Paranoid—this is perhaps the best word with which to describe Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, both in terms of the world that it depicts and the way that it makes the reader feel throughout its (many!) pages. Much like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, this novel has us confronted with a society which owes its stability and its survival to forces of paranoid control that dictate the lives of all its inhabitants. But unlike in Orwell’s masterpiece, where these ominous forces live on to the very end of the book, Gravity’s Rainbow asks the question, ‘what happens when a society such as this one collapses?’ Well, the results are completely insane…
Thomas Pynchon is widely regarded as one the seminal postmodern writers of the twentieth century, and as a result his works are often dense, complicated, even maddeningly inscrutable. Gravity’s Rainbow is most certainly his most famous work of fiction. You could even say it’s his most notorious—it was denied the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 on the basis that its content was too vulgar (the panel were particularly concerned with a scene in which ‘coprophagia’ is performed, but I won’t go into that…). In being an extremely reclusive figure, nobody really knows who Pynchon is, or even what he looks like—he gives no interviews, attends no book signings or award ceremonies, and he certainly doesn’t allow any photographs of himself to be shared with the public. In fact, the latest available photograph of Pynchon dates to around the 1950s when he was in the U.S. navy. This is a man who makes even J.D. Salinger seem like a raving socialite.
Thomas Pynchon in the navy
In a similar vain to pretty much all of Pynchon’s writing, Gravity’s Rainbow has no clear structure, is written in a highly experimental prose, and is utterly surreal. If you’re looking for a moving, character-driven story, then this ain’t it; it’s probably the least character-driven novel I’ve ever read. Its characters seem to have very little free will, and a lot of the time they find themselves participating in events or actions without really knowing why. Overall, they’re mere pawns in a game that Pynchon has created for them, and are being thrown in and out of environments and situations that are well beyond their control. And you never really get to know them either. Whilst you could argue that there are only a handful of protagonists and antagonists, in total there are literally hundreds of characters, some of which are mentioned briefly, only to reoccur several hundred pages later, in which case you find yourself asking, ‘who is that guy again?’ But that’s kind of the point: this is a novel that’s designed to confuse. Or more specifically it’s written in such a way as to make you feel as paranoid as its characters are. Yet having said all that, Gravity’s Rainbow is one of the most memorable reading experiences I’ve ever had, mainly because it caused me to think about reality in ways that no other novel has. In short, when reading Gravity’s Rainbow, the lines that separate the world of the novel from the world in which you yourself live become blurred and confused, and that deserves praise in itself. And despite the rather depressing subject matter that it deals with, it’s still a very entertaining and funny novel, although its humour is often vile, grotesque, and certainly not for the faint-hearted!
The plot begins near the end of the Second World War, in the Christmas of 1944. We follow Tyrone Slothrop, an employee of an intelligence unit based in London, whose various sexual exploits across the city are being investigated by a psychological warfare agency. Basically, wherever Slothrop has sex, a Nazi V-2 rocket lands in that exact location a couple of days later, almost as if his own penis is causing these attacks to happen. As a result of the investigations being conducted on him, Slothrop is subjected to a plethora of psychological tests, some of which include the use of psychoactive drugs. These tests are bizarre to say the least, and even lead to an extended scene where Slothrop journeys into the depths of a toilet (think Trainspotting, but weirder). After this, and for reasons that aren’t very clear at all, either to the reader or for that matter the characters themselves, Slothrop is sent to Continental Europe to investigate a new form of Nazi rocket known simply by its serial number ‘00000’. And it’s during this trip that something very drastic happens: the Second World War comes to an end. This causes the forces that had previously kept the world in balance to disintegrate entirely, and it’s as if the whole of reality explodes into multiple particles that are now hanging around in the ether, waiting for someone or something to provide them again with some semblance of order.
The V-2 rocket
Europe has now become a wasteland referred to as ‘the Zone’. It is a place of chaos where everything—whether it be nation states, races of people or animals—is in a state of becoming something else. Some of the more memorable elements of the Zone include a village that is now inhabited solely by dogs trained to kill everyone except their former masters; an army of Hereros known as the ‘Schwartzkommando’ who are determined to eradicate themselves in some form of racial suicide; and the ‘Raketen-Stadt’, a highly advanced yet surreal Fascist dystopia. The Zone is also dictated by surely one of the most terrifying antagonists in all of fiction, Captain Blicero—a former high-ranking Nazi obsessed with sex-slavery, human sacrifice and, well, death.
In order to understand Gravity’s Rainbow you have to keep in mind the year in which it was written, which was 1973, at the heart of the Cold War. This was a period dominated by paranoia, as nuclear war was a seemingly ever-present threat to the whole of humanity. And I think what Pynchon is trying to do with this novel is to show the reader that what he’s describing isn’t a surreal world that he himself has made up, but the world in which the reader already lives, which is itself paranoid and highly unstable. And even today, thanks to such things as technological advancement, scientific discovery, political struggle and war, our world is changing all the time, and so are the ways that we relate to it. I suppose that’s where the novel’s real plot twist comes in—it’s not about the struggles of any particular character, it’s about you, the reader, and the reality that you inhabit. You’ve been the main character in this story the whole time, and you didn’t even realise it.
Despite how thought-provoking it is, I can’t really see myself reading this book again, mainly due to the way that it’s written. A great writer is somebody who has total command over a text, as if he or she were a conductor directing a musical performance. But in Gravity’s Rainbow, it seems like Pynchon is weaving his way in and out of the orchestra, slapping his musicians across the face and giving them wedgies. There are parts of it that I just didn’t get at all, and I’m convinced that I wasn’t meant to get them in the first place, that they were never intended to make sense. On the other hand, even in those instances the novel is still very funny, although, again, it’s humour does come from the gutter! This is one of the most famous—and certainly most influential—novels ever written, and I’ve never read anything like it, so on that basis it’s probably worth giving it a read at some point in your lifetime.
by Rhys Morgan