Gravity’s Rainbow

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

Pynchon takes as his subject the rapid development of rocket technology toward the end of World War II. To learn about the German V-2 (on which Pynchon confers mythic status by always calling it the Rocket), Allied Intelligence devises an experiment with an American army lieutenant named Tyrone Slothrop--an experiment conducted without his knowledge. Slothrop, however, becomes aware of the way he is being used and goes AWOL just as the war ends. Much of the book concerns his wanderings in stateless, postwar Germany, referred to simply as “The Zone,” where he encounters an extraordinary farrago of strange characters, the human detritus of war.

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The authorities select Slothrop for their experiment because of his strange sexual affinity with the Rocket: He experiences erections wherever V-2’s strike around London. But he experiences these erections before the rockets strike, and this curious proclivity illustrates one of the novel’s basic concerns--the inadequacy of the essentially Newtonian scientific model whereby most of us attempt to conceptualize physical reality.

Pynchon develops this theme in the conflict between Ned Pointsman, a Pavlovian scientist who seeks to account for physical phenomena--including Slothrop’s erections--in terms of cause and effect, and a statistician named Roger Mexico, who embraces a science of statistical prediction congruent with the twentieth century physics of Planck, Einstein, and Heisenberg.

With this scientific agon as backdrop, Pynchon introduces numerous examples of the way modern scientists, especially chemists, have uncovered the secrets of physical reality only to violate and threaten the equilibrium of nature itself. The Rocket, its promise of transcendence (space travel) traduced by its employment in weapons systems, becomes the most terrifying example of this misguided application of the fruits of science.

Bibliography

Clerc, Charles, ed. Approaches to “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983. The work features a series of collected critical essays that address the novel from a variety of perspectives, including history, comedy, and psychology.

Hume, Kathryn. “Repetition and the Construction of Character in Gravity’s Rainbow.” Studies in Contemporary Fiction 33 (Summer, 1992): 243-255. Discusses Pynchon’s forcing his characters to deal with a recurring set of pressures as an implication that he prefers to deal with humanity at large rather than individual characters in detail.

Safer, Elaine B. The Contemporary American Comic Epic. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988. Critical essays on the works of John Barth, Pynchon, William Gaddis, and Ken Kesey are included. The work addresses Pynchon’s dark humor.

Scholes, Robert. Fabulation and Metafiction. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Discusses the twentieth century tendency toward allegory and the grotesque and makes multiple references to the work of Pynchon.

Siegel, Mark Richard. Pynchon: Creative Paranoia in “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1978. Discusses the work of Pynchon according to point of view, narrative structure, and metaphor.

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