Rocket Power

Rocket Power
Richard Poirier, The Saturday Review - March 3, 1973

Illustration by Charles Shields
The fantastically variegated and multi­structured V., which made Thomas Pynchon famous in 1963 and the wonder ever since of anyone who has tried to meet or photograph or interview him, is the most masterful first novel in the history of literature, the only one of its decade with the proportions and stylistic resources of a classic. Three years later came The Crying of Lot 49, more accessible only because very much shorter than the first, and like some particularly dazzling section left over from it. And now Gravity's Rainbow. More ambitious than V., more topical (in that its central mystery is not a cryptogram but a supersonic rocket), and more nuanced, Gravity's Rainbow is even less easy to assimilate into those interpretive schematizations of "apocalypse" and "entropy" by which Pynchon's work has, up to now, been rigidified by his admirers.

At thirty-six, Pynchon has established himself as a novelist of major historical importance. More than any other living writer, including Norman Mailer, he has caught the inward movements of our time in outward manifestations of art and technology so that in being historical he must also be marvelously exorbitant. It is probable that he would not like being called "historical." In Gravity's Rainbow, even more than in his previous work, history — as Norman 0. Brown proposed in Life Against Death — seen as a form of neurosis, a record of the progressive attempt to impose the human will upon the movements of time. Even the very recording of history is such an effort. History-making man is Faustian man. But while this book offers such Faustian types as a rocket genius named Captain Blicero and a Pavlovian behaviorist named Edward Pointsman, it is evident that they are slaves to the systems they think they master.

For Pynchon the additional comic horror of the Faustianism peculiar to this century is that it can no longer be located in the mad heroics of individuals. It is instead part of the bureaucratic enterprise, of the technological systems that have set history on a course which, like the final descent of the book's rocket, is "irreversible." Any depersonalization of history may therefore be imagined as perverse, with the technological system being turned back upon ourselves in a corporate exercise of masochism like that of one character in the book; she turns her ass to the whip not in surrender but in despair, in order to discover whether she is still human and can cry in pain. The ultimate whip in Gravity's Rainbow, the end product of the system, is the supersonic rocket, the German V-2 of the Second World War. It is Moby Dick and the Pequod all in one, both the Virgin and the Dynamo of Pynchon's magnificent book.

If in the structure of his books Pynchon duplicates the intricate networking of contemporary technological, political, and cultural systems, then in the style and its rapid transitions he tries to match the dizzying tempos, the accelerated shifts from one mode of experience to another, which characterize contemporary media and movement. As the recurrent metaphors of the book would have it, we are being delivered beyond the human "margin," beyond "gravity," and the natural beauties created by its pressures. Our exhilarations are at the expense of any safe "return," any re-entry, except a self-destructive one, into the atmosphere that has made the earth a congenial and precarious "home" for our vulnerable, time-ridden natures.

In Pynchon we "return" to ourselves, come back to the remembered earth of our primal being, reified by the objects to which we have joined our passions, our energies, and our needs. We have become like the young Gottfried, a soldier who allows himself to be placed inside a specially assembled V-2, number 00000, then to be fired beyond the speed of sound, over scenes he thinks he would remember fondly were he able to see them, and down to fiery annihilation.

It is impossible to summarize a book of some 400,000 words in which every item enriches every other and in which the persistent paranoia of all the important characters invests any chance detail with the power of an omen, a clue, to which, momentarily, all other details might adhere. The novel clarifies itself only to create further mysteries, as one such pattern modifies or displaces another. This is a cumulative process with no predictable direction so that any summary is pretty much the product of whatever creative paranoia the book induces in a reader. To complicate matters further, characters are not introduced as they customarily are in fiction, with some brief account of identity and function. Instead, any one of the chapters — which are separated not by numbers but by little squares apparently meant to simulate the sprocket holes in a film — suddenly immerses us in a scene, a mass of persons and furnishings, much as if it were flashed before us on a screen.

