Gravity’s Rainbow

tyrone slothrop by zak smith

Gravity’s Rainbow is a 1973 book written by Thomas Pynchon; it is his third and most celebrated novel. The narrative is set primarily in Europe at the end of World War II and centers on the design, production and dispatch of V-2 rockets by the German military, and, in particular, the quest undertaken by several characters to uncover the secret of a mysterious device named the ‘Schwarzgerät’ (‘black device’) that is to be installed in a rocket with the serial number ‘00000.’

Gravity’s Rainbow is transgressive, as it questions and inverts social standards of deviance and disgust and transgresses boundaries of Western culture and reason.

Frequently digressive, the novel subverts many of the traditional elements of plot and character development, and traverses detailed, specialist knowledge drawn from a wide range of disciplines. The novel’s title is a reference to the parabolic trajectory of a V-2 rocket: the ‘rainbow-shaped’ path created by the missile as it moves under the influence of gravity, subsequent to the engine’s deactivation; it is also thought to refer to the ‘shape’ of the plot, which many critics such as have found to be cyclical or circular, like the true shape of a rainbow. This follows in the literary tradition of James Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ and Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man.’

The plot of the novel is complex, containing over 400 characters and involving many different threads of narrative which intersect and weave around one another. The recurring themes throughout the plot are the V-2 rocket, interplay between free will and Calvinistic predestination, breaking the cycle of nature, behavioral psychology, sexuality, paranoia and conspiracy theories such as the Phoebus light bulb cartel and the Illuminati. Gravity’s Rainbow also draws heavily on themes that Pynchon had probably encountered at his work as a technical writer for Boeing, where he edited a support newsletter for the Bomarc Missile Program support unit. The Boeing archives are known to house a vast library of historical V-2 rocket documents, which were probably accessible to Pynchon. The novel is narrated by many distinct voices, a technique further developed in Pynchon’s much later novel ‘Against the Day.’ The style and tone of the voices vary widely: Some narrate the plot in a highly informal tone, some are more self-referential, and some might even break the fourth wall. Some voices narrate in drastically different formats, ranging from movie-script format to stream of consciousness prose.

The narrative contains numerous descriptions of illicit sexual encounters and drug use by the main characters and supporting cast, sandwiched between dense dialogues or reveries on historic, artistic, scientific, or philosophical subjects, interspersed with whimsical nonsense-poems and allusions to obscure facets of 1940s pop culture. Many of the recurring themes will be familiar to experienced Pynchon readers, including the singing of silly songs, recurring appearances of kazoos, and extensive discussion of paranoia. Megalomaniac paranoia is the ‘operative emotion’ behind the novel, and an increasingly central motivator for the many main characters. In many cases, this paranoia proves to be vindicated, as the many plots of the novel become increasingly interconnected, revolving around the identity and purpose of the elusive 00000 Rocket and Schwarzgerät.

The novel develops a preoccupation with themes of Tarot, Paranoia, and Sacrifice. All three themes culminate in the novel’s ending, and the epilogue of the many characters. The novel also features the character Pig Bodine, of Pynchon’s novel ‘V.’, who would later become a recurring avatar of Pynchon’s complex and interconnected fictional universe, making an appearance in nearly all of Pynchon’s novels thereafter. The novel also shares many themes with Pynchon’s much later ‘Against the Day,’ which becomes increasingly dark as the plot approaches World War I. ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ takes these sentiments to their extreme in its highly pessimistic culmination of World War II.

‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ is composed of four parts, each of these composed of a number of episodes whose divisions are marked by a graphical depiction of a series of squares. It has been suggested that these represent sprocket holes as in a reel of film, although they may also bear some relation to the engineer’s graph paper on which the first draft of the novel was written. One of the book’s editors has been quoted as saying that the squares relate to censored correspondence sent between soldiers and their loved ones during the war. When family and friends received edited letters, the removed sections would be cut out in squared or rectangular sections. The squares that start each of the four parts would therefore be indicative of what is not written, or what is removed by an external editor or censor. The square frames that divide each chapter were the work of the publisher’s production department, and were not suggested by Pynchon. The number of episodes in each part carries with it a numerological significance which is in keeping with the use of numerology and Tarot symbolism throughout the novel.

The major portion of the book takes place in London and Europe in the final months of World War II and the weeks immediately following VE Day, and is narrated for the most part from within the historical moment in which it is set. In this way, Pynchon’s text enacts a type of dramatic irony whereby neither the characters nor the various narrative voices are aware of specific historical circumstances, such as the Holocaust and, except as hints, premonitions and mythography, the complicity between Western corporate interests and the Nazi war machine, which figure prominently in readers’ apprehensions of the novel’s historical context. For example, at war’s end the narrator observes: ‘There are rumors of a War Crimes Tribunal under way in Nürnberg. No one Slothrop has listened to is clear who’s trying whom for what …’

Such an approach generates dynamic tension and moments of acute self-consciousness, as both reader and author seem drawn ever deeper into the ‘plot,’ in various senses of that term: Between the ominous launch and final descent into ‘terminal orgasm,’ Pynchon presents us with a Disney-meets-Bosch panorama of European politics, American entropy, industrial history, and libidinal panic which leaves a chaotic whirl of fractal patterns in the reader’s mind.

An intricate and allusive fiction that combines and elaborates on many of the themes of his earlier work, including preterition, paranoia, racism, colonialism, conspiracy, synchronicity, and entropy; the novel has spawned a wealth of commentary and critical material, including reader’s guides, books and scholarly articles, online discussions, and art works. Its artistic value is often compared to that of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’ Some scholars have hailed it as the greatest American post-WW2 novel, and it has similarly been described as ‘literally an anthology of postmodernist themes and devices.’

