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Sunday, April 14, 2024

We’re All Living Under Gravity’s Rainbow

Black curtains hang in the windows of a dinky suburban LA apartment, two blocks from the Pacific, blotting out the light. Inside, Thomas Pynchon—early thirties, awkward, with a Zappa ’stache—scribbles on reams of graph paper. The scene is spartan: a cot, some books, a messy pile of correspondence, a collection of chintzy piggy banks. On his desk sits an ad hoc model rocket, jerry-rigged together from a paper clip and an old pencil eraser. A friend of Pynchon's described the vibe in a gentlemen’s magazine as “a monk’s cell decorated by the Salvation Army.” Outside, the world rages on. The Watts riots. LSD. The Space Race. Watergate. The Bomb. Society is seized by one roiling convulsion after the next. Fantasies of post-WWII prosperity curdle into generational revolt, paranoia, and duck-and-cover drills. At his desk, Pynchon is processing it all, absorbing it—like Emerson’s transparent eyeball, but hyper-dilated and a bit bleary from too much Panama Red. What sent the world reeling? 

To get to the bottom of such a Big Question, Pynchon must have read widely: about synthetic chemistry and Calvinist prophecy and Kabbalah and Turkic alphabet reform. But most of all, it seems, he read about rockets. There is a point in a rocket’s parabola called Brennschluss (“burnout,” in German). It marks the moment at which the missile exhausts its fuel and continues its trajectory aided only by momentum and the force of gravity. As he frames it in his seminal novel Gravity’s Rainbow, World War II—with its missiles and death camps and atomic bombs that sealed humanity’s suicidal covenant with technology—was civilization’s Brennschluss, and we have been in free fall ever since.

February 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of Gravity’s Rainbow. A controversial literary sensation when it was published—it was infamously snubbed by Pulitzer higher-ups, despite unanimous recommendation from the fiction jury—the novel has since gathered a daunting reputation. Like Ulysses, The Recognitions, and Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow is the kind of book people pretend to read to appear smart while riding the bus. A New York magazine critic once dubbed it “perhaps the least-read must-read in American history.”

This reputation does an obvious disservice to the book itself, and to a potential audience of curious readers. The time to pick up Gravity’s Rainbow is now. It is at once a busy almanac of its era and a sort of field guide for our own. It echoes eerily in the new-ish millennium. In a way, our own age’s greasy stew of absurdity and apocalypticism, creeping death tinged with clown-shoe idiocy, suggests a world that has finally, fatefully, caught up with Pynchon. We are still living under Gravity’s Rainbow.

If anyone knows anything about the author, it’s that nobody knows a whole lot about him. Arguably the most committed living mystery in American letters, Pynchon practically makes Cormac McCarthy look like some 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 emerging aerospace industry. It was also where he began honing his own literary style—in one article, he compares the relationship between the US Air Force and private aerospace contractors to a happy marriage, copping an ironic tone that would later define his fiction. Pynchon was, for a brief period, essentially a functionary (albeit a cheeky, sarcastic functionary) within America’s expanding military-industrial complex. This means he knew about ballistics. And rockets. And what these weapons were capable of doing, not only to their intended targets but to the souls of those who wrought them. 

Anti-war, anti-capitalist, and prolifically vulgar, Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel of ideas, big and small. Across 700-plus pages, Pynchon teases out a hefty head trip of plots and subplots, introduces hundreds of characters, and riffs on rocket science, cinema, Germanic runology, Pavlovian behaviorism, probability theory, witchcraft, futurism, zoot-suit couture, psychedelic chemistry, and the annihilation of the dodo. But there is, amid the novel’s encyclopedic remit, something like a story.