In Gravity's Rainbow there are some 400 characters all bearing Pynchonesque names (Old Bloody Chiclitz is back, by the way, from The Crying of Lot 49), along with a fair number of people who, if you bother, can be found in reference books (e.g., such pioneers in organic chemistry as Kekule, von Liebig, and Clerk Maxwell). There are scores of submerged references, including one to "The Kenosha Kid." I'd guess this is Orson Welles, born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A most apt allusion, if one thinks of the hero of Citizen Kane and of how his last word, "Rosebud," is taken as some clue to the lavish assemblage of his wealth and power, when it is instead the name of a little sled, at the end consigned to junk and fire, that he loved as a boy. Any reference or detail in the book can redeem itself this way. But no one of them should ever be regarded as a central clue, and the reader need not fret unduly at what he might miss.

No one, for example, will want to keep track of the hundreds of alphabetical agencies from World War II and the international cartels that are mentioned in the book, nor is anyone expected to. The confusion is the point, and CIA is not what you think it is, but Chemical Instrumentality for the Abnormal. The book is full of disguises, of changes and fusions of identity. The principal character in the main plot is Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, whose ancestry goes back to Puritan stock in colonial New England, but he is sometimes also known as Ian Cuffing, a British correspondent, and sometimes as Der Racketmensch, a title he picks up in Berlin when he sports a cape and helmet looted from a Wagnerian opera company ("Fickt nicht mit den Racketmensch," the poor bastard cries, using a harmonica to elude two would-be muggers). He picks up yet another title and another costume in a small German town where, at the behest of some little kids, for whom he will always do anything, he plays the role of Plechazunga, or the Pig Hero, in the yearly pageant to celebrate a tenth-century liberator who appeared in a flash of lightning. He continues to wear his pig costume through a whole series of subsequent adventures.

Aside from the main plot, which deals with a competitive effort to see who can first put together a facsimile of Rocket 00000, there are at least four other major plots, one of which would alone make or enhance the reputation of anyone now writing fiction. There is the story of Lieutenant, later Major, Weissmann, better known by his aforementioned ss code name of Captain Blicero, his love for the Herera tribesman Enzian, both in South-West Africa and in Germany, and his later relationships with Gottfried and with Katje, a double agent who also has an affair with Slothrop. There is the story of Franz Pökler, who has worked on the rocket for Weissmann-Blicero, partly out of fascination but also with the hope thereby of recovering his wife and his daughter Ilse from the concentration camps. There is the story of Tchitcherine, a Soviet intelligence officer, of his exile in central Asia just before the war, his search for his half brother, Enzian, in what Pynchon calls simply "the Zone" after the war, his Koestler-like dialogues with Comrade Ripov, who might have him exterminated, and the subsequent, successful search for him by his German girl, the adoring Celi. And then there is the story of the half brother, Enzian himself, a leader of the Schwarzkommando (they are Hereros exiled in Germany for two generations from South-West Africa) and the organizer of their effort to locate all the parts necessary to put together and fire Rocket Number 00001. In all these is a species of travel writing about Berlin before Hitler, London during the Blitz, the Zone after the war, central Asia in the 1930s, German Southwest Africa early in the century — all of it apparently staggeringly authentic, not only in researched detail but in tone, in creating the spirit of times and places Pynchon has never seen.

There are also dozens of wondrous ancillary plots featuring characters whose motives and activities are essential to the movement of all the major ones. Probably the most important of these is an elusive Doctor Laszlo Jamf, whose early career as a behaviorist brought him from Darmstadt for a year at Harvard. While there, by agreement between Infant Slothrop's father and I. G. Farben, who will later subsidize Slothrop's education at the same university, Jamf conditioned Infant Tyrone's sexual reflexes. Unfortunately, Jamf's later de-conditioning process is ineptly managed so that in London in 1944 Slothrop finds himself getting a hard-on at times and places where the V-2 rocket is to fall.

