The questions of free will and determinism in a universe which may be subject to entropy are most sharply defined by Pynchon in his longest and most complete novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. Set in the closing days of World War II and the months immediately following the end of the war, this novel takes the themes and techniques of the two earlier novels to higher levels. Gravity’s Rainbow—in part because many regard it as a masterpiece and in part because it is so complex, involves so many strands of action, and poses so many unanswered questions—has been the subject of more critical attention than any novel in English since James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).
The central symbol of Gravity’s Rainbow is a new type of rocket developed by the Germans at the end of World War II, designated the A-4. The first rocket designed to carry a human being into space, it is a triumph of technology. It suggests the possibility that humankind may have found a way to transcend its earthly origins, but it is much more likely that it carries beyond previous limits—beyond any limits—people’s ability to destroy themselves. Technology, in Pynchon’s view, has a capacity for destruction that threatens to overwhelm its capacity for construction. At the beginning of the novel, a screaming in the sky seems to indicate that a rocket is on the way; at the very end, the reader sits in a theater with a descending rocket poised just overhead.
The action of Gravity’s Rainbow centers on attempts to trace the A-4 rocket and its components, especially an advanced form of plastic called Imipolex-G. The British, the Americans, and the Russians, nominal allies in the war against Adolf Hitler’s Germany, are rivals in trying to find the rocket and its makers in order to gain an advantage in the postwar world. One part of the British effort is managed by a behavioral scientist named Ned Pointsman.
Pointsman is the spokesman in the novel for the Pavlovian idea (named for the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov) that people, like all other animals, act in response to stimuli. Pointsman believes that if the correct stimuli are applied, anyone can be trained to undertake any action his or her controller directs. He makes use of the fact that an American lieutenant named Tyrone Slothrop (he is, incidentally, the younger brother of Hogan Slothrop in “The Secret Integration”) was the subject of an early experiment in conditioning a young baby. The experimenter, a mysterious figure named Lazslo Jamf, who also invented Imipolex G, supposedly removed “Baby Tyrone’s” early conditioning, although remnants of it apparently remain.
Using a variety of behavioral methods, Pointsman sets Slothrop on the track of the A-4 rocket, and for much of the first half of...
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World War II is winding down, and in London, Tyrone Slothrop is assigned to a new post under the command of the Firm. The location known as the White Visitation was formerly a mental hospital exclusively but is now occupied in part by Pavlovian scientists, among them Dr. Edward Pointsman, who are conducting a series of experiments on conditioned response. The scientists work under the code name PISCES, an acronym for Psychological Intelligence Schemes for Expediting Surrender, and the section experimenting on dogs as subjects is subcoded Abreaction Research Facility or ARF. Slothrop is of particular interest to Pointsman because it is a known fact that within minutes of each German rocket launch, Slothrop becomes involved in a sexual liaison and it is assumed that he has the foreknowledge to predict such attacks.
As the experiments intensify in nature and threaten imminent bodily harm, Slothrop grows increasingly paranoid and is allowed to take a holiday, of sorts. With companions, he travels to a resort in the south of France where he has a strange encounter with Katje Borgesius, who at the moment of their meeting is under attack by a giant octopus. It is not until after his best friend mysteriously disappears, however, that Slothrop realizes the encounter with Katje—trained octopus and all—was staged by Pointsman and that Katje was placed in his path to keep him in line.
At this point Slothrop makes a run for his life and vanishes into the Zone, the inner recesses of mainland Europe. It is his misguided assumption that if he can trace the source of the rocket, specifically the German A-4, he can then trade that information for his freedom. During his circular attempt at seeking the rocket, which comes to be his Grail,...
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