Pynchon’s Is Published

Publication of Thomas Pynchon’s long, controversial novel, which conveyed a sense of imminent disaster and of the absurdities of modern life, was a major event in the history of postmodern literature.

Summary of Event

Thomas Pynchon vaulted from relative obscurity to the front rank of post-World War II novelists with the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973. Previously admired by a coterie of readers for a few short stories and his earlier novels, V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Pynchon won instant recognition as a major novelist when the scope and achievement of Gravity’s Rainbow became evident. Pynchon, Thomas
Poirier, Richard

Upon its publication, Gravity’s Rainbow became an immediate center of controversy. Many critics, including Richard Poirier, greeted the novel with high praise, but others, led by Richard Thorburn, raised objections to its supposed lack of morality, its explicit descriptions of deviant sexual activities, its lack of fully rounded characters, its melange of styles, and its negative portrayal of American society. Some objected also to its apparently apocalyptic view of the future. The judges for the Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;fiction in fiction recommended giving the prize to the novel, but the Pulitzer advisory committee refused the recommendation, and no award was given for 1973. Gravity’s Rainbow did, however, share the National Book Award for Fiction. Pynchon did not appear to accept the award. The controversy continued, although the preponderance of critical opinion regarded the novel as a modern classic.

Gravity’s Rainbow was the first contemporary instance of what critics have labeled the “encyclopedic novel” to focus on war and the violence associated with war. Encyclopedic novels attempt to encapsulate an entire culture or a national experience in a single multileveled narrative; earlier modern versions of the type tended to focus on peacetime events, which their authors seemed to regard as more typical of their nations’ cultures. Such novels have included the Irish author James Joyce’s Joyce, James
Ulysses (1922) Ulysses (Joyce) and the American John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. (1937). Even one of the earliest and greatest of such novels, the Russian Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886), depicts the Napoleonic invasion of Russia as a brief cataclysm in the life of his country, not a permanent state. For Pynchon, however, war is a determining and persistent condition of modern life. As several of Gravity’s Rainbow’s most reliable characters point out, the cease-fire of 1945 does not mean the end of war; it means only a pause, probably brief, in active hostilities in one area.

In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon used a quest motif, as he has in all of his other long fictions. The quest is engaged in by virtually the entire cast of characters, all working on or seeking to find the German rocket that might change the outcome of World War II. Called the A-4, it is a further development of the famous German V-1 and V-2 rockets, which caused enormous destruction in Great Britain during the closing months of the European war in 1944 and 1945. It becomes clear late in the novel that the rocket is also capable of carrying human cargo.

What most clearly distinguishes Gravity’s Rainbow, and what has continued to fascinate critics and readers, is Pynchon’s range of styles, moods, devices, and knowledge. The style ranges from farcical to elegiac, the mood from hilarious to pathetic to tragic. Unlike other encyclopedic novels, most of which cover different levels of society but not a wide range of society’s different activities, Gravity’s Rainbow incorporates a wide and varied range of information about all kinds of things, from motion-picture history to popular songs, from drug use to nuclear physics, from local geography to the history of science and technology, from the history of German colonization in Africa to the claims of behavioral science. A reviewer for Scientific American wrote that he could not judge the novel as a work of fiction, but that its science was sound. The novel presents an overwhelming amount of information, some of it obscure, all of it evidently accurate, from the history of science to the layout of the streets in a small German town in 1945 to the traditional festive rites in a small Polish village.

The social fabric of Pynchon’s world is also dense. Where Joseph Heller’s Heller, Joseph
Catch-22 (1961), Catch-22 (Heller)[Catch Twenty Two] for example, provided a crude if amusing primer on the workings of capitalism, Pynchon examines the interconnections of cartels in such fields as petroleum and electricity. Where Joyce’s Ulysses makes suggestions of a cyclical theory of history, Gravity’s Rainbow involves, among other ways of looking at the world, a dramatic conflict between the behaviorism associated with B. F. Skinner (the theory’s champion in the novel is named Ned Pointsman) and probability theory, represented by the novel’s mathematician, Roger Mexico. The conflict is played out largely in the adventures of the novel’s central character, an American officer named Tyrone Slothrop, who is programmed by Pointsman to seek out the A-4 rocket and whose peregrinations through Europe in the final days of World War II and the first months of the war’s aftermath expose him to a wide variety of characters from various elements in society. In the highly ambiguous but menacing ending, Slothrop disappears, as does the rocket prototype, and the reader is left waiting for the missile to strike.


In terms of Pynchon’s reputation, the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow created not only a controversy but also what became a critical industry. No other contemporary author attracted the volume and intensity of study that has been devoted to Pynchon’s work, chiefly to Gravity’s Rainbow. Dozens of book-length studies, two journals, several collections of essays, and hundreds of articles and essays have examined the novel and Pynchon’s other works in great detail and from numerous perspectives. Because Pynchon has been successful in his choice of a reclusive lifestyle, no one has been able to interview him in order to discover precisely what his intentions might have been, so critics have been free to advance their own interpretations.

