Tyrone Slothrop is an archetypal innocent abroad, but in the worst possible circumstances: he’s an American on a mission to locate V-2 rocket-launching sites in war-torn Europe. On a larger level, the novel illustrates the struggle between those who perceive and rebel against the war, seeing it as an overt movement toward the obliteration of the individual, and those who suppress individual identity to serve the war machine controlled by “Them.” Which side Slothrop is on remains highly ambiguous. An encyclopedic work much like Joyce’s Ulysses, this is perhaps one of the two or three most critically acclaimed and pondered novels of the 20th century.
Gravity’s Rainbow is dedicated to Richard Farina, a young writer Pynchon met at Cornell whose promising literary career was cut short by a fatal motorcycle accident. In 1974, the Pulitzer Prize Committee recommended this novel unanimously, but the Pulitzer Prize Board rejected it as “obscene” and “unreadable.” As a result, there was no prize awarded that year.
Tyrone Slothrop, a GI in London in 1944, has a big problem. Whenever he gets an erection, a Blitz bomb hits. Slothrop gets excited, and then (as Thomas Pynchon puts it in his sinister, insinuatingly sibilant opening sentence), “a screaming comes across the sky,” heralding an angel of death, a V-2 rocket. The novel’s title, Gravity’s Rainbow, refers to the rocket’s vapor arc, a cruel dark parody of what God sent Noah to symbolize his promise never to destroy humanity again. History has been a big trick: the plan is to switch from floods to obliterating fire from the sky.
Slothrop’s father was an unwitting part of the cosmic doublecross. To provide for the boy’s future Harvard education, he took cash from the mad German scientist Laszlo Jamf, who performed Pavlovian experiments on the infant Tyrone. Laszlo invented Imipolex G, a new plastic useful in rocket insulation, and conditioned Tyrone’s privates to respond to its presence. Now the grown-up Tyrone helplessly senses the Imipolex G in incoming V-2s, and his military superiors are investigating him. Soon he is on the run from legions of bizarre enemies through the phantasmagoric horrors of Germany.
That’s just the Imipolex G tip of the shrieking vehicle that is Pynchon’s book. It’s pretty much impossible to follow a standard plot; one must have faith that each manic episode is connected with the great plot to blow up the world with the ultimate rocket. There is not one story, but a proliferation of characters (Pirate Prentice, Teddy Bloat, Tantivy Mucker-Maffick, Saure Bummer, and more) and events that tantalize the reader with suggestions of vast patterns only just past our comprehension. You will enjoy Pynchon’s cartoon inferno far more if you consult Steven Weisenburger’s brief companion to the novel, which sorts out Pynchon’s blizzard of references to science, history, high culture, and the lowest of jokes. Rest easy: there really is a simple reason why Kekulé von Stradonitz’s dream about a serpent biting its tail (which solved the structure of the benzene molecule) belongs in the same novel as the comic-book-hero Plastic Man.
Pynchon doesn’t want you to rest easy with solved mysteries, though. Gravity’s Rainbow uses beautiful prose to induce an altered state of consciousness, a buzz. It’s a trip, and it will last. —Tim Appelo