I would have a kind of methodological remark on stuff like Gravity’s Rainbow. Where exactly do we draw the line, when is something just bad literature? Gravity’s Rainbow has some good stuff, some poetic pages, but most of it, as was rightly observed in Josh’s post, is way too scattered.
There are different ways of undermining convention, and not all of them are the same. For example, in a lot of novels of Robbe-Grillet, there is an undermining of plot and character, but somehow they seem more unitary. Even in books where it’s not clear if any of what is going on is true or made-up, Robbe-Grillet manages to confer unity. Some of this unity is achieved by having recurring scenes, motifs, characters (although it may not be clear what their status is).
Another example: in Beckett’s The Unnameable, nothing whatsoever happens. We have some voice narrating and nothing of what he/it says can be taken for granted. That book’s unity stands entirely in its narrator, who is rambling.
I guess the problem I have with Gravity’s Rainbow is that its rambling does not amount to much. In Robbe-Grillet, I think the sense that the book amounts to something comes to a large extent from the fact that the book is posing problems: problems about our epistemic access to things, problems about the traditional view of what fictional characters are, about what plot is supposed to be etc. In Beckett, the narrator has existential questions he’s rambling about: God, his own existence etc.
Now, it could be said that Gravity’s Rainbow also poses problems like these. I agree. It asks questions about the ethics of war, as far as I remember. But the directions that the book goes in do not cohere. In Robbe-Grillet and Beckett, the radical style of narration was in the foreground, you were aware at every step of the radical kind of literature you were reading, and you could focus on the style, on the recurrence of motifs etc. (I would compare Robbe-Grillet’s literature to something like Steve Reich for example). The plot is not going anywhere and you know it. But in Gravity’s Rainbow, it seems to me there’s a lot of traces of the traditional way of storytelling, that you are expecting the story to go somewhere, and it doesn’t (although, judging by the way it’s constructed, I would add that it should). It seems like Pynchon is trying to do two things at once: be radical in his narration, but not break entirely with tradition (plot and such).
Perhaps this is not the best explanation of the feeling some of us have that something isn’t right about a book like Gravity’s Rainbow, but it’s the best I’ve got.
If I’m right, though, that there is something not coherent about this book, then maybe we should take seriously the idea that this is just a badly written book. I’m sure you could find many allusions to historical events, art, war, and whatnot, in the book. What I’m not sure is whether all that is enough to make up for the way it’s written. My conjecture is that it’s not, with the corolary that this is just bad literature. But I might be wrong.