On this day in 1973 Thomas Pynchon's third novel, Gravity's Rainbow, entered American bookstores and split the literary world. Pulitzer Prize jurors unanimously recommended it, but Pulitzer advisory board members called it "unreadable" and "obscene." The novel seduced many critics but found few readers who would finish its 760 pages on the first attempt. Meanwhile, but for appearing on The Simpsons with a bag over his head, the author stayed out of the public eye, just as he had at the publication of his first two books. .
Featuring U.S. Army Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, Gravity's Rainbow describes the soldier's search for a mysterious World War II rocket as sinister forces chase him across Europe. He meets incredible characters, virtually all with crazy names and stories, such as in this scene at the Odeon cafe in Zurich:
Slothrop finds he has enough spare change for coffee. He goes sits inside, choosing a seat that'll face the entrance. Fifteen minutes and he's getting the spy-sign from a swarthy, curly-headed alien in a green suit a couple tables away. Another front-facer. On his table is an old newspaper that appears to be in Spanish. It is open to a peculiar political cartoon...and somehow this cartoon here is supposed to be some kind of a touchstone, this fella in the green suit, who turns out to be an Argentine named Francisco Squalidozzi, is looking for a reaction....The paper is fifteen years old. There is no telling what Squalidozzi is expecting from Slothrop, but what he gets is pure ignorance. This seems to be acceptable, and presently the Argentine has loosened up enough to confide that he and a dozen colleagues, among them the international eccentric Graciela Imago Portales, hijacked an early-vintage German U-boat in Mar de Plata a few weeks ago, and have sailed it back across the Atlantic now, to seek political asylum in Germany, as soon as the War's over there.
'You say Germany? You gone goofy? It's a mess there, Jackson!'
'Not nearly the mess we left back home,' the sad Argentine replies.
So it goes in scores of slapstick scenes, including one in which a Polish undertaker tries his best to be struck by lightning after reading about Benjamin Franklin's experiment, another in which Slothrop rescues a girl from an octopus whose mental health he questions, and still another in which the hero wears a costume and cape and is caught and drugged by Russians.
The New York Times called the novel "one of the longest, darkest, most difficult and ambitious novels in years...bonecrushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, poetic, dull, inspired, horrific, cold and blasted." Pulitzer juror Benjamin DeMott said, "No work of fiction published in 1973 begins to compare in scale, originality and sustained intellectual interest with Mr. Pynchon's book." A Pulitzer advisory board member, however, admitted he had managed only to finish the first third of the novel. As a result of the deep division, no Pulitzer Prize for fiction was awarded. Gravity's Rainbow did share the National Book Award that year. Pynchon, however, declined to appear at the ceremony.The likelihood of Pynchon's absence prompted Tom Guinzburg of Viking Press to organize a joke that has become legend in publishing and banqueting - the appearance of the stand-up comic Professor Irwin Corey (aka "The World's Foremost Authority"), who accepted the award on behalf of Pynchon, or perhaps someone like him:
However...I accept this financial stipulation...ah...stipend in behalf of Richard Python for the great contribution which to quote from some of the missiles which he has contributed.... Today we must all be aware that protocol takes precedence over procedure. However you say ... WHAT THE ... what does this mean ... in relation to the tabulation whereby we must once again realize that the great fiction story is now being rehearsed before our very eyes, in the Nixon administration ... indicating that only an American writer can receive ... the award for fiction, unlike Solzinitski whose fiction does not hold water. Comrades ... friends, we are gathered here not only to accept in behalf of one recluse ... one who has found that the world in itself which seems to be a time not of the toad ... to quote Studs TurKAL. And many people ask "Who are Studs TurKAL?" It's not "Who are Studs TurKAL?" it's "Who AM Studs TurKAL?"....