1 The Ontology
of the Text
An absolute missile does not abolish chance.
On one level, of course, the "Real Text" is Thomas Pynchon's major
novel, Gravity's Rainbow, the complexities and perplexities of which
are legendary. The difficulties of interpreting Pynchon's work have driven
at least one critic to paralogy, or rewriting the rules of interpretation,
which may be the most significant response any novel can achieve. According
to Leo Bersani, conventional critical procedure does not suffice for this
book, since its major register of difficulty is "ontological rather
than epistemological" (107). To inquire how we can penetrate the mysteries
ofGravity's Rainbow is to ask the wrong question. This novel seems
not merely to announce a cultural crisis, but to embody one. Its indications
point everywhere while its codes remain dauntingly ambiguous. Like numerous
critics before him, Bersani acknowledges the impossibility of any definitive
interpretation for the novel, which seems "a dazzling argument for
shared or collective being or, more precisely, for the originally replicative
nature of being" (113). We will return to this suggestion that
Gravity's Rainbow is founded on a fundamental multiplicity. For the
moment, though, we need to give further consideration to Bersani's paralogical
Perhaps, as Alex McHoul and David Wills have suggested, Pynchon's novel
is "post-rhetorical," therefore not amenable to any analysis based
on the classical scheme of sender-message-recipient or signifier-signified-sign.
They also acknowledge an underlying surplus of signification. "The
search for rhetorical stitches fails and we are left only with surplus yarns"
(62). Perhaps the novel is a "Real Text" not just in Enzian's
but also in Roland Barthes' sense of "text" as complement of "work:"
a nexus of linguistic associations that far outmeasures the limits of its
material instantiation (61). Certainly Gravity's Rainbow is not easily
compared to other works of fiction, even those with the elliptical and transgressive
features of late modernism. Bersani wonders what narrative species the book
might belong to. Is it, as Edward Mendelson has suggested, a fictive "encyclopedia"
offering an anatomy of the multinational cartel-state (161)? Could it be
considered historiography of some sort? Bersani is skeptical. "Is Gravity's
Rainbow serious about history?" he wonders. "Are the categories
of serious and nonserious even relevant to it? What is Gravity's
This supervention of ontological over epistemological or hermeneutic questions
may well proceed from the cultural crux at which we find ourselves, yet
another spinoff from the new world order or postmodern aura, or however
one wants to describe these times. According to Brian McHale, the postmodern
difference in fiction entails a passage from epistemological uncertainty
to ontological plurality: characters and readers alike are no longer interested
in how they can know a fictional world, but question instead what sort of
world, among many alternatives, they have entered (9). If everything is
connected, then those connections must constitute a plenum or matrix; what
then are the dimensions and contours of this structure? Or to translate
this formalism into more familiarly literary terms: what sort of discourse
does this writing represent? How does it articulate its own and the reader's
position in history? Does it even attempt such a project?
For the purposes of this discussion at least, we will approach these questions
summatively, in terms of apocalyptic or revelatory vision an approach which
should allow us to operate even in the collapsing space of the post-rhetorical,
or at the limits of conventional narrative ontology. Therefore we must orient
ourselves from a terminal perspective, from somewhere overGravity's Rainbow,
specifically in the unimprinted space at the end of the final line. In the
end is our beginning; and having reached the end, we might start by sharpening
Bersani's question to a finer focus. Setting aside temporarily the ontological
problem for Gravity's Rainbow as a whole, let us concentrate on the
novel's conclusion (if that is the right word for it). What is the
final phrase of Gravity's Rainbow? As we will see, this can be an
interesting question even when asked quite literally.
According to Richard Pearce, the ends of Pynchon's first three fictions
invoke a logic of supplementarity or paradox, implicating us as both participants
and spectators in deeply ambiguous situations (150). While this makes neat
enough literary theory of a certain kind, it elides the larger, ontological
questions raised by the end of Gravity's Rainbow. To call the last
sentence of Pynchon's text paradoxical is an understatement. After seven
or eight hundred notably dense pages, this enormous narrative enterprise
comes down to a single trope, one last special effect and wouldn't you know,
it's an aposiopesis, the trope of imperfection:
After which, as Porky Pig always
sez, that's all, folks in more ways than one perhaps, but in the
immediate sense, textually. C'est toût. A half million words,
somewhere around three hundred named characters, erudite and arcane references
in a dozen languages including Kirghiz and Herero, the most complex conspiracy
plot this side of Foucault's Pendulum, and what does it all come
down to? a fragment, a dashed-out predicate, the degree zero or flatline
of narrative discourse.
The potential for disappointment is considerable. All that effort, readerly
and writerly, and Pynchon doesn't even deliver the last word. He serves
up a problem instead, a vacancy or interpretive aperture. Postmodern science,
Jean-François Lyotard says, produces "not the known, but the
unknown" (60). The same might be said of Gravity's Rainbow,
which also satisfies Lyotard's specifications for postmodern art, in that
it "puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which
denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would
make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable;
that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but
in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable" (81). Indeed,
Pynchon is scrupulous in avoiding the "good form" of specific
closure. The final cadence leaves us in silence or blankness, both locally
and in terms of the larger opus, since that final em-dash marks both the
abrupt terminus of Gravity's Rainbow and the last stroke of fictional
discourse from Thomas Pynchon for seventeen years, barring future revelations.
Until the appearance of Vineland in 1990, one might very well have
echoed Seaman Bodine: "Rocketman, jeepers. You don't want to do nothing
no more" (371).
But it is not exactly nothing or negation that Pynchon is up to when he
dashes off into the blankness. Aposiopesis is a stochastic language game.
It challenges the receiver to fill in the blank, to perfect the truncated
statement by extrapolating in some way from context; and of course, the
method of this extrapolation or guessing is the key to the trope's effect.
In the case of Pynchon's suspended conclusion we can develop several lines
of interpretation, several apocryphal versions of Pynchon's apocalypse.
One possible reading points unambiguously toward holocaust: Pynchon's finale
invokes a suspension of discourse (or culture, civilization, humanity itself)
in the first thermonuclear flash of a third world war. In this case the
term that completes the aposiopesis must be the verb to die, applied
in the imperative. Read this way, the novel ends with a universal death
wish: Now everybody die.