Despite such controversies, it was immediately clear that the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow marked an important moment in American literature, when an initial wave of postmodern fiction was reaching full maturity. Yet while many of the novels in this wave now seem to be receding into hazy memory as quaint artifacts of literary history, Pynchon’s novel retains its prominence — and might even be growing in relevance. Some less ambitious novels of the era — Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) comes to mind — may be more widely read and taught these days, but Pynchon’s novel stands alone among the books of that postmodern eruption as the one that has best maintained, over half a century, its reputation as a literary masterpiece.
That reputation, though, is a complicated one, as the Pulitzer experience shows. The prominent British critic Tony Tanner, writing only a few years after the publication of Pynchon’s novel, declared it to be “arguably the most important literary text since Ulysses.” Indeed, it says something about the importance of Gravity’s Rainbow in literary history that critics tend to compare it less with postmodern epics such as William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) or John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) or, later, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) than with such monumental works as Joyce’s Ulysses (which celebrated its centennial last year). And it is certainly true that Gravity’s Rainbow shares many things with that modernist classic, matching or even exceeding its epochal shattering of literary taboos, its unconventionality of style, and its encyclopedic scope of reference. In fact, it makes a great deal of sense to think of Gravity’s Rainbow as playing a role within the postmodern movement similar to the one played by Ulysses within modernism.
At the same time, if Ulysses is excessive and subversive and bawdy, then Gravity’s Rainbow is surely more of all of that, to the point that it seems, to many critics and readers, to lack the high seriousness Matthew Arnold famously argued was required of the greatest literature. Granted, many would have once said the same thing about the now-revered Ulysses, but a century of scholarly study, not to mention changes in the world at large, have now rendered Joyce’s novel relatively staid and demure, especially when compared with Pynchon’s. Then again, that was always the case: where Joyce daringly followed Leopold Bloom out to the jakes for a bowel movement, Pynchon follows Tyrone Slothrop down a toilet drain, wherein he is splattered with turds after somebody flushes; where Joyce’s Molly Bloom menstruated into a chamber pot, Pynchon’s Katje Borgesius, outfitted in dominatrix gear, shits into an old man’s mouth.
Pynchon’s famed use of popular culture in Gravity’s Rainbow can seem rather adolescent in relation to Joyce’s modernist deployment of Homer and Shakespeare, adding to the youthful, but perhaps unserious, feel of Pynchon’s novel. Granted, Joyce draws on pop culture as well, but Pynchon does so more aggressively, partly because he is writing in a world (and about a world) in which pop culture has become a prominent and constitutive part of the lives of his characters. In addition, Pynchon’s use of pop-cultural material is actually quite sophisticated in a literary sense. His largely invented history of the pornographic film industry of the Weimar Republic helps to evoke the notorious decadence of those years, while also contributing to the author’s subtle suggestion that prewar Hollywood film was not nearly as innocent as it seemed. Child stars such as Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney, in Pynchon’s treatment, become avatars of a current of cultural pedophilia that runs through the entire text. Meanwhile, Pynchon saturates the story so thoroughly with allusions that his sources — especially films, but also comic books and pulp fiction — become simply a built-in component of his language and that of his characters, who just naturally reach for such references as a way of understanding and describing their world, as we tend to do even more so today (though often via more recent media such as television and TikTok).
Perhaps the biggest reason why Gravity’s Rainbow remains so fresh and so relevant is that it is centrally informed by a deeply historicist vision that gives it a dynamic, self-updating quality, even if most contemporary readers are not much accustomed to thinking historically. In his enthusiastic appreciation of the importance of Gravity’s Rainbow, Tanner also characterized Pynchon’s novel as “one of the great historical novels of our time.” And Tanner is surely correct. Almost everything in Gravity’s Rainbow conveys some sort of implication about the shape and nature of modern Western — and even world — history. But Gravity’s Rainbow is a historical novel in a far more profound way than simply because its story is principally set in the past: it also comments on the fundamental nature of history itself. Even its most shocking and unsavory content is not there simply, or even primarily, to épater le bourgeois, though it does do that; it is there to dramatize the dark, salacious, sadomasochistic energies that, in the author’s view, have driven so much of Western history.
