The Rocket

On a Giant's Shoulders:
Zak Smith Illustrates Gravity's Rainbow

By Creon Upton
April, 2005

Illustrating Gravity’s Rainbow is like putting Ezra Pound’s Cantos to music, or writing the novel of a grandmaster showdown—from the point of view of the chess pieces. It is, in other words, a massive task. It also demands exacting control of one’s own medium, as well as intimate engagement with another. The chances for abject failure are overwhelmingly high. Absolute success is all but impossible. Realistically, in this undertaking Zak Smith could at best hope to achieve a high level of mediocre acceptability. Surprisingly, he has done this, and even more.
Zak Smith is a precocious talent, with a clear, unembarrassed awareness of his tradition, in terms of both technique and subject matter. At the same time, though, his art is entirely a product of today, reflecting his immediate world. Smith’s recent series, “Girls in the Naked Girl Business,” demonstrates this clearly. Bespeaking a traditional concern with the demands of portraiture, Smith brings the faces of his girls into focus, drawing them out of the postmodern detritus in which their cluttered lives are irrecoverably immersed. These faces strain at the surfaces of the paintings, asserting themselves as something more than post-industrial urbanites lost in irony and death. This is deeply humanistic art, but it is not deluded, and neither are its subjects: the girls’ gazes are not for us, we realise, but for a camera; desperately human, perhaps, they remain committed to their post-human world. This is complemented by Smith’s media: acrylics and ink on plastic-coated paper. The paintings are garish and slick, their assiduous humanism constantly on the verge of appropriation by comic book or fashion magazine aesthetics.
This is largely why Smith is so well placed to take on a challenge like illustrating Gravity’s Rainbow. In their different media, Smith and Pynchon are very similar artists: technically and spiritually immersed in tradition, but culturally, thematically, and most of all stylistically, pushing at the edges of futurity. The comic book, the cartoon, and the television or movie camera hover behind the interpretive fields that their art summons—not often acknowledged, but ghostly presences informing how we read or view.
There is, however, a significant difference between the two: Pynchon is unarguably a literary great; if such labels still exist in the world of painting, Smith is yet to earn his. He certainly has the talent, and he has the time: Smith is now at the age when Pynchon was becoming immersed in writing Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon’s foregoing works are characterised by marks of the apprentice writer shot through with occasional flashes of brilliance. He put years into Gravity’s Rainbow and eventually emerged with a major work to his name. Smith’s future and future reputation are still up in the air. Pynchon stands now alongside Hawthorne and Melville. He makes Faulkner look like a competent writer for the young adult market—and this comes from an ardent admirer of Faulkner. If Pynchon has not written ‘the great American novel’, it is only because of the basic paradox of that popular concept: no great novel can honestly depict America and retain its candidacy for the coveted title.
Zak Smith’s Illustrations, then, is not Zak Smith’s Gravity’s Rainbow. It is a major work, but it is not a career-defining work. Pynchon (we assume) put the better part of a decade into his novel; Smith put in a year. Pynchon’s depth of research alone is staggering. When he describes an everyday item in the novel, we can feel sure of the historical accuracy (or deliberate inaccuracy) of his description; Smith, on the other hand, takes his inspiration from the novel itself, without much recourse to the historical world it describes. Smith seems to realise that his illustrations are subordinate to the novel in this respect. He is not attempting to create the visual equivalent of Gravity’s Rainbow; rather, wisely, he is attempting to supplement the novel with a visual interpretation that respects the novel’s form, manner and tone.
What makes Pynchon so great? This is an important question, because answering it is precisely the test Zak Smith sets himself. In other words, Smith must be able to apprehend in Gravity’s Rainbow, and reflect in his own medium, the formal qualities that constitute Pynchon’s genius. Put simply, Zak Smith must be able to read, before he even begins to draw. Many folks who assume they can read don’t seem to be able to read Pynchon. They are the ones who say Pynchon can’t write. And many who do read Pynchon don’t do it very well, churning out thematic/philosophical tracts intended to reveal the hidden messages in Pynchon’s work. Generally, these messages—what the author reckons about life, the universe and everything—are not particularly deep, nor surprising, nor in fact are they hidden, being actually articulated quite clearly in the novels.
This is a review of Smith’s work, not Pynchon’s, so I will suggest only briefly what makes Pynchon so great. Mikhail Bakhtin, from whom, arguably, the entire spirit of modern scholarly approaches to the novel is descended, noted early last century that the novel is unique among literary forms because it is in a continual process of self-definition and discovery. It is not formally contained as a genre, but is constantly reinventing itself. This feature is the fundamental bottom line of novelistic poetics, and if we judge novels at all, it is in respect to their contribution to the evolution of the form. This is why, with such suspicious automatism, English scholars will always say that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the twentieth century. We all have favourite writers, but we all know that Joyce carved out the landscape on which twentieth century novels grew. The world would not have been the same without him. In this reviewer’s opinion, Joyce retained his title to the end of the century, but only just: Pynchon’s publication of Mason & Dixon in 1997 was the strongest challenge he faced, but he hung on.
