First edition cover design
|Genre||Historical novel, satire, encyclopedic novel, science fiction|
Gravity's Rainbow is a 1973 novel by American writer Thomas Pynchon.
Lengthy, complex, and featuring a large cast of characters, the narrative is set primarily in Europe at the end of World War II, and centers on the design, production and dispatch of V-2 rockets by the German military. In particular, it features the quest undertaken by several characters to uncover the secret of a mysterious device named the "Schwarzgerät" ("black device"), slated to be installed in a rocket with the serial number "00000".
Traversing a wide range of knowledge, Gravity's Rainbow transgresses boundaries between high and low culture, between literary propriety and profanity, and between science and speculative metaphysics. It shared the 1974 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction with A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Although selected by the Pulitzer Prize jury on fiction for the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Pulitzer Advisory Board was offended by its content, some of which was described as "'unreadable,' 'turgid,' 'overwritten' and in parts 'obscene'". No Pulitzer Prize was awarded for fiction that year. The novel was nominated for the 1973 Nebula Award for Best Novel.
Time named Gravity's Rainbow one of its "All-Time 100 Greatest Novels", a list of the best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005 and it is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest American novels ever written.
The novel's title declares its ambition and sets into resonance the oscillation between doom and freedom expressed throughout the book. An example of the superfluity of meanings characteristic of Pynchon's work during his early years, Gravity's Rainbow refers to:
Gravity's Rainbow is composed of four parts.
The name "Beyond the Zero" refers to lack of total extinction of a conditioned stimulus. The events of this part occur primarily during the Christmas Advent season of 1944 from December 18-26. The epigraph is a quotation from a pamphlet written by the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and first published in 1962: "Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death." The epigraph reflects themes of anticipated redemption and blurring of the sacred and secular, both of which pervade Part 1.
"Part 2: Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering" (French for "A Furlough at the Hermann Göring Casino") contains eight episodes. The events of this section span the five months from Christmas 1944 through to Whitsunday the following year; May 20, 1945. The misrepresentation or reinterpretation of identity is reflected in Slothrop's journey as well as the epigraph, attributed to Merian C. Cooper, speaking to Fay Wray prior to her starring role in King Kong, as recounted by Wray in the September 21, 1969, issue of The New York Times: "You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood."
"Part 3: In the Zone" comprises 32 episodes. The action of Part 3 is set during the summer of 1945 with analepses (literary flashbacks) to the time period of Part 2 with most events taking place between May 18 and August 6; the day of the first atomic bomb attack and also the Feast of the Transfiguration. The epigraph is taken from The Wizard of Oz, spoken by Dorothy as she arrives in Oz and shows her disorientation with the new environment: "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas any more...".
"Part 4: The Counterforce" is made up of 12 episodes. The plot of this part begins shortly after August 6, 1945 and covers the period up to September 14 of that same year; the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, with extended analepsis to Easter/April Fool's weekend of 1945 and culminating in a prolepsis to 1970. The simple epigraphical quotation, "What?" is attributed to Richard M. Nixon, and was added after the galleys of the novel had been printed to insinuate the President's involvement in the unfolding Watergate scandal. The original quotation for this section (as seen in the advance reading copies of the book) was an excerpt from the lyrics to the Joni Mitchell song "Cactus Tree" ("She has brought them to her senses/They have laughed inside her laughter/Now she rallies her defenses/For she fears that one will ask her/For eternity/And she's so busy being free"), so the change in quotation jumped a large cultural divide.
The opening pages of the novel follow Pirate Prentice, an employee of the Special Operations Executive, first in his dreams, and later around his house in wartime London. Pirate's associate Teddy Bloat photographs a map depicting the sexual encounters of U.S. Army Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, an employee of a fictional technical intelligence unit called ACHTUNG. Each of Slothrop's sexual encounters in London appears to precede a V-2 rocket strike in the same place by several days. Employees of a fictional top secret psychological warfare agency called PISCES, headquartered at a former insane asylum known as "The White Visitation" investigate Slothrop's apparent precognition, including statistician Roger Mexico and Pavlovian behavioral psychologist Edward W. Pointsman, among others. Slothrop's encounters and the rocket sites match the Poisson Distributions calculated by Roger Mexico, leading to reflections on topics as broad as Determinism, the reverse flow of time, and the sexuality of the rocket itself.
