Thursday, March 1, 2007

Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated, by Zak Smith

A Review of Zak Smith’s

Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Spring 2007

Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated:
One Picture for Every Page
By Zak Smith
Tin House Books ($39.95)

As with so many of the great encyclopedic works of literature—the Bible, the Divine Comedy, the Decameron, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost—Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow begs, or perhaps dares, to be illustrated. With a combination of language and happenings as variegated as the rainbow itself, Pynchon’s novel evokes every conceivable style of image, from the most hallucinatory to the most concrete and brutal. Indeed, with its filmstrip-square section breaks and its famous references to The Wizard of Oz, Orson Welles (“The Kenosha Kid”), and to a kaleidoscope of other filmic dreamscapes, it takes the reader’s imagination on a journey as prismatic and colorful as any febrile Hollywood odyssey.

Clearly unfilmable, the novel may also be impossible to illustrate with any degree of fidelity to its maker’s vision. Even Pynchon himself has looked back on the novel and wondered what in the world he was thinking, suggesting that the creation may even be beyond the compass of its visionary creator. Every time I read it, its totality seems more and more difficult to comprehend, but what becomes clearer each time are the images and imaginings that impress themselves so deeply into the reader’s consciousness, and this may be what makes Zak Smith’s new Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated possible. Rather than taking on the entire rainbow at once, the way that a classical narrative painter might—or the way that even a chapter-by-chapter illustrator might—Smith goes page by page, translating each of his immediate impressions into graspable images.

Best known as a “punk-porn” artist, Zak Smith seems an unlikely—and in fact perhaps even detrimental—candidate for a task such as this. Many prospective readers blindly turn away from the novel because of its ostensible obscenity (and its phallic immensity), and having an illustrator who traffics in the lurid and prurient may simply exacerbate this popular misconception. Yes, Pynchon revels in Sadean sickness, but that’s only a tiny sliver of the vast rainbow. What’s remarkable about Smith’s undertaking, however, is that he wasn’t chosen for the task; he appointed himself to it, uncommissioned, and has given us a highly personal view that would probably never see the printed page if he’d been hired by a publisher.

In Smith’s case, this has its negative and positive effects, because his undeniably singular vision offers much while still falling far short of the novel’s full spectrum. Most notable is that he’s illustrating a novel with the word “rainbow” in the title while the vast majority of his renderings are simple black-and-white drawings. There are a small fraction of color illustrations and photographs, but even in his drawings of Dorothy Gale and friends, the colors are muted and unstriking. The most disappointing illustration is on page 49, when Pynchon refers, in second person, to “the sight of your blood spurting from the flaccid stub of artery,” and Smith renders this excellent opportunity for self-expression in black ink, making the illustrator’s own spurt of blood and its accompanying pain almost unnoticeable.

In what seems to be an afterthought in his foreword, Smith only makes mention of Pynchon’s language as an extension of the novel’s style of thinking. This is a telling perspective for an artist to take, as novels and paintings are things in themselves rather than just invisible windows into the world beyond the medium. Nobody would just mention the stylistic differences between a Giotto crucifixion and a Carravagio crucifixion in passing, or say that Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway are just descriptions of ordinary life. Each of these works is as much about the artist’s vision and artistic style as it is the subject matter or “style of thinking,” and the artist’s “language” can mean the difference between a Monet and a Picasso.

As for the artistic language in this collection, Smith mostly speaks in comic-book crosshatching, minimalist caricatures, and twisted figures that seem overly influenced by Egon Schiele. In his other works (especially in his labyrinthine 100 Girls and 100 Octopuses) he’s a brilliant colorist and obsessively meticulous chronicler of his milieu, but the drawings in this collection often seem derivative and pale.

It would be somewhat unfair to compare Smith’s illustrations to those of Gustave DorĂ© or the Limbourg brothers or even John Tenniel, because these artists were commissioned for their work and had a much different mandate, but in evaluating the relationship between a text its corresponding images, these are artists worth reviewing. DorĂ©’s drawing for the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, and so many others are not just brilliantly imagined but are articulated with amazing thoroughness. Smith states in his foreword that his own style “is nothing if not thorough,” but in this book’s case, this simply isn’t true. He attempts to make his illustrations as literal as possible, and he does impressive research into what the rifles and tanks and ambulances of the novel’s time looked like, but compared to the Limbourg brothers or any of the other great medieval illuminators—or to the indelibly memorable Tenniel—these images simply seem haphazard.

With the helpful assistance of Joe King, Associate Registrar of Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center (which holds the drawings in its permanent collection), I got to examine a dozen of the Gravity’s Rainbow pictures in person, with excellent commentary from King and from Zak Smith via King. Looking at the pictures’ full texture up close was more rewarding than I expected—especially the multimedia ones, which are often ingeniously constructed—but this is a review of their collected book form, and a lot of these pictures’ vitality has been lost in translation. For a much richer rendering of Gravity’s Rainbow, see Dr. Larry Daw’s online version, which only has about seventy-five illustrations but which comes much closer to Pynchon’s ordered chaos. To fully appreciate Smith’s book, which Steve Erickson gleefully describes as “doomed to failure” in his Introduction, I recommend surrounding yourself with them in person and seeing how well they succeed in enhancing your own vision of Pynchon’s rainbow.

—David Wiley