Late to the Party: Gravity’s Rainbow

Content Warning: This essay contains graphic sexual content.


Thomas Pynchon wrote Gravity’s Rainbow in the early 1970s while dividing his time between New York and Southern California. If you visited his room at Manhattan Beach, just blocks from the Pacific Ocean, you’d find scant furnishings, piggy banks, academic texts on swine, and, on top of his desk, a rudimentary model of a V2 rocket made from a pencil-shaped eraser, a needle, and a bent paperclip.

His workspace is not unlike David Foster Wallace’s tiny room in Syracuse, where he wrote his own postmodern magnum opus, Infinite Jest. The space was so small, Wallace had to keep his research textbooks in a stack on his bed and then move it back to his desk at night when he wanted to sleep.

DFW wasn’t too far from Pynchon’s old stomping grounds at Cornell. Like the texts themselves, Syracuse and Ithaca are deceptively close: simple as the crow flies, but winding and treacherous once you’re down in the weedy forest byways of New York State. Walk one hundred feet from any known path, turn around three times, and you’re lost – not unlike how you feel reading either tome.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace argues that pleasure has become humanity’s chief object of worship. By contrast, Pynchon spends Gravity’s Rainbow making the case that humanity worships technology. For a while, I wanted to characterize it, as Alan Jacobs has, as the intersection of the technological and the theological, but after listening to the ideas of Eugene McCarreher, maybe it’s about technology becoming our theology. If McCarreher thinks the Free Market has become “an expression of the Divine Will,” as he said in a recent interview, Pynchon’s characters bestow the same significance upon the rocket and, more broadly, technology itself.

Pynchon’s story begins at the twilight of World War II when members of the allied forces slowly realize that a lieutenant in an army intelligence agency, one Tyrone Slothrop, is unknowingly predicting where the V2 rockets will fall in London – by means of his penis. In every location where Slothrop has a sexual encounter, a rocket falls a few days later. His peers and some powers-that-be examine the phenomenon from the standpoint of science and then determinism. But it propels Slothrop on an increasingly paranoid journey across war-torn Europe through the end of the war and up to the middle of September, ending the novel with the Feast of the Holy Cross in the Christian liturgical calendar. Just in this short summary, it’s worth noting that the V2 rocket is uplifted as a cross and an erection. Also, a banana, but that’s a bit less important. What is clear is that the novel is interested in examining free will versus Calvinist predestination, wherein God determines every event in individual lives and across history.

Pynchon opens Gravity’s Rainbow with a quote, a heavily edited excerpt from a pamphlet by the real-life rocket scientist, former Nazi, and future NASA scientist Wernher von Braun:

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 full text from the pamphlet is even more astounding. Von Braun waxes poetic about belief in God as the only ethic that can protect us from nuclear disaster (humanity’s ultimate transformation at the altar of tools). Pynchon cut away much of what von Braun wrote so he could explicate his own thoughts in the subsequent 800 pages.

After being transported to the states as part of Truman’s Operation Paperclip, and following a slow rehabilitation of Germany’s image in America, von Braun capitalized on the excitement of science fiction and space travel to promote his ideas for using rockets to explore space. With the help of other artists, and while he focused on the engineering side, he published a concept of a manned space station in Collier’s Weekly. Stanley Kubrick and his team would draw heavily on these ideas in their depiction of a space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

Of course, an avatar of von Braun had already popped up on screen as the titular character in Kubrick’s hugely successful Dr. Strangelove. But the connection to 2001 is essential because both GR and the film explore how our tools, instead of allowing us to shape things, shape us instead. Transformation indeed.

“Therefore, I appeal to you… by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1, ESV). Over the past several hundred years, humankind has gone from serving the power of the church to serving the power of the State to today, when we bow down and worship tools. It’s not surprising that Barack Obama, right after yielding his tenure as world’s most powerful man, was first publicly photographed enjoying a speedboat ride with Richard Branson (himself an early investor in the still-future idea of commercial space travel). Just a few months ago, Obama spoke in Silicon Valley at an event with ticket prices north of $300,000. Technology is money is power is money is technology. But if an audience with a societal god can be bought, is any price too high?

On the flip side, if you are like me and disapprove of powerful tech billionaires, you may have encountered the odd habit of referring to them as “lizard people” or other such non-human entities; they’re all wearing costumes hoping to be taken seriously as real humans. When Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress, the internet was flooded with jokes and memes about how he had to pretend to be a real human being for a few hours. Similar japes abounded when he made a presidential candidate-esque tour across America talking to middle class citizens.

While this is undoubtedly partly based on jokes about how nerds are awkward and weird and don’t know how to interact with “real” people, I see the same types of dismissive jokes made about other rich people in positions of power (even Queen Elizabeth, after she gave her recent speech about COVID-19). Many of us would much rather see evil committed by non-humans rather than admit that we are like them, that they are one of us, and that we all share a capacity for greed, lust, and egomania.