Many characters not significant until later are introduced in "Beyond the Zero", including Franz and Leni Pökler, while others who appear significant in Part One, such as Thomas Gwenhidwy and Jessica Swanlake, vanish from the narrative and don't re-appear until the closing pages of the novel. Indeed, most of the 400 named characters only make single appearances, serving merely to demonstrate the sheer scope of Pynchon's universe. Slothrop is also submitted to various psychological tests, many involving the drug sodium amytal. Flashbacks reveal the story of Katje Borgesius, a Dutch double agent who infiltrated a V-2 rocket-launching battery commanded by a sadistic SS officer named Captain Blicero, who kept Katje and a young soldier named Gottfried as sex slaves. Pavlovian conditioning is a recurring topic, mostly explored through the character of Pavlovian researcher Pointsman. One of the more bizarre Pavlovian episodes involves the conditioning of octopus Grigori to attack Katje. Early in part two, the octopus attacks Katje on the beach in France, and Slothrop is "conveniently" at hand to rescue her.
In part two, "Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering", Slothrop is sent away by his superiors in mysterious circumstances to a casino on the recently liberated French Riviera, in which almost the entirety of Part Two takes place. He is in fact being monitored by associates of Pointsman, including Katje and a linguist named Sir Stephen Dodson-Truck. Katje and Slothrop have sex after Slothrop rescues her from the octopus. At the Casino, he learns of a rocket, with the irregular serial number 00000 (Slothrop comments that the numbering system doesn't allow for four zeroes in one serial, let alone five), which features a mysterious component called the S-Gerät (short for Schwarzgerät, 'black device'), made out of the hitherto unknown plastic Imipolex G. It is hinted at that Slothrop's prescience of rocket hits is due to being conditioned as an infant by the creator of Imipolex G, Laszlo Jamf.
Later, the reality of this story is called into question, as is the very existence of Slothrop's original sexual exploits. Slothrop becomes increasingly paranoid, and begins to suspect he is being monitored. He escapes from the casino into the coalescing post-war wasteland of Europe, "The Zone", searching for the 00000 and S-Gerät. In the closing of Part Two, Katje is revealed to be safe in England, enjoying a day at the beach with Roger Mexico and Jessica, as well as Pointsman, who is in charge of Slothrop's furtive supervision. While unable to contact Slothrop (or prohibited from contacting him), Katje continues to follow his actions through Pointsman.
Slothrop's quest continues for some time in Part Three, "In The Zone", as he is chased by other characters. These include the sadistic American Major Duane Marvy and a drug-addled Soviet intelligence colonel named Vaslav Tchitcherine. Slothrop meets members of the Schwarzkommando, a fictional cadre of African rocket technicians, descended from survivors of the Herero genocide of 1904 who were brought to Europe by German colonials. An extensive subplot details a schism within the Schwarzkommando; one faction is bent on a program of racial suicide, while the other finds mystical, semi-religious meaning in the V-2 rocket. Another long subplot details Tchitcherine's quest to hunt and kill his half-brother Enzian, leader of the latter group of Schwarzkommando. Slothrop is briefly involved with a young witch named Geli Tripping, who is in love with Tchitcherine.
Later, Slothrop meets and has a brief sexual affaire with Margherita Erdmann, a former pornographic film actress and masochist. Originally meeting her in an abandoned film studio in The Zone, he is led on by her to the Anubis, a private yacht filled with uninhibited European aristocrats. Here, Slothrop has sex with Erdmann's young daughter Bianca, though it is unclear whether or not he has stopped his casual relationship with Margherita by this time. Margherita, along with her partner Thanatz, are revealed to know a great deal more about the 00000, S-Gerät, and Imipolex G than they let on. Margherita and Thanatz had brought their traveling sado-masochistic act to Captain Blicero's rocket battery, from which Rocket 00000 had apparently been fired in the Spring of 1945, towards the end of the war. Margherita spent many days in a mysterious and ambiguously described factory, where she was clothed in an outfit made from the "erotic" plastic Imipolex G. Towards the end of this section, several characters not seen since early in the novel make a return, including the book's first character, Pirate Prentice, as well as Roger Mexico.
"In The Zone" also contains the longest episode of the book, a lengthy tale of Franz Pökler, a rocket engineer unwittingly set to assist on the S-Gerät's production. The story details Pökler's manipulation by an SS officer named Weissmann (earlier revealed by Enzian to be Blicero), who uses annual meetings with Pökler's daughter Ilse to coerce him into working on the S-Gerät. Pökler becomes increasingly paranoid that Ilse is really a series of impostors sent each year to mollify him. Through this story, we find out sparse details about the S-Gerät, including that it has an approximate weight of forty-five kilograms. Slothrop spends much of Part Three in various disguises, first as an English war correspondent, then as his invented alter-ego Rocketman, wearing an operatic Viking costume with the horns removed from the helmet, making it look like a rocket nose-cone. Rocketman completes various tasks for his own and others' purposes, including retrieving a large stash of hashish from the centre of the Potsdam Conference. This continues until he leaves the region for northern Germany, continuing his quest for the 00000, as well as answers to his past. It becomes steadily apparent that Slothrop is connected to Laszlo Jamf through Lyle Bland, a Slothrop family friend who apparently played a role in funding Jamf's experiments on the infant Slothrop.
