Gravity's Rainbow Thomas Pynchon
American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow (1973) through 2001. For further information on his life and complete works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 6, 9, 11, 18, 33, 62, 72, and 123.
Published in 1973, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is recognized as a classic of postmodern absurdism. Set during World War II in Western Europe, the sprawling narrative combines numerous plots and subplots that either directly or indirectly center on the construction of a secret rocket by Nazi Germany and the simultaneous Allied quest to prevent its deployment. Divided into four sections that progressively become more disorienting for both the characters and the readers alike, Gravity's Rainbow exploits the thermodynamic principle of entropy and the psychological concept of paranoia to reflect the so-called postwar “culture of death,” which the novel identifies with the proliferation of technology, bureaucracy, and violence in contemporary society. A metafictional text, the novel mirrors the chaos of the modern world through nonlinear, fragmented narration and by randomly weaving historical and scientific facts into the fantastic hallucinations that flit through the consciousnesses of the major and minor characters. In this way, Gravity's Rainbow not only exhibits Pynchon's encyclopedic knowledge of American popular culture, music theory, behavioral psychology, mathematics and physics, and classical and modern literature, but also his command of a diverse array of literary genres and discursive modes, ranging from cinematic techniques and pornography to science fiction and picaresque adventure. Despite its dark themes, the novel extensively uses such humorous devices as puns, parody, satire, and slapstick situations to transform serious fears into comic play. Unanimously selected for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1974, Gravity's Rainbow was ultimately denied the prize by the advisory board, who deemed the novel unreadable and obscene. However, the novel won the National Book Award for fiction in 1974 and the William Dean Howells Award of the Academy of Arts and Letters for the best novel of the previous five years in 1975, both of which Pynchon declined.
Plot and Major Characters
Characterized by instability, discontinuity, and abrupt spatial-temporal dislocations, the plot of Gravity's Rainbow is so dense that it resists effective summary. Narrated by an omniscient consciousness, the principal “action” traces multiple quests through various locales in Western Europe for a secret rocket under construction during the closing months of World War II. Alluding to the dark zeitgeist of global culture in the postwar era, conspiracy and paranoia cloak both the search for and development of the powerful and deadly rocket, known simply as No. 000000. One plot line involves Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, a naïve American monitoring V-2 rocket attacks in London for the Allied intelligence unit. As a child, Slothrop was conditioned by Laszlo Jamf, a former Harvard professor who now develops rockets for the Nazis, to predict V-2 rocket strikes with his erections. Slothrop is also under surveillance by agents of the Firm, a mysterious military organization, who discover his unusual ability. A member of the Firm, behavioral psychologist Ned Pointsman, believes that Slothrop can be further conditioned to locate No. 000000, so he concocts an elaborate plan to send Slothrop on an odyssey to find the missile. Ultimately unsuccessful with this mission, Slothrop encounters all sorts of characters engaged in power struggles that are somehow linked to a vast, shadowy conspiracy, known only as “They,” who seek to consolidate their power over the world. Another plot concerns Nazi Colonel Weissmann (also known as Captain Blicero) and his efforts to plan and build No. 000000 with the assistance of double agent Katje Borgesius, African tribal leader Enzian, and German soldier Gottfried, Weissmann's lover. A subplot of this storyline involves German engineer Franz Pökler and his work on No. 000000. Blicero coerces Pökler to work on the missile by holding Pökler's daughter hostage to ensure the engineer's cooperation. Other plots in Gravity's Rainbow revolve around Roger Mexico, a British officer and mathematician whose humanism serves to counterpoint Pointsman's behaviorism, and his mistress Jessica Swanlake; Pirate Prentice and Teddy Bloat, who discover the connection between Slothrop's erections and the V-2 targets; and Russian agent Vaslav Tchitcherine, Enzian's half-brother, whose mission is to destroy the Schwartzkommando (“black rocket troops”), an organization of South-West Africans exiled in Germany and headed by Enzian that may or may not have developed prototype No. 000001. Although none of the characters successfully find the rocket, Gravity's Rainbow concludes with No. 000000, which has blasted off from 1945 Germany, about to make contact with the roof of an old restored movie house in 1970 Los Angeles, where the omniscient narrator is watching a movie with “we.”
An extended meditation on the death of human civilization, Gravity's Rainbow represents contemporary society as a culture fixated on the technologies of death, which the rocket No. 000000 metaphorically and mythically signifies throughout the narrative. The rocket literally and figuratively symbolizes modern technology in the service of a culture of death and self-annihilation. Gravity's Rainbow examines the peculiarities of modern life, particularly within the context of the Cold War, explosive technological advances, and the proliferation of mass media. In such an era, coupled with the dread and terror of nuclear warfare hovering over everything, Pynchon has portrayed the chaotic experience of modern consciousness in the late twentieth century. At the same time, the structure and narrative style of Gravity's Rainbow reflect the entropic tendencies of contemporary culture. Although most of the characters are determined to make sense of this chaos, a goal which they pursue by positing various conspiracy theories designed to make connections, find patterns, and discern an underlying meaning to the seemingly random jumble of events and information that swirls all around them, they are ultimately victimized by governmental bureaucracy and mass media. The narration of Gravity's Rainbow confuses the reader's perceptions of the distinction between fantasy and reality, and it illumines the nature of consciousness while questioning the ways in which the human mind encounters reality through mass cultural modes of discourse. However, in the face of the seemingly overwhelming forces of political power, mass technology, and death, most of Pynchon's characters represent the forces of life, love, and humanity that embody the only possible antidote to the dehumanization of life in twentieth-century postwar society.