This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by Slothrop's superiors, especially Edward Pointsman, in an experimental group called The White Visitation. What mystifies them is that, because V-2 is supersonic, the sound of approach follows rather than precedes the sound of impact. The conceivable stimulus for Slothrop's conditioned response therefore follows the explosion it should warn him about so that, given his repeated proximity to spots where the rocket is to fall, he should be dead. It has to be assumed, therefore, that his conditioning has given him special powers of responding not to the rocket sound but to mysterious precursors of its arrival, to some configuration of sights and circumstances. As, it turns out, his map of the location of various girls around London perfectly synchronizes with another map kept by the authorities marking V-2 hits. (The reader is free, without any prodding from Pynchon, to play with the joke that perhaps S]othrop's capacity to read signs about the intent of the heavens is part of his Puritan inheritance; he is one of the Elect, one of the Saved.) In any case, Jamf can be said to have programmed the score and bangs for both Slothrop and the rocket, since one of his accomplishments when he later phased himself from behaviorism into organic chemistry was the development of lmipolex G, a plastic essential to the mysterious Rocket 00000.

The central character is the Rocket itself, and all the other characters, for one reason or another, are involved in a quest for it, especially for a secret component, the so-called Schwarzgerät, which was wrapped in Imipolex G. Because the multiple search gradually exposes the interlocking relationships among the cultural, economic, and scientific aspects of contemporary life and its historical antecedents, Pynchon can properly refer to it as "the terrible politics of the Grail." Slothrop is compelled because rockets turn him on and because Pointsman contrives t<i have him observed in his obsession before removing his testicles for analysis. (The desigtated guinea pig gets away when the wrong man is picked up wearing Slothrop's Pig Hero costume.) Enzian wants to reassemble the Rocket as a final Revelation to his people: the white races who practiced genocide upon them have devised now an instrument of their own annihilation, which is figuratively and, as their firing of the Rocket will show, literally "irreversible." Tchitcherine's pursuit of the rocket is a pretext for finding and destroying Enzian, thus removing the humiliation of having a black half brother. The real powers on the Anglo-American side, whom Pynchon calls "They," indulge Pointsman and Slothrop for the same reason that their Soviet counterparts indulge Tchitcherine-so that They might come into possession of the rocket assembly but, more importantly, so that They might destroy at last the Schwarzkommando. "They" want the world to be bleached, as the name Blicero suggests, after Blicker, a folklorish German nickname for Death, for blankness.

What only a few of the various searchers suspect, and what none of Them knows, is the lesson made obvious by the compulsion of the search: the Rocket has taken possession of everyone, and Gottfried is only a physical manifestation of their collective ultimate destiny. Gottfried is the Schwarzgerät, and Rocket 00000 was assembled in such a way as to make room for his body, covered with an aromatic shroud of Imipolex G. The "secret" is that sex, love, life, death have all been fused into the Rocket's assembly and into its final trajectory.

It can and will be said that such a book as this would have no audience except one prepared by the kind of analytic study of literature that has been in vogue for some thirty years. It's been said already of V. and of the works of other related contemporary novelists like William Burroughs, who shares, by the way, Pynchon's mar velous sensitivity to the metaphysical implications of technology, especially film technology, and the way the mind can schizophrenically work like a film projector. But the argument that writers like Pynchon and Burroughs are a by-product of contemporary literary criticism is trivial, since, for one reason, the two books — Moby Dick and Ulysses — thatcome to mind most often as one reads Gravity's Rainbow indulged in the same kind of complexity, not because criticism had made it fashionable to do so, but because the internal nature of culture made it necessary. And it is further beside the point because Gravity's Rainbow marks an advance beyond either book in its treatment of cultural inheritances, an advance that a merely literary education and taste will either distort or find uncongenial.

