Novel by Thomas Pynchon

As a baby, Tyrone Slothrop was used as a subject in stimulus-response experiment. The experiment results in Slothrop (now an American soldier serving in London during World War II) becoming a human predictor of where the feared German rockets will strike next. If this sounds weird, it is, but it's just one element of Thomas Pynchon's third and most famous novel.

Either you LOVE this novel or you don't get it. There's no middle ground.

It won the National Book Award in 1974. It also earned itself third place on the American Book Review's ABR's 100 Best Books.

Falls under the category of Books that will induce a mindfuck.

Last Updated 12.05.02

Red, the shoeshine boy that finds Slothrop's bare ass floating in the toilet bowl after Tyrone dives into the shitter to chase after his harmonica, is actually Malcolm X.

Malcolm was a street hustler and shoeshine boy in Roxbury and Back Bay before moving to Harlem. While in Roxbury, he was known amongst his peers as Detroit Red (I don't know why he was called Detroit Red, when he moved to Roxbury from Lansing, and didn't live in Detroit until after he was released from prison). Pynchon even mentions in the book that his name is Malcolm ("slip me the talcum, Malcolm!" is the line, I think).

I finished this book. A friend dared me too, so my literary pride was at stake. It helped that I was on a journey by air halfway around the world when I was halfway through. I was slowing down, but this gave me enough time with nothing better to do but finish the bloody thing.

When I got to the description of a lightbulb that took up several pages I became sure that Thomas Pynchon was just trying to fill up space. I'm sure that as descriptions of lightbulbs go, it's a shining light. But it does not serve to advance the story in any way. Story? There may be a story in here somewhere struggling to get out. This is literature, we don't need no steenkin' plot.

As ErisDiscordia says, Gravity's Rainbow is like an LSD trip: it start of mostly normal, gets wilder and crazier, heading off in all directions, constantly novel, but after five or six hours of this you just feel tired of the constant distractions and start to wonder when it is going to end. And then it peters out inconclusively.

Ah, the Famous Byron the Bulb... I'm afraid I'll have to disagree with StrawberryFrog's statement that in writing about The Bulb, Pynchon is just taking up space. Like many great books, Gravity's Rainbow provides a reading experience a bit similar to taking an LSD trip (or living appx. 1 day with ADD): you suddenly discover dimensions of everything that weren't visible before, and for that matter, you suddenly discover that everything has more dimensions than you thought were possible... in fact, more dimensions than you can imagine.

Byron the Bulb's story can be taken as...
* a treatise on planned obsolescence, but with the bizarre element of the product planned for obsolescence being an individual, a ghost in the machine. But it's more poignant (chilling?) than that: the Bulb is, despite its immortality, powerless -- this kind of reminds me of Terry Gilliam's Brazil.
* a reflection of the anthropomorphized bulbs appearing in head comics of the period (this is not as ludicrous as it sounds when you consider the eery resemblance between "The Counterforce" and hero teams like the Fantastic Four... hell, the Counterforce even had a Plastic Man.)
* the symbology of light bulbs as ideas (keep in mind that Byron hovers over the heads of several characters in the book). There could even be a hint of guardian angels or of halos, though considering that BtB hovers over a deadly amphetamine-addled barber, this would take some explaining.
I will leave the discovery of other connotations and connections as an exercise for the reader.

And if the ending is a bit of a downer... it should be: after all, the trajectory of the V-2 was a parabola...
As an illustration of the "musical" or "operatic" nature noted above, I'll note my own experience: I found myself thinking up tunes just to go with the many "lyrics" in the novel. "Who'd ever think-it could start such a flap?..."
Random note: The mythical late-war and post-war Europe of GR strongly reminded me of Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zones.

The name Gravity's Rainbow refers to the parabolic path of a rocket trajectory influenced by the gravitational force of earth.

In World War Two, V2 rockets were launched towards England from stations in locations around Europe. A shining vapor trail was left behind by the rocket in the sky, with one end anchored in Europe and the other at the point of destruction where the rocket exploded. This metaphor is just an example of how Pynchon shows the beauty and elegant mathematical equations of technology which was designed by man for the ugly purpose of terror and destruction.