Gravity's Rainbow is regarded by many as a masterpiece of twentieth-century fiction, rendering Pynchon one of the most important writers of modern literature. Numerous academic studies have been written on Gravity's Rainbow, assessing such far-ranging concerns as the relevance of its mathematical formulas, the use of psychoanalytic theory, the construction of white masculinity, the significance of sado-masochism, and the cultural-historical-political context of the novel. A number of critics have explored the postmodern elements of the narrative structure and point of view in Gravity's Rainbow, pointing out the many ways in which Pynchon's narrator disrupts, confuses, and frustrates the reader's attempts to make sense of the story as a coherent whole. It is thus regarded as a meta-narrative that is as much about literature and the act of reading as it is about the content of the story. Brian McHale, for example, argued that Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow challenges the reader to break free from accepted modernist modes of reading, “For the effect of this troublesome novel is, finally, the salutary one of disrupting the conditioned responses of the Modernist reader (and we are all, still, Modernist readers), of de-conditioning the reader.” Critical studies of Gravity's Rainbow have further explored the ways in which Pynchon's narrative draws on cinematic technique in the telling of his story. Lawrence C. Wolfley, for example, observed, “As indicated by the stylized square film-projector sprocket holes used to divide the chapters, Pynchon's chosen artistic metaphor is the novel as movie; and, while the idea of the omniscient narrator as camera eye has long been cliché, Pynchon's handling of the device is consistently fresh and imaginative.” Wolfley continued, “[Gravity's Rainbow] is basically a takeoff on the historical-novel genre, as processed by the makers of B-grade movies about, and of, the period of World War II.”
Critics have discussed the social, cultural, political, and historical context of Gravity's Rainbow in World War II and the post-War era within the novel, as well as the ethos of 1960s youth counterculture and radical political activism in which the novel was written. These critics point to the ways in which Pynchon portrays a power establishment (“Them”) that operates in opposition to the individual citizenry (“Us”), such that “They” worship technologies of death and threaten to destroy the basic humanity of “Us.” A number of critics have discussed the ways in which Gravity's Rainbow describes a major cultural and historical shift in geopolitics that took place around the events of World War II. As Wolfley, writing in 1977, explained, Gravity's Rainbow “constitutes a revisionist analysis of a turning point in contemporary history: the resolution of the European power struggle and the transition to the postwar balance of terror and the on-again-off-again cold war that we still live with.” Tony Tanner similarly observed that, in choosing to situate Gravity's Rainbow in Europe at the end of World War II, “Pynchon is concentrating on a crucial moment when a new transpolitical order began to emerge out of the ruins of old orders that could no longer maintain themselves.” Tanner continued, “What emerges from the book is a sense of a force and a system—something, someone, referred to simply as ‘the firm’ or ‘They'—which is actively trying to bring everything to zero and beyond, trying to institute a world of non-being, an operative kingdom of death, covering the organized world with a world of paper and plastic and transforming all natural resources into destructive power and waste: the rocket and the debris around it.” Patrick McHugh described the complex interrelationship between culture and power and between comedy and tragedy in the postmodern world as represented in Gravity's Rainbow, stating that Pynchon's novel re-creates a “dissonance of pleasure and pain for the reader by combining comic distance and delight with tragic pity and terror. The narrative provides tons of textual fun, the satisfaction of siding with the hippie good guys, the turn-on of rebellion and transgression, the textual pleasures of indeterminacy, and of course laugh-out-loud hilarity. At the same time, the narrative draws the reader into the pain of history, the terror of the Cold War, the fear of victimization, the guilt of complicity.” McHugh added, “Structuring a remarkable balance between comic and tragic affects, the novel leaves the reader emotionally strung between the manic euphoria of cultural revolution and the absolute terror of nuclear night.” Pynchon's multitude of intertextual references to fields of knowledge as diverse as physics, literature, psychology, cultural history, and music theory have spawned a vast body of criticism aimed at explicating these references in terms of their factual accuracy as well as their significance to the central thematic concerns of the novel as a whole.
For all of the worshipful adulation it has received since its initial publication over thirty years ago, Gravity's Rainbow continues to be criticized by its detractors for its nihilistic world view, narrative incoherence, underdeveloped characters, oversimplified treatment of its major themes, and generally opaque, obscure meaning. Perhaps the only aspect of Gravity's Rainbow that all critics agree on is that it requires a demanding and challenging effort on the part of the reader to make sense of Pynchon's densely provocative narrative monument.