Slothrop later returns to the Anubis to find Bianca dead, a possible trigger for his impending decline. He continues his pilgrimage through northern Germany, at various stages donning the identities of a German actor, a Russian soldier, and mythical Pig Hero, while in search of more information on his childhood and the 00000. He is repeatedly sidetracked until his persona fragments totally in part four, despite the efforts of some to save him. Throughout "The Counterforce", there are several brief, hallucinatory stories, of superheroes, silly Kamikaze pilots, and immortal sentient lightbulbs. These are presumed to be the product of Slothrop's finally collapsed mind. The final identification of him of any certainty is his picture on the cover of an album by obscure English band "The Fool" (another allusion to Tarot, which becomes increasingly significant), where he is credited as playing the harmonica and kazoo. At the same time, other characters' narratives begin to collapse as well, with some characters taking a bizarre trip within a shared dream and another encountering the god Pan. Much of Part Four takes place within the presumably hallucinated "Raketen-Stadt", a fascist futuristic dystopia. Slothrop's storyline disintegrates before the novel's end, which focuses more on the 00000, and the people associated with its construction and launch (namely Blicero, Enzian, and Gottfried, amongst others). At this point, the novel also concludes many characters' stories, including those of Mexico, Pointsman, and Pirate, leaving only the 00000.
As the novel closes, many topics are discussed by the various protagonists around the world, ranging from Tarot cards to Death itself. The narrative jumps forward in time to the 1970s, where a character named "Richard M. Zhlubb" operates a Los Angeles theater. Towards the end of "The Counterforce", it transpires that the S-Gerät is actually a capsule crafted by Blicero to contain a human. The story of the 00000's launch is largely told in flashbacks by the narrator, while in the present Enzian is constructing and preparing its successor, the 00001 (which isn't fired within the scope of the novel), though it is unknown who is intended to be sacrificed in this model. In the flashbacks, the maniacal Captain Blicero prepares to assemble and fire the 00000, and asks Gottfried to sacrifice himself inside the rocket. He launches the rocket in a pseudo-sexual act of sacrifice with a bound Gottfried captive within its S-Gerät. The text halts, in the middle of a song composed by Slothrop's ancestor, with a complete obliteration of narrative as the 00000 lands (or is about to land) on a cinema.
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Many facts in the novel are based on technical documents relating to the V-2 rockets. Equations featured in the text are correct. References to the works of Pavlov, Ouspensky, and Jung are based on Pynchon's research. The firing command sequence in German that is recited at the end of the novel is also correct and is probably copied verbatim from the technical report produced by Operation Backfire.
In reality, a V-2 rocket hit the Rex Cinema in Antwerp, where some 1200 people were watching the movie The Plainsman, on December 16, 1944, killing 567 people, the most killed by a single rocket during the entire war.
The secret military organizations practicing occult warfare have an historical backdrop in the Ahnenerbe and other Nazi mysticism, whereas the Allied counterparts were limited to certain individuals such as Louis de Wohl's work for MI5.
Additionally, the novel uses many actual events and locations as backdrops to establish chronological order and setting within the complex structure of the book. Examples include the appearance of a photograph of Wernher von Braun in which his arm is in a cast. Historical documents indicate the time and place of an accident which broke von Braun's arm, thereby providing crucial structural details around which the reader can reconstruct Slothrop's journey. Another example is the inclusion of a BBC Radio broadcast of a Benny Goodman performance, the contents of which, according to historical record, were broadcast only once during the period of the novel and by which the events immediately surrounding its mention are fixed. Further historical events, such as Allied bombing raids on Peenemünde and the city of Nordhausen (close to the V-2 producing concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora) also appear in the novel and help to establish the relation of the work's events to each other.
Poet L. E. Sissman, in his Gravity's Rainbow review for The New Yorker, said of Pynchon: "He is almost a mathematician of prose, who calculates the least and the greatest stress each word and line, each pun and ambiguity, can bear, and applies his knowledge accordingly and virtually without lapses, though he takes many scary, bracing linguistic risks. Thus his remarkably supple diction can first treat of a painful and delicate love scene and then roar, without pause, into the sounds and echoes of a drudged and drunken orgy."
The plot of the novel is complex, containing over 400 characters and involving many different threads of narrative which intersect and weave around one another. The recurring themes throughout the plot are the V-2 rocket, interplay between free will and Calvinistic predestination, breaking the cycle of nature, behavioral psychology, sexuality, paranoia and conspiracy theories such as the Phoebus cartel and the Illuminati. Gravity's Rainbow also draws heavily on themes that Pynchon had probably encountered at his work as a technical writer for Boeing, where he edited a support newsletter for the Bomarc Missile Program support unit. The Boeing archives are known to house a vast library of historical V-2 rocket documents, which were probably accessible to Pynchon. The novel is narrated by many distinct voices, a technique further developed in Pynchon's much later novel Against the Day. The style and tone of the voices vary widely: Some narrate the plot in a highly informal tone, some are more self-referential, and some might even break the fourth wall. Some voices narrate in drastically different formats, ranging from movie-script format to stream of consciousness prose.