Pynchon’s strength, then, is simply that he advances the ideal of the novel more profoundly than the majority of writers. It is about innovation, but also about understanding the past; it is about having the elusive vision to intuit the necessary next steps for the genre to take, given the ones it has taken so far. These are steps through a mine field, and most writers have the good sense to stand fairly still, or just shuffle about a bit; some step boldly and are blown up; others, like Pynchon, or Joyce, or Austen, clear a path of unbelievable complexity into a whole new, though equally perilous, terrain.
Pynchon’s pages are densely packed, and his tendency is to stack image upon image, meaning that even while Smith has produced an illustration for each page, 760 of them, he is still often forced to arbitrarily choose a single image to draw, from several possibilities. Occasionally, Smith chooses, rather, to divide an illustration into a set of frames, depicting in a series of drawings the events of the given page. This is appropriate to the comic book style of Pynchon’s narrative delivery, something that has been widely noted and is on occasions the predominating stylistic intention of the author.
This prudent nod to one of Pynchon’s pop-cultural influences is, however, wisely kept to a minimum—otherwise it would risk seeming a default option for when the artist has given up on selecting a single image from which to work. The power of the device, though, is evident in Smith’s choice of it for the final page (760). Ushering in apocalypse, the final scene takes place inside a movie theatre about to be struck by a nuclear missile. Smith’s illustration is divided into twelve frames, which follow the succession of images Pynchon presents. The eighth frame appears little more than a dark scribble, until we read the line it clearly illustrates: ‘it is now a closeup of the face, a face we all know’. Suddenly the scribble emerges as a dark, menacing presence with just discernable features, convincingly the face of evil and death.
The final frame of this piece illustrates the fictional Puritan hymn that closes the novel. Smith has divided the frame into eight horizontal strips, one for each line of the hymn. The tiny space the artist is now working in (the originals of these illustrations are smaller than postcard size) allows him to demonstrate his remarkable skill for expression in the slightest strokes of his pen: his image for line four, ‘Find the last poor Pret’rite one’, is astonishing.
For a Pynchon reader, though, Smith is at his best when he allows himself the freedom to devote his entire illustration to the smallest detail taken from the text. This is when he most lavishly, and often breathtakingly, complements the literary material he’s working with. A good example is page 49, where Smith draws the anonymous victim (identified, in one of Pynchon’s characteristic uses of voice, as ‘you’) of a WWII rocket attack on London—again inside a movie theatre. But Smith does not focus on the horror as it is recounted in the text, from the victim’s point of view, with him coming to and experiencing the devastation. Rather, Smith is inspired by Pynchon’s imagined speech by the victim, which captures the surreal serenity that can attend moments of great suffering: ‘I don’t know guv I must’ve blacked out when I came to she was gone....’ Smith chooses, then, to depict this character from an external perspective, which is not given in the novel. We see him from above, still blacked out, yet to come to awareness of his situation. As viewers, we are also caught by this delayed realisation. At first glance he is enjoying a deep and invigorating sleep. We do not immediately notice his severed arm and blood-spattered shirt.
While remaining subordinate to the novel, then, Smith does complement Pynchon’s artistry throughout the majority of this huge project. Rather than coming across as an exercise in illustration, Smith’s work is illustration in the genuine sense: a mature artistic expression of a reader’s creative and thorough engagement with a text. Smith most definitely can read Pynchon, and he gives all evidence of having read Gravity’s Rainbow more closely, cover to cover, than a good number of Pynchon scholars, this writer included.
In this sense, then, Smith’s Illustrations are most suited to being experienced along with reading the novel. For those already familiar with Gravity’s Rainbow, they are a great accompaniment to leisurely dippings-into Pynchon’s work. A new edition of the novel, incorporating Smith’s illustrations, would be fantastic, but it seems unlikely. Perhaps a meritorious compromise would be an edition containing selected illustrations, at an average of say one per ten pages, which would display the best of Smith’s work while keeping the volume down to a manageable size.
Exuberant praise for Pynchon’s writing should come with a warning, and it applies equally to these illustrations: this stuff is difficult. Pynchon is not a writer to furnish his works with a captivating plot and its attendant yarn-spinning narrator, who takes us by the hand and guides us through the novel. Instead he must be approached carefully and faithfully by an alert reader, sensitive to detail, who is prepared to work hard for the great rewards the work offers. Furthermore, in Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon is presenting a stark and bleak picture of a savaged world, characterised by death and suffering, in the psychopathic control of military-industrial institutions grown insane with power. This is a world of corrupted anarchy, where the tenacity of human dignity remains the single lonely site of affirmation or hope. And this dignity comes always attended by the grief that lies at the heart of self-conscious existence.
The most dominant extra-literary stylistic register Pynchon employs is a novelistic response to German expressionist films of the 1930s—eerie, alienating and deeply paranoid visions of a life slipping beyond the grasp of everyday human beings. Zak Smith’s Illustrations are a faithful tribute to this. The majority of the illustrations are in black ink, raw, nightmarish visions that explore a host of avenues for psychological representation: surrealism, expressionism, portraiture, pastiche and symbolic allegory. Like Pynchon’s dense prose, this succession of dark images can be alienating, but again like the novel, careful attention is rewarded.
