Fifty Years of Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
“A screaming comes across the sky …”
So opens Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, whose critical reception mirrored some of its main themes and devices. Originally said to have been titled “Mindless Pleasures,” the novel often indulges in slapstick humor and adolescent glee. In fact, when Gravity’s Rainbow won the National Book Award in 1974, its famously reclusive author agreed to send the comedian “Professor” Irwin Corey to accept the award on his behalf. Aside from Corey’s remarkably eccentric speech (weirdly resonant with the novel itself), the ceremony included an actual streaker. Yes, a streaker came across the stage, a streaker whom Corey, in an inspired ad lib, thanked and identified as “Mr. Knopf” (notable book publisher Alfred A. Knopf).
Then, of course, there was the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that year, which the novel did and did not win. Recommended unanimously by a jury of distinguished literary figures, the decision was overturned by the award’s advisory board, some calling the novel “overwritten” and “obscene.” As it happens, no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded in 1974, a classic nonplus or snafu that Gravity’s Rainbow tirelessly prefigures.
So, what kind of novel is this? A novel the New York Times chose as “one of the three outstanding books published in 1973,” only to then call it “bonecrushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, pastoral, historical, philosophical, poetic, grindingly dull, inspired, horrific, cold, bloated, beached and blasted”?
And how does a reader process a novel that thematically foregrounds paranoia and indeterminacy, but also determinism, race, gender, class, dominance and submission, deviance and conformity, colonialism, corporate supra-nationalism, behaviorism, science and technology, magic and the occult, myth, legend, and history, the sacred and the profane, the licit and the illicit, mania, fixation, hallucination, self-extinction, and crowd favorites like coprophagia, sex torture, drug abuse, and gag-inducing food rituals?
And finally, what is the novel even about? In lieu of plot summary, it might be more useful to offer an equation or formula (as the novel itself occasionally does), something along the lines of “character + trajectory = being.” Which, in an odd way, also tracks with the novel’s central figure: the V-2 rocket bomb, or “revenge weapon,” around which all the narrative events swirl and whose parabolical-diabolical trajectory gives the novel its name.
Its protagonist is Tyrone Slothrop, an Ivy Leaguer from a prominent New England family, who finds himself working for American military intelligence. Slothrop has been the infant subject of a renowned psycho-chemist who visits a dark conditioning on him, one that propels Slothrop through London on a series of sexual escapades (real or alleged) that end up memorialized on a map in his office. This map, as it turns out, pre-replicates the map of V-2 strikes. Where Slothrop fucks, the Rocket follows. And this makes him a Sensitive, a Person of Serious Interest to a sprawling network of seekers and fellow obsessives: psychologists, statisticians, co-operatives in British intel, seance-goers, spies and double-agents, profiteers, exiled nobility and fallen cinema stars.
Character + trajectory = being. The philosopher Pierre Gassendi spoofed Descartes by saying, “Ambulo ergo sum”: I walk, therefore I am. And Slothrop proceeds to embody that very notion of mind/body inseparability, escaping London to occupied Germany. “The Zone,” in other words, with its colorful criminals, opportunists, and, most importantly, Rocket-Seekers obsessed with the mysterious “S-Gerät” (“black device”) and a V-2 with serial number 00000—both of which appear in secret records detailing a customized specimen of the rocket bomb. Customized to do what? That is the question that “launches” Slothrop on a trajectory the novel calls a “Grail Quest,” one that in most cases peters out in favor of some less-daunting version of being.
And so, crisscrossing The Zone on foot, or via traintop or stolen automobile, or aboard the decadent refugee yacht The Anubis, clothed either in a blindingly loud Hawaiian shirt, or a black market Zoot Suit, or a pig costume stuffed with hay, or a Wagnerian hero outfit made of props from an abandoned German Expressionist film studio, Tyrone Slothrop eventually transfigures into “Der Raketenmensch,” Rocketman, and winds up being the novel’s archetypal, non-consensual, triggered, stymied, and ultimately self-liberated proxy for all the other major characters.
Katje Borgesius, for example, the Dutch double-agent and miscast “femme fatale” whose own trajectory adds a new variable to the equation: that of “relay” or “transitive verb.” Katje is a launcher of others’ trajectories, while at the same time pursuing her own self-extinguishing Grail Quest—significantly, in response to a psychological conditioning similar to Slothrop’s. It is Katje who is closest to the real secret of Rocket 00000, having served as a sex-torture slave in the Hansel and Gretel fantasy concocted by the sado-masochistic Captain Blicero.
As it happens, the character Gottfried, Katje’s counterpart in that fantasy and a member of Blicero’s renegade rocket battalion (keepers of the S-Gerät V-2), is himself the secret. A secret weapon. Or a secret inside the weapon. The nose-cone of Rocket 00000 has been hollowed out to fit a sacrificial passenger, a naked scapegoat: Gottfried.
Sheathed in the black device, in a unique “erotic” polymer formulated by the very same psycho-chemist who conditioned the infant Slothrop, Gottfried is submitted to the lifepath of the rocket—as its payload, its destination and destiny, its end in what Blicero considers a means to overcome nature’s “cycle of infection and death.”
Other characters share this quality of being “launched”: Vaslav Tchitcherine, the Russian colonel whose obsessive path bends toward Oberst Enzian, leader of a group of fellow Rocket-Seekers, the Schwarzkommando, survivors of the Herero Genocide, as Enzian himself is also a survivor of Blicero’s sadism (and is also Tchitcherine’s half-brother); the Pavlovian behaviorist Edward Pointsman; the disillusioned statistician Roger Mexico; the Special Ops agent Pirate Prentice, who like Katje also functions as a relay. All these trajectories lead from character to the same strange, sometimes peaceful state of “self-disintegration” that finds Slothrop lying naked in a field, done questing, long before novel’s end.
* * *
Years later, a student at UNLV is workshopping a story (a bad one) inspired by a history book he’s discovered about the V-1 and V-2 weapons. In childhood, this student had been fascinated by World War II, building model warplanes and watching TV shows like 12 O’Clock High.
In any event, the student’s story involves a British intelligence officer investigating the V-2 strikes. The teacher, a novelist, offers some general comments about the story and then launches his own rocket bomb: “Of course, the definitive work on this subject is Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.”
“What rainbow? Who?”
Straight to the library after class. The student checks out a copy of the novel and rushes home to read it, which he does tossing and turning between delight and disgust, awe, humility, exhaustion, inspiration.
And that student is reading it still, and will always be reading it. (“We are still living under Gravity’s Rainbow,” as another critic has recently insisted.) In fact, if he looks down at his shoulder, he will see tattooed there a row of small squares and the words …