Looking in a mirror is rarely fun, but it must be done. We love tech. We worship tech. We sacrifice ourselves, the sum of our experiences in the form of our data and our privacy, in exchange for the holy bread of the iPhone in our pockets at all times, and for the blood wine of constant information. If that isn’t covenantal sacrifice, I don’t know what is.

I quoted Romans 12:1 earlier. My own personal prescription comes in the next verse: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

As von Braun observed, you will be transformed, no question. But by what or whom?

I would be arrogant to assume I could possibly contribute something new to the Pynchon discourse. Peruse any catalog of essays on Pynchon, and you’ll see that scholars have already covered more than I ever could. We’re saturated. About a month ago, I went into a bookstore to inquire about a book of Pynchon commentary. “Oh no, we don’t have that,” the shopkeep said confidently. “If we did, I would have bought it myself already.” He proudly rolled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of the muted post horn from Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Oh for crying out loud, I thought. This really is well-worn territory. Many Pynchon obsessives have tread this ground long before me. Therefore, if the following is not new, it is at least personal and fresh for yours truly.

Like most contemporary stories about global war, GR believes war is hell. One of the first passages is a dark parade of souls into the afterlife. No war book can pretend to be coy about death and carnage, and this one especially so, as most of the action takes place in Europe’s postwar wasteland.

It opens with a rocket bearing down on London: “A screaming comes across the sky.” It’s one of the most famous opening sentences in English literature. It begins in the present tense and, for the most part, it stays there. The trajectory of the rocket and the stubborn propulsion of present tense, along with the relentless stream-of-consciousness prose, tell the reader that we’re going to be constantly propelled forward. This is not a text to be picked up and put down at leisure. You can’t dismount. You’re riding the rocket to its explosive conclusion.

The book is divided into four parts:

Part 1: Beyond the Zero (21 chapters, or “episodes)

Part 2: Un Perm’ au Casino Hermann Goering, (8 episodes)

Part 3: In the Zone (32 episodes)

Part 4: The Counterforce (12 episodes)

73 episodes, corresponding to the year GR was published.

I seem to be attracted to books that suggest their structure in the title: Cortazar’s Hopscotch, Pynchon’s V., and now this one: the path of a rocket affected by the pull of the earth, the rainbow shape created by gravitational pull.

But is the shape of a book really a parabola? It would like us to think so. Just look at the main character’s journey through Europe:
Slothrops Journey

The parabola is inverted but it ends in a circle. Is this significant? Perhaps. Throughout the text are many, many references to parabolic arches, in the ruins of bombed-out Germany and on the island of Peenemunde, where the rocket was designed and tested.

However, there are just as many, if not more, references to mandalas, a series of interconnected circles, deeply symbolic in eastern religion. Steven Weisenburger (author of a popular companion text) describes this as the true shape: “[four] quadrants carefully marked by Christian feast days that happened to coincide, in 1944-1945, with key historical dates and ancient pagan festivals.” The juxtaposition of Christian and pagan, Western and Eastern religions, the lowbrow humor and slang with the high language of literature, interlocking worlds of languages and settings; these are several of the rings that Pynchon links together in GR.

The form is, in some ways, both mandala and arch. One character even opines, watching the sun shine through a rocket’s contrail, that the full pathway of the rainbow is truly a circle.

One of the main takeaways when theorizing on the structure of the book is that it is almost dynamic rather than static. The structure rises and dissolves in the reader’s mind as we go along. This is undoubtedly much more pleasing to Pynchon than an agreed-upon blueprint would be. Just read what he says in the foreword to his short story collection:

…If I were to run into [my younger self] today, how comfortable would I feel about lending him money, or even stepping down the street to have a beer and talk over old times?… What is most appealing about young folks, after all, is the changes, not the still photograph of finished character but the movie, the soul in flux. Maybe this small attachment to my past is only another case of what Frank Zappa calls a bunch of old guys sitting around playing rock ‘n’ roll. But as we all know, rock ‘n’ roll will never die, and education too, as Henry Adams always sez [sic], keeps going on forever.

Seeing as the author himself has remained hidden from his audience for decades – this foreword being the only direct commentary he has ever offered on his own work – he would really like it if the conversation was never fully decided.

Allow me to briefly digress with an excerpt of dialogue between Lewis Lapham, publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly, and the aforementioned Eugene McCarreher, author of The Enchantments of Mammon. The following is transcribed from an episode of Lapham’s podcast, The World in Time:

McCarreher: Capitalism is both a heartless, ruthless machine and a love story at the same time… Entrepreneurs and technological innovators and these people called “disruptors,” they begin to constitute a kind of communion of saints and a kind of pantheon of demigods… You also have… this techno-financial plutocracy that considers itself sort of the hippest imperium in history.

