Proverbs for Paranoids, 3: If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.
You’re confused, and you’re supposed to be. You’re lost, but not for lack of information: if anything there’s too much, covering more abstruse topics in more detail than you ever wanted. No, it’s something else: the shrouded logic, the elusive plot, the expansive setting over which the action spreads like a Poisson distribution across the maddening globe. There’s nothing to guide you. Yet a few signals make it through the chaos, and they all point to a single image that unites everything, the central enigma of Gravity’s Rainbow: the Rocket. In Thomas Pynchon’s universe, characters are always chasing the clandestine symbol, because there are no answers out in the open. This is a world of conspiracies. Everywhere there are cryptic signs and shadowy connections. And like the true schlemiel protagonist, you’re never sure whether these signals will lead anywhere or whether your senses are misguiding you once again. Yet the hunch persists: maybe if you kept going just a little further, if you followed the bouncing ball a little longer, you might at last find what was orchestrated with you in mind all along, a dark and real thing reflected back at you from the void, placing you finally at the centre of the colossal tapestry which had for so long seemed a mindless patchwork. You’re convinced it’s coming, and the Rocket will show you how. There’s a word for this feeling: it’s paranoia, that deep-seated American pathology. Thomas Pynchon is paranoia’s greatest poet, and Gravity’s Rainbow is its infinite ballad.
This so-called novel is set during and just after World War II. It takes place across several parts of the world, but mostly in London during the Blitz and in occupied Germany after the end of the war. We also make leaps to Zürich, the French Riviera, German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia), and, I don’t know, Kyrgyzstan? It can be hard to tell. At times Pynchon paints landscapes in a vibrant pointillism that gives an indelible sense of a place:
To Cuxhaven, the summer in deceleration, floating on to Cuxhaven. The meadows hum. Rain clatters in crescent swoops through the reeds. Sheep, and rarely a few dark northern deer, will come down to browse for seaweed at the shore which is never quite sea not quite sand, but held in misty ambivalence by the sun…
And at other times, it’s hard to picture a solid surrounding to any of it. But that’s as good a way as any to describe what it is to read this book. There’s a beginning and an end, and a long stream of fragments in between that sometime seem as rationally linked as a night’s many dreams. When you awake you can recall some of them: scenes and set pieces emerging like glimpses of land through rifts in a fog. But then just try to connect them all.
The protagonist of Gravity’s Rainbow, as far as there is one, is Tyrone Slothrop, an American lieutenant during the war. Like many of Pynchon’s protagonists, Slothrop is a hapless mediocrity caught up in something he can’t really piece together. His sex life in London has attracted the attention of Ned Pointsman at the White Visitation, a secret government research unit. Slothrop appears to become sexually aroused in the exact geographic location of the next V-2 rocket strike in London days before the strike occurs. For a while we follow a Pavlovian behaviouralist (Pointsman) and a statistician (Roger Mexico) as they try to solve the mystery of Lt. Slothrop’s premonitions. We discover, one fragment at a time, that as an infant Slothrop had been subjected to psychological experiments by Dr. Laszlo Jamf, who may or may not have existed, and who may have developed an exotic plastic called Imipolex G that may be a secret component of the new V rocket with serial number 00000. This conditioning may explain the accuracy of Slothrop’s tumescent data points. As he learns more about the White Visitation’s interest in him, Slothrop himself becomes obsessed with unraveling how his past unwittingly connects him with the terrible present. The search for Jamf and the mystery of rocket 00000 becomes Slothrop’s quest, and it carries him through desolate war-torn Germany (“The Zone”) where he dons some disguises, among them the Rocketman and a pig costume, and collides with the myriad of other characters and subplots Gravity’s Rainbow is famous for. Somewhere within the 800-or-so pages of this book, he himself unravels, and by the end is nowhere to be found—only hinted at by the notes of a far-off harmonica.
Let me acknowledge something right away: the plot of this book is ridiculous. To say that skilled, intelligent readers might be put off by the above synopsis (inadequate as it was) would be to put it too politely. Of my own friends, I know only one other person who has read it. He liked it. Most people would detest it. The narrative is convoluted and the premise is a stretch. Pynchon delights in juxtaposing sing-alongs, puns, and toilet humour with impenetrable passages of philosophy, science, and history. Deeply sophisticated ideas may be expressed in the most juvenile ways. To those of us who love Pynchon, these are all among his work’s best qualities. If they sound good to you then you may have the makings of a Pynchonian. But even I know, deep down, that toiling through a deviant and protracted riddle like this one is a kind of high-minded idiocy that doesn’t get the ridicule it deserves.