The novel invokes anti-authority sentiments, often through violations of narrative conventions and integrity. For example, the protagonist considers the fact that his own family ‘made its money killing trees,’ he apostrophizes his apology and plea for advice to the coppice within which he has momentarily taken refuge. In an overt incitement to eco-activism, Pynchon’s narrative agency then has it that ‘a medium-sized pine nearby nods its top and suggests, ‘Next time you come across a logging operation out here, find one of their tractors that isn’t being guarded, and take its oil filter with you. That’s what you can do.”

Encyclopedic in scope and often self-conscious in style, the novel displays erudition in its treatment of an array of material drawn from the fields of psychology, chemistry, mathematics, history, religion, music, literature, and film. Pynchon wrote the first draft in ‘neat, tiny script on engineer’s quadrille paper.’ He worked on it throughout the 1960s and early 1970s while he was living in California and Mexico City.

Many facts in the novel are based on technical documents relating to the V-2 rockets. Equations featured in the text are correct. References to the works of Pavlov, Ouspensky, and Jung are based on Pynchon’s research. The firing command sequence in German that is recited at the end of the novel is also correct and is probably copied verbatim from the technical report produced by Operation Backfire (part of the Allies’ scramble to acquire German technology after the war). In reality, a V-2 rocket hit the Rex Cinema in Antwerp, where some 1200 people were watching the movie ‘The Plainsman,’ in late 1944, killing 567 people, the most killed by a single rocket during the entire war. The secret military organizations practicing occult warfare have an historical backdrop in the Ahnenerbe (a Nazi think tank that promoted itself as a ‘study society for Intellectual Ancient History’) and other Nazi mysticism, whereas the allied counterparts were limited to certain individuals such as Louis de Wohls an astrologer hired by MI5 (it was believed that Hitler was influenced strongly by astrology, and hence might be likely to choose ‘lucky’ astrological dates for major ventures).

Additionally, the novel uses many actual events and locations as backdrops to establish chronological order and setting within the complex structure of the book. Examples include the appearance of a photograph of Wernher Von Braun in which his arm is in a cast. Historical documents indicate the time and place of an accident which broke Von Braun’s arm, thereby providing crucial structural details around which the reader can reconstruct protagonist’s journey. Another example is the inclusion of a BBC Radio broadcast of a Benny Goodman performance, the contents of which, according to historical record, were broadcast only once during the period of the novel and by which the events immediately surrounding its mention are fixed. Further historical events, such as Allied bombing raids on Peenemünde and the city of Nordhausen (close to the V-2 producing concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora) also appear in the novel and help to establish the relation of the work’s events to each other.

Poet L. E. Sissman, in his ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ review for ‘The New Yorker,’ said of Pynchon: ‘He is almost a mathematician of prose, who calculates the least and the greatest stress each word and line, each pun and ambiguity, can bear, and applies his knowledge accordingly and virtually without lapses, though he takes many scary, bracing linguistic risks. Thus his remarkably supple diction can first treat of a painful and delicate love scene and then roar, without pause, into the sounds and echoes of a drudged and drunken orgy.’

Though the book won the National Book Award for 1974, Pynchon chose neither to accept nor acknowledge this award. Thomas Guinzberg of the Viking Press suggested that the comedian ‘Professor’ Irwin Corey accept the award on his behalf. Pynchon agreed, which led to one of the most unusual acceptance speeches of all time, complete with a streaker crossing the stage in the middle of Corey’s musings. Later that year, the Pulitzer Prize fiction panel unanimously recommended it for the award, but the Pulitzer board vetoed the jury’s recommendation, describing the novel as ‘unreadable,’ ‘turgid,’ ‘overwritten,’ and in parts ‘obscene.’ No award was given for fiction that year. In 1975, Pynchon declined the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ was translated into German by Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, and some critics think that it had a big influence on Jelinek’s own writing.

The lyrics of Devo’s song ‘Whip It’ were inspired by ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ parodies of limericks and poems; band member Gerald Casale specified: ‘The lyrics were written by me as an imitation of Thomas Pynchon’s parodies in his book ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’ He had parodied limericks and poems of kind of all-American, obsessive, cult of personality ideas like Horatio Alger and ‘You’re #1, there’s nobody else like you’ kind of poems that were very funny and very clever. I thought, ‘I’d like to do one like Thomas Pynchon,’ so I wrote down ‘Whip It’ one night.’ The novel inspired the 1984 song ‘Gravity’s Angel’ by experimental performance artist Laurie Anderson. In her 2004 autobiographical performance ‘The End of the Moon,’ Anderson said she once contacted Pynchon asking permission to adapt ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ as an opera. Pynchon replied that he would allow her to do so with one condition: the opera had to be written for a single instrument: the banjo. Anderson said she took that as a polite ‘no.’

New York artist Zak Smith created a series of 760 drawings entitled, ‘One Picture for Every Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel ‘Gravity’s Rainbow” (also known by the title ‘Pictures of What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel ‘Gravity’s Rainbow”). Occupying eleven rows and over eleven meters of wall space, the drawings attempt to illustrate, as literally as possible, every page of the book. The piece includes palm trees, shoes, stuffed toys, a lemon meringue pie, Richard Nixon, Sigmund Freud, an iron toad wired to an electric battery, a dominatrix, and other images from the novel. In 2006, Tin House Books published the book ‘Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.” In 1999 a painting by the American artist Fred Tomaselli, inspired by the novel and titled ‘Gravity’s Rainbow (Large),’ was added to the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City.


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