Lapham: Yeah and we make gods and heroes out of Silicon Valley mining engineers and New York hedge fund engineers.

McCarreher: Yeah think back to when Steve Jobs died. The reverential quality [laughs] of so much popular mourning was really striking to me.

Lapham: Well, it’s the same sort of holy order as is presented to Warren Buffet. 

McCarreher: Exactly! The saintly, avuncular man of our time… You see it in new age techno-millennialism, you can read it in… Wired magazine which is a really strange magazine to read for its moral and metaphysical claims about technology. Well, and it’s also in George Gilder, the great light in the darkness of the Reagan administration. …In one of his volumes, he compares the microchip to the eucharist which is just insane on one level, but it’s par for the course if you have an enchanted capitalist metaphysic or ethic… and even after [the financial crisis of] 2008… Capital is more firmly entrenched than ever and I think we have yet to break the spell of pecuniary ethics and metaphysics.

I share this to emphasize how destructive capitalism is. It is a moral outrage in our present world. Before I started writing this, there’s no way I could have predicted our present pandemic. But if I had, it wouldn’t take a genius to foretell the virus disproportionately affecting poor communities and communities of color, or that it would severely test our for-profit healthcare system, or that the lazy response of our leaders would result in thousands of preventable deaths.

Obviously, McCarreher is condemning the worship of money, while Pynchon is commenting on our deification of technology. Those are different things. Pynchon may not hate unchecked capitalism, but one of its chief outcomes, evil corporatism, is a common theme across Pynchon’s early works (maybe across all his works, but I haven’t read enough to say that).

Pynchon’s first novel, V., introduces us to the nefarious Yoyodyne, a fictional defense contractor. It returns in his second book, The Crying of Lot 49, as a giant of the aerospace engineering corporation.

Also in Crying, protagonist Oedipa Maas tracks down a (possibly apocryphal) centuries-old conflict between two mail distribution companies. She also discovers that her ex-lover has been selling the bones of World War II soldiers to cigarette companies for them to use as charcoal. Pynchon literally depicts heroes being ground up into capital.

Returning to GR, Zofia Kolbuszewska writes, “Slothrop exemplifies the child sacrificed to science in the service of industry.” The character Gottfried desperately wants to be controlled and submits to being sacrificed as “victim of the technocratic state” (Kolbuszewska 113). She also points out that Pynchon’s focus on plastic had its origins in the culture of environmental dissent during the 1960s and early 1970s, in which plastic came to represent everything false and non-biodegradable. Gottfried’s fate is to be wrapped in plastic and sacrificed inside a launched rocket. This same plastic material is what affected Slothrop as an infant, leading to his adult sexual dysfunction.

From all of this, it is clear that Pynchon sees the mysterious, unregulated actions of giant corporations as nefarious and destructive. Like Frankenstein, the tool maker is far less famous but far more dangerous.

Pynchon makes a similar point with a “monster” in the epigraph to part 2, producer Merian C. Cooper’s cryptic promise to Fay Wray when trying to convince her to join his new movie: ”You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” This, of course, turned out to be King Kong, a creature forced to be a monster by the profiteers around him.

The primary setting of that movie is a fictional skull-shaped island in the south Pacific. But a real skull-shaped island lies in the Baltic Sea, just off the coast of Germany, the historical testing site of the V2 rocket (notice how Pynchon draws a parallel between a far-south island and a far-north island; he loves to take shapes and flip them on their head, just like he inverts the parabola, obfuscates it with circles, and ultimately creates the mandala). The point of this, one would think, is that, just like the giant monkey wasn’t a monster, technology in itself is not monstrous. I won’t even go so far as to say the maker is the monster (though what happens to infant Slothrop is clearly immoral, that’s not a primary interest of the text). What is most monstrous is what Thomas Aquinas might call a lack of prudence. We make the tool a monster by worshipping it.

As a historical aside, the skull shape of Peenemunde is only discernible from aerial observation, much like all the structural theories of Gravity’s Rainbow have to look at the text from a ways away. It took a very sharp eye in English intelligence to ascertain from aerial footage what the Germans were up to on Peenemunde. The subsequent strike from the RAF helped mitigate no small amount of long distance carnage. This did not hinder Pynchon’s research into the historical site, likening the seven raised testing stations of the rocket to Christianity’s stations of the cross.

As I said earlier, the novel’s rocket is meant to represent a cross as much as it represents an erection. Sexual preoccupation is an ever-present characteristic of Pynchon’s (frankly dumb) characters. It reminds the reader that these are not particularly refined people. However, the Pulitzer committee didn’t share my sentiments, which is why they ultimately didn’t award it the prize.. One scene of eating feces for sexual gratification left them particularly upset. In fact, they declined to give the award at all that year. Not until 2011 did this happen again, a year when David Foster Wallace was nominated posthumously for The Pale King.

