Charlie Parker's Cameo in "Gravity's Rainbow"

The first thing you notice about Thomas Pynchon's magnum opus Gravity's Rainbow (1973) is its heft: over 700 pages long, with over 400 distinct characters, it's a heavyweight.

The next thing you notice, once you've cracked it open and started reading, is the hyperdensity of detail. Plenty of people think Ulysses is the greatest novel of the 20th century (maybe even the greatest of all time), but in terms of detail and encyclopedic scope, Gravity's Rainbow might be Ulysses's equal in that regard. 

Music comes up a great deal in Pynchon's novel, often in the form of randomly interpolated songs and dance breaks, but there's also a surprising amount of specialized technical knowledge; at one point, Pynchon actually notes after a particular lyric "(down a third)"—and you can hear it!

Set during WWII, the novel includes a brief nod to bebop, which I had to share. This is during an analepsis to the Roseland Ballroom on Mass. Ave. in Boston, in 1939. Check it out:
“Cherokee” comes wailing up from the dance floor below, over the hi-hat, the string bass, the thousand sets of feet where moving rose lights suggest not pale Harvard boys and their dates, but a lotta dolled-up redskins. The song playing is one more lie about white crimes. But more musicians have floundered in the channel to “Cherokee” than have got through from end to end. All those long, long notes…what’re they up to, all that time to do something inside of? is it an Indian spirit plot? Down in New York, drive fast maybe get there for the last set—on 7th Ave., between 139th and 140th, tonight, “Yardbird” Parker is finding out how he can use the notes at the higher ends of these very chords to break up the melody into have mercy what is it a fucking machine gun or something man he must be out of his mind 32rd notes demisemiquavers say it very (demisemiquaver) fast in a Munchkin voice if you can dig that coming out of Dan Wall’s Chili House and down the street—shit, out in all kinds of streets (his trip, by ’39, well begun: down inside his most affirmative solos honks already the idle, amused dum-de-dumming of old Mister fucking Death he self) out over the airwaves, into the society gigs, someday as far as what seeps out hidden speakers in the city elevators and in all the markets, his bird’s singing, to gainsay the Man’s lullabies, to subvert the groggy wash of the endlessly, gutlessly overdubbed strings….So that prophecy, even up here on rainy Massachusetts Avenue, is beginning these days to work itself out in “Cherokee,” the saxes downstairs getting now into some, oh really weird shit… 
Bird in 1947. Young Miles is chilling.
Aside from the brilliant registral and tonal shifts going on ("...break up the melody into have mercy what is it a fucking machine gun..."), the other amazing thing about this passage is that the details all line up: Bird's epiphany in 1939 at Dan Wall's Chili House on 7th Ave. between 139th and 140th; the use of "the higher ends of these chords" to create new melodic ideas; and the subversion of the "groggy wash of gutlessly overdubbed strings," all on "Cherokee." 

It's this method of grounding the fiction in the most precise minutiae of history, taken from Joyce among others, that has the effect of making this novel something more than just a fictional world—it's a paradoxical creation that departs so far from reality while being more deeply involved with the world than some purported nonfictions! It's the extremity of the thing that counts—if Ulysses is also concerned with hyper-realism in terms of empirical fact, then Gravity's Rainbow matches that while taking some of Joyce's ideas to an even greater extreme, e.g., the revelatory interconnectedness of Joyce's universe becomes a paranoia-fueled nightmare in Pynchon's, where the interconnectedness of everything is just so freaking omnipresent and deeply-rooted that nothing happens by chance, meaning that somebody or something is behind every event. Frightening.

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I'll hopefully have a longer post about Gravity's Rainbow up in a bit, but I'll also be studying the novel later this semester, so I might save some of the heavy lifting for then. Until then, I'll be checking out Coetzee's Disgrace and some Hemingway—a nice, non-postmodern breather.