Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915
To reduce a novel as complex as Gravity’s Rainbow to its skeletal bones is difficult, for it dilutes Thomas Pynchon’s circuitous plot contrivances, his undeniable wit, his interweaving of story within story, and his obvious love for manipulating language. Gravity’s Rainbow is a big book, not only in length but in style, vision, and ideology. It incorporates a multitude of literary styles, devices, and types. The work is an archetypal hero cycle, a Grail quest, a picaresque, a satire, an apocalyptic vision, a social criticism, a historical encyclopedia, a work of magic realism, and an engaging narrative. It is replete with literary and cinematic allusion, word play, puns, name symbolism, mythology, dark comedy, cataloging, and adoration of The Word. Additionally, there are references to the occult, psychics, sexual deviants, Masons, war, politics, money, cartels, drugs, psychology, and philosophy. Consequently, the novel embodies much of the twentieth century and the artist’s response to it.
Critical reception is polarized. It seems one either loves the book or hates it; few claim to understand it completely. For example, although many on the Pulitzer Prize committee felt Gravity’s Rainbow was the best offering of the year, it was rejected as being “obscure and obscene.” The scope of Pynchon’s knowledge appears boundless and, in part, beyond the grasp of the typical reader. It is unlikely that a reader can comprehend the novel in its entirety, but the work is a fictional smorgasbord, offering something for each appetite.
The frame story involves the escapades of Tyrone Slothrop, who may be regarded as the protagonist. It is his connection to the German rocket, the A-4, however, that ties together the disjointed parts of the story and the multitude of characters within its pages. The rocket can be regarded as a phallic symbol of creativity as well as a symbol of destruction; it meshes the corresponding themes of sex and death, and each of the characters is in some way enslaved to the production or acquisition of the rocket. By the end of the work, the reader knows more about the rocket than about any of the characters.
In a novel featuring thirteen main characters, fourteen important minor characters, and a cast of thousands more, the plot is complex and convoluted. Each player in the story looks for something without much apparent success, and paths cross and recross as subplots develop and disappear. Even the main story line, that of Slothrop himself, moves in increasingly wider circles until it, without warning, simply vanishes. The chaos and fragmentation of the plot is at first disorienting until the reader realizes that the story unfolds as life does. When the reader slows down and stops attempting complete understanding, he or she begins to enjoy the individual episodes. The tale is a labyrinthine adventure and the reader never knows what surprising tidbit waits around the next corner.
In addition to the Slothrop story and the rocket quest, the narrative point of view lends cohesion to the book. The narrator slips out of third-person omniscience at will to form a relationship with the reader and to interject elements of foreshadowing, use of a conversational “you,” and wry humor. Although the work is certainly not comedy, humor brings it to life. The book’s humor is more than comic relief, however; it is thematic, a cosmic understanding of the absurdity of the human condition. The humor, too, is apocalyptic in the implicit warning that humankind must not, even in the most extreme of circumstances, take itself too seriously.
Although critical evaluations were mixed, there are several threads of shared opinion. First is that Pynchon is predicting the ultimate demise of modern culture and advocating that a new world be built on its remains. Although it addresses such issues as war, genocide, mental illness, and sexual depravity, the work is not entirely pessimistic. Pynchon admits glimmers of light through the dark curtains of the tale.
Another common critical response is that the main focus of the novel is entropy, a theory that argues that the world is winding down, burning itself out, and running out of energy. Based on Sir Isaac Newton’s second law of thermodynamics, entropy is personified by Slothrop. In fact, the first five letters of his last name may be an acronym for the theory, and the letters r, o, and p may suggest rites of passage. Slothrop never succeeds in his mission because he is lazy, easily distracted, and too slow to grasp the sometimes painfully obvious clues that are strewn in his path. He is entropy at work.
The dissemination and utilization of information, so important during World War II and after, is a secondary theme. Information (or data) is also subject to the laws of entropy, becoming less useful over time. For Slothrop, seeking information is like looking for a “needle in a haaay-stack” and entirely too much trouble. He is a microcosm of the war, of bureaucratic nonsense, of entropic theory, and of historic repetition.
The reader may also note Pynchon’s consistent reference to film and filmmakers. Several of the minor characters are involved in filmmaking, and it is discussed so often that a reader may question, as perhaps Pynchon intends, whether the work itself is merely a Hollywood version of reality. In fact, in the novel’s final scene, the narrator instructs the audience in a movie theater on proper behavior as the rocket begins its descent toward the building in which they sit.
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