The narrative contains numerous descriptions of illicit sexual encounters and drug use by the main characters and supporting cast, sandwiched between dense dialogues or reveries on historic, artistic, scientific, or philosophical subjects, interspersed with whimsical nonsense-poems and allusions to obscure facets of 1940s pop culture. Many of the recurring themes will be familiar to experienced Pynchon readers, including the singing of silly songs, recurring appearances of kazoos, and extensive discussion of paranoia. According to Richard Locke, megalomaniac paranoia is the "operative emotion" behind the novel, and an increasingly central motivator for the many main characters. In many cases, this paranoia proves to be vindicated, as the many plots of the novel become increasingly interconnected, revolving around the identity and purpose of the elusive 00000 Rocket and Schwarzgerät. The novel becomes increasingly preoccupied with themes of Tarot, Paranoia, and Sacrifice. All three themes culminate in the novel's ending, and the epilogue of the many characters. The novel also features the character Pig Bodine, of Pynchon's novel V. Bodine would later become a recurring avatar of Pynchon's complex and interconnected fictional universe, making an appearance in nearly all of Pynchon's novels thereafter.
The novel also shares many themes with Pynchon's much later work, Against the Day, which becomes increasingly dark as the plot approaches World War I. Gravity's Rainbow takes these sentiments to their extreme in its highly pessimistic culmination of World War II.
The novel is regarded by many scholars as the greatest American novel published after the end of the Second World War, and is "often considered as the postmodern novel, redefining both postmodernism and the novel in general".
Though the book won the National Book Award for 1974, Pynchon chose neither to accept nor acknowledge this award. Thomas Guinzberg of the Viking Press suggested that the comedian "Professor" Irwin Corey accept the award on his behalf. Pynchon agreed, which led to one of the most unusual acceptance speeches of all time, complete with a streaker crossing the stage in the middle of Corey's musings.
According to Robert Bramkamp's docudrama about the V2 and Gravity's Rainbow, entitled Prüfstand VII, the BBC initiated a project to produce a film adaptation of Gravity's Rainbow between 1994 and 1997. Some unfinished footage is included in Bramkamp's film. The Bramkamp movie includes other dramatized sequences from the novel as well, while the main focus is on Peenemünde and the V2. The 2011 film Impolex by Alex Ross Perry is loosely inspired by Gravity's Rainbow, the title referring to the fictional polymer Imipolex G used to condition Slothrop in the novel.
The lyrics were written by me as an imitation of Thomas Pynchon's parodies in his book Gravity's Rainbow. He had parodied limericks and poems of kind of all-American, obsessive, cult of personality ideas like Horatio Alger and "You're #1, there's nobody else like you" kind of poems that were very funny and very clever. I thought, "I'd like to do one like Thomas Pynchon," so I wrote down "Whip It" one night.
The novel inspired the 1984 song "Gravity's Angel" by Laurie Anderson. In her 2004 autobiographical performance The End of the Moon, Anderson said she once contacted Pynchon asking permission to adapt Gravity's Rainbow as an opera. Pynchon replied that he would allow her to do so only if the opera was written for a single instrument: the banjo. Anderson said she took that as a polite "no."
"Gravity's Rainbow" is a song by the British band Klaxons, from the album Myths of the Near Future (2007).Pat Benatar also released an album called Gravity's Rainbow after reading Thomas Pynchon's novel.
Canadian experimental rock group Rei dos Leitoes's song "Silent on the Island" (2010) incorporates themes from Gravity's Rainbow in its second and fourth Verse passages.
New York artist Zak Smith created a series of 760 drawings entitled, "One Picture for Every Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow" (also known by the title "Pictures of What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow"). Occupying eleven rows and over eleven meters of wall space, the drawings attempt to illustrate, as literally as possible, every page of the book. The piece includes palm trees, shoes, stuffed toys, a lemon meringue pie, Richard Nixon, Sigmund Freud, an iron toad wired to an electric battery, a dominatrix, and other images from the novel. The series had a successful reception at New York's 2004 Whitney Biennial event, and was described "as a tour de force of sketching and concept" (Abbe 2004). In November 2006, Tin House Books published the book Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow (ISBN 097731278X).
In 1999 a painting by the American artist Fred Tomaselli, inspired by the novel and titled Gravity's Rainbow (Large), was added to the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City.