However outwardly similar, these three works do not conceive of the world in the same way. For historical reasons alone, including a radically changed idea about the structure of human personality, they would have to be vastly different from one another. Where they are alike is in the obligation, assumed without condescension, to shape the world occasionally in compliance with techniques developed outside literature or high culture. All three books take enormous, burdensome responsibility for the .forces at work in the world around them, for those "assemblies" of life, like movies, comics, and behavioristic psychology, that go on outside the novel and make of reality a fiction even before a novelist can get to it. That is why all three books are full of renditions of styles and forms other than those derived from literature itself. The rhetoric in Moby Dick often owes as much to the political oratory of Melville's own time as to the works of Shakespeare. Ulysses has as much of the newspaper and the music hall as of Homer. Film is everywhere in Gravity's Rainbow. So is musical comedy — any given scene might break into a lyric. So are comic books, and although Plastic Man and Sundial are directly mentioned, Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel, the superheroes of the World War II comics, determine the tone and the conduct of many of the characters.

This kind of thing is now familiar enough, but what distinguishes Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow, especially from such writers as John Barth and Borges, is that he does not, like them, make use of technology or popular culture or literary convention in an essentially parodistic spirit, though he tended to do so in V. He is not so literary as to think it odd, an in joke, that literary techniques are perhaps less powerfully revealing about human nature and history than are scientific ones.

Pynchon, who was a student of engineering at Cornell, knows and respects the imagination embedded in the instrumentalities of science. If he is a scholar of film and super-comics, he is, even more, a scholar of mathematics. There are learned disquisitions on, among other things, organic chemistry and the theory of pauses in classical music, the possibilities of "dodecaphonic democracy" where all the notes in a work get equal hearing, something Pynchon might have gotten from Glenn Gould. \Vhether or not there is "dodecaphonic democracy" in. Beethoven, there is most surely a kind of cultural democracy in Pynchon, and it is different from that in Melville or Joyce, the latter of whom shows a highcultural nostalgia that is absent from Pynchon. Pynchon is apt to wax nostalgic about lost moments of American adolescence, especially moviegoing, and his idea of character derives more from cinematic media, post-Freudian psychology, and drugs than from other fiction.

Pynchon is willing and able, that is, to work from a range of perspectives infinitely wider, more difficult to manage, more learned t an any to be found elsewhere in contemporary literature. His genius resides in his capacity to see, to see feelingly, how these various perspectives, apparently so diverse and chaotic, are begotten of the same technology, the same supportive structures that have foundations in the theology of the seventeenth century and the science of the nineteenth. A good example is his exploration into what are called "frames" in photography, the relation of "frames" to acceleration in moving pictures and in rocketry, and the consequence of this relationship to the human image. About Pökler's work on the rocket, we are told that, in pre-war experiments, models of the rocket were dropped by Heinke airplanes from 20,000 feet and that "the fall was photographed by Askania Cinetheodolite rigs on the ground. In the daily rushes you would watch the frames around 3,000 feet, where the model broke through the speed of sound. There has been this strange connection between the German mind and the rapid flashing of successive stills to counterfeit movement, for at least two centuries — since Leibniz, in the process of inventing calculus, used the same approach to break up the trajectories of cannon balls through the air. And now Pökler was about to be given proof that these techniques had been extended past images on film, to human lives."

This kind of speculative writing abounds in the book, brilliantly bringing together technological and much earlier analytical methods that combine to the eventual distortion of lives. Such passages indicate a dimension of mind and of meditative interest that combines the talents of Henry Adams with the talents of Henry James. One thinks of similar excursions in Mailer, but it is precisely Mailer's limitation that he hasn't shown the courage to admit, as Pynchon continually does, that there are forms of inquiry into the nature of life that are beyond the reach of the Novelist's imagination (Mailer's self-enhancing capitalization), that the Novelist's imagination is often less inclusive or daring than the imagination of mathematics or organic chemistry.

