OK, I admit it: Gravity’s Rainbow was even less popular a choice for Fiction Lab than I could ever have imagined.
Book clubs, I am reliably and belatedly informed, are supposed to be about good clean fun, fairly easy reads and stimulating conversations amongst friends over a few drinks. Note to self: your average book club aficionado is not going to be too keen on a book with nine hundred pages of dense wording, disturbing sex, rampant paranoia, minimal plotting and maximum weirdness.
To celebrate our first year in existence, I had foolishly decided that Fiction Lab, my monthly book salon for scientific novels at London’s Royal Institution, was ready to take on something more challenging. After all, thanks to my sabbatical in Germany, we had a two month break to read something a bit longer than usual, and a certain Nature Network denizen had seemed unusually enthusiastic about this particular Thomas Pynchon classic. (Please note I am not apportioning blame – she did also warn me that it was not ‘book club material’). Add to that just the tiniest masochistic streak, and the fact that about a dozen people over the past two decades have kept nagging me to read it – well, I couldn’t help myself.
Gravity’s Rainbow is billed as an epic postmodern novel. Published in 1973, it’s loosely based around clandestine rocket technology development activities undertaken the German military in World War II. Several scientific themes are interwoven: mathematics, physics, the natural world, behavioral psychology, sexuality and of course, rocket science. Of historical note, the novel almost won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, but a majority of the judging panel overturned the main jury’s decision on the grounds that the book was “unreadable, turgid, overwritten and obscene”. Despite this, Gravity’s Rainbow won the US National Book Award in 1974; it has also inspired much scholarly scrutiny and debate and is considered by many to be his best work, and by some to be the greatest American novel of all time.
I started the book with plenty of time (in electronic form, on my Sony Reader – almost half a stone lighter than the paperback version), but was scuppered by the sheer beauty of the work. You simply cannot read Gravity’s Rainbow quickly; I found it breathtakingly lovely, erudite, bittersweet, romantic, funny and sad, and to race through it at a normal pace would be an unforgivable crime. When it became clear that I was only going to make it half way, I stopped altogether, rather than rush through and ruin the experience – I plan to finish it off at a leisurely pace over the next few months.
To their credit, everyone showed up on the night, but only two people had finished it. It inspired the most polarized response we’ve ever had – people literally either loved it or hated it – but to be honest, most fell in the latter camp.
For July’s meeting, we’ve chosen the perfect antidote for a Pynchon overdose: The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes by Anne Lingard. Set in Cumbria’s Lake District, the shifting mosaic of the narrative – we’re told – explores life, love and prejudice through three very different women: Ruth, a taxidermist; Madeleine, a widowed sheep-farmer; and, Lisa, an achondroplastic mathematician. As Lisa is drawn into the group it becomes clear that the other women have strange secrets: Ruth’s essays on embalming have an increasingly dark theme. This is billed as a story about harsh decisions: eugenics in the post-genomic age; the politics of marginalizing people and communities; the desperate responses to Foot & Mouth Disease; and the illogicality of human love.
The author, Ann Lingard, is a former parasitologist, a passionate proponent of getting more science into literature, and the founder of SciTalk. And she’s graciously agreed to travel down from deepest Cumbria on the night to discuss her book with the group. So it should be an entertaining evening: do join us if you can on Monday 6 July at 7 PM at the Royal Institution.