Even when well outside the borderlines of literal representation, Smith’s ink drawings, as with the face of death on the final page, contain evocative details of tactile mechanics and movement. Page 412 depicts a grisly, industrial monster, a response to the novel’s tirade against capitalist consumption. The creature is fused to the earth’s resources, a mass of organic materials. It consumes these and releases from its great claw ordered parcels: a limited supply of products and services whose real cost is unaccounted for in their market value. When we look closer, we see inside the monster’s head that it is being controlled by a dark human figure: the self-appointed Maxwell’s demon manipulating this engine of destruction and waste (and the point about Maxwell’s demon, of course, is that it is the benign symbol of a sick fantasy).
Pynchon’s intricate and dark vision, though, is punctuated throughout by passages of uplifting genius, transporting the reader with hilarity, surreal vision or quite simply beautiful evocations of the human condition. Smith, likewise, intersperses his ink drawings with vibrant images. He uses colour to startling effect, with acrylics sometimes applied to the ink drawings in a variety of manners. Particularly ‘colourful’ or ‘light’ passages from the novel are given a similar treatment by Smith, with pinks, blues and yellows predominating. Conversely, darker visions might be set of with a dash of red, suggesting blood and sacrifice. Smith also employs a good number of photographic images, especially in the overtly ‘filmic’ passages of the novel. These photographs are weirdly developed, capturing while disorienting our attention.
Also providing relief from the demoniac and chaotic, Smith’s bold portraits of principle characters constitute flashes of humanist insight. Katje Borgesius, the Dutch double agent, on page 97, captures the abstracted mind of the collaborator/resister. The image of child-prisoner Ilse being herded by the grim and psychotic Major Weissman, on page 408, is one of Smith’s greatest single pictures. And Ilse’s ‘sister’ Bianca, another child victim, on page 463, evokes the essential pornography of any girl dressed in women’s clothes. Smith’s depiction of Säure Bummer, the ageing German drug-fiend, on page 437, is brilliant. And major Marvy and Bloody Chiclitz, on page 558, display, in their grinning ridiculousness, the sly and ruthless disingenuousness of American military/corporate collaboration.
It must be said that Smith’s early pictures are less artistically bold than what comes later. Initially he seems somewhat hesitant, too reliant on the text. By the time he is into the third and largest section of the novel, “In the Zone,” though, Smith is clearly in his zone. From here on the pictures become more intricate, more autonomous and more creative. The artist seems in control of his work, more prepared to feed back into Pynchon’s vision as well as respond to it. The image, on page 331, of the novel’s hero, Tyrone Slothrop, as a comical child’s drawing, talking to the massive Herero guard, captures exactly the mood of the passage represented; but the idea, the intuition, belong to the artist: it is his response, and a fitting one, to the innocent, ineffectual persona Slothrop evinces in that particular scene.
Towards the novel’s close, Smith is offered an opportunity he cannot resist. Richard M. Nixon is transformed by the novel into Richard M. Zhlubb, who is talking to a reporter, again identified by the text as ‘you.’ Smith takes this up, and the illustration for page 755 shows Nixon in deep conversation with the artist. Placing himself in the work at this late stage may risk seeming self-indulgent, but the incongruity of the image befits the spirit of the novel and underlines Smith’s creative and studied response to a reader’s engagement with Pynchon’s work. And it’s a great picture.
Pynchon has been called the American Dante, but Smith falls short of quite becoming Pynchon’s William Blake. This is partly owing to the style of Gravity’s Rainbow, which is so bleak, and so descriptive, as to tie the artist’s hands and force him to surrender his own vision to Pynchon’s. Mason & Dixon, Pynchon’s latest novel, is everything Gravity’s Rainbow is not: exuberant, colourful, dominated by character and dialogue. When Zak Smith has a spare few years he might consider illustrating that incredible novel. It would be a huge test for the artist, demanding more imaginative groundwork and a more personal, holistic visual response. That is, Smith’s best illustrations for Gravity’s Rainbow are when he captures how the novel feels rather than merely being faithful to its words—and his development in this respect is clear, though not complete, in the progression of this work. Mason & Dixon would, I suspect, force the artist to develop this sensitivity to the novel’s feel well before he could even begin imagining his project. It would offer Smith more opportunity to make the work his own—a greater challenge for greater rewards.
This review is mostly positive for the fact that these illustrations are good. Really good. But Smith had to come up with something really good to justify the incredible hubris of taking on a project like this. For a Pynchon fan, sensitive to the novelist’s being once again used and insulted by those who would seek the vicarious limelight, Smith’s Illustrations are outstanding because they are faithful to the novel without cheapening or denigrating it. In fact, they significantly contribute to the reading experience and so must be deemed a great success. From an artistic point of view, though, the illustrations seem less (only slightly less) than they might have been. Clearly Zak Smith is developing as a major 21st century artist, one who places high demands on himself. We can look forward to the fruits of his combined talent, commitment and intellect as his career develops over the coming decades.