One of the few photographic traces of the famously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon is a picture taken in 1965 outside of his apartment at 217 33rd Street, Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles County. Outside the front door with a pig-shaped piñata is his friend Phyllis Gebauer; all we see of Pynchon is his hand: a ghostly, hovering hand, outstretched over the top corner of his front door, throwing a peace symbol.
In this shabby one-room apartment, between the mid-1960s and the early ’70s, Pynchon wrote Gravity’s Rainbow, published 50 years ago in 1973. Blocking out the windows with towels, maps, and pictures of pigs, Pynchon would write holed up for weeks at a time in what, judging by the novel he produced, must have been a miraculously sustained, lucid haze of crystalline fury and compassionate intelligence, all of it directed against the anti-human impulses that were coming to define our high-tech world. The scientific, the poetic, the mythic, the political, the spiritual, the historical, the metaphysical—Pynchon’s creative method manages, somehow, to allow all of these to exist within the book’s pages.
The epiphanically dizzying sense of lostness and wonder proper to a first experience with this sprawling novel is a gift to each new reader. Unlike Ulysses, which turned 100 last year—and of which it is often dubbed the American equivalent—the power of Pynchon’s book to stun and disturb has only grown. Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel whose time has arrived. It might be better for us all if it hadn’t.
The essential details are, on one level, simple enough. The time and place: wartime and postwar Europe, 1944-1945. The protagonist: Lt. Tyrone Slothrop—a lovable, sexually irresistible American innocent abroad. Escaping the clutches of a Pavlovian psy-op organization that is experimenting on him in the hope of cracking the quasi-mystical secret of his erections (which seem uncannily to predict the locations of German V-2 rocket strikes), Slothrop makes his picaresque and surreal “progress” through a borderless, anarchic postwar Europe. In between, Pynchon’s madcap narration swings backward and forward in time, showing us the extinction of the dodo, the colonial evisceration of African and Central-Asian tribal cultures, and Richard Nixon offering dry commentary on Bobby Kennedy’s passing funeral motorcade, to pick a few episodes at random.
Melville is probably Pynchon’s closest American ancestor in terms of style, technique, and ability; the white whale of Gravity’s Rainbow is the German V-2 rocket, specifically two models: 00001 and 00000. The intervening century or so between the two great American novels wrought a telling transformation in metaphor. The whale in Moby Dick stands for something like the unfathomable vastness of the natural order, the maddening mystery of which it is Ahab’s obsession to conquer. But as the empirical obsessions and utopian striving of 19th-century science gave way to the terrors of 20th-century military technology, so Pynchon’s Ahab—the demonic Nazi Capt. Weissman—has achieved his own version of the mastery Ahab pursued: mastery not over nature, but over the manmade machinery of death.
Pynchon’s novel looks back at World War II from the other side of the post-nuclear looking glass, the chimera of the human conquest of nature’s creative and destructive powers. Over the course of Gravity’s Rainbow, a host of competing characters and voices seek, in increasing frenzy, through the rubble of the post-war “Zone” for some kind of meaning, some kind of new covenant with a new world order.
The epigraph to Part 1 of Pynchon’s novel is taken from Nazi-turned-Apollo rocket engineer 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.” Von Braun’s engineering genius enabled the development of the V-2, a process which claimed the lives of at least 12,000 laborers and concentration-camp prisoners; an estimated 9,000 deaths resulted from V-2’s successful deployment. Von Braun’s achievement persuaded the American authorities to pluck this member of the SS from the jaws of Nuremberg and accord him “rehabilitated” status. He went on to be instrumental to the success of the nuclear and lunar programs and is hailed today as the father of space travel.
Pynchon’s fictional rocket scientist, Franz Pökler, is a more pathetic figure than von Braun, and his helpless compulsion to assist the powers-that-be in their quest for death is self-destructive. When his wife, Leni, is leaving him, she pleads for him to see his moral culpability. He replies: “We’ll all use it, someday, to leave the earth. To transcend.”
The dream of transcendence, assuming that the only way out of the grinding mechanism of technology and capitalist momentum is to go through them, is the pretext for the ruthless disruption that continues to define our precarious present, most recently evident in tech oligarchs’ transhumanist aspiration to immortality in the machinic Singularity. But increasingly, Pökler’s twisted utopianism looks somewhat quaint. In one of the most impressively blackpilled recent pronouncements of the tech industry, the OpenAI CEO Sam Altman stated in relation to ChatGPT’s rollout: “AI will probably most likely lead to the end of the world, but in the meantime, there’ll be great companies.”
Pynchon shows us that the drive to transcend all limits has constructed systems of another order. These systems, though based first on human networks of power and control, eventually exceed our individual and collective grasp, and take on a life, or rather an anti-life, of their own.
Pynchon excavates and projects forward at the same time. Delving down into the historical and mythological roots of systems of belief, power, and technology that have come to enclose us, he simultaneously looks upward, bringing their implications in our present and future into startling focus. Early in the novel, we get a flashback of Slothrop’s Puritan American ancestors (based on Pynchon’s own) building their fortune from the virgin forests of the New World:
They began as fur traders, cordwainers, salters, and smokers of bacon, went on into glassmaking, became selectmen, builders of tanneries, quarriers of marble. Country for miles around gone to necropolis, gray with marble dust … went into timberland whose diminishing green reaches were converted acres at a clip into paper—toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint—a medium or ground for shit, money, and the Word … the three American truths, powering the American mobility, claimed the Slothrops, clasped them for good to the country’s fate.
