3. What It Is

Have a wonderful day
In a one-way world
Peter Gabriel

But what if we learn to live outside the system, or contrive somehow to get off the bus? This possibility has been much celebrated by the sunshine scenarists, particularly as exemplified in the fate of Tyrone Slothrop. He is the anti-hero of the novel's pointless quest, the paranoid pioneer sent into the new world order to track down all its most dangerous elements (chiefly the Schwarzkommando), so that the Firm may exterminate them. Slothrop has already been about as co-opted as a man can be, as we learn from the strange tale of Laszlo Jamf and a song called "The Penis He Thought Was His Own." But with the help of various dopers, black marketeers, and preterite partisans, Slothrop eludes his controllers. Most important, he also eludes the narrative itself, undergoing a narrowing of "temporal bandwidth" until he becomes so centered in the "now" that even his closest friends can no longer hold him together even as a concept. Slothrop's personal apocalypse is decidedly different from the one outlined in his forbear's hymn:

    There is also the story about Tyrone Slothrop, who was sent into the Zone to be present at his own assembly perhaps, heavily paranoid voices have whispered, his time's assembly and there ought to be a punch line to it, but there isn't. The plan went wrong. He is being broken down instead, and scattered. His cards have been laid down... laid out and read, but they are the cards of a tanker and feeb: they point only to a long and scuffling future, to mediocrity not only in his life but also, heh, heh, in his chroniclers too..." (737-38)

Low-comical though it may be, Slothrop's life is no joke (which at least exempts it from the Schadenfreude that seems to prevail elsewhere in the novel). His narrative is inconclusive, trailing off before the ritual aggression of a punchline. For this reason Slothrop is able simply to vanish from the plot: "It's doubtful if he can ever be 'found' again, in the convention sense of 'positively identified and detained'" (712). One of Slothrop's earlier avatars had been Rocketman, a notably underpowered superhero; now he seems closer to the more numinous figure "Sundial," protagonist of a "virtually uncirculated" comic, whose nature and identity cannot be determined: "The frames never enclosed him or it for long enough to tell" (472). In the same way, perhaps Slothrop avoids being "trapped inside Their frame with [his] wastes piling up, ass hanging out all over Their Movieola viewer, waiting for Their editorial blade" (694).

Or does he? We should not overlook the implications of Slothrop's Tarot, especially the prediction of "mediocrity" in his chroniclers. This may simply represent a tug of the Pynchonian forelock (Aw shucks, the National Book Award, not me). Or it may be something else again, especially if one understands "chroniclers" to refer not just to Pynchon but also in its genuinely plural sense to those who would come after him (present company included). Perhaps Pynchon foresaw the inevitable Pynchon Industry and left this observation to warn those who would eventually labor there. If we pursue this dark insinuation, then a lot of brilliant writing about Gravity's Rainbow must be consigned to preterition. Both Tony Tanner and David Seed, for instance, argue that Slothrop's scattering shows us how to negate or neutralize the determinism of the last pages (Thomas Pynchon, 82; Fictional Labyrinths, 215). Molly Hite sees in Slothrop the end of "one-dimensional" rocket/man and the birth of a new, multidimensional being who cannot be constrained by systems (118). Even Leo Bersani, persistent critic of "the sixties side," argues that we must emulate Slothrop's disappearance "if we are also to disappear as targets, and therefore as conditions of possibility, of rockets and cartels" (112). Could it be that all these very astute readers (and these are among the best) have fallen into what Bernard Duyfhuizen has recently called a "reader trap?"

The situation is complex. Clearly these critics are right to recognize the significance of Tyrone Slothrop's dissolution, which as Bersani points out represents a postmodern dissemination of the subject. It is also entirely plausible to suggest that Slothrop's vanishing act ironizes the end of the novel, whether one finds holocaust or redemption there. Undeniably Gravity's Rainbow attempts to embrace multiplicity, or what Lyotard calls "the unpresentable in presentation." But how successful is the attempt? Or to put this question in is most salient (and by now familiar) form: what is Gravity's Rainbow?

