BY MATTHEW HERBERT
On page 603 of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon we find the protagonist, Tyrone Slothrop, hiding from the military police in the closet of a whorehouse in northern Germany. Hallucinogenic revelry is underway. It is shortly after VE Day, and Slothrop is wearing a pig suit, a disguise that just got him out of one tight scrape but landed him in the present one. He’s been sucking anxiously on the mask.
Slothrop’s sidekick, Bodine, a Navy Seaman and hashish dealer, is trying to coax him out to enjoy two of the house specialties, a steam bath and erotic rubdown. Bodine promises to keep watch for the MPs and a mysterious rocket specialist whom Slothrop has been chasing. About that rubdown, a brief exchange ensues:
“This is some kind of a plot, right?” Slothrop sucking saliva from velvet pile.
“Everything is some kind of a plot, man,” Bodine laughing.
I’ve been teaching my second-grade son recently to identify a book’s main idea. This would be it.
Gravity’s Rainbow is known as one of America’s most “difficult” novels. Depending on who you ask, it is 770 pages of unreadable, pseudo-intellectual tripe or a a massively ingenious re-imagination of the genre. It has been called the postmodern novel. It is about a set of intersecting plots to, on one hand, develop and deploy a revolutionary piece of technology for Nazi Germany’s infamous V-2 rockets, and, on the other, to find and interdict said technology. There is much sex, sadism, masochism, pedophilia, (highly detailed!) scatology, rocket telemetry, materials science, and bawdy, corny doggerel–some of it set to kazoo–along the way. Pynchon writes his novels on the nihil humanum mihi alienum est model.
But, first things first. Almost everyone has a theory of the novel, even if they don’t know what it is. If there weren’t a fairly widespread, well established concept of the novel, there would have been no occasion for Pynchon’s “postmodern” subversion of it.
I’m not inclined to get too involved in debates about what the novel is supposed to be. I love tight, well-constructed conventional novels, such as those by Jonathan Franzen, and I tend to think of them as descendants of 19th-century classics of the genre such as Middlemarch. But I also tend to think of novels as free expressions of broad human experience which, as Milan Kundera argued, should avoid having too fine a point, political, moral or otherwise. Novels are tapestries, and we simply behold them. So for what it’s worth, my theory of the novel is, “I don’t care!”
Don’t get me wrong (actually, don’t get Kundera wrong–it’s his idea); it’s not that novels should be pointless. It’s more that they should stick to meditating on human experience itself and allow any overarching messages to emerge from direct observation, innocent of any theory. This is the demand H.L. Mencken made of the novel when he wrote that its “primary aim, . . . at all times and everywhere, is the representation of human beings at their follies and villainies.”
Going at a novel the other way around, picking out the follies and villainies you mean to condemn first, is what produces sanctimonious melodrama such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or adolescent moralizing such as Atlas Shrugged. Even past masters can go wrong this way. Because Tolstoy had developed such prescriptive ideas of marriage, family and religion by late in his career, he managed to produce, in The Kreutzer Sonata, a consummately poor novel that owes its failures entirely to its dogmatism. (It is a novel that is, in Martin Amis’s words, “bad in every way a novel can be bad.”)
And anyway, just about every idol of the conventional novel that Pynchon supposedly offends had already been killed off by 1973, the year he published Gravity’s Rainbow. Take stream-of-conscious narration. If you can piece together the plot (or “action”) of Ulysses (1922) or The Sound and the Fury (1929), you can easily make sense of the storyline in Gravity’s Rainbow and appreciate the undermining role played by the elastic reliability of its narration. Personally, I found the dreamscape longeurs of Conrad’s Lord Jim much more trying than Pynchon’s weirdest excursus in Gravity’s Rainbow. Some were un-get-throughable.
Much is also made of postmodern novels’ going “meta,” or being self-referential. Related is the innovation of breaking down the “fourth wall” and addressing the reader directly. (Orhan Pamuk “personally” appears late in his 2009 novel The Museum of Innocence with the wonderful line, “Hello, it’s Orhan Pamuk!”) Well, both these things were done in the very first novel, Don Quixote. The introduction of the novel’s second part is a meta-novella unto itself. It is basically Cervantes unmasking a piece of fan fiction, or fraud if you like, written by an impostor, which was circulating through the salons at the time. Cervantes’ meta-fictional but really factual rebuttal was analogous with a hip-hop artist using a rap to trash-talk a rival.