Gravity's Rainbow is most likely the most metaphor- and meaning- saturated book of the 20th century (next to Ulysses). I'd like to give a brief introduction to its style. Just to skim over, here are a few of the motifs/themes/recurring structural elements:

  • The 00000 is a penis. From Slothrop's sexual attachment to the rocket, to the climactic (in all senses) scene at the end, the book is an extended sexual metaphor. This could be interpreted another way, too--the rocket as a replacement for the penis. Cf. the limericks about having sex with machines and the song about Slothrop's penis being spirited away.
  • The astute reader notices that the whole book is imitating 40s popular culture--it has constant allusions to famous movies and songs of the time, as well as bringing in the obsession with superheroes; note how Byron the Bulb appears over the heads of the characters in some scenes (like the *idea* symbol)!
  • The idea of genocide is also enormously prevalent. The apparently otherwise meaningless descriptions of the destruction of the dodo, as well as the lightbulbs, and the peculiar situation of the Schwarzkommando.
  • The characters have various curious characteristics -- note Ensign Morituri (sounds Japanese; means "those who are about to die" in Latin--kamikaze) and Geli Tripping (Gaily Tripping, as in happily skipping--something from HMS Pinafore, I believe); Bodine, who appears in V. as well; the aforementioned Malcolm X; even Mickey Rooney makes a cameo.

Of course, these are merely some superficial elements. The book is much deeper than that, and even flipping through it gives one spectacular ideas. Incidentally, I didn't think the ending was a downer at all; it's very orgastic.

What did Caesar really whisper to his protege as he fell? Et tu, Brute, the official lie, is about what you'd expect to get from them--it says exactly nothing. The moment of assassination is the moment when power and the ignorance of power come together, with Death as validator. When one speaks to the other then it is not to pass the time of day with et-tu-Brutes. What passes is a truth so terrible that history--at best a conspiracy, not always among gentlemen, to defraud--will never admit it.

(from Gravity's Rainbow)

A foolish attempt at a not-too-long Gravity's Rainbow summary

(by someone who's only read it once)

It's WW2. A US army lieutenant, Tyrone Slothrop (sometimes referred to as a 'limey' by the other characters for some reason) sleeps around London. He keeps a chart of his sexual conquests on a map of London, sticking coloured stars at the locations of his fornications. Some bright spark in the government notices that about two to seven days after each of Slothrop's shags, a V-2 rocket hits in the same place. There is a spookily accurate coincidence between Slothrop's map and a map of rocket hits, both governed by the Poisson distribution. A guy called Teddy Bloat sneaks into Slothrop's work cubicle when he's not there, snapping pictures of the map.

Slothrop gets sent off, apparently on some kind of leave, to the coastal Hermann Goering casino with a couple of mates. Relaxing on the beach, he sees a beautiful woman being dragged into the sea by an octopus. He rescues her using a crab handed to him by one of his holidaymates, Teddy Bloat. Paranoia kicks in when he wonders why Bloat conveniently just 'happened' to have the crab with him: Say, where'd you get that crab?. This feeling deepens when his other friend, Tantivy Mucker-Maffick, disappears. For some reason, a man turns up who teaches Slothrop German and gives him lots of information for researching rockets. Slothrop discovers the existence of a curiously undocumented rocket, the 00000, and one of its unusual components, the S-Gerät. The S-Gerät is unusual in that it is made out of the erectile plastic Imipolex G, invented by the organic chemist Laszlo Jamf.

Slothrop flees, escaping into the Zone of post-war Europe; he is now on a Quest for the Rocket. He has a large number of adventures, being chased by some of the other characters, notably Major Duane Marvy and Ned Pointsman. He has a trip in an air balloon, where he has a pie fight with Marvy, tries to steal hash from the grounds of a great conference, and winds up on a boat called the Anubis. He falls overboard, and ambles around for a bit in different costumes (including a Russian army uniform and a pig suit). Slothrop repeatedly has close encounters with Marvy, culminating in one interesting situation where Marvy puts on Slothrop's pig suit and gets his balls cut off.

