First Sentences Series #2 — Gravity’s Rainbow

17 Jun

First-person present-tense is ‘in,’ now, however you want to define it, for it seems that ‘in’ keeps changing its shape. In the 80s, Minimalism was ‘in,’ and when Minimalism started to lose its maximal impact, it appropriated the first-person present-tense. Perhaps simple sentences favored the style of immediacy that comes with present-tense. I’m not quite sure.

Apparently, the first-person present-tense mode is still quite popular with undergrad creative writing students, despite the best wishes and instruction of creative writing teachers. William Gass wrote about his grammatical frustration with the style in his essay ‘A Failing Grade for the Present Tense.’ Samuel R. Delany, in his essays on writing, remarked that one of his students admitted to writing in that style because it would make it seem ‘more literary.’

Contemporary fiction has swallowed the present-tense style and somehow keeps running with its scepter as an unquestionable mark of experimentation. But is it really experimentation if everyone is doing it and if we already know what results this experiment will yield thanks to countless examples?

Most young adult books are written in this style now. Millions of independent authors can’t seem to write anything else. By now we’re familiar with present-tense in the form of fetishistic journalese that column writers often employ when trying to capture the feel of an exotic foreign location or what it’s like to spend an afternoon with a celebrity.

Of course, one style can’t be dismissed as bad in and of itself. If a style works, it works. But surely, a single style doesn’t work very often. A style must seem necessary. It shouldn’t be something to trick the reader into enjoying something they wouldn’t enjoy otherwise. There should be no ‘otherwise’ at all.

Present-tense has been around longer than Minimalism. Present-tense has been around longer than Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (which is third-person, as well). Yet, Gravity’s Rainbow remains an example of a style that is necessary. The book couldn’t have been written any other way.

‘A screaming comes across the sky.’

Thus begins Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. There is only one word in this sentence that gives us any indication that the narrative will commence in present tense. Had that ‘comes’ been a ‘came,’ we would be reading an entirely different book.

We’re not simply talking about every present-tense S being changed to a past-tense ED. The entire context would change.

The present-tense of Gravity’s Rainbow is the stage of the story. Though it is set in World War II, the present-tense doesn’t allow the narrative anything like a sense of hindsight. We wander into the book as we do into the future. There is little mention of The Holocaust in any context we would understand it today. The present-tense serves to convey the sense of paranoia always pervasive throughout the text.

The ‘screaming that comes’ across the sky in the opening sentence is the screaming of a rocket. Rockets act as the most extreme objects of paranoia throughout the book. No one knows where they’re going to fall or when they’re going to fall. There seems to be some existential question as to whether or not the rockets follow specific people, in particular, the hero of the story, Tyrone Slothtrop.

The backdrop may be Europe during World War II, but for the characters, and for the readers, the backdrop ends up being a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which the instruments of final extinction are inevitable but unknown.

Pynchon has never been, nor could he be, associated with the Minimalist movement in any way. He’s always been a Maximalist—which means everything from long sentences to long paragraphs to lots of information given in lots of different ways over the course of many pages. He could not be accused of employing a style in order to cheat at a sense of suspense. The paranoia of Gravity’s Rainbow is hard-earned. By the book’s end, it feels as though you’ve come out of a long, disquieting dream.

I’m sorry, but this reader will not be tricked into the narrative of here and now as a tool to compete with television and high-speed internet. It seems that the best examples of what that style can do have been done or, dare I say, exhausted. But I shouldn’t use a word like ‘exhausted,’ for when Pynchon used the present-tense in Gravity’s Rainbow, the use of the style itself was meant to convey a sense of the unknown, and there is nothing so inexhaustive as the unknown.


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