One possible answer: Gravity's Rainbow is not a single but a double text. The title originally announced for Pynchon's novel in Publisher's Weekly was "Mindless Pleasures," echoing a phrase used in the book to describe drug abuse, gluttony, and other roads of excess that lead nowhere near wisdom. It was Tanner's revealing suggestion that we think of Pynchon's novel under two aspects: "Mindless Pleasures," the picaresque adventures of Tyrone Slothrop, and "Gravity's Rainbow," the technobiography of the Rocket (78). It is not necessary actually to categorize parts of the novel as formalist critics once tried to do withMoby Dick, but only to recognize its fundamental duality. Like a large number of critics, Tanner believes that Pynchon was far less committed to the latter text than the former. "Gravity's Rainbow" is presumably Their title for the book, not its true name. To read Pynchon rightly we must regard the last dozen pages of the novel as a throwaway apocalypse, acceptable only with a heavy dose of incredulity. The best part of the novel wanders away with Slothrop into a paranoid quest that founders in its own dark implications, a castration plot that entraps one of Their nastiest villains, implying (as Hite describes it) an expanding universe of textual possibilities (115).

There is indeed much to recommend such an interpretive stance. But to say that there are really two texts in the book called Gravity's Rainbow is not fully to answer Bersani's basic question. It is a little like describing the contents of a small room as "two items" when those items happen to be a cigarette lighter and a can of gasoline, or perhaps more pertinently, two subcritical masses of plutonium. In certain circumstances, number can be less important than arrangement or interoperation. How then are the two textual subassemblies of Gravity's Rainbow&nbsprelated? The answer to this question presents the strongest check to those who would read Slothrop's scattering as exemption or redemption. For it is quite clear that "Mindless Pleasures" is inserted into its next higher assembly, "Gravity's Rainbow," much as Gottfried is mated to his own Aggregat, the 00000. This image of man plugged into a womb/phallus of death in fact occurs more than once in the novel. Gottfried's fate repeats Slothrop's hallucination during his tryst with Bianca (that other doomed child), where he seems to be "inside his own cock" (469), the "metropolitan organ" that has colonized the Body He Thought Was His Own. To make this connection even more obtrusive, Pynchon describes Slothrop's climax in quite pointed terms: "Announcing the void, what could it be but the kingly voice of the Aggregat itself?" (470).

Indeed, Gravity's Rainbow abounds in correlatives for sentiments d'emprise. At an early point in the novel, Slothrop finds himself "bracketed" on a London street by V-2s that fall ahead and behind him (29). The same could be said for his Zonal escapades in their entirety: everything Slothrop does is bracketed or passed over by the Rocket. His own disassembly is rendered preterite (that other meaning of "passed over") by "his time's assembly," the early history of the national security state. If Slothrop's seeds are scattered freely over the Zone, the only soil in which they can root has already been colonized in the name of "the Kingly Aggregat" and its parabolic dominion.

But this is not the most important sense in which Slothrop's decadent history is subordinated to the epos of the Rocket. In a literal, material sense "Mindless Pleasures" is contained or subsumed within "Gravity's Rainbow." To some extent this is merely to repeat the enormously apparent: the novel in question is called Gravity's Rainbow, not Mindless Pleasures. But there may be some virtue in thus asserting the obvious, or in breaking with the usually sound Barthesian precept that text carries more significance than artifactual work. Hite warns that if we "take the arc of the rainbow seriously as a controlling metaphor" we risk betraying "a richly comic novel to the excessive gravity of its providential plot" (131). But there may be just as serious a risk in ignoring the structural realities of the novel, the inevitable "good form" of its commercial presentation. If we conceive of the book strictly in terms of an Eros-Thanatos dialectic, pleasure versus parabola, then we may miss another important structural correlative: the codex object itself.


title page

p18 index