By this time, a ragtag gang of friends has sprung up to try and rescue Slothrop, who, it transpires, is apparently starting to fragment. Slothrop becomes a superhero, and then finds himself in a street, coming across a fragment of a newspaper article: though he doesn't know it, it's telling us about the Hiroshima bomb. After this, he finally splits up into entities which few are able to hold together into any kind of coherent personality. He is last sighted with certainty on the cover of an album by The Fool.

Now Slothrop is demoted from being the primary storyline, having eluded and escaped the narrative, the launching of the 00000 comes to the fore. It turns out that a psycho called Weissmann, aka Captain Dominus Blicero, has possession of the Rocket, and the S-Gerät is in fact a plastic capsule designed to contain a person. Weissmann prepares for launch. He places his sex slave Gottfried into the S-Gerät, bound and silken. The familiar smell of the Imipolex G comforts Gottfried, and he feels the exact moment of brennschluss when the rocket begins to drop. The narrative decouples at the exact moment the 00000 is about to land on a cinema. Inside the cinema, the projector has just broken down and yet on the screen are the words of a hymn by one of Slothrop's ancestors.

Gravity's Rainbow
by Thomas Pynchon
published 1973

"Each will have his personal Rocket."

Towards the end of World War II, the Germans unleashed their secret V2 rocket program and sent hundreds of rockets screaming towards London. A few months after these bombs began falling in London, British Intelligence discovers an odd coincidence regarding an American soldier named Tyrone Slothrop. Slothrop has taken to marking his sexual conquests on a map of London. Oddly, the marked points on the map happen to coincide identically with V-2 rocket impact sites. It turns out that, as an infant, Slothrop was the subject of a rather strange Pavlovian experiment which was never concluded properly, and it is suspected that this conditioning imparted some latent abilities upon Slothrop. This discovery will set Slothrop on a journey across war-torn Europe, searching for the mysterious Rocket 00000...

Yeah, and Moby Dick was about a whale.

Truth be told, Gravity's Rainbow defies any conventional summary, and, indeed, any conventional review. It is often observed that most people don't so much review the contents of the novel as the experience they had in reading it. The focus is often on how long it took to read it, the stigma that is associated with it, or how difficult it is to read. And this is a difficult book. It took me about a year of off-and-on reading to complete it... This is not to say that I did not enjoy it, just that I needed to be in a certain mood to read it. It's one of those books that simply demands an attentive reading, and that was not always possible for me.

Pynchon's prose is extremely complex and convoluted. It snakes around, quickly and deftly tackling various subjects without staying in any one place for very long at a time. It's mind numbingly dense, peppered with words, concepts, and ideas that are vague and esoteric. One of the things I enjoyed most was picking through the elaborate text, researching and cataloging the interesting passages or historical references that salt Pynchon's text. Depending on how you approach the novel, a passing familiarity with the many subjects that Pynchon mentions (such as Pavlovian psychology, Qabalah, or German history between world wars) might be rewarding.

The style of Pynchon's writing is also a bit difficult, as he will often adapt the style to fit the situation he is describing. It can be daunting to read, as he will often shift the narrative without any warning or break out into movie-script format in the middle of a chapter. Anything is possible. Perspectives can suddenly switch from one character, time, or place to another in mid-sentence. Often, the narrative takes on the style of the character it is describing (until the narrative shifts to another character or place, thus shifting the style yet again). He makes extensive use of flashbacks, often shifting perspectives at the same time so that the flashback is "told" by someone other than the person having the flashback... There are a lot of tangents too, as Pynchon doesn't shy away from exploring language or narrative style, but he (eventually) returns to a few main threads.

