Reestablishing Literary Norms
Thomas Pynchon worked, rather wrote his way to becoming one of the most renowned of the contemporary American novelists. Known for his reclusive behavior and hermetical lifestyle, Pynchon commenced his storied career by writing and publishing short stories in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. It was in 1963 that he finally made the successful transition into becoming a novelist with the publication of his debut novel, V. Despite it being a debut novel, it was a critical success. It even got nominated as one of the finalists for the National Book Award, cementing Pynchon as one novelist to look forward to.
His most celebrated work, however, was his third novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, published a decade after his first novel. It marked Pynchon’s ascent towards the height of literary success. It was the cornerstone of his works that consolidated his hold as one of the great American novelists. It was a massive success that it took Pynchon seventeen years to publish a new novel. Set during the twilight days of the Second World War and the weeks immediately following V-Day, Gravity’s Rainbow is often hailed by many a literary pundit as the, if not one of the, greatest American post-World War II novel.
The labyrinthine narrative is composed of four parts, which are further divided into episodes. The first part, Beyond the Zero, commences with the story of Pirate Prentice, an employee of the Special Operations Executive. From a home in wartime London he shares with fellow SOE employees, he was transported to the site of a V-2 rocket strike. His staff, Teddy Bloat, kept him abreast of certain developments, in particular a theory surrounding US Army Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop. A photograph mapping the sexual encounters of Slothrop was shown to Prentice. Slothrop is an employee of a fictional technical intelligence unit, ACHTUNG.
“But it is a curve each of them feels, unmistakably. It is the parabola. They must have guessed, once or twice—guessed and refused to believe—that everything, always, collectively, had been moving toward that purified shape latent in the sky, that shape of no surprise, no second chance, no return. Yet they do move forever under it, reserved for its own black-and-white bad news certainly as if it were the rainbow, and they its children. . . .”~ Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
Slothrop was being investigated in clandestine by PISCES, a top-secret psychological warfare agency. The map depicting Slothrop’s presumed sexual activities in London baffled the scientists for it perfectly projected locations where V-2 rocket struck. They discover that each encounter was preceded by a missile strike several days later. Pavlovian behavioral psychologist Edward W. Pointsman believed that this was no mere coincidence. He posited that there was a direct correlation between Slothrop’s erections, and the missile strikes. Proving this supposition, however, proved a difficult task for Pointsman and the agency.
As Pointsman aims to prove his theory, the narrative inevitably turned its focus on Slothrop. The story also turns into a literary labyrinth that never runs out of blind curves. An important point that needed to be underscored is that the first part of the novel can be immensely inaccessible. It is difficult to find a foothold into the story as Pynchon kept throwing various elements into the story. The story runs in all directions. Pynchon kept introducing new characters, most of which only became relevant later in the narrative. Several plotlines also unfolded. Confusion was inevitable. At some point, it is safe to conclude that Pynchon thrives in chaos. To fully grasp the narrative, it is imperative that the reader goes through a phase of disorientation and confusion.
The historical context. Past the chaos of the first part, the story begun to unravel in the second part, Un Perm’ au Casino Hermann Goering (French for A Furlough at the Hermann Göring Casino). The story started to take a firmer shape and the direction the narrative took became clearer. As the dust of chaos settles, the exploration of the themes casually mentioned in the first part of the novel also became more pronounced. Chaos remained a constant. War is, after all, synonymous to pandemonium.
The Second World War provided Pynchon with a well of inspiration. Alongside Slothrop’s story, the novel also fixated on the V-2 rockets, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. It is a potent weapon designed, produced, and dispatched by the German army during the Second World War. The book’s title is an allusion to the rainbow-shaped path the missile’s parabolic trajectory creates as it is pulled down by gravity. To lend further credibility to the mammoth text, Pynchon merged the conclusiveness of the sciences to the narrative. The story permeated with various elements of chemistry, mathematics, and physics.
“It’s been a prevalent notion. Fallen sparks. Fragments of vessels broken at the Creation. And someday, somehow, before the end, a gathering back to home. A messenger from the Kingdom, arriving at the last moment. But I tell you there is no such message, no such home — only the millions of last moments . . . nothing more. Our history is an aggregate of last moments.”~ Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
An encyclopedic scope. Gravity’s Rainbow, however, doesn’t reduce itself into another Second World War novel. Pynchon is way too clever for that. His best work covered a vast territory that goes beyond the ambits of war. Its encyclopedic scope is one of its strengths, and one of its primary characteristics. The amount of research Pynchon poured in producing his keystone work is scintillating. With the war as the backdrop, the narrative navigated complex themes such as paranoia, human sexuality, and behavioral psychology. Conspiracy theories and occultism in warfare were also grappled with in the narrative.
The novel was brimming with vivid depictions of illicit sexual encounters. It was one of the story’s most pervasive themes. The extent of obscenity in the story, apart from being “unreadable” and “overwritten”, was one of the factors why the novel’s unanimous nomination for the Pulitzer Prize was vetoed by the literary award’s Advisory Board; no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded that year. Substance abuse was also prevalent among the primary characters. In stark dichotomy to the dark and heavy subjects it dealt with, the novel made cultural touchstones; Pynchon accentuated the story with elements of literature, music, and film.
