Gravity's Rainbow, which appeared in 1973, was Thomas Pynchon's second published novel and the one that established the literary fame of this paradoxically publicity-shy writer. It shared the National Book Award in 1974, and was recommended for the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but failed to receive it on the grounds of obscenity. Today, the coprophiliac passage that outraged an influential member of the Pulitzer board seems relatively tame; modern readers would be more likely to raise eyebrows over some of the other sexual scenes, which include detailed depictions of intercourse with a girl of eleven or twelve and fantasies of sex with a six-year-old. The fact that these passages passed without comment while coprophilia as part of the character development of a figure afflicted with intense self-loathing and survivor guilt was considered outrageous sheds an interesting light on how our attitudes have changed in the forty years since the book's publication.
Gravity's Rainbow is a long book – my copy comes out as a little short of 800 pages – and its plot is unusually complex. I read it when I was much younger that I am now, when I was waiting for my health to improve to the point that I could attend university, and apart from its narrative complexity, one of the first things I noticed was the tangled web of conspiracy theories that seemed to shape it. But it was not merely the existence of covert activity that intrigued me; it was the way the conspiracies in the book developed, interlocked, were accidentally subverted, and collapsed. I suppose that everyone takes something different from a book like this, but what it made me realize was that pervasive plotting could entail a complete loss of control rather than the mastery it sought. One feels at points in Gravity's Rainbow that if any of the questing characters managed to storm the gates of the ultimate they, the illuminator of the Illuminati, the throne of God so to speak, he or she would find nothing but a vacant seat decorated with a dusty sign, GONE FISHING. As one of the characters realizes early in the story, the one thing more terrifying that being forced to take part in someone else's plan is to be trapped "in a control that is out of control"; or to play on another of the book's metaphors, the tour bus that you are condemned to ride is not, as you have feared, being driven by a maniac. There is no driver at all. What happens to you will most likely be decided by blind chance.
The closest thing Gravity's Rainbow has to a protagonist is the American lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, stationed in London in 1944, blissfully unaware of his hidden talent. He shares office space with a British colleague, who has noticed something decidedly odd about the map of London Slothrop has pinned onto the wall, sprinkled with dated stars of various colors to memorialize when, where, and who he has slept with. The location of the stars correspond precisely to places hit by the German V-2 rocket, with the dates almost as good a fit, usually about a week prior to the attack. Slothrop thus becomes the center of a secret and rather dodgy operation designed to find out how and why his sexual activity is predicting rocket strikes, run by the ever-plotting Dr. Pointsman, whose particular obsession is the pursuit of a Nobel Prize. In due time, we also learn that as a baby Slothrop was used for experiments in Pavlovian conditioning where the stimulus was a loud noise and the induced response, an infantile erection, and that the German conglomerate behind the experiments had conducted secret surveillance of him for years afterwards. The plot, and the plotting, thickens....
Except that we also learn, in due time, that Slothrop's map is a product of fantasy. He is something of a sexual athlete, but allegedly to avoid embarrassing his British colleague, he has been scrambling the information in his catalog of lust – the names are wrong, the dates are different, and the locations chosen at random. Pointsman discovers this fairly early on, but cannot absorb its implications:
When are you going to see it? Pointsman sees it immediately. But he "sees" it in the way you would walking into your bedroom to be jumped on, out of a bit of penumbra on the ceiling, by a gigantic moray eel, its teeth in full imbecile death-smile, breathing, in its fall upon your open face, a long human sound that you know, horribly, to be a sexual sigh....Finally, Pointsman becomes so obsessed with solving the problem of the Slothropian genitalia that he sends a couple of colleagues out on a covert mission to kidnap Slothrop and bring back his balls in a jar of alcohol for the good doctor's examination. Unfortunately, due to a last-minute and entirely fortuitous costume change, the team misses Slothrop entirely and de-balls the wrong man, emasculating an obnoxious American artillery officer. This results in Pointsman's ruin, the disbanding of his organization, and the end of any further opportunity for him to conspire his way to Stockholm for that elusive Nobel Prize.
That is to say, Pointsman avoids the matter – as reflexively as he would any nightmare. Should this one turn out not to be a fantasy but real, then....
And so it goes. No matter how elaborate the underhand arrangements, simple chance or human failings regularly intervene to bring them to ruin. Lyle Bland, the American entrepreneur credited with almost demonic powers of working behind the scenes to manipulate the public mind, eliminates himself by, of all things, joining the Masons and proving too sensitive to the scraps of ancient magic that remain in their rituals. Enzian, the black SS rocket-battery commander from Africa (yes, you read that correctly, and Pynchon somehow makes it credible) has a sudden revelation of how the damage inflicted by wartime bombing has all been pre-planned by vast and shadowy powers, a rearrangement rather than a destruction, but the narrative goes on to undercut him by revealing that he had been taking far more looted German tranquilizers than was prudent. The vast industrial conspiracy that Slothrop has been an unknowing part of for his whole life ends up commandeered by an obsessive German officer who devotes it to his own pet project, stuffing his gay lover into a salvaged V-2 and firing him off on a one-way trip into the great beyond. Slothrop himself, rather than being the centerpiece of a grand climatic struggle against some Evil Empire, simply fades out of the narrative and is forgotten. Few things, good or evil, ever go quite the way they should.
Did the reading of Gravity's Rainbow change my life? I'd like to think it did, but I'm not sure. It influenced the style of my own writing -- I hope -- by directing my attention to a number of stylistic features, such as the need for a strong ending to make an episode memorable. But it also reminded me, at a time when I was inclined to see things in too simple a light, of the irreducible messiness of the world and the temporary and contingent nature of everything human beings do.
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!