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 move.

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 Rainbow?" (107).

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:

    Now everybody

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.


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