3. What It
Have a wonderful day
In a one-way world
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
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
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 related? 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.