Dubbed “The most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II” (The New Republic), Gravity’s Rainbow is a massive, freewheeling, paranoid journey through Europe at the tail end of the Second World War. Novelist and esoterica buff Thomas Pynchon is in top form for this, his third novel. A dense, challenging epic, Gravity’s Rainbow is highly rewarding for those with the attention span and patience to take it on.
From the first line we know the concept of The Preterite, or passed-over, is going to be a prominent theme. “A screaming comes across the sky…” A screaming what? The allusion is to a rocket, faster than sound so its target has no way to hear it coming. And the hunt for this preterite rocket, codename “00000”, and its mysterious black device, the S-Gerat, is a loose analogy of our main character, Tyrone Slothrop. In Pynchon’s own post-modern, self-reflexive words, “Some called [Tyrone] a ‘pretext.’ Others felt that he was a genuine, point-for-point microcosm.” (p. 753) This atypical approach to writing defies expectations, assuring Gravity’s Rainbow a prominent place in the history of the novel, even if it is often overlooked.
Pynchon loves to play with the form. The book introduces a madman’s variety of characters in a stunning array of literary styles. Often hilarious, sometimes shocking, Gravity’s Rainbow is no simple story. Perhaps not since Ulysses by James Joyce has an author swung through the canopy of styles so freely, offering up slapstick, scientific realism, hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness and more. The novel slides from one heterodox story to the next, immersing the reader in the chaos spread across Europe by World War II. Some characters hide, some fall in love or dive into obsession to distract from the reality of wartime, while others charge in headfirst, hungry for glory. And all the while, the real question is being asked – why? Why was there a war? Who made the decisions leading up to it, and how was it determined that war is the best option?
Tyrone isn’t introduced until page 61, but even before that we get a sense of his complicated personality. Tyrone has been the subject of bizarre, pseudo-Pavlovian conditioning that somehow leads him to be sexually aroused just before a rocket strike. Stranger yet is that he seems to have subconscious knowledge of exactly where the rocket will hit, though he thinks he’s just following his libido. We begin to understand that Tyrone’s motivations are not wholly his own. Like everyone in the war, Tyrone is deeply affected by a terrifying situation beyond his control. And like the 00000, we sense that he will only become aware of his true role in all this when it’s too late.
Gravity’s Rainbow has been called meta-historical fiction. The historical context of the story is completely true, but Pynchon draws the reader into the mania of the characters, little tangents and cul-de-sacs of fantasy that elevate the story to the realm of mythology. This sounds intellectual and heady, and it is, but the story never feels dry; sex, drugs, love and mystery drive the plot forward with a knowing humor that is both laugh-out-loud and profound.
Following a variety of WWII fringe groups brings the story into even stranger realms. Shadowy organizations like The White Visitation, PISCES, and Operation Black Wing look at the war through lenses of parapsychology and the occult. Delving into Nazi legend, corporate conspiracy, Kabbalah, the elusive Schwarzkommando, ballistic hermeneutics and a unique brand of rocket mysticism, Gravity’s Rainbow offers up a paranoid dream for hippies and soldiers alike. The novel seems to say that some special form of mass insanity must be responsible for something on the magnitude of a World War. What the cause of this insanity is, exactly, is a little more elusive.
Tyrone is an American-born rocket specialist, a guidance man who frequently peeks his head up into the realm of superhero. His irresistible urge toward sex and predilection for drugs find him stumbling into situations oblivious to the big picture, though he often ends up in the right place. When a hashish pickup goes awry Tyrone raids an opera costume trunk and becomes “Rocket Man”, a stylish WWII hero if ever there was one. Tyrone is not a typical hero, just as Gravity’s Rainbow is not a typical novel. Tyrone is both Preterite and Elect. He is a Chosen One, the special subject of strange experiments in behavioral conditioning. But he always manages to stay out of the limelight, passed over at crucial times while danger misses him by a hair. In one of the more brutal scenes in the book, pair of doctors search a spa for Tyrone, who by now is dressed as a giant pig. Through a case of mistaken identity, Tyrone avoids a horrible future that would more than dampen his sex life. Both his preterition and election save him from the worst of the war.
The same goes for the novel. It is a Bible of countercultural intellectualism, an underground epic for dope smokers and mystics that by its undeniable brilliance was awarded a National Book Award. On the other hand Gravity’s Rainbow was passed over for a Pulitzer Prize despite a unilateral vote. The Pulitzer committee decided instead to hand out no prize that year, presumably because of the morally questionable material throughout the book. Despite the real horrors of WWII and the Nazi party, apparently this fiction was too much for the Pulitzer board to handle. A book like this will likely never be given the prestige it deserves because it deals with too many fringe elements in a sympathetic way. Gravity’s Rainbow blurs morality, details too much real-world corruption and power politics, discloses too much about the business of war, GE and IG Farben, looks at behavioral conditioning and fetishism, and all with strong undertones of anarchy. Books like this are almost always passed over by the Establishment.
Gravity’s Rainbow takes place in the tumultuous fallout of war, and much like the victims of a rocket strike, swirls and writhes to recover what has been destroyed. “My mother is the war,” says mathematician Roger Mexico. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and in a war like this one everyone is affected. Everyone reacts in his or her own way to the visible and invisible causes of war. Despite the chaotic and multifaceted paths taken by our heroes, the many become unified in their loves and fears, all raising a glass in song at the absurd, sublime condition of our world. Nothing is the same after the war. And those who make it through the dense prose of Gravity’s Rainbow will remember it as a benchmark novel like no other.
Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel to be read and re-read, a companion to be studied over a lifetime. Thanks to the grandness of the story, the prodigal complexion of the prose, and Pynchon’s ability to weave minute detail and lofty abstraction into the telling, Gravity’s Rainbow reveals more and more of its secrets with subsequent reads. It grows with the reader, like an old man dispensing wisdom through the years, unafraid to offend or enlighten.Powered by Sidelines