The plot itself is oddly structured. The first section of the book is a particularly chaotic mix of styles and plotpoints. It reminds me of the first week of class or sports practice, where the teacher or coach will inundate their subjects with work to weed out the unworthy. In any case the plot is extremely fragmentary. I often found myself straining to keep the narrative straight, but every time I thought I had it figured out, something new popped up and knocked me on my arse. You might even be able to argue that there is no discernable plot, but I think there is an overall structure to the story, albeit not a linear or traditional one. Indeed, its difficult to say what Gravity's Rainbow is about. It's a very large and complex novel, tackling a wide array of themes, ideas, and concepts ranging from the issue of control and paranoia to "love's bitter mystery," usually exploring the theme from several different perspectives. Naturally, a work that is this complex will mean different things to different people, and there is certainly enough material here to accommodate everyone. There will be a longer selection of quotes below, but on page 727, Pynchon speaks of one of the main characters in the novel - the Rocket:
But the Rocket has to be many things, it must answer to a number of different shapes in the dreams of those who touch it ... Each will have his personal Rocket.
(some editing and emphasis added) And such it is that you will have your personal interpretations of what Gravity's Rainbow is all about (if you think it is about anything). This book is many things and will answer to a number of different shapes in the dreams of those who read it.

The cast of characters is enormous, as is the variety of settings. I suppose the main character is Tyrone Slothrop, who is probably the most likable character of the lot. His misadventures also make for the most readable and fun reading this book has to offer. From his picaresque adventures as Rocketman to his mid-air pie fights with fighter planes, Slothrop's romp across post-war Europe is the most entertaining portion of the novel. I particularly enjoyed the portion of the novel in which Slothrop wanders into "a coastal town near Wismar" and is coopted to play the Pig-god Plechazunga in a reenactment of town history. Basically, for a while after this, Slothrop is running around in a Pig costume. It is an amusing episode, one of several.

Again, this can all be somewhat daunting. There are times when it just gets to be too much and it seems like the text is absolutely nonsensical. I had a lot of trouble towards the beginning of the novel, I think, because I was straining to make too much sense of everything. I eventually gave up and started just letting the novel be, and I suddenly found it taking shape. That, to me, was the secret to reading this novel.

Take, for instance, the infamous Byron the Bulb. Towards the end of the novel, Pynchon suddenly makes a 10 page digression chronicling the life and times of a sentient light bulb (named Byron). These sorts of tangents tend to give some people the hives. To me, Byron the Bulb is a microcosm of the entire novel (among other things laid out in ErisDiscordia's writeup above); Byron's story is not all that different from Slothrop's and I found the entire passage riveting (in part because I wasn't trying to make sense of it in the context in which it was brought up).

However, I never could quite shake the feeling that this novel is mostly style and little story, and thus I can't quite bring myself to give the highest rating I can. In terms of style, it is hands down the best thing I've ever read, if a little difficult. Reading something right after you've read Gravity's Rainbow is interesting, because nearly everything seems so very simplistic. But style for the sake of style doesn't quite cut it. Still, I rate it extremely high because it truly is an achievement and I believe Pynchon accomplished whatever it was he sought out to do with this novel.

If I were to meet Thomas Pynchon tomorrow, I wouldn't know whether to shake his hand or sucker-punch him. Probably both. I'd extend my right arm, take his hand in mine, give one good pump, then yank him towards my swinging left fist. As he lay crumpled on the ground beneath me, gasping in pain, I'd point a bony finger right between his eyes and say "That was for Gravity's Rainbow." I think he'd understand.

Further Discussion:
  • How does technology affect the world in Gravity's Rainbow? Like Frankenstein's monster, will our technological innovations lead to our undoing? How is nature affected?
  • A common theme in literature is nature's indifference to human affairs. Given, however, the massive destructive power that becomes possible by technology, can nature act as a counterbalance to humankind's destructive nature? Should it?
  • Is our understanding of science and causality something that we have imposed on reality in order to explain it?
  • How does Pynchon's treatment of post-war Europe compare with the historical truth?
  • "Each will have his personal Rocket." What's yours?
  • Ya ya, symbolism, ya ya themes, what does it all mean? Does it mean anything? Is there a point to the novel at all?
  • Is this the triumph of style over substance? Is that a good thing? Can style over substance work at all? Or does the manic style of this novel detract from it's impact?
  • Is the novel actually difficult, or am I just whiney?