So what do you get out of it?
He was led to believe that by understanding the rocket, he would come to understand truly his manhood.
Well sure, the Rocket means erections—very insightful if that’s what you’re after. But add some Freud, mix with intricate historical context and a lot of inventive flair, and that parallel can go a long way. Gravity’s Rainbow covers all kinds of connections between sex and death, determinism and statistical chance, war and capitalism, past and present, technology and morality. Pynchon, who was born in 1937, did not see the war. Besides a stint in the navy, his only known employment before the publication of his first book in 1963 was as a technical writer for a missile program at Boeing. This likely gave him access to Boeing’s extensive archive of material on the V-2 rocket. Since he would have been there during the Cold War, it also gave him experience as an office worker in a firm that just happened to be developing weapons during the biggest arms race of the century. He would have seen the banality of this end of the military industrial complex, where designs of maximum violence were carried through by self-interested researchers renting themselves out for a paycheck from unremarkable offices in American suburbs.
In Gravity’s Rainbow the systems, institutions and markets are the true purveyors of postwar desolation, rather than any particular Great Men of history. Average people like Slothrop are enlisted by forces they can neither understand nor control, for purposes they can’t fathom. From this perspective, history is a machine directed by everyday people succumbing to a selfish need for capital.
Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try’n’grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.
This may explain why the actual moment of carnage wrought by the V-2 is mostly absent from the book. We see the researchers, scientists, office clerks, and industrialists behind the war machine, as well as the mass of people who have fled from its aim. These people make up The Zone, a landscape left forsaken by war but where there’s no longer any fighting. The reader is placed directly in the rocket’s path only once, in the book’s unforgettable ending. I won’t describe it too much, except to say that the final moment of Rocket destruction should have been foreseen from the earliest pages of the book: an interruption of perfect silence.
I’ll say this: I loved Gravity’s Rainbow, even while I found long stretches of it tiresome, and I never quite knew what was going on. I have not read it seventeen times, annotated every symbol and allusion in detail, charted character maps, and cross-referenced it with the wider Pynchonian universe. With a book like this, full comprehension is beside the point. I read Pynchon because there are few writers as unpredictable as he is. He juxtaposes registers you never see together, and at his best is sublimely lyrical. Consider the following passage, on what the narrator perceives to be a German history of dissecting physical movement:
There had been this strange connection between the German mind and the rapid flashing of successive stills to counterfeit movement, for at least two centuries—since Leibniz, in the process of inventing calculus, used the same approach to break up the trajectories of cannonballs through the air. And now Pökler was about to be given proof that these techniques had been extended past images on film, to human lives.
He’s making connections here—between the invention of calculus, the advent of moving pictures through film, the abstract trajectory of a life—with such arresting language that it can’t be described as anything but poetry. Indeed, if a poem by definition is impossible to summarize, then Pynchon’s poetic style might partly explain why Gravity’s Rainbow defies synopsis: you have to experience it, because a summary misses everything important. This quality, the beauty and freshness of the words, was the only thing that got me through long sections of this book. When nothing else made sense, the language itself provided the interest I needed to keep reading to the end.
Gravity’s Rainbow is also a great work of comedy, and Pynchon is as reliable for a laugh as any writer I’ve come across. His writing cartwheels around the page giving off middle fingers in every direction (to taste, to sense, to highbrow, to lowbrow) with a constant trembling energy that I find irresistible. When I think about my favourite passages of Gravity’s Rainbow, the humourous ones always come first. Take, for example, the Disgusting English Candy Drill. Slothrop is a guest whose English host assails him with what she considers a selection of her country’s finest sweets. The whole scene is a series of hyperbolic tastings like no other. Here’s what happens after Slothrop pops a Meggezone, which I guess is a heavy-duty mint:
The Meggezone is like being belted in the head with a Swiss Alp. Menthol icicles immediately begin to grow from the roof of Slothrop’s mouth. Polar bears seek toenail-holds up the freezing frosty-grape alveolar clusters in his lungs. It hurts his teeth too much to breathe, even through his nose, even, necktie loosened, with his nose down inside the neck of his olive-drab T-shirt. Benzoin vapors seep into his brain. His head floats in a halo of ice.