The major source of controversy over Gravity’s Rainbow has been the question of whether the novel is as hopeless as its ending—with an atomic missile about to drop on the reader’s head—seems to indicate. Some critics have argued that there are no suggestions of redemption or possible mitigations of the pessimism of the novel, with its bitter critique of a violent culture, especially in view of that ending. The power of those who control events in the world, power so great that World War II is seen as a working out of their plans for renewing their technological empire, is seen by these critics as so overwhelming that nothing can stand in its way.

Other critics have found reason to believe that the novel is less than entirely bleak. They point out that while Slothrop may not be saved, he does escape the conditioning with which Pointsman has manipulated him; other characters find ways of resisting the power of the rulers, even if resistance is often brief and may be subverted. There are numerous suggestions that there are still mercies available to at least some characters, such as the young girl who survives a concentration camp and lives freely in the postwar world; moreover, the fate of castration intended for Slothrop is instead enforced on the novel’s most repugnant character, Major Marvy. Most important is the idea that the book itself, like all art that conveys and encourages humane values, is itself evidence that such values can endure.

On the broader literary scene, Gravity’s Rainbow provided the single major work that in a sense validated the postmodern novel. Literary works that combined elements of fantasy and reality, made use of a mixture of styles and genres, and called attention to their own fictional nature had been appearing since the early 1960’s. Pynchon’s short stories and his earlier novels had been among these fictions, as had works by Joseph Heller, John Barth, William Gass, William Gaddis, Bruce Jay Friedman, and others. At first, such works had been labeled “black humor,” because many of them emphasized the grimly humorous aspects of subject matter commonly treated with great seriousness. Gravity’s Rainbow, however, helped to establish the new style as a rejection of realism in favor of a type of work that not only acknowledged that its purpose was not to portray or imitate real life but also emphasized that fiction had no reason to do so. Critics, searching for a label, called this type of work “fabulation” (to reflect its connection to fables) or “metafiction,” indicating that it is a step beyond conventional fiction.

Postmodern fiction has remained popular. On the international scene, it has similarities to the Magical Realism of such Latin American writers as Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes; American and Latin writers alike owe a major debt to the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges. There has, however, been a reaction against metafiction in the work of so-called minimalist writers typified by Jim Harrison and Raymond Carver. Pynchon himself moved closer to something like realism with Vineland (1990), suggesting that the style of Gravity’s Rainbow did not suit the urgent political message of the later work.

Further Reading

  • Clerc, Charles, ed. Approaches to “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983. Collection of fully developed original essays on different ways of approaching the novel, including the relations among film, comedy, science, and the themes of the novel. Contributors include such well-known Pynchon critics as Khachig Tololyan, Joseph W. Slade, and Raymond M. Olderman.
  • Hite, Molly. Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983. Excellent study of Pynchon’s first three novels, especially Gravity’s Rainbow, emphasizes the presence of various kinds of order in the apparently disorderly world of Pynchon’s fiction. Clearly takes the position that Pynchon’s worldview, while not optimistic, is not without mitigation and contains suggestions that there is some hope for humanity.
  • Howard, Gerald. “Pynchon from A to V.” Bookforum (Summer, 2005): 1. Tribute to Pynchon offers background on the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow. Includes notes from Don DeLillo and others.
  • Hume, Kathryn. Pynchon’s Mythography: An Approach to “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. Attempts to define a pattern of myth in the novel that can provide an organizing principle and a guide to the novel’s meaning. Asserts that the Bible, in its straight-line narratives and its symbol of the rainbow as a redemptive sign, provides major organizing principles for Gravity’s Rainbow.
  • Mead, Clifford. Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Materials. Elmwood Park, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1989. Thorough and careful bibliography of Pynchon’s work and the critical commentary on it. Includes the author’s juvenilia and most of the few pictures of him known to exist, taken from Pynchon’s high school yearbook.
  • Moore, Thomas. The Style of Connectedness: “Gravity’s Rainbow” and Thomas Pynchon. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987. Using insights based on the myth psychology of Carl Jung, shows that Pynchon’s criticism of technology and the modern economic system is based on romantic ideas of culture. Argues that Pynchon makes use of the occult in the novel to provide a hope for a more positive integration of human societies.
  • Plater, William M. The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1978. One of the earliest book-length studies of Pynchon, this work is among the most persuasive of the interpretations that see Gravity’s Rainbow as a deeply pessimistic book. Emphasizes the novel’s argument that major wars have placed control of the planet in the hands of huge industrial enterprises that exploit natural and human resources without regard for humane values.
  • Schaub, Thomas. Pynchon: The Voice of Ambiguity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981. Argues that Pynchon’s fiction maintains an uneasy balance between chaos and various kinds of order, none of which is stable or permanent.
  • Weisenburger, Steven. A “Gravity’s Rainbow” Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel. Rev. ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006. Of the various guides and companions to the novel, this is one of the most complete and most useful. Contains explanations of the novel’s many allusions to psychology, mysticism, physics, history, and various aspects of popular culture.

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