Moreover, not only is Gravity’s Rainbow set amidst a specific, world-changing, and vividly realized historical event (World War II and its immediate aftermath), but it also places that event in a past that is intricately connected to the present day (circa 1973) via a narrative movement that, by extension, extends into our future as well. The events that take place in 1940s Europe are most colorfully connected to the reality of the book’s initial readers in a striking final sequence wherein a German V-2 rocket, launched at the end of World War II, somehow lands on a crowded movie theater in Los Angeles (which stands in for the entirety of Nixon-era America). This connection signifies how certain fundamental issues related to power and technology were not resolved with the end of the war but instead continued in an intensified way, those V-2 rockets being merely the predecessors of the nuclear ICBMs of the Cold War era that threatened universal annihilation. The novel ends, in short, with a chilling vision of the United States’ heedless stumble towards destruction, as the audience in the theater prepares to meet its collective death with a follow-the-bouncing-ball singalong.
The V-2 rockets are sometimes depicted in the novel as having a mysterious power — or, as Pynchon puts it, a “Weberian charisma,” referencing Max Weber, the pioneering German sociologist whose presence haunts the novel. This “charisma” also has historical implications, evoking an older world of “magic” whose ethos challenged the routinizing tendencies of bureaucratic capitalism before the world was “disenchanted” by modernity. It should be emphasized, however, that this magic does not point toward the explicitly supernatural so much as toward the utopian ability to imagine a world that is richer and stranger than can be encompassed in a conventionally rationalist vision — what the author called, in his previous novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), “another world’s intrusion into this one.” In this sense, the irrational, almost mystical energies contained in and unleashed by the rockets symbolize an opportunity represented by the war — which, however horrific, had the potential to completely disrupt the flow of modern history, setting it on a new course, away from the self-destructive tendencies of Western culture to that time.
Unfortunately, this potential redirection of Western history does not come to pass in Gravity’s Rainbow (just as it did not come to pass in our reality), and the state-corporatist powers-that-be emerge on the other side of the war fully in control of the rocket and its technology — and of the world itself. Thus, by the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, the unprecedented disruption represented by World War II has been weathered by the juggernaut of capitalist modernity: after massive material destruction, tens of millions of deaths, and hundreds of millions of lives disrupted, the chaotic “Zone” of postwar Europe coalesces finally into a familiar pattern of social hierarchy and bureaucratic power (with attendant paperwork), instead of into something genuinely new. As authors such as Norman Mailer, in The Naked and the Dead (1948), and George Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), had declaimed with dismay, the postwar world seemed to be returning very much to business as usual, if not worse.
History is long, though, and in the deep historicist vision of Gravity’s Rainbow, World War II emerges not as a totally unique event but simply as one important moment of a vast historical process. For one thing, the connection to the contemporary United States of its initial readers can be read as a suggestion that the 1960s counterculture was another missed opportunity to reboot history (though the real fate of that counterculture would not be fully depicted by Pynchon until his 1990 novel Vineland). Meanwhile, any properly historicist vision must look both to the future and to the past, and thus, in addition to peering forward from World War II to the 1970s, Gravity’s Rainbow also gazes back to the war’s prehistory, calling significant attention to the baleful legacy of colonialism in Africa and elsewhere, outlining the development of Germany’s (and the United States’) military-industrial machine, and even harking back to the arrival in the New World of its protagonist’s Puritan ancestors (with all their many ambitions and hang-ups).
Much of this historical material paints a bleak picture of Western history as an unbroken trajectory of exploitation, domination, and downright torment of the weak by the strong, and it would be easy to conclude that the novel is completely pessimistic about the prospects for Western society — and even humanity as a whole. Yet Pynchon’s high-octane, low-decorum sentences spark and crackle with a utopian fury of their own, driving the text forward with an inexorable verbal energy. In addition, the rollicking, carnivalesque, often hilarious nature of much of the novel’s content matches its vividly original style, giving it a texture so lively and affirmative that it defeats any reading of the book as merely dark and dreary. Can Gravity’s Rainbow be difficult and obscure? Sure. Does it contain an unusually large amount of sadomasochism, pedophilia, and coprophagy for a literary classic? Certainly. Does it have a grim view of Western history? How could it not? But Gravity’s Rainbow presents its dark materials with such an unremittingly innocent flamboyance, and wears its prodigious learning with such a democratic exuberance, that it continues to attract not only serious scholars and critics but also enthusiastic fans, a cohort of readers whose relatively small size is more than made up for by its intense devotion.
In addition, by reminding us of all those missed opportunities for a better history, Gravity’s Rainbow at least insists that there were such opportunities, that history might have proceeded very differently. And, of course, if things could have gone differently in the past, then perhaps they might go differently in the future, if we can just avoid blowing ourselves up in the meantime. Pynchon’s suggestion of the multiple possibilities offered by the flow of time and history shows up in Gravity’s Rainbow quite overtly in some of the book’s stranger moments, as when an old German U-boat, which has been hijacked by Argentine anarchists, encounters the destroyer USS John E. Badass (a ship whose crew includes one Pig Bodine, a sort of poor-man’s trickster who shows up in various guises in several of Pynchon’s novels); the two vessels seem to be about to engage in battle, but luckily they turn out to be occupying different parallel timelines, so no harm is ultimately done.
