Thomas Pynchon is widely regarded as one of the most influential of American novelists. Famously secretive, little is known of his whereabouts, save from two memorable cameos in The Simpsons. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) is his magnum opus and is often quoted as a major influence on cyberpunk. Author Richard Kadrey and scholar Larry McCaffery go as far as claiming that Pynchon’s novel is “the best cyberpunk ever written by a guy who didn’t even know he was writing it” (Storming the Reality Studio, 1991, p.21).
Gravity’s Rainbow tells the story of World War II German rocket scientists launching an experimental device oddly numbered “00000”, of Allies’ intelligence officers trying to predict the impact point of the Reich’s V2 rockets, and the hunt for the lost 00000 by everyone in the aftermath of the war.
But what exactly is hidden in the Schwartzgerät, the mysterious plastic container embedded in the “00000”? Could it be that the German engineers have harnessed the mysteries of life and death?
That is the most intelligible summary I can possibly come up with. What is left out is utter lunacy, a demolition derby run by horny clowns. If you can picture a crossover between Moby Dick, Naked Lunch and The Big Lebowski, you’re not far off. A more courageous summary can be found here.
Like any Pynchon work, Gravity’s Rainbow will appeal to “motivated readers”. It’s not an easy ride, filled with foreign words, hard science theories, impossibly named characters, and a complex narrative structure taking the reader from WWII to dodo bird hunting in the 17th century for no obvious reason. Every other sentence is full of obscure trivia, and engaging existential fits are stopped short when the characters suddenly break into stupid songs, fornicate, or afflict each other with tasteless practical jokes.
And kazoos. Boy, that is a lot of kazoos for a single novel.
Devo’s classic synth-punk anthem “Whip It” was inspired by the songs found in Gravity’s Rainbow. The relations between S/M sexuality and the cult of productivity is also an important theme of the novel.
Some might be offended by the sheer fun Pynchon takes at characterizing male sexuality in relation with weapons of mass destruction, and by the objectification of women throughout the book. But that’s the point: Gravity’s Rainbow is pornographically obscene, self-complacent and overly pedantic, but its argument is about the irrepressible urge to fulfill desires, with no productive value and much waste. The book offers a cynical look at how men will fallaciously feel important while hysterically working toward their own annihilation (the object of desire, the serial number “00000”, is a symbolic void). In fact, one of the working titles was indeed Mindless Pleasures. And nobody, throughout the book, seems to really care about the outcome of the war.
Gravity’s Rainbow may not be cyberpunk proper (Pynchon’s 2013 novel, Bleeding Edge, telling the story of hackers in pre-9/11 New York City, would better fit the bill), and its influence on the genre is not as palpable as some might claim. Still, the non-linear narrative and the all-out frenzy of Pynchon is reminiscent of early Gibson or of Rucker’s goofiness. Furthermore, along with the writings of Burroughs, the author’s defiant use of obscenities is a forerunner of a literary punk attitude. The most striking similitude, however, is in the way Pynchon shed light on otherwise obscure cultural relations between physical objects and mind patterns. The search for the landing site of the 00000 is also the quest to find absolute ground zero, the psycho-geographical point where natural life meets technological death.
This book also brings some perspective to the question of transcendence in cyberpunk, the possibility of reaching something beyond our finite material state, whether that be meaning, immortality, consciousness, or God. There might not be transcendence in Pynchon’s writing, but this novel is nevertheless driven by the anxious search for one. In this regard, Gravity’s Rainbow acts as the missing link between hippie alternative mythology and cyberpunk disenchanted materialism. The A-bombs that put an end to WWII made the general public suspicious of science, but at the same time technology was making its way into households like never before. In this perspective Pynchon’s novel is the reflection of its time: fear for the loss of traditional identity and irrational reactions to the fast-changing state of the world. While Pynchon’s take on the subject is mostly a sarcastic commentary on the various hypothesis running in hippie culture (psychoanalysis, esoteric interpretations, sexual revolution, conspiracy theories, and so on), the main narrative plot is articulated around the dualism between the organic and the inorganic. The dodo’s extermination side-story is mirrored by another digression telling the story of a light bulb so well crafted, it becomes immortal and sentient (and sets to unionize the light bulb community – it fails). Oddly enough, this may be where Kadrey and McCaffery’s affirmation makes some sense. The organic death is transcended in some way by the pathetic immortality of machines.
Cyberpunk derives from that, but modulate the conclusion: technological evolution may or may not be suicide, depending on the path followed, and transcendence may or may not be the issue. Consequently, cyberpunk rejects the 60’s New Age mythology and its quest for existential meaning, or at least not in the Platonic, all-encompassing sense prompted by the symbolism of Being/Sex/Death found in Gravity’s Rainbow. Cyberpunk seeks to establish a new organization to the otherwise entropic system, to find new relations in a world where technology changes everything. Transhumanism, for cyberpunks, is not the prerogative of mad men with grand schemes to achieve transcendence, but the only possible mode of existence in a reality that has most certainly rejected the idea of life after death in favor of materialism.
By operating the fusion of the organic and inorganic in death, Pynchon opened the door for cyberpunks to hybridized men and machines in life. While Pynchon is mostly pessimistic about the results, the cyberpunk stance, if not optimistic, is at least more matter-of-fact oriented. As Sterling writes in the preface to Burning Chrome, cyberpunks are “bore[d] with the Apocalypse”. Things will go on.
Gravity’s Rainbow is a tough sell. Anything said about this literary Behemoth is doomed to miss the point. It may not be the best novel I’ve ever read, but somehow it is beyond that. In a more general context I would wholeheartedly declare it a must-read, but from a cyberpunk point of view, given what the genre has become and what is expected from such a label, Gravity’s Rainbow does not provide action-driven escapism nor workable futurology. It is a gifted kid with ADHD lighting up fireworks in the sacred temple of literature, and amidst the chaos laying some philosophical ground to transhumanism and to the attitude of perceiving the reality as code to decipher.
Gravity’s Rainbow : 6 / 10
If you would like to purchase a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, you can find it here.
If you would like to purchase a copy of Zak Smith’s Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow, you can find it here.