When I first read Gravity’s Rainbow nearly 14 years ago as part of my senior seminar I was only 20 years old and not very wise in the ways of the world. I had written a rather long and rambling thesis that analyzed the use of language with an exploration of Pynchon’s references to wind as a form of spoken breath represented by the destructive movement of the rocket cutting through the sky at a speed faster than spoken sound, Pynchon’s obsession with mathematical precision as a metaphor for the imperfection of communication, the representation of windmills and mandalas as the crossroads of truth and meaning through the moving and ever changing influence of time, and the breakdown of humanistic meaning in the novel as a linguistic art form. That sounds like a mouthful and although it was an effective cerebral exercise for a young undergraduate, that theoretical evaluation isn’t something that I wish to explore here.
Upon my most recent, second reading of Pynchon’s expansive work, I found myself engrossed in the text simply because it is a monumental work of artistic synthesis. Reading it for pleasure allowed me to more fully enjoy Gravity’s Rainbow more than my first, undergraduate reading because I was able to simply dive into the book without the need to prove anything to myself or a professor through a theoretical analysis. This expanded enjoyment is partially attributed to my years of expanded knowledge of world history, religions, as well as the general life experience that goes with age, which has allowed me to be more inside the joke and better appreciate the encyclopedic references that Pynchon has embedded within the text of Gravity’s Rainbow. By no means do I claim to fully get all of what is going on in Gravity’s Rainbow.
Admittedly, with over 400 characters and a difficult and convoluted plot more interested in the theme of paranoia and the connection of events across history and time than a clear and forward narrative progression, Gravity’s Rainbow is often confusing and difficult to grasp. However, in reading this book simply for fun, it was less important to get all of what was going on and in so doing I rediscovered how great a book this is. Gravity’s Rainbow is definitely on the short list of books that I’d want with me on a deserted island.
The reason being is that there is so much going on this book that it keeps giving and giving while challenging the reader to think beyond the normal paradigms of literary conventions. The novel is constructed with many narrative voices that weave their way through the text through long digressions and tangents. It is a novel that builds off of ideas in a masterful effort to present all of the weight and influence of human history at the tip of a parabolic rocket launched up into the sky with an eventual crash into the earth, pulled down by the eventual power of gravity’s seductive power. The narrative progression is constructed with mathematical precision with a parabolic arch of a rainbow represented by the four sections of the novel major chapters. The first section shoots up with an intensity, introducing the rocket, Slothrop’s strange correlation with the rocket crashes across the London landscape, and many subplots of espionage and paranoia. The middle two chapters drift aloft at the arch of the parabola with the action occurring in the German, French, and Russian Zones of the War with strange diversions into black market subterfuge, drug induced escapades, and several subplots related to the rocket’s engineering and Slothrop’s psychological conditioning. The fourth and final section speaks with an induced clarity that brings many of the drifting plots of the second and third section into focus with the rocket’s eventual crashing into the same theater that is destroyed at the novel’s opening.
Much can be said about the convoluted plot, the countless extended metaphors, and Pynchon’s voice as The postmodern author – and much has. Gravity’s Rainbow is easily one of the most analyzed postmodern books in academic settings. However, I don’t really care about that. When one relieves oneself of the overly cerebral challenge of trying to get all of what is going on, Gravity’s Rainbow becomes a thoroughly enjoyable, educational, and humorous romp of a book. I’ve said it before that Pynchon is one of those authors that causes all other fiction to seem mundane. After reading Gravity’s Rainbow the challenge becomes a choice of what to read next, because all else seems insignificant.
“The truth is that the War is keeping things alive. Things. The Ford is only one of them. The Germans-and-Japs story was only one, rather surrealistic version of the real War. The real War is always there. The dying tapers off now and then, but the War is still killing lots of people. Only right now it is killing them in more subtle ways. Often in ways that are too complicated, even for us on this level, to trace. But the right people are dying, just as they do when the armies fight. The ones who stand up, in Basic, in the middle of the machine gun pattern. The ones who do not have faith in their Sergeants. The ones who slip and show a moment’s weakness to the Enemy. These are the ones the War cannot use, and so they die. The right ones survive. The others, it’s said, even know they have a short life expectancy. But they persist in acting the way they do. Nobody knows why. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could eliminate them completely? Then no one would have to be killed in the War.” (645)