It’s the tale of Tyrone Slothrop, a Harvard-educated, Massachusetts blue blood. Because the waypoints of his sexual encounters seem to match perfectly with the Nazis’ V-2 rocket strikes in London, a small cadre of Allied intelligence operatives believe he possesses a strange magnetism, or magic. Various factions push Slothrop around like a pawn, wielding him in service of their schemes, as he winds through the Zone (the moniker given to postwar Germany) on a woozy, picaresque adventure. He rescues a damsel from an enormous octopus. Dressed in a stolen cape and mangled Wagnerian opera helmet, he recasts himself as the superhero Rocketman and recovers a brick of hash hidden at Potsdam. He meets Mickey Rooney, fornicates prolifically, gets in a high-altitude cream-pie fight, and narrowly avoids castration. Along the way, he scrambles for information about a mysterious rocket known only as the 00000 and tries to parse his own motivations from those imposed on him. Which moves are Slothrop making freely? And which are being guided by some ominous, invisible hand? It’s one lackey’s quest to unshackle himself from stoogedom. Slothrop’s weird odyssey, and the novel’s seeming chaos, are ordered by one thing: the rocket.

A V-2 rocket is the first thing the reader encounters in the novel’s opening lines: “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.” The Nazi weapon broke the sound barrier: It exploded before anyone heard it coming. No warning. The V-2 violated basic conceptions of cause and effect. Gravity’s Rainbow unfolds within this discombobulation. 

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In this world, the rocket means different things to different people. For the Nazi mystic Captain Blicero (father of the 00000), the rocket will catalyze humanity’s ascension to a higher realm of being. For the African revolutionary Enzian, the rocket is a weapon of global genocide that will force the colonial project to its logical conclusion. For Slothrop, the rocket is the key to his own history and deep family ties to vast conspiracies that date at least as far back as the Puritan migration to New England. (Slothrop is, like Pynchon, a descendant of the first wave of colonists who settled the Massachusetts Bay.) The rocket hangs over the action of the novel, drawing together scores of characters and plots, giving contour both to the narrative and to Pynchon’s own clear-eyed vision of the future.

Pynchon’s rocket mania may seem, like so many elements of Rainbow’s post-hippie milieu, squarely a product of its time. At the novel’s publication, America’s dreams of conquering the heavens were abating. The Apollo 11 moon landing effectively ended the US-Soviet Space Race. By 1971, an Apollo astronaut was shagging golf balls on the lunar surface, definitive proof (if we needed it) that the starry-eyed conquest of space would be bound not by technology but by the perimeter of the American imagination. Wild-eyed rocket mysticism was replaced by projections of all-American middle-class idleness. 

But for Pynchon, the rocket was more than a voguish, phallic expression of ideological dominance. It encapsulated the whole century. It was the pinnacle of science, human ingenuity, and the dream life of a whole species who fantasized about trekking through the stars, wrapped up in a weapon of death. Not only did the rocket breach Earth’s atmosphere and mark humanity’s first foray into outer space, it also transcended the piddly matters of ideology around which the 20th century ostensibly revolved.

Indeed, even NASA’s giant leaps were as much German triumphs as American ones. America’s rocketry know-how was essentially purchased wholesale. The US military eagerly recruited Nazi scientists. True believers like Walter Dornberger, Wernher von Braun, and dozens of others were secreted away to develop missile and rocket technology for NASA, Bell, and Boeing. Some have speculated that Gravity’s Rainbow is itself a kind of long-form mea culpa, in which Pynchon reckons with his own stint of active complicity within a system optimized for the delivery of death. To go a step further, one may even consider that Pynchon’s desire to drop out of public life is in some sense a response to this: a way of deliberately extricating himself, Slothrop-style, from societal systems, in his case of literary celebrity. 

Throughout the book, matters of politics or patriotism are steamrolled by corporations, which (like the rocket) transcend nations and their trifling differences. “The true war,” as one character observes, “is a celebration of markets.” Pynchon name-checks Shell Oil, I.G. Farben, and other concerns whose business interests cut across battle lines. A chemical pitchman named Wimpe proudly proclaims that his “little chemical cartel is the model for the very structure of nations.” Another character, Clayton Chiclitz, is a toy manufacturer who recruits war orphans to scrounge for black market bric-a-brac. By the time of Pynchon’s The Crying of  Lot 49 (set some 20 years after the events of Rainbow), Chiclitz has moved from peddling children’s playthings to heavy weaponry, heading up a mega-corp called Yoyodyne. 