There are no clichés here, just a stream of hilariously original images. But there’s also a cartoon quality that I find a lot more amusing than I should. Events and characters are described so that, when sketched in your head, they can only come out as a cartoon illustration. Take another scene, where Slothrop is riding in a hot air balloon and gets into a mid-air pie fight with a passing airplane:
The plane buzzes by a yard or two away, showing its underbelly. It is a monster, about to give birth. Out of a little access opening peers a red face in leather helmet and goggles. “You limey ‘sucker,” going past, “we fixin’ to hand your ass to you.” Without planning to, Slothrop has picked up a pie. “Fuck you.” He flings it, perfect shot, the plane peeling slowly past and blob gets Marvy right in the face.
This could only be Pynchon. Yes, it’s completely silly. But it’s also unexpected and outrageous, the product of a writer who is having fun doing what he wants rather than what he should. His ability to write different voices of dialogue is sometimes sketchy (he’s not the best at the English accents), but “we fixin’ to hand your ass to you” is a special kind of musical. And try imagining this as anything but a cartoon. Obscenities aside, it plays like a scene from Looney Tunes or Yellow Submarine.
And now you start to see how difficult and enchanting Pynchon can be. Yes, he does get long-winded. Does the book get less logical as it goes on, to represent the existential deterioration of Slothrop himself? Sure. But you have to love those kinds of literary cartwheels to love Gravity’s Rainbow. Again, most sane and intelligent people do not read books like this. If they try, they realize how short life is and move onto something else. But I hope I’ve shown why those of us who do like Pynchon usually love Pynchon. Indeed, he has a reputation of producing insufferable cult readers who pass around insider references and seem to speak another language when it comes to his books. It’s probably natural to do this with such bold, dense work. I’m guilty here, too. I made three Pynchon references in the first paragraph of this review with no expectation that anyone would get it, and that’s inexcusable. If you did get those references, don’t congratulate yourself too hard: you’re probably kind of a weirdo.
But to the flagrant weirdoes, backroom geeks, and buck-toothed castaways out there, there’s no doubt that Pynchon is a genius. As for myself, I’m wavering between wanting to adulate a book that’s famous for being long and difficult (too often an easy way of showing that you get it), and suspecting that a truly great novel should serve something deeper in the reader than the mere accomplishment at having gotten through it. What substance there is to Gravity’s Rainbow—and there’s more than I could grasp in a thousand years—is so hard to extract from it that the crowd of potential readers may be limited to those who just want to prove they can finish it. Sure, I may be one of them, but don’t tell me that a book can’t be a masterpiece and be readable, too.
So I admit, as I think any honest reader of Gravity’s Rainbow must, that I found lots of it tedious. The incessant taboo breaking, which must have seemed visionary in the 1970s, registers today as sometimes funny, sometimes annoying and gross. And I think the “Great Novels by Men (About The Importance of Penises)” thing is a little played out by now. In the end, maybe the only task more diffiult than reading Gravity’s Rainbow is describing why I love Pynchon more than ever after finishing it, and explaining that to anyone who would rightly balk at having their taste and patience tried for 800 pages, for fun.
* * * *
The only other Pynchon novels I’ve read are V. and The Crying of Lot 49. I’d recommend either of them before Gravity’s Rainbow if you’re unfamiliar with Pynchon but want to try his stuff.
He dedicated this book to Richard Fariña, a novelist and musician whom he had befriended in college, and who married Mimi Baez, sister of Joan. Here’s Fariña chatting with Bob Dylan, sometime around 1964 (photo not taken by me, obviously):
As for Pynchon, the most recent official photo of him is from 1957, a navy portrait. He has appeared on The Simpsons twice, each time depicted with a paper bag over his head.
Other favourite quotes from Gravity’s Rainbow:
Not paranoia. Just how it is.
The chalk cliffs rear up above, cold and serene as death. Early barbarians of Europe who ventured close enough to this coast saw these white barriers through the mist, and knew then where their dead had been taken.
Mickey Rooney stares at Rocketman holding a bag of hashish, a wet apparition in helmet and cape.
He leads her to a back room fitted out with telephones, a cork board with notes pinned all over, desks littered with maps, schedules, An Introduction to Modern Herero, corporate histories, spools of recording wire. ‘Not very organized around here yet. But it’s coming along, love, it’s coming.’
-Sean “Racketemensch” McB