It is not enough to say that Pynchon records the effects of technology on human lives or adapts the methods of technology to the investigation and dramatization of them. Any number of writers have done and are doing that. What he is doing is of far more historical and literary significance. He is locating the kinds of human consciousness that have been implanted in the instruments of technology and contemporary methods of analysis; not content with recording the historical effect of these, he is anxious to find our history in them. Kekule's dream, in which he discovered the shape of the benzine ring, the basis of aromatic chemistry, is as beautiful to Pynchon, as humanly revealing, as mythological as is any dream in Finnegan's Wake. In the case of Pökler and his daughter, Pynchon is showing how the poor man comes to recognize the insidious aptness, for someone of his predilections, of the bait and punishment meted out to him by his superiors. He is allowed to see his long-missing daughter once a year – he cannot even be sure whether it is the same girl one year to the next — in a children's town called Zwolfkinder: "So it has gone for the six years since. A daughter a year, each one about a year older, each time taking up nearly from scratch. The only continuity has been her name, and Zwolfkinder, and Pökler's love — love something like the persistence of vision, for They have used it to create for him the moving image of a daughter, flashing him only these summertime frames of her, leaving it to him to build the illusion of a single child — what would the time scale matter, a 24th of a second or a year (no more, the engineer thought, than in a wind tunnel, or an oscillograph whose turning drum you could speed or slow at will ...) ?" She is what Pökler calls his "movie child," the more so since he remembers that on the night of her conception he had been aroused to sex with her mother by a porno film of the 1930s starring one Margherita Erdman, later to be a sometime bedmate of Slothrop.

The loved child was in that sense begotten of a film and has since become as if "framed" by Him, just as Gottfried is at last "framed' by the Rocket that Pökler helped develop. And both film and Rocket derive from the same analytical and technological legacies.

Everybody in the novel is to some extent similarly "framed," and in the various senses imagined in the wistfully recurrent references to John Dillinger corning out of the Biograph moviehouse, the movie images not yet faded from Dillinger's eyeballs (they are images of Clark Gable going manfully to the chair), Dillinger walking into the ambush prepared for him. At the end of Gravity's Rainbow Slothrop, the most "framed" of all, is given a piece of cloth by his buddy, the brawling sailor Bodine, who claims he dipped it in Dillinger's blood that night in Chicago. Dillinger got out of the "frame" only by dying, Gottfried by annihilation, Slothrop finally by some gradual dispersal of self, once the "framed" need to find the Rocket has expended itself. He more or less simply gets lost in the novel, begins to "thin, to scatter," until it's doubtful that he can ever be "found" again in the conventional sense of "positively identified and detained."

The only good way out of the "frame" would have been a saving surrender to peripheral vision. Apparently, it is only there that love is possible, especially love for Pynchon with his extraordinary affection for adolescent girls. As Slothrop sits with Bianca, Margherita's sweet little daughter, herself the offspring of film — conceived while her mother participated in the orgy that would later excite Pökler and lead to the conception of Ilse, the other "movie child" — he senses the timid and frightened desires in her. She wants to escape being "framed." He remembers similar glimpses of possibility when, as a kid, he wheeled around the roads of his hometown in New England, on the lookout for girls: "Her look now — this deepening arrest — has already broken Slothrop's seeing heart: has broken and broken, that same look swung as he drove by, thrust away into twilights of moths and crumbling colony, of skinny clouded-cylinder gas pumps, of tin Moxie signs gentian and bitter sweet as the taste they were there to hustle on the weathered sides of barns, looked for how many Last Times up in the rear view mirror, all of them too far inside metal and combustion, allowing the days' targets more reality than anything that might come up by surprise, by Murphy's Law, where the salvation could be."

Even while being unpretentiously exact, these images of an American adolescence seem, in their very substantiality, to belong to the images of "framing," which in turn belong to the whole historical vision of the book. The vision confirms itself, not by generalization or by abstraction, but as a natural emanation from a mind in which ideas are saturated in the color, texture, and minuteness of daily experience. There are of course any number of other, equally reverberating structurings or assemblies, but a good many of them are designedly without this kind of human poignancy. One obvious example is the sign of double integrals, resembling two elongated S's. It is at once a mathematical principle behind the velocity rate of the Rocket, the insignia of the ss, the shape of the tunnels at Nordhausen, the shape of lovers side by side in bed; in physics, the symbol of entropy is S. This kind of patterning has become a tiresome game, and in Pynchon it is, when blatant, usually the object of high spoofing, a symptom of mechanical paranoia.

