.'
So, which side is right? Well, they both are. Yes, Gravity's Rainbow is brilliant, a mad scientist of a novel, chasing down stories and ideas only to toss them aside and carry on down another rabbithole in pursuit of the next ever-distant but brightly gleaming truth. And yes, it is a deeply frustrating work. If the job of an author is to act as guide to the reader, Pynchon is a haunted house guide, constantly sneaking off to rattle the windowframes and jump out from behind corners. Sometimes he doesn't tell you what you really want to know. And yes, there are times when he continues talking about something long past the point where his audience has lost interest. This is certainly not a novel for the impatient, casual reader. Very few manage to make it to the end, and even those that do are hard pressed to make much sense of what they've read.
Readers looking for a clear, well-driven storyline with deep, complex characterisation are advised to look elsewhere. The main cast of Gravity's Rainbow do very little to elicit sympathy from the reader. Despite the many ups and downs of his adventure, at no point does the reader really care what happens to Slothrop as a person. As with everything else, the characters of the novel are merely disposable instruments in Pynchon's laboratory.
Gravity's Rainbow is not a novel whose meaning can be neatly explained and summarised. The experience of reading it conveys a message more than what is actually being read. As in Pynchon's previous novels, V. and The Crying of Lot 49, the answers won't be found in the text, and even if they are they will only produce further questions; it is the hunt itself that is important. It is for this reason that Gravity's Rainbow can be forgiven its over-indulgences and exorbitancies. A common criticism of the novel is that you could cut at least half its content without impacting upon the central 'storyline', that of Slothrop and his investigation into the 00000 rocket. While this is undoubtedly true, the resulting novel just wouldn't be Gravity's Rainbow. Excluding the unnecessary would mean losing some of the novel's most wonderful, if superfluous, passages, such as the story of Byron the Bulb, an immortal lightbulb that is under surveillance by a number of shadowy organisations and potential assassins. That passage alone is worth the price of admission.
Is Gravity's Rainbow longer than it strictly needs to be? Yes. Frequently tedious? Yes. Are the majority of its characters two-dimensional and almost completely undeveloped? Yes. Is it reader-friendly? Not in the slightest.
And is the novel surprising, energetic, challenging, punctuated by magnificently rendered prose, and an all-out, no-holds-barred swing for the fences by one of the greatest minds of modern literature?