While the sexual content is poignant and even insightful, I admit I don’t quite understand what he’s fully getting at with it. There is something to be grasped there about the intersection of religion, sex, and technology, but beyond finding it very humorous and very weird at times, I couldn’t confidently say much more. The infamous coprophilia scene is supposedly a very gross satire of the feminine shekhinah in Jewish mysticism. I also think it was included because German soldiers in Africa during World War II supposedly confirmed the efficacy of the Bedouin practice of eating warm camel feces as a treatment for dysentery. This counterintuitive practice is just the sort of thing that may have appealed to Pynchon, had he uncovered it in his extensive research. There are also extended passages in GR about German colonialism in Africa and fictitious accounts of slaves brought back to Germany to build their war machines, so take that as more evidence if you like. 

Speaking of research, the man is nothing if not extremely thorough. Once Pynchon sleuths figured out which passages take place on specific days from the 1920s to the 1940s to the 1970s, they realized he had even specified the exact historical weather conditions on those days too! In doing so, he places an absurd work of fiction in a very real world. It goes beyond just historical fiction. He’s asking us to rewrite our conception of history within the facts we think we know.

He uses not only his tremendous knowledge and meticulous research but his stunning prose to transform each reader’s vision of the past. I wish I could pick out sample sentences to prove my point, but it would all fall short. It would be like spraying you with saltwater to convince you of the beauty of the Pacific Ocean. Just read it for yourself and be blown away by what the man can do with the English language..

Not only does he write immaculate prose, he litters his books with original poems and songs too. (I read somewhere that most of them correspond with real tunes from whatever time period he’s writing about, but I can’t confirm that. Plus it’s more fun to make up tunes myself.) In one chapter, there are a handful of limericks about men copulating with various pieces of machinery.

In another scene, there are no songs but a discussion of real classical music of Mahler and Rossini. Like Pynchon, Mahler’s symphonies often break out into song, particularly the fourth symphony, in the final movement, alluding to the German folk song Die Welt ohne Schwere. A combination of high and low culture, just like Pynchon does in his writing, combining slang and common English with the academic ideas of the classroom. The folk becomes literature. Nietzche used folk music itself to make this argument, invoking Mahler just as Pynchon does. There is a whole lot more that could be said about a Nietzchean reading of GR but I’ll leave it at that. Think of it as a marriage of Apollo and Dionysus or, like me, be reductive and think of it as a blending of the high and the low.

To that point, Alan Jacobs has pointed out the “low culture” tastes of Pynchon characters. None of them outside of these composers here ever read books or demonstrate a taste in anything other than the common. Perhaps that is what makes this passage about Mahler so interesting: it’s the only time a Pynchon character is ever unmasked as learned in the humanities. While other Pynchon characters make endless “[reference] to television, music, consumer brands, and (in [Bleeding Edge]) web-sites……books, whether fictional or nonfictional, highbrow or lowbrow, are almost impossible to find, because they have played no role in shaping the hearts and minds of these characters… Pynchon writes long, complex, demanding, learned books about people who don’t read long, complex, demanding, learned books…”  They’re surrounded by situations and ideas that they have no way of understanding.

Sure, classical music is not the same as a book. But a Mahler symphony is a demanding listen. Anything from Schoenberg, Weber, or Berg is an acquired and learned taste. For these bright members of intelligentsia to appear on the scene quite suddenly is very significant to unlocking the code of low-brow and high-brow language that Pynchon is creating around us in Gravity’s Rainbow.

What about you? Should you read Gravity’s Rainbow? I hope you will. I often tell people to read The Crying of Lot 49 first and, if they don’t enjoy it, move on with their lives. Pynchon’s books are far too dense and time-consuming to read if you’re not enjoying them. There are plenty of books in this world, and you could waste no time finding another one.

But maybe now I can offer a different introduction to his works. Start with episode 16 of Part One, in which Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake stumble upon an Evensong service near Christmastime, 1944. What follows is a beautiful rhapsody on Advent during wartime, when we reluctantly beat our plowshares back into swords and muster what faith we can for the hard journey before us. Not a pause from the action, but an assessing gaze on the beauty in the desolation around us.

It’s a good starting point for his meandering gaze across the ordinary and the extraordinary of normal people in confusing times. Maybe, like me, you’ll be spellbound by his style, wishing you had even an ounce of his grasp on our language, to navigate the many deltas of his influences and preoccupations and double meanings, wondering if that light on the horizon is just another rocket hurtling towards us, or a hopeful sunrise stretching over these war trenches in which we now find ourselves. Depending on who you are, you may worship the advent of either fire.