In an even stranger moment, the protagonist, Tyrone Slothrop, wandering through the detritus of a German V-2 factory, emerges suddenly into a gleaming “Raketen-Stadt” that seems to have erupted from a parallel world, looking at first very much like something culled from the visions of prewar science fiction. Slothrop finds, however, that this futurist city has been warped by fascism and war, setting it at odds with the utopian futures that were often so central to 1930s SF. The narrator notes the contrast:
Strangely, these are not the symmetries we were programmed to expect, not the fins, the streamlined corners, pylons, or simple solid geometries of the official vision at all. […] No, this Rocket-City, so whitely lit against the calm dimness of space, is set up deliberately To Avoid Symmetry, Allow Complexity, Introduce Terror.
This eccentric view of time — in which events can occur along multiple chronologies, happen simultaneously in different periods, or exert influence from one timeline to another — is consistent with the fragmented, nonlinear nature of the narrative as a whole, even if it certainly complicates any attempt to assess the implications of Gravity’s Rainbow as a historical novel. At a bare minimum, this suggestion that time does not flow in the simple, unidirectional way typically depicted in (Western) historical accounts implies that history is perhaps much more complicated than we have generally assumed or than official historical narratives have encouraged us to believe.
That decoding the historicist message of Gravity’s Rainbow entails a lot of hard work is no surprise: history is hard to decode. It is also the case that Pynchon’s historicist vision, like history itself, does not emerge fully formed but continually evolves — throughout Gravity’s Rainbow and throughout his career. Thus, the model of history that informs this great novel comes more into focus when it is read in conjunction with the other two massive historical novels that join it to form one of two trilogies that constitute the bulk of Pynchon’s fictional output.
If The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, and Inherent Vice (2009) can be read together as a relatively small-scale fictional account of the 1960s counterculture in California, then Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon (1997), and Against the Day (2006) can be seen as a much more ambitious trilogy that tackles nothing less than the entire project of modern Western civilization — with the United States admittedly at the center, but with the entire world crucially involved. Mason & Dixon is set in a colonial period on the verge of a revolution that would be a key historical marker in the progress of modernity (but that would also be compromised in fundamental ways that serve to make it another missed opportunity). The specters of racism and slavery lurk constantly in the background of this novel, whose British protagonists are continually taken aback by the God- and gun-loving Americans they encounter, while white-supremacist militias stalk the countryside committing murder and mayhem. Many of the United States’ fundamental problems, Mason & Dixon reminds us, have been with us from the beginning, yet we have continually failed to address these problems adequately. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers of today are the direct descendants of the Paxton Boys of the 18th century, whom Pynchon depicts — and ruthlessly satirizes — in this novel.
Jump ahead to Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, a key announcement to the world that the United States was ready to become a leader in a new global wave of modernization, and we are in the world of Against the Day. Here, in perhaps Pynchon’s most complex narrative, the story bounces around among different realities and genres, once again reminding us of the multiple possibilities presented by history (which we have to make for ourselves, if not under conditions of our own choosing). Against the Day is, if anything, even more broadly encyclopedic than Gravity’s Rainbow, and its multiple versions of the advent of the 20th century foreshadow everything from the 9/11 bombings to the airing of Gilligan’s Island.
And much of its historical material is as dark as that of Gravity’s Rainbow: the heady celebration of the modern at the Columbian Exposition leads not to a grand utopian future but to the brutal suppression of American labor activism in the years leading up to World War I, a conflict as epochal in the narrative as its successor was for Gravity’s Rainbow (at one point, a time-traveling character says that the so-called Great War has ushered in “the history of Hell”). In some ways, Against the Day is reminiscent of Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1930–36), which also explores the early decades of the 20th century in a satirical and kaleidoscopic way, though Pynchon’s novel ends on a much more hopeful — even downright utopian — note.
In 1973, when Gravity’s Rainbow was published, the relevance of all those rockets to Cold War-era readers was glaringly obvious. Yet while the threat of nuclear destruction remains very real today, it is surely the case that climate change now represents the most immediate and obvious threat to our ongoing survival as a species. And Pynchon has that covered as well — not because he was uniquely prescient but because, in addition to appearing in the midst of the Cold War, Gravity’s Rainbow also appeared in the midst of a burgeoning environmentalist movement, shortly after Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest (1972) and shortly before Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975). It is not surprising, then, that Gravity’s Rainbow is informed by an ecological consciousness that still seems fresh today.
