Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon is, without doubt, the most dense and one of the most challenging works of fiction I have ever read. It lives up to its reputation of being a madcap, sprawling yet tightly packed, post-modern epic. It also lives up to its reputation of being difficult. Despite my original skepticism and the sheer pretentiousness of the book, I was pleasantly surprised by the degree to which I enjoyed it. Below is a comprehensive description of my thoughts and feelings on the book, as well as my views on what it is.
Gravity’s Rainbow begins with an evacuation of a city; which city or if it was real we never learn. It might have been a dream. We then move on to see the character Pirate Prentice gathering bananas from a London rooftop greenhouse and preparing a massive and creative banana breakfast. This is where we first encounter the theme of uncontrolled orgy in the midst of and follow-up to World War II. Food, sex, and drugs permeate the book and we frequently see people gorging themselves on all three in what seems to be a desperate frenzy to escape the reality of both their situation and who they have become.
Gravity’s Rainbow has 400 named characters and to describe the plot would be both tedious and pointless, both to write and to read. So much as there is a primary character, it is Tyrone Slothrop. He is an American lieutenant whose claimed sexual encounters perfectly match the Poisson distribution of V-2 rocket strikes on London. It is later implied that, because of experiments in which he was a test subject during his infancy, the presence or impending presence of a synthetic material which lines the rockets causes him to have an erection. Either that, or, when he has an erection, a rocket is drawn to that spot.
The theme of the V-2 rockets is perhaps the central one of the book, in that they are both symbolic and there is a specific rocket, the Schwarzgerat 1 or 00000, everyone is out searching for through large swathes of Europe. The title comes from the parabolic path of these rockets from launch to descent. The fact that, viewed from directly above they create a design much like a mandala is also repeated throughout the narrative, particularly in reference to a group of displaced Africans who follow a path to planned obsolecence. They are seen throughout the book assembling the components for a 00001 rocket. Their precise motivations in this are left to interpretation.
Much of the book takes place in the chaos of post-war Europe. The extreme poverty of the population is shown in contrast to everlasting orgies of consumption in isolated places. Everyone seems to be frantic, hurried, and clawing for feeling. Everything is shit and mud and sex. Slothrop stumbles in and out of these on his search for the S-Gerat 1. He is extremely paranoid and by the end, so is nearly everyone else. There is frequent reference to They and many of the protagonists spend a considerable amount of time considering to what extent their lives are determined by Them and what standing they are in with Them.
Towards the end of the book, we are told that “the Rocket has to be many things. It must answer to a number of different shapes in the dreams of those who touch it.” This reinforces the idea that the S-Gerat 1 being sought by so many may exist as a thought as well as, or possibly rather than a tangible rocket which was launched during the war. There is frequent allusion to rockets in comparison to penises, to the launch as ejaculation, and to the material which lines it as erotic, erect, or arousing. The theme of the parabola is mirrored in the lives of the characters and their lives are compared to those of the rocket in statements like “breaking upward into this world, a controlled burning–breaking downward again, an uncontrolled explosion.” This reinforces the question of how much of life is or is not determined by Them.
I am glad I read this book, although I certainly enjoyed some parts more than others. The sheer number of characters and narrative styles made it difficult to keep track of what was happening and at times of the primary themes. Some scenes seem repetitive and at times I wanted to scream because a theme I understood was being repeated, but one I did not understand seemed to have been neglected. Naturally, just keeping track of the characters was difficult at times. On the other hand, this is a highly inventive book and I have read no other like it. There is a beautiful rhythmic quality to the way the words flow. The degree to which that feels natural is highlighted by the fact that the frequent points at which characters burst into song without it being jarring. The writing is extremely pretentious, of course, but also skilled. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.