A parabolic trajectory, an eccentric structure. Pynchon’s prose can never be contained in a single box. He refused to adhere to the literary norms, and in the process, he created his own brand of genius. He stirred the plot in an eccentric narrative structure. His literary approach was non-linear and non-formulaic. It followed several subplots and the story permeated with digressions. It weaved in and out of various time frames. Conversely, it was this complex and eccentric narrative structure that was one of the novel’s most polarizing facets. It can either make it or break it for readers; this approach added complexity to the narrative. On the other hand, Pynchon gave the readers a puzzle to solve.
Obscure but profound message. The massive text and the complex narrative structure belie the novel’s profound message. The labyrinthine narrative underscored how war is a messy business. As the victors write history, the suffering of the losers are swallowed by the din. But who are the losers? It is certainly not the leaders who shirk responsibility and accountability, and escape persecution. The real losers are the pawns these so-called leaders used as pawns in a chess match. Despite being published in the early 1970s, the novel’s message still ripple in the contemporary.
Influence. Gravity’s Rainbow had an immense impact on the world of literature. It is often cited by many a literary pundit as the quintessence of the postmodern novel. It is a key figure in redefining postmodernism and what novel is in general. However, it wasn’t only in literature that the novel’s influences rippled. Whilst the novel was adapted into film, it also served as the the inspiration for other films. Several songs were also written as a homage to the novel. Its influences can also be found in the arts, and even video games. The novel’s impact is ubiquitous.
“Don’t forget the real business of war is buying and selling. The murdering and violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material 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.”~ Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
War is a messy subject and writing about it is a Herculean task. Pynchon, however, is a clever storyteller. Using knowledge, erudition, and innovative storytelling, he has redefined standards of what a novel is and what it can be capable of. He showed that literary norms and conventions can be altered, expanded, or even transformed. They can be challenged. In his best work, he has proven that in order for storytelling to progress, boundaries and walls must be toppled and rebuilt from the ground up. In one work, he managed to accomplish all of that.
Gravity‘s Rainbow doesn’t leave the readers shortchanged. It is not the average novel for its reputation precedes it. It does have a reputation for being one of those novels that many say they have read but haven’t actually read. But who can blame these readers. Reading Gravity’s Rainbow is an endeavor and one must labor hard to witness it fully unfold. Pynchon wrote an elaborate plot and it takes patience and perseverance to decipher this mammoth novel’s code. Parts-historical, parts-political satire, parts-science fiction, Gravity’s Rainbow is an all-encompassing narrative that redefines what a novel is in ways more than one whilst underscoring a profound message.
Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 27%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%
I kept encountering Thomas Pynchon and his works in several must read lists but my curiosity wasn’t totally piqued until I came across his name defending a fellow author. He came into his defense despite the fact that Pynchon avoided (I have learned then) media mileage as much as possible. He intrigued me, hence, I looked forward to reading his works. In 2020, I listed Gravity’s Rainbow as part of my 2020 Top 20 Reading List. Reading Gravity’s Rainbow was certainly no walk in the park. I nearly gave up as early as the first part. It was verbose and too complex; I kept losing the plot. Its encyclopedic quality reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s equally complex novel, Infinite Jest. It is easily one of my all-time most difficult reads but I am still glad I read it for it absorbed me – the technical, the literary, and the scientific aspects. It was a unique and impressionable read despite the challenges. I don’t recommend it as a starting point to Pynchon’s narrative but the mammoth read gave me an insight on what to expect.
Author: Thomas Pynchon
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 2006
Number of Pages: 776
Genre: Historical Fiction, Satire, Science Fiction
Winner of the 1973 National Book Award, Gravity’s Rainbow is a postmodern epic, a work as exhaustively significant to the second half of the 20th century as Joyce’s Ulysses was to the first. Its sprawling, encyclopedic narrative, and penetrating analysis of the impact of technology on society make it an intellectual tour de force. (Source: Goodreads)
About the Author
Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. was born on May 8, 1937 in Glen Cove, New York, United States. He is one of three children of engineer and politician Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Sr. and Katherine Frances Bennett, a nurse.
While attending Oyster Bay High School, Pynchon was awarded “student of the year”. A “voracious reader and precocious writer”, he contributed short stories to his school newspaper. In 1953, at the age of 16, he graduated from high school. Later that year, he attended Cornell University to study engineering physics. At the end of his sophomore year, he enlisted in the US Navy. During the Suez Crisis of 1956, he was aboard the destroyer USS Hank in the Mediterranean. A year later, he returned to Cornell to pursue a degree in English.
From the late 1950s to early 1960s, Pynchon published mostly short stories. His first published story, The Small Rain appeared in the March 1959 edition of the Cornell Watcher. In 1963, he finally published his first novel, V, which he worked on while employed at Boeing in Seattle. It was a critical success for it won a William Faulkner Foundation Award for the best first novel for the year and was also a finalist for the National Book Award.
His second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, was published in 1966. His most celebrated work is Gravity’s Rainbow, his third novel published a decade after his first. It won the National Book Award and the William Dean Howells Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the best novel of the decade. His other works include Vineland (1990), Mason & Dixon (1997), Against the Day (2006) and Inherent Vice (2009). His most recent work, Bleeding Edge was published in 2013.
Pynchon kept his life private, avoiding contacts with reporters for nearly four decades. The sparse details on his life popularized the use of word recluse to characterize him.