But all this aside, Gravity’s Rainbow does stand out as an extraordinary accomplishment. Even though most of its subversive devices had already been invented by 1973, Pynchon takes them to such outlandishly imaginative levels while still marshaling them behind a coherent ethos that his novel indeed deserves its palms.
The story, much simplified: Tyrone Slothrop is a lieutenant in the U.S. Military Intelligence Corps. While tracking V-2 rocket impacts in 1944 London, he makes a the first of a bizarre chain of discoveries about his past that increasingly suggest to him that he has, since childhood, been pressed into the service of a secretive power elite that knows no national loyalties. Making up the cabal are his father, a go-getter industrialist/chemist, and a transnational network of industrial forces abetting humankind in the pursuit of its collective death wish. The main vectors for organizing this plot and causing it to be perpetrated through Slothrop’s own life are Pavlovian conditioning (Slothrop’s father sold him for experimentation as a child) and compartmentalized government planning (Slothrop can never be sure what his true mission is or who his real masters are).
So, yes, it is a novel about conspiracies. Early in the book, an associate of Slothrop’s, who is caught in the same spy game, gets his first inklings of what we would today call “recovered memories.” He reflects on the images, impressions, the moods that suggest to him his mind is not completely his own: “He had known for a while that certain episodes he dreamed could not be his own. This wasn’t through any rigorous daytime analysis of content, but just because he knew.” Ask any true believer in conspiracies, and you will eventually strike this bedrock–whatever the objective balance of evidence for or against their belief, they just know. Aliens built the pyramids. The UN is coming for their guns. And so on.
So Gravity’s Rainbow is also a novel about conspiratorial thinking, which asks the question, “When is a conspiracy not a conspiracy?” The short answer, for Pynchon, is: when the forces we perceive by way of determined of paranoia are actually just ordinary life surging stupidly ahead, toward purposes it defines as it goes, without asking us. It is basically Toynbee’s idea of history as one damn thing after another instantiated in individual human psychology and expressed through group behavior. Pynchon is making a literary argument for the validity of the viewpoint of American philosopher Richard Rorty. Rorty argued that the soul of being human is to accept time, fate and chance rather than gods, myths and History as worthy of determining our fates.
Very good, if you’re a liberal democrat, but why tell such an important tale so obviously from the viewpoint of a psychotic? Orwell asked much the same question of Edgar Allen Poe’s literature. In his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale,” Orwell was wondering aloud what kind of “truth” literature is supposed to be telling us when it gets weird.
Poe’s outlook is at best a wild romanticism and at worst is not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense. Why is it, then, that stories like “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-tale Heart,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” and so forth, which might very nearly have been written by a lunatic, do not convey a feeling of falsity? Because they are true within a certain framework, they keep the rules of their own peculiar world, . . . .
In the same essay Orwell said that “novels are spoken of as ‘important’ when they are either a ‘terrible indictment’ of something or when they introduce some technical innovation.” Gravity’s Rainbow is important, I believe, because it does both these things, and combines the effects into something entirely new. I’m not saying he meant to do this, but Pynchon is giving us a terrible indictment of something–namely, the vague forces that can make modern life feel like the product of a conspiracy–and he is using a technical innovation–the dissolution of a coherent narrative perspective–to undermine our confidence in our ability to perceive those forces. So, you may find yourself strongly believing conspiracy theories based on what feels like compelling evidence, but you should also bear in mind how wrong you can be about almost anything. If this position seems untenable, then life is untenable.
What was the point of making Gravity’s Rainbow so hard? Why must the reader come to doubt the true identities of certain characters across the storyline? Why would I need to know where and what the Sandzak is, how a Poisson Distribution compares to randomness, 50-odd phrases in German, not all of them kitchen-table, just to string together parts of the plot of varying consequence? It is because the reader can, by coping with these and a hundred other such difficulties, come to sympathize with Slothrop, who never knows if his strings are being pulled or his cards have simply been dealt as they are. He never quite knows what is happening.
Novels are always historically situated, and Gravity’s Rainbow is no exception. It came out just as the American public was discovering, through the release of the Pentagon papers (leaked in 1971), that their government would lie to them systematically and hide things from them on a massive scale. Awoken to this reality, any thinking person could have looked back (and many did) to Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 book The Paranoid Style in American Politics and used its perspective to reinterpret a great many plain, ordinary facts as the outcomes of secretive machinations. Was the country that plotted the Bay of Pigs in 1961(and for that matter, the corporate-sponsored overthrow of Guatemala in 1954: look it up) the same one that stormed the beaches at Normandy? Look at the arrows on the D-Day maps. Bold and black, they point straight at the German positions, and that, by god, is where our soldiers attacked. We were so honest then.