The Slothrops’ eventual downfall (“the money seeping its way out through stock portfolios more intricate than any genealogy”) flows from their own kind of original sin. Coupled with the Calvinist doctrine of “preterition,” which parcels out humanity into the saved and the damned, this covenant of destruction sows the ground for all subsequent historical transformation. Through and through, Pynchon demonstrates that everything is connected: One historical period becomes the key to another, and orders of belief and of myth that might seem wildly dissimilar or distant are, in fact, overlaid.
By the time World War II rolls around, Providence has given way to the Invisible Hand: “The true War,” Pynchon writes, “is a celebration of markets.” Gravity’s Rainbow unravels the history of “cartelization,” during which the corporations of the prewar German industrial economy merged, forming monstrous combinations of business, industrial, state, and military interests. The corporate entity that looms largest in the novel is IG Farben, the industrial chemical and pharmaceutical giant notorious for its synthesis and supply of Zyklon B, the principal tool of mass murder in the Nazi concentration camps. But other global conglomerates, like Shell, DuPont and GE—all still with us today—also consolidated networks of manufacture, distribution, and profit, supplying to Russia, America, Germany. Such old-fashioned human orders—national boundaries, identities, “sides”—are invisible, irrelevant, to what Pynchon dubs the “Rocket-cartel.”
Part 3 of the novel is taken up with Slothrop’s wanderings through the surreal, anarchic human wilderness of the postwar “Zone”—the ruined world which, after the war’s flood, might perhaps be open to a new rainbow, a new covenant. But agencies of control, surveillance, and bureaucracy are also converging. The secrets held by the two V-2 rockets—00001 and 00000, binary opposition, the yes/no of meaning or meaninglessness—are taken by some of his characters as a technology for redemption, but for Pynchon, the ceding of human will to a machine god, an inorganic system premised on achieving mass death, will doom us.
The V-2 rocket was the first machine to enter space, during a test in 1944. In his subsequent work for NASA, von Braun would adapt and build on the automatic navigation system of the V-2, allowing for a machine that would stay in space rather than fall in gravity’s slow parabola. The same efforts, and those of related American military agencies of the Cold War—notably the Advanced Research Project Agency, later the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency—eventually gave rise to the technologies that would lead to the internet. In 1976, three years after Gravity’s Rainbow was published, ARPA researchers would figure out a blueprint for “inter-networking” communication, allowing nodes of wireless networks to communicate with other networks great distances away.
In today’s world, the lost utopia of a free and democratic internet and its replacement by algorithm-enabled cages against the backdrop of distant and increasingly unstable global rule by a faceless complex of states, corporations, and markets—all this seem, from the perspective offered in Gravity’s Rainbow, inevitable. Inheriting, as we did, the dreams of the control obsessives at the helm of military, industrial, and financial power, our entropic decline is no less predetermined than that of Slothrop’s ancestors, which was inscribed in “the flooded quarries and logged-off hillsides they’d left like signed confessions” for the future to find.
Markets that flow across borders and computer networks that instantly communicate across space and time might seem like natural analogues today, but Pynchon was the first writer to glimpse with total clarity how inseparable these phenomena were. These human-built systems would rapidly outgrow the parameters, the needs, the living essence of the human beings who built them. Immensely complex systems of power and of technology come to resemble one another, growing as they do from the same sources, controlled by the same powers, and seeking ever-greater complexity in the interest of consolidating that power.
In a scene set in a séance early in the novel, the medium predicts the evolution of the emergent marketized world into self-awareness, which will “need no longer to be run by the Invisible Hand, but now could create itself—its own logic, momentum, style, from inside.” In an episode hundreds of pages later, a depressive Argentine smuggler tells Slothrop that his quest for his identity will one day seem quaint: “It’ll get easier. Someday it’ll all be done by machine. Information machines. You are the wave of the future.” These two specters, “synthesis and control”—in the service of “the elect”—are the looming, invisible villains of Pynchon’s vision.
Gravity’s Rainbow is a visionary work, as prophetic in its own way as Dante or Blake. However far Blake or Dante saw, however, they still speak to us from times before the secular apocalypse bearing down on us. Pynchon was the first great writer to see it, and to see it completely, in all its manifestations. He knew that the impulse toward control, toward totalizing systems—the impulse of those we allow to rule us—leads into unfreedom and, finally, to doom.
But as Blake wrote: “Exuberance is Beauty.” The sheer pulsing, irrepressible movement of Pynchon’s imagination and the desperately human vision of the whole thing scream for joy on every page. It is the dizzying, terrifying thrill of inhabiting the world. In this, like many great works of fiction, the book resists the tremendous darkness that is its subject.
Like that ghostly, detached Pynchonian hand giving you a peace sign from behind his front door, his novel is inviting you inside, tempting you to come in, to see behind the door. If you have read Gravity’s Rainbow, the world doesn’t look the same. And despite everything, it isn’t darker. It looks, more than ever, miraculously worth loving and worth fighting for.