Readers who get impatient with this book will most likely be too exclusively literary in their responses rather than not literary enough. They'll stare at designs without listening to voices, wonder about characters when they should be laughing at grotesques, and generally miss the experience in a search for the meaning. Above all, they'll be discomfited by a novelist who osits a world in which experience is often most meaningfully assembled in ways considered alternative, often antithetical to literature, like science, or inferior to literature, like film and comic books. It is not possible dogmatically to feel this way about literature and enjoy Gravity's Rainbow, or, I would suppose, read the times with much comprehension.

If literature is superior to any of these things, then it takes a book as stylistically wide-ranging as Gravity's Rainbow to prove it. To know what the book is up to, one must also know the non-literary genres, so to speak, in which life has been expressing itself. These include not only science and pop culture but the messages sent out by those who usually escape the notice of either, the lost ones, those not "framed," not in the design of things. The signs of their existence are to be found in the waste along the highway, the litter in the trunks of cars, the stuff in the bureau drawer. In his cataloguing of such wastes Pynchon here and in The Crying of Lot 49 is the most poignant and heartbreaking "realist since Dreiser.

This is a terribly haunted book. It is written by a man who has totally isolated himself from the literary world of New York or anywhere else. This remoteness is what has freed him from the provincial self-importance about literary modes and manners that is the besetting limitation of writers like Philip Roth — there are some twenty sequences here superior in kind to The Breast, accomplished as it is, and at least ten superior to Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet. Pynchon is almost unbearably vulnerable to every aspect of contemporary experience, open to every form of sight and sound, democratically receptive to the most common and the most recondite signatures of things. "I resist anything better than my own diversity": what Whitman said of himself could be said of Pynchon and of the inexhaustible and elastic powers of synthesis that make his book a kind of assembly of so many other kinds of contemporary assembly, including that of the Rocket. Pynchon is far too historically intelligent to suggest, however, that the schizophrenic paranoia of his own time is unique to it or that its causes are attributable to that bugaboo Technology. Slothrop can trace his ancestry to a member of Governor William Slothrop’s crew on the Arbella, the flagship of the great Puritan flotilla of 1630, and to a William Slothrop who wrote a nearly heritical book on the relations between the Elect and the Preterite, those who have been passed over, those not elected to salvation. Puritanism is evoked as an early version of the paranoia conditioning us to look for signs of Election and rendering the rest of mankind and its evidences invisible, merely so much waste. The book is therefore a profound (and profoundly funny) historical meditation on the humanity sacrificed to a grotesque delusion-the Faustian illusion of the inequality of lives and the inequality of the nature of signs.

  • * * * * * * *

THOMAS PYNCHON is known almost exclusively through his writing; in all other respects he craves and guards his privacy. This does not mean that he is a recluse (like, say, J. D. Salinger), but rather, simply, very private, and very determined to avoid all publicity. The public facts about his life are therefore few and far between. He was born on May 8, 1937, in Glen Cove, New York. He attended Cornell University (Class of 1958), where he studied – principally — engineering, and wrote his first published short story, "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna," for Epoch magazine. Three more stories followed: "Under the Rose," published in Noble Savage; "Entropy," published in Kenyon Review; and "Low-Lands," published in New World Writing 16. (He later wrote a story for the Saturday Evening Post, "The Secret Investigation," and an essay on Los Angeles for the New York Times Magazine.) In 1963 Lippincott published V., which won the coveted William Faulkner Foundation First Novel Award. His second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, appeared in 1966. (Both novels are currently available in paperback editions.) He is currently rumored to spend his time primarily in California and Mexico and to live, in one informant's phrase, "wherever you can find him."

RICHARD POIRIER (1925 - 2009) was, in 1973, chairman of the English Department at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and author of The Performing Self and Norman Mailer. He co-founded the Library of America, and served as chairman of its board, and was the Marius Bewley Professor of American and English Literature at Rutgers University. New York Times Obituary

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