--- layout: post status: publish published: true title: What is Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow about? wordpress_id: 815 wordpress_url: https://www.martineve.com/?p=815 date: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMy0wNyAxMjo0MTo0MSArMDEwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMy0wNyAxMjo0MTo0MSArMDEwMA== categories: - Literature - Thomas Pynchon - Academia tags: - Thomas Pynchon - Gravity's Rainbow - Synopsis comments: - id: 6202 author: Adam Roberts author_email: email@example.com author_url: http://www.adamroberts.com date: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMy0wNyAxMzowNjowNSArMDEwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMy0wNyAxMzowNjowNSArMDEwMA== content: ! 'I might say something more about Pynchon''s sense of humour, which is both localised and general and which I''m not sure gets long enough shrift in critical analysis. So, something like: ''the guy''s first novel was called V and so naturally he makes his second novel about WWII rocketry, which is to say, V2.''' - id: 6203 author: Martin Paul Eve author_email: firstname.lastname@example.org author_url: '' date: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMy0wNyAxMzowOToxMiArMDEwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMy0wNyAxMzowOToxMiArMDEwMA== content: Yeah, I think the humour aspect is sorely missing from the version I came up with. Although, at another level, the humour is itself open to serious interpretation under high/low setups; Pynchon appears critical, while simultaneously a product, of the culture industry. - id: 6204 author: mark kohut author_email: email@example.com author_url: http://markkohut.tumblr.com date: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMy0wNyAxMzoyMzo0MSArMDEwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMy0wNyAxMzoyMzo0MSArMDEwMA== content: I think it is a decent summary. Except that I think the last line, albeit true, is unnecessary. - id: 6205 author: Martin Paul Eve author_email: firstname.lastname@example.org author_url: '' date: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMy0wNyAxMzoyNzo1MyArMDEwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMy0wNyAxMzoyNzo1MyArMDEwMA== content: Perhaps so, especially given that it's obvious from the interpretative slant I've already applied. I think it's a gut instinct in me to make this comment, though, in the face of the "Pynchon's a nihilist" school of criticism. - id: 6512 author: Nick author_email: email@example.com author_url: '' date: !binary |- MjAxMS0wNy0zMSAyMDowNTowMCArMDIwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMS0wNy0zMSAyMDowNTowMCArMDIwMA== content: I think you leave out the spiritual aspects of his novels, too. Although, yes, history plays an, obviously, large part in his novels. - id: 6513 author: Martin Paul Eve author_email: firstname.lastname@example.org author_url: https://www.martineve.com date: !binary |- MjAxMS0wOC0wMSAxMzo0MzowMCArMDIwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMS0wOC0wMSAxMzo0MzowMCArMDIwMA== content: ! 'Well, yes, but on the other hand if I was covering every aspect I''d have just said: GR is about everything ever.' ---
As a scholar working on literature, I am often asked to describe my work in potted form. This necessarily involves an introduction to the work of Thomas Pynchon, an extremely difficult task. Pynchon's novels cannot be considered normal literature; they are vast, sprawling pieces that encompass hundreds of characters, vast historical scope and dense prose. When I first started working on Pynchon, I would extoll the virtues of the linguistic play, the indeterminacy that is so typical of Pynchonesque high-postmodernism. This does not do the texts justice; as The Modern Word puts it: "Right . . . you know, and Ulysses is about two guys and their day, and Moby Dick is about a whale".
These days, when asked to sum up Gravity's Rainbow, I describe it as a genealogical history; a history of the present. I try something like this:
One of the most astute observations of Gravity's Rainbow is that the evil of mankind (or "nature") "does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation"; an observation framed in the epigraph attributed to Wernher von Braun. This implies a transposition to a new setting, persisting and always collecting around centres of power, embodied by the novel's final, America-bound, transatlantic V-2/ICBM. Through this impossible moment, wherein the Rocket that is so central to the text morphs into the absolute symbol of Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction, Pynchon highlights that behind twentieth-century America's technological and economic supremacy lies the dark negotiations of Operation Paperclip and a re-embodiment of the right-wing politics supposedly vanquished in the Second World War. How many of us notice, inscribed upon our antibiotics, the second label, permanently hidden beneath the surface-level, reading “sulfonamide” and “I.G. Farben”? How many of us see, when we watch satellite television, the German technician crying: “Vergeltungswaffe”? It is this uncovering of a sinister history that drives the novel's paranoia; it's not paranoia if they're really after you. Pynchon achieves this through a fusion of styles that induce historical dramatic irony, bringing a heightened sense of self-awareness. As a result, his novels should be considered highly political.
This type of summary is so reductive that it doesn't even touch on the vast scope of the work -- I haven't even mentioned the word "Slothrop" or given an outline of the "plot" -- but, when you need to describe Pynchon quick 'n' dirty, how else can it be done?