But it was Eisenhower, the commander of Operation Overlord, who would warn the American people of the corrosiveness of the economics behind his victory at Normandy. At its deepest points, Gravity’s Rainbow explores the horrible possibility that Ike’s military industrial complex is really the outcome of more organic forces in the human enterprise, which have lives of their own and cannot be eradicated. Our profit-driven, death dealing national security state created in 1947 (with the National Security Act) was going to happen regardless of the particular course of World War 2. The main thing was the connection established between state killing and private industry. Other killings would have found the same connection, done the same trick. “The mass nature of wartime death,” Pynchon writes,
is useful in many ways. It serves as a spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw materials to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ‘n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.
One reason to soldier through Gravity’s Rainbow even if it is “difficult”: All its prurience, all its psychedelic haze, all its textual complexity and word-play inanity are an antidote to something worse than mystification–the very real prospect that the established powers manipulate our perceptions to give us oversimplified pictures of the world, the very opposite of the kind of bizarre-o world Pynchon brings to life. In 1947 as key Congressional leaders were meeting with President Truman and (what would shortly be known as) his National Security staff, Senator Arthur S. Vandenberg exhorted the president to make a case for fighting the Cold War that would be “clearer than the truth” to the American people. And so spin became an organic part of our national security apparatus and, truth be told, our country. Orwell wrote that weird stories like Poe’s make sense because the “keep the rules of their peculiar world.” The same goes, we learn, for political statements meant to communicate to the American people plain, important facts. The established powers re-wrote these rules beginning in 1947.
So here’s the deal with those dark forces that you think maybe control your thoughts: they exist. They are called corporations, advertisers, preachers, propagandists, politicians, and so forth. They’re all trying, all the time, to get you to live, think and act in ways that serve their interests. You can feel them at work, and in that sense you “know” about them. You might not be able to isolate the algorithm that points your social media account to a particular product or news item, but you know it is there, and real people somewhere are openly “conspiring” to make it work.
But are they conspiring? Pynchon draws out a deeper, more worrying aspect of such forces: they move to the deepest rhythms of human life. They are ultimately based in instinct, greed, chaos, fear, and chance. Your strings are being pulled, yes, but you are also being dealt cards at random. And like Slothrop, you’ll feel the effects of both, but you’ll never know the difference between the two, at least not for a certainty.
Of course Gravity’s Rainbow does not simply serve up this moral, or any other. But it does use a technical innovation to draw the reader toward a braver, more honest appraisal of life. “If there is something comforting–religious if you want–about paranoia,” Pynchon writes, “there is also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.”
Pynchon’s defining innovation in Gravity’s Rainbow is the dissolution of the antagonist as a character. Slothrop does not reach anything like a turning point in the novel; in fact he just fades out. There are a hundred and one reasons why he would have fallen apart as a character. To begin with, there was the trauma of discovering he had been sold as a child to a mad scientist who would go on to base his development of a key V-2 rocket material on Slothrop’s suffering. We see clear signs all throughout the novel that Slothrop is winding down, experiencing a kind of existential entropy, rather than solidifying for some kind of climax. As he changes costume throughout the story (that pig suit is only one of several), we come to see Slothrop is losing more than his last set of clothes–he is abdicating his identity. Furthermore, his frequent drug use and increasingly strange reveries also speak to the erosion of a core self. Enslaved in childhood to thanatos, Slothrop dissipates himself in eros, coupling with too many lovers to count. Each lover takes a part of him that won’t come back. Maybe that’s the point.
So when the novel comes to its end, Slothrop simply isn’t there. This absence is, I think, the other side of Pynchon’s “terrible indictment” of modern life. It is a genuine, if tragic, response to implacable ambiguity. The forces that make modern life feel like the outcome of interlocking conspiracies are really out there. But they’re just doing what people in power always do. The impulse to imagine oneself at the center of their machinations–consciously chosen as an object of contestation–is too neat. It is the definition of childishness. We don’t know how or why the hero fell out of the storyline of Gravity’s Rainbow. Maybe he went crazy. Maybe he settled down somewhere and stopped doing interesting things. All we really know is that he stopped being at the center of a story. This may be a new kind of heroism that anti-paranoia requires of us–the admission that there is far more randomness and complexity in the world than actual conspiracy.