We’re All Living Under Gravity’s Rainbow

Black curtains hang in the windows of a tiny apartment in suburban LA, two blocks from the Pacific, and turned out the light. Inside, Thomas Pynchon—early thirties, awkwardly, with a Zappa quill—scribbles on heaps of graph paper. The setting is spartan: a cot, a few books, a messy pile of correspondence, a collection of piggy banks. On his desk is an ad hoc model rocket, cobbled together from a paper clip and an old eraser. A friend of Pynchon described the atmosphere in a men’s magazine as “a monastic cell decorated by the Salvation Army.” Outside, the world rages on. The Watts riots. LSD. The Space Race. water gate. The Bomb. Society is gripped by one violent convulsion after another. Fantasies of post-WWII prosperity congeal into generational uprisings, paranoia, and duck-and-cover exercises. At his desk, Pynchon processes everything, absorbing it—like Emerson’s transparent eyeball, but stretched and a little hazy by too much Panama Red. What made the world shake?

To get to the bottom of such a big question, Pynchon must have read a lot: on synthetic chemistry and Calvinist prophecies and Kabbalah and the reform of the Turkish alphabet. But most of all, it seems, he read about rockets. There is a point in the parabola of a rocket called Burnout (“Burnout”, in German). It marks the moment when the rocket ran out of fuel and continued its descent using only gravity. As he frames it in his groundbreaking novel The Rainbow of GravityWorld War II—with its missiles and death camps and atomic bombs sealing mankind’s suicidal bond with technology—was civilization’s dead end, and we’ve been in free fall ever since.

February 2023 marks the 50th anniversary The Rainbow of Gravity. A controversial literary sensation upon its release—it was snubbed by Pulitzer executives despite the unanimous recommendation of the fiction jury—the novel has since acquired a frightening reputation. How Ulysses, The RecognitionsAnd Infinite jokeThe Rainbow of Gravity is the kind of book that people pretend to read to appear smart on the bus. A new York The magazine critic once called it “perhaps the least read must-read in American history.”

This reputation obviously does the book itself and a potential audience of curious readers a disservice. The time to pick up The Rainbow of Gravity is now. It is at once a busy almanac of its time and a sort of field guide to our own. It echoes eerily in the new millennium. In a way, our own time’s greasy stew of absurdity and apocalyptic, creeping death tinged with clown’s shoe idiocy, suggests a world that has finally caught up with Pynchon. We still live under the rainbow of gravity.

In case anyone knows something about the author, it is that no one knows much about him. Pynchon, arguably the most committed living mystery in American literature, makes Cormac McCarthy look practically a literary brake. After graduating from Cornell University in 1959, Pynchon moved to Seattle, where he wrote technical literature and internal newsletters for Boeing. There he became intimately acquainted with the science, logistics, and jargon of heavy weapons manufacturing and the burgeoning aerospace industry. It was also here that he began to refine his own literary style – in one article he compares the relationship between the US Air Force and private aerospace companies to a happy marriage, adopting an ironic tone that would later define his fiction. Pynchon was briefly essentially an official (albeit a cheeky, sarcastic official) within America’s expanding military-industrial complex. That means he knew about ballistics. And missiles. And what these weapons were capable of, not only for their intended targets, but also for the souls of those who made them.

Anti-war, anti-capitalist and extremely vulgar, The Rainbow of Gravity is a novel of big and small ideas. Across more than 700 pages, Pynchon teases a massive plunge of plots and subplots, introduces hundreds of characters, and riffs on rocket science, cinema, Germanic runology, Pavlovian behaviorism, probability theory, witchcraft, futurism, zoot-suit couture, psychedelics, chemistry, and annihilation of the dodo. But there is something of a story amidst the novel’s encyclopedic content.

It’s the story of Tyrone Slothrop, a Harvard-educated blue-blood from Massachusetts. Since the waypoints of his sexual encounters seem to perfectly coincide with Nazi V-2 rocket attacks in London, a small cadre of Allied intelligence operatives believe he possesses some strange attraction or magic. Various factions shove Slothrop around like a pawn, employing him to serve their agendas as he weaves his way through the Zone (the nickname given to post-war Germany) on a dazed, picaresque adventure. He saves a damsel from a giant octopus. Dressed in a stolen cloak and a tattered Wagner opera helmet, he transforms into the superhero Rocketman and retrieves a brick of hash hidden in Potsdam. He meets Mickey Rooney, fornicates extensively, gets involved in a high-altitude creampie match and narrowly escapes castration. Along the way, he searches for information about a mysterious missile known only as 00000 and tries to discern his own motivations from those imposed on him. What moves does Slothrop unlock? And which are guided by an ominous, invisible hand? It is a footman’s quest to free himself from henchmanship. Slothrop’s strange odyssey and the novel’s seeming chaos are ordered by one thing: the rocket.

A V-2 rocket is the first thing the reader encounters in the opening lines of the novel: “A scream comes across the sky. It’s happened before, but there’s nothing like now.” The Nazi weapon broke the sound barrier: it exploded before anyone heard it coming. No warning. The V-2 violated fundamental concepts of cause and effect. The Rainbow of Gravity unfolds in this confusion.

https://www.wired.com/story/living-under-gravitys-rainbow-thomas-pynchon/ We’re All Living Under Gravity’s Rainbow

Zack Zwiezen

Zack Zwiezen is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Zack Zwiezen joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing zackzwiezen@ustimespost.com.

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