Black curtains hang in the windows of a modest apartment in a suburb of Los Angeles, two blocks from the Pacific Ocean, blocking out the light. Inside, Thomas Pynchon, about thirty, clumsy, with a Zappa mustache, scribbles on reams of graph paper. The scene is spartan: a cot, a few books, a jumbled pile of correspondence, a collection of cheap piggy banks. On his desk is a special rocket model made from a paper clip and an old pencil eraser. A friend of Pynchon’s described the atmosphere in a gentlemen’s magazine as “a monastic cell decked out by the Salvation Army”. Outside, the world is raging. Watts rebels. LSD. Space race. Watergate. Bomb. Society is seized by one violent convulsion after another. Fantasies of prosperity after World War II turn into generational rebellion, paranoia, and “hide and hide” teachings. Sitting at his desk, Pynchon processes everything, absorbs everything – like Emerson’s transparent eyeball, but hyper-expanded and a little blurry from too much Panama Red. What shook the world?
To understand such a Big Question, Pynchon had to read a lot: about synthetic chemistry, Calvinist prophecies, Kabbalah and the reform of the Turkic alphabet. But most of all, it seems, he read about rockets. There is a point on the rocket parabola called brenschluss (“burnout” in German). It marks the moment when the rocket runs out of fuel and continues to descend, relying only on the force of gravity. As he describes it in his original novel Gravity rainbowWorld War II—with its rockets, death camps, and atomic bombs that sealed humanity’s suicidal alliance with technology—was the Brennschluss of civilization, and we’ve been in free fall ever since.
February 2023 marks the 50th anniversary. Gravity rainbow. A controversial literary sensation when it was published – it was infamous for snubning the Pulitzer establishment despite the unanimous recommendation of a fiction jury – the novel has since gained a chilling reputation. Like Ulysses, confessionsAnd Endless jokeGravity rainbow these are the kind of books that people pretend to read to sound smart while they’re on the bus. A NY A magazine critic once called it “arguably the least read must-read in American history.”
This reputation does an obvious disservice to both the book itself and the potential audience of curious readers. Time to pick up Gravity rainbow Now. This is both a rich almanac of its era and a kind of field guide for our era. It echoes eerily in the new millennium. In a sense, the fat soup of the absurd and apocalyptic of our age, creeping death with a hint of clownish idiocy, suggests a world that has finally caught up with Pynchon fatally. We are still living under gravity’s rainbow.
If anyone knows nothing about the author, it’s that no one knows everything about him. Perhaps the most devoted living mystery in American literature, Pynchon practically makes Cormac McCarthy look like a literary gadfly. After graduating from Cornell in 1959, Pynchon moved to Seattle, where he wrote technical literature and internal newsletters for Boeing. It was there that he became intimately familiar with the science, logistics, and jargon of heavy weapons manufacturing and the nascent aerospace industry. It was also there that he began to hone his own literary style—in one article, he compares the relationship between the US Air Force and private aerospace contractors to a happy marriage, using an ironic tone that would define his fiction. Pynchon was, for a brief period, essentially a functionary (albeit a brash and sarcastic functionary) in America’s expanding military-industrial complex. This means that he knew about ballistics. And rockets. And what this weapon was capable of doing not only with the intended targets, but also with the souls of those who created it.
Anti-war, anti-capitalist and quite vulgar, Gravity rainbow it is a novel of ideas, big and small. At over 700 pages, Pynchon lays out a fair amount of plots and subplots, introducing hundreds of characters and riffs about rocket science, cinema, Germanic runology, Pavlovian behaviorism, probability theory, witchcraft, futurism, zoot fashion, psychedelics. chemistry and dodo destruction. But among the encyclopedic content of the novel there is something like a story.
This is the story of Tyrone Slothrop, a native of Massachusetts who was educated at Harvard. Because the waypoints of his sexual encounters seem to match perfectly with the Nazi V-2 rocket strikes in London, a small group of Allied intelligence operatives believe he possesses a strange magnetism or magic. Various factions push Slothrop like a pawn, using him for their plans as he races through the Zone (a nickname given to post-war Germany) on intoxicating, picaresque adventures. He saves a girl from a huge octopus. Dressed in a stolen cape and mutilated Wagnerian opera helmet, he transforms into the superhero Rocketeer and finds a hashish brick hidden in Potsdam. He meets Mickey Rooney, fornicates a lot, participates in a high-altitude cream pie battle, and narrowly escapes castration. Along the way, he searches for information about the mysterious missile known only as 00000 and tries to distinguish his own motives from those forced upon him. What moves does Slothrop do freely? And led by some sinister invisible hand? The task of one footman is to get rid of the puppet. Slothrop’s whimsical odyssey and the novel’s seeming chaos are driven by one thing: a rocket.
The V-2 rocket is the first thing the reader encounters in the first lines of the novel: “A scream is heard across the sky. This has happened before, but now there is nothing to compare with.” The Nazi weapon broke the sound barrier: it exploded before anyone heard its approach. Without warning. V-2 violated the basic concepts of cause and effect. Gravity rainbow unfolds within this confusion.