The quantity and quality of quotes I could mention is massive, so I'll try to limit it to a few of my favorites. See the "Sources and Further Reading" section below for a more comprehensive selection of quotes. I suppose you could say that there are spoilers below (inasmuch as GR can have spoilers) so read on at your own risk. Beneath some of the quotes are brief comments...
A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now. (page 3)
This is the first sentence in the novel, and it is quite good. It's almost as if Pynchon is telling you that this novel won't compare to anything you've ever read. I doubt this was a conscious choice on his part, as that would be awfully pretentious, but it seems to fit anyway.
It is marginal, hungry, chilly-most times they're too paranoid to risk a fire—but it's something they want to keep, so much that to keep it, they will take on more than propaganda has ever asked them for. They are in love. Fuck the war. (pages 41-42)
Who can find his way about this lush maze of initials, arrows solid and dotted, boxes big and small, names printed and memorized—Not Earnest Pudding—that's for the New Chaps with their little green antennas out for the usable emanations of power, versed in American politics (knowing the difference between the New Dealers of OWI and the eastern and moneyed Rupublicans behind OSS), keeping brain-dossiers on latencies, weaknesses, tea-taking habits, erogenous zones of all, all who might someday be useful. (pages 76-77)
This might be my favorite quote from the book. First, its sort of letting the reader know that the reason he/she doesn't understand what's going on with all the various characters and organizations is because its all so mind numbingly complicated and that you really don't need to. Even the characters don't understand! Second, it struck me because, though it's in reference to the confusing proliferation of secret governmental agencies in war-torn Europe, it could just as easily be applied to today's technology industry. It probably applies to any number of things, each having their own set of acrynyms, lingo, and politics and each ordered in a mezmerizing hierarchy. I know I sometimes wish I understood the "lush maze of initials, arrows solid and dotted, boxes big and small, names printed and memorized" of my company, that's for sure! Third, the name Earnest Pudding is brilliant. Right out of the Dickensian naming tradition. Fourth, as always, his language is just beautiful.
Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof it is... so absentee. (page 131)
Proverbs for Paranoids, 1: You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures. (page 237)

Proverbs for Paranoids, 2: The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master. (page 241)

Proverbs for Paranoids, 3: If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers. (page 251)

Proverbs for Paranoids, 4: You hide, they seek. (page 262)

Paranoids are not paranoids (Proverb 5) because they're paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations. (page 292)
Pynchon has a rather well developed sense of paranoia and proverb 3 is often quoted (for obvious reasons, it makes a great way to start an arguement), but I find proverb 5 to be just as poignant.
If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long. (page 434)
The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger. (page 461)
Wars have a way of overriding the days just before them. In the looking back, there is such noise and gravity. But we are conditioned to forget. So that the war may have more importance, yes, but still... isn't the hidden machinery easier to see in the days leading up to the event—There are arrangements, things to be expedited... and often the edges are apt to lift, briefly, and we see things we were not meant to.... (page 474)
Like other sorts of paranoia, it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the Creation, a secondary illumination -- not yet blindingly One, but at least connected, perhaps a route In for those... who are held at the edge.... (page 703)
Well, I could certainly go on and on quoting the novel, but I'll leave it at that for now...

Sources and Further Reading
This is an edited version of a review on my website:

More quotes, also from my website:

Also at my website, a series of blog posts concerning GR:

Gravity's Rainbow - A Web Guide

Another excellent GR source (which proved invaluable when reading the novel and writing this review):

The Illustrated Complete Summary of Gravity's Rainbow

Well, that's it. There is certainly plenty more that could be written about this novel and the impact it has had on me (or the world for that matter) but I've found that I must stop somewhere, and I choose here. As always, comments, suggestions, breathlesss praise, bitter criticism, etc... are welcome.

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