Elsewhere Over the Rainbow

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon Viking Press, 760 pp., $15.00, also in paper

HAVING MADE MY WAY through the 760 pages of Gravity's Rainbow, I am sorely tempted to say that you all must do the same. But you mustn't. You really needn't read Gravity's Rainbow, though you probably ought to dabble in it a bit, during commercials, just to find out what the fuss is all about (I recommend in particular pgs. 41-2, 59, 73, 115-20, 214, 317, 349-50, 382, 396-433, 520-21, 558, 587-91, 616, 720-23, 759). Pynchon novels never conclude anyway; they just stop getting longer.

Don't misunderstand. Pynchon is indeed one of the few ground-breaking authors around; it's simply that ground doesn't break at every stroke. So the achievement in this book has nothing to do with the novel as a whole, Gravity's Rainbow self-contained and entire. The achievement lies in some things that happen to happen while the novel is going on: like Pynchon's mystical/political/scientific vision, or new ideas of plot and character, or the prose style--for example:

Farther up, past buried land mines and anti-tank posts of corroding concrete, up in a pillbox covered with netting and sod, halfway up the cliff, young Dr. Bleagh and his nurse Ivy are relaxing after a difficult lobotomy. His scrubbed and routinized fingers dart beneath her suspender straps, pull outward, release in a sudden great smack and ho-ho-ho from Bleagh as she jumps and laughs too, trying not too hard to squirm away. They lie on a bed of faded old nautical charts, maintenance manuals, burst sandbags and spilled sand, burned matchsticks, and unraveled corktips from cigarettes long decomposed that comforted through the nights of '41 and the sudden rush of heart at any glimpse of a light at sea. "You're mad," she whispers. "I'm randy," he smiles and snaps her garter again, boy-and-slingshot.

That paragraph stands in the novel a propos of nothing else at all. The two characters appear here for the first time and never appear again--the event passes as quickly as it came. There are hundreds of such vignettes in the book, glimpsed actions, characters scurrying in and out of focus. Pynchon has no great interest in making these fragments cohere; his method is rather to take the loose ends of story and unravel them altogether.

WHAT THERE IS of a main plot line is this: Tyrone Slothrop, Harvard, U.S. Army, is stationed in Britain in the late stages of World War II, working for Allied Intelligence. Slothrop, it turns out, is quite the ladies' man and has a map of London on his wall to keep good track of his romantic conquests. It further turns out that Slothrop's collection of females falls into precisely the same geographical distribution as the German bombs dropping on the city. Regular as clockwork, every sector inhabited by a Slothropian bedmate is shortly thereafter the recipient of a German V-2.

This phenomenon much excites the attention of one Ned Pointsman, a half-mad Pavlovian working at PISCES (Psychological Intelligence Schemes for Expediting Surrender). Pointsman persuades the higher-ups to investigate the intricacies of Slothrop's sexuality, and the scene then shifts to testing grounds in southern France. Slothrop, after a time, manages to escape, and the remainder of the novel follows his odyssey from France through Switzerland into a by-now post-war Germany.

Revelations ensue. Slothrop stumbles on a still-surviving elite Nazi rocket corps made up of black Hereros from South Africa who have set out to find and fire the last great German rocket prototype, the Schwarzgerat 00000. He then uncovers evidence of a worldwide conspiracy between General Electric, the Krupps, Shell Oil, I.G. Farben, FDR, the Russians and countless others, to fabricate World War II as an excuse to provide funding for their several special interests. Last and worst, Slothrop learns that his own father, Borderick Slothrop, long ago signed over his son's life to that Conspiracy, so Tyrone's whole career--its apparent accidents, whims and turns of fortune--is actually the unfolding of an elaborate plan.

BUT, THEN AGAIN, perhaps not. For Pynchon is fondest, above all, of ambiguity. And just as more and more evidence grows to confirm the conspiracy theory, so too grows the likelihood that it is all just a paranoid's hallucination.

This is Pynchon's favorite subject, and it was the theme of his first two novels as well as this one. An individual caught in a chaos of facts and fantasies suddenly perceives a pattern to it all, and what first appeared as the incoherent, the arbitrary and the meaningless, is transformed into the possibly intentional. So Herbert Stencil in V. chases around the world and backward in history to find what, if anything, Vera, Valletta, Vheissu and Vogelsang have in common. And Oedipa Maas, in The Crying of Lot 49, drives up and down the Californian coast exploring the remains of an underground postal system that has survived silently for centuries. But Stencil, Maas and Slothrop can never confirm their conspiracies, and what is more, they cannot tell which is worse--a conspiracy or the possibility that there is no force at all behind the pattern, that it is an accident, a random ordering.

Pynchon's novels are about interpretation, about making connections in a world of fragments. The novels are built out of too much plot and too many characters; they provide quantities of information far beyond anyone's desire to be informed. They are full of technical disquisitions of differential calculus, organic chemistry, the history of film, jazz and rock, dope and Freud, the Holy Grail, rockets, the Wizard of Oz -- all Pynchon metaphors for the twentieth century. It is not that he is groping for the one correct metaphor to one consistent reality. He is compiling as many metaphors as he can for as many realities as he sees.

* * *

IT IS PROBABLY fair to say that the Novel came out of the sixties less dead than it came in. For the most part, that was thanks to the experimentation of people like Pynchon, William Gass, John Barth, Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover who were busy providing a set of new literary forms aching for new literary content. And now, just in the past year or so, two novels have appeared that make glimmer the hope that the old Genre might be back on her feet before long. Gravity's Rainbow, when it is working, is one of these, Updike's Rabbit Redux is another.

On the surface, these are two radically different books. Where the Updike is scrupulously realistic, serious-minded and dramatically controlled, the Pynchon is comic, fantastic and deliberately unfocused. Where the Updike restricts himself to a particular set of events in a particular West Pennsylvanian locality, Pynchon's imagination is globe-trotting and without restriction.

But there is at least one crucial similarity between the books, and that is the impulse of both Pynchon and Updike to tell us everything they know, to make novels out of all the incidental details of modern reality.

WHAT HAS PERHAPS been most disappointing in American writers since World War II has been their fear of dirtying their novelistic hands by getting too close to reality. So there has been a general tendency to retreat into myth or parody or the kind of halfway realism that takes place in the suburbs of reality. But Pynchon and Updike, in their last books, have thrown themselves into the ugly, unpoetical stuff of this society in these times. They are making novels out of sex and racism, hamburger stands, dope dealing, babysitting and used cars, moon shots and television sets.

Unlike Updike, though, Pynchon is writing nothing that can properly be called a realistic novel. He is taking these bits and pieces of reality and recombining them in a fantastic approximation of what might have been but could never be. It is a way of addressing reality without surrendering to it, one more attempt to write good books in a bad age.