Nick E. Purse received his Bachelor's Degree from Columbia University and an MFA in fiction writing from The New School.
The 2006 Penguin edition of Gravity’s Rainbow is 774 pages of mind-bending language. Why? What’s the point in engaging with a work of art that DEMANDS more than you’re able to give? It’s almost as if while reading the novel, you’re a rabbit and a carrot on a stick is perpetually dangling inches in front of your face. This novel is so difficult to review—to discuss even—because the plot is infinitely fractured. But we have to start somewhere. We need a point of entry, and in this particular case, our point of entry may just prove to be our guiding beacon through the dark.
The title. Gravity’s Rainbow—poetic, right? But what the hell does it mean? For about 600 pages of the novel, I had no clue, but then, with the help of Steven Weisenburger’s professional annotation (A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion), the title’s meaning struck me like a lightning bolt.
It’s important to note that throughout Pynchon’s oeuvre, a common theme is science. Just to be clear, I’ve only read two novels by Pynchon—his first novel V. and Gravity’s Rainbow. But in those two novels, science is paramount, in particular physics and the mathematics behind projectile flight. In V., an important back plot centers around the Yoyodyne Corporation which is a weapons firm that’s developing high tech weaponry, i.e. rockets and bombs.
Gravity’s Rainbow spans the course of WWII. The setting for the beginning of the novel is London during ‘The Blitz,’ the period in which England was relentlessly bombed by the Germans. British intelligence, with the help of an American officer named Tyrone Slothrop, is trying to determine if there’s a pattern to the German rocket strikes. Strangely, Slothrop develops an erection minutes before every bomb drops. On the surface, this occurrence seems absurdly humorous. But think about it. An erection linked to death.
Very simply put, British intelligence is curious as to why Slothrop’s erections are coinciding with with every rocket strike, so they abduct him and brainwash him. Following this point in the novel, it’s really anybody’s guess as to what’s actually happening. Many sections of the novel are narrated by characters under the influence of psychedelic drugs. The connective tissue that holds this novel together is a nebulous refrain—‘The Rocket.’ Everybody is looking for some mysterious rocket (Rocket 00000) that’s finally fired at the end of the book. There seems to be some conspiracy surrounding this rocket. It’s unclear who are friends and who are enemies as people deceive one another in their respective searches for ‘The Rocket.’ Everybody’s being watched. Everybody’s under surveillance. Pynchon continuously refers to an omniscient ‘They.’
Gravity's Rainbow, Penguin Edition
The Take Away
Discussing the plot of Gravity’s Rainbow is a cruel joke that Pynchon loves. He knows that readers expect linearity—a plot—and he pretends to give you exactly what you want, but in reality, he completely shatters any notion of linearity. This novel is profoundly disconnected. But the title, the title is this novel’s true, unifying force.
So tell me—what’s the shape of a rainbow? A semi-circle? Well, yes and no. When we see a rainbow, we only see a semicircle. But a rainbow is technically a full circle; we don’t see half of it, the half that’s underneath the ground. This half has been taken underground by gravity. Therefore, “Gravity’s Rainbow” is a metaphor for that aspect of the self that’s incommunicable, unable to be expressed in some form recognizable to our five senses.
The ultimate irony of the book is the title because it’s a profound contradiction, an abyss of confusion and clarity. Pynchon is writing this book to communicate something deep within himself, something he knows he can’t communicate, at least not traditionally, and the incommunicable nature of his message is what makes it beautiful and eternal.