This idea of the corporation supplanting the nation-state—what critic Edward Mendelson termed “Pynchon’s new internationalism”—proved the author’s most prescient forecast. In 1973, in the throes of the Cold War, the notion that nations and ideologies would be incidental might have seemed like the stuff of pulpy sci-fi. Before Don DeLillo and George Romero showed supermarkets and shopping malls as temples of spiritual longing, decades before Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history,” Pynchon saw that the new world order was incorporation: a technological arrangement of global capital that would defy nationality and morality. Fifty years later, that consolidation of power seems total. Individual empires rival many countries’ GDPs. Private industrialists have effectively realized the fantasy of Pynchon’s deranged Captain Blicero, who calls his rocket launchpad/sex dungeon his “Little State.” And the real men who order all this capital (some of the wealthiest in the world) have now, like their predecessors in the dying empires of old, become obsessed with that most Pynchonian totem of megalomaniacal techno-vanity: the rocket.

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The hifalutin fantasies of space conquest and rocket mysticism have been taken up by multibillionaires like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk. They have minted their own rocket cartels and framed their own schemes of earthbound exploitation around delusional dreams of conquering the stars. Keep the yokels gazing skyward, preoccupied with what Walter Dornberger, the head of the Nazi’s V-2 program, called the “ancient dream” of space travel, or with the sci-fi fantasy of bustling Martian colonies, and maybe they won’t notice what you’re up to here on boring ol’ Planet Earth. It is Pynchonian history, come to life. 

That the world has, rather despairingly, finally caught up with Gravity’s Rainbow poses another impediment to actually reading the book. Why bother with an absurdist novel that’s now only as absurd as reality itself? The nondespairing answer, for me, is always Pynchon’s imagination. It’s like his brain has an antenna tuned to a weird frequency that vibes outside the conceptual spectrum of most people. And for all of Rainbow’s dismal prognostications about our corporatized, death-obsessed future (er … present), for all its chronicling of the foreclosure of the frontier of human possibility, Pynchon serves up countless images and ideas that baffle and inspire: a village ruled by a roving pack of dogs, a sentient light bulb on a revolutionary crusade against the Man, a mind-boggling sequence in which the novel’s characters appear to bust through the fourth wall and invade the real world of the reader. He is always thinking outside of a world that feels increasingly boxed-in. And while lively and entertaining in their own right, his po-mo flights of writerly fancy are grounded in a deeply serious intellectual program.

Some Marxist thinkers maintain that everything in history happens (at least) twice: first as tragedy, then as farce. Put another way: “It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.” But Pynchon’s theory of history offers its own immanent critique. It is attentive to how systems of technology, power, and information shape the world. It is the anti-Great Man theory of history, sympathetic to the stooges, geeks, schemers, and naive dreamers who strive, however vainly, to resist or—like Slothrop—elude them. History is grotesque and caricatured to begin with, and it only repeats itself in increasingly stupefying forms, like a string of Hollywood remakes diluting the spirit of the original. 

How can anyone look at Elon Musk desperately currying the favor of a tweeter called “Catturd” or Donald Trump hawking digital trading cards that depict him as a spaceman, or a packet of supposedly feminist M&Ms, or watch the “Q Shaman” playact an insurrection, or track conversations about the merits of computer-generated “synthetic art,” or read in the news that we’re all accidentally consuming a credit card’s worth of plastic a week (why is “a credit card” the metric?!), and not feel like they’re living in Pynchonland? Even the Atomic Age threat of global apocalypse is back, thanks to escalating nuclear tensions and impending environmental collapse. The figure of the rocket dangles precariously overhead, just as it does in the closing pages of Gravity’s Rainbow, as the Doomsday Clock ticks closer to midnight. By the time we hear the boom, it will be too late. 


Correction, February 24, 2023: This article was updated to more accurately describe the rocketry concept of Brennschluss.

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