Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon - Part 1
Reading has always been meant to be entertaining, and sometimes informative, but I often pick up a book that I hope offers other rewards to this reader. Not that I want to be inundated with printed blather, you understand; it's just that the writer in me seems always on a quest to uncover new takes on the novel as an art form. So I bought the book, procrastinated for a number of months, then sighed and dug in. Actually, digging is probably the most apt description of the experience facing a reader of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.
It's helpful to consider Pynchon's personal history for a moment before such digging begins. Thomas Pynchon was born in 1937, his childhood no doubt colored deeply by the years-long drama of World War II. He began college in an engineering-related curriculum (now there's a connection for this former engineer) at Cornell in the ‘fifties, and one may suppose college proved to be a tainted challenge. He left Cornell to serve briefly in the U.S. Navy, then went to work for Boeing in the aerospace industry, writing safety articles.
Clearly a person of intense curiosity, with an ability to absorb arcane facts, Pynchon became a bit player in the ‘sixties counterculture, befriending folk singer and novelist Richard Fariña until Fariña's untimely death. Gravity's Rainbow showcases evidence of the disparate influences the Navy and the counterculture had on Pynchon, affording him a worldview underpinned by the cultural angst following World War II, the ensuing Cold War, and the mass movements begun to circumvent what seemed an impending apocalypse.
But now the book and its gist. (Next week I'll post on the technical aspects of the book and how I suspect his style and structure ties into what there is of a story.)
One reviewer has described the book as a transgressive novel. Another deemed it a consummate piece of absurdism. Odd descriptions, and somewhat accurate, I think, but I'll get to that next week. The "story" is a hodgepodge of vignettes taking place in Europe's western theater during World War II. A rough depiction would have the book's storyline concerned with efforts by an American military officer, Tyrone Slothrop, who had been handed the mission of trying to stop Nazi development of a rocket, simply termed 000000. Along the way, he has to contend with psychologist Nathan Portmann, voluptuous double gent Katje Borgesius, Nazi colonel Weissmann (also known as Blicero), German rocket scientist Pökler, an African named Enzian, British officer Roger Mexico, Soviet spy Vaslav Tchitcherine, and a supporting cast of hundreds - enough to make Cecil DeMille proud.
Slothrop has been left with a certain mental suggestion by Harvard professor, Laszlo Jamf. What suggestion? To predict in an unerring way German V-2 rocket attacks on London by the timing of his erections. Meanwhile, the Schwartzkommando, a mysterious group of Herero tribesman from Namibia, which has been exiled to Germany, are attempting to build a similar rocket, the 000001.
Slothrop's many sidetrack episodes, including all sorts of outlandish sex acts, drug use, gambling, and other sensory appeals are mean to be the reason he fails in his quest to stop the rocket.
But what are we to make of such a jumbled story? Pynchton seems to be sketching the way he thinks two world wars left Europe and the U.S. in a state of mind so cloudy as to render politics and international affairs and the accompanying social structures distorted to the point of the absurd. (Note: Pynchon comes by this notion honestly; absurdism began to infect European art, particularly drama and literature, after World War I, and particularly after the Second World War.)
In a nutshell, his characters are acting out a nihilistic ethos: human preoccupation with sex never dwells far from humanity's tandem preoccupation with violence via war, executions, and murder. The ultimate sex/violence act: suicide. His metaphor here begins as a sexual one, to be sure. The rocket - in a society led astray principally by men, abetted by women who get what they want from men through sex - can only represent the male erection. The subconscious belief that sex, while creative, is the beginning of a convoluted sequence of acts that lead to suicide.
Thus, the German rocket, and the American and Soviet fascination with it, represents humanity's ultimate vehicle for wholesale human suicide.
Slothrop's journey ends without stopping the rocket (after all, how can humanity possibly stop the one act it was, in Pynchton's view, destined to commit - self-destruction), and in the book's final pages, the ten-to-one countdown begins to fire the 000000, laughably aimed at Los Angeles and a group of people watching a movie.
Gravity's rainbow is, then, a metaphoric description of a law of physics in which something propelled with a concentrated blast of natural energy eventually loses that energy and begins to fall in a parabolic arc. The implication here is clear: everything that rises (apologies, Flannery O'Connor) descends to its ultimate ruin. And every aspect of human abstraction: politics, religion, philosophy, science - plays its part in this ruinous completion of the human experiment. In one passage, Pynchon writes:
"...trying to make believe the Christian sickness never touched us, when everyone knows it has infected us all, some to death."
"What are all these persistences among a people, these traditions and offices, but traps? The sexual fetishes Christianity knows how to flash, to lure us in, meant to remind us of earliest infant love..."
"...a discovery that love, among these men, once past the simple feel and orgasming of it, had to do with masculine technologies, with contracts, with winning and losing...Beyond simple steel erection, the Rocket was an entire system won, away from the feminine darkness, held against the entropies of lovable but scatterbrained Mother Nature: that was the first thing he was obliged by Weissmann to learn, his first step toward citizenship in the Zone. He was led to believe that by understanding the Rocket, he would come to understand truly his manhood."
Pynchon's book has been both lauded and assailed over the years. As always, the truth of literature is not to point the way to prevent or circumvent such catastrophe but to point out that the possibility exists. To that degree, Pynchton has certainly succeeded.
I'm rating this book a little lower than you might expect from the manner in which I've depicted it here. Next week, I'll try to explain why as we take on the author's style and structure.
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars.
Causes Bob Mustin Supports
Native American culture. Education. Creative writing.