As Slothrop moves through the latter portion of the novel, “feeling natural” and gradually being absorbed (literally) by the environment, he becomes increasingly attuned to the terrible things that human beings, including his own ancestors, have done to the natural world in the course of capitalist modernization:
[E]ach tree is a creature, carrying on its individual life, aware of what’s happening around it, not just some hunk of wood to be cut down. Slothrop’s family actually made its money killing trees, amputating them from their roots, chopping them up, grinding them to pulp, bleaching that to paper and getting paid for this with more paper.
Feeling sorry for his own small role in this history, Slothrop seeks advice from a pine tree about what he might do to rectify the situation. The tree replies, “Next time you come across a logging operation out here, find one of their tractors that isn’t being guarded, and take its oil filter with you. That’s what you can do.” Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang would have approved.
The story of Tyrone’s ancestor William Slothrop provides a key insight into the environmentalist politics of Gravity’s Rainbow. Having arrived in America on the Arbella with other Puritan refugees (as did Pynchon’s own ancestor), William soon finds himself at odds with the group’s ideology. Bolting from the main settlement in Boston, he heads into the Berkshires, where he develops his own view of what constitutes proper Christian behavior. Working as a farmer, he finds his pigs — and other lowly “outsiders” — very congenial to his way of seeing the world. After taking the animals to market to be slaughtered, he is deeply sad, though he savors the trip itself:
He enjoyed the road, the mobility, the chance encounters of the day — Indians, trappers, wenches, hill people — and most of all just being with those pigs. They were good company. Despite the folklore and the injunctions in his own Bible, William came to love their nobility and personal freedom, their gift for finding comfort in the mud on a hot day — pigs out on the road, in company together, were everything Boston wasn’t.
Eventually, William produces a religious tract arguing that the Preterite, those damned by God, are just as worthy of love and respect as the Christian Elect. In fact, he argues that all of God’s creation should be treated with love and respect.
This episode serves as a key example of Pynchon’s own famed sympathies with the lowly Preterite, but William’s affection for his pigs — and for nature in general — might be the most important part of his story. Challenging the Christian notion that animal nature was created for the benefit of humanity and thus can essentially be treated however humans see fit (pigs come out especially badly in the Bible), William’s attitude suggests that, instead, humans are obligated to show respect for animals and, by extension, for all of the natural world. But William’s pamphlet, On Preterition, is banned and burned in Boston, and his attitudes make him an outcast among the Puritans, eventually compelling him to return to England. Pynchon clearly presents William as a sympathetic character, as well as one of the key examples of how American history might have gone in a different direction: “Could he have been the fork in the road America never took,” the narrator wonders, “the singular point she jumped the wrong way from?” Indeed, the anarchy ruling in the Zone of postwar Europe might somehow provide a second chance, a way back to the alternative road pointed out by Slothrop’s eco-conscious ancestor.
Gravity’s Rainbow also links the ideology that has driven human beings to cut a murderous swath through nature directly to the history of European colonialism. This connection is made through a strange flashback to the Dutch colonization of Mauritius in the 17th century (the same period when William was running afoul of his fellow Puritans). One particularly sadistic Dutch colonist, Frans van der Groov, convinced that the island’s dodoes must be minions of Satan because they are so ugly, determines to hunt the creatures down and exterminate them. This mass slaughter is, the narrator tells us, “the purest form of European adventuring,” as the author reminds us that the destructive impulses of colonialism have historically been directed not just at other humans but also at the natural world, which suffered shocking damage as the West established dominion over it. In one of the novel’s most striking (and overtly didactic) passages, the narrator evokes the global stakes of this process:
a system whose only aim is to violate the [natural] Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity — most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life.
Pynchon develops this sweeping vision of eco-catastrophe (and the United States’ role within it) in his three major historical epics, with Mason & Dixon, Against the Day, and Gravity’s Rainbow tracing the dynamic of domination and destruction from colonial America through the Gilded Age up to World War II.
In both its style and its content, Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t for everyone — even those who read and appreciate complex literary novels. But no matter how provocative, obscure, and even obscene it may be, Pynchon’s novel makes American literature richer by its existence and continuing relevance, serving as a sort of experimental laboratory for exploring what can be done within the scope of a novel. And the results of that exploration tell us a great deal about the formal possibilities of the novel as a genre. Yet what makes experimental novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses truly special is that they do the most important work of any cultural product: they engage with — and comment upon — what it means to be a human being living at a particular time and place in history.
M. Keith Booker is a professor of English at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He is the author or editor of more than 50 books on literature and culture.