Gravity’s Rainbow is a 1973 historical satire by American novelist Thomas Pynchon, who is known for complex narratives that are often dense, fragmented, and episodic. The story is set during the last days of World War II as characters search for a mysterious rocket developed by the German military. The novel has been hailed as one of the most important English language works of the 20th century.
Pynchon, disinclined to engage with the press or public, has left the novel’s title unexplained; readers can only speculate. The most popular interpretation is that “gravity’s rainbow” describes an arc—the parabolic trajectory of a V2 rocket.
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This guide uses the 2000 Penguin Books ebook edition of Gravity’s Rainbow.
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Tyrone Slothrop is an American soldier stationed in London, Great Britain, during the closing stages of World War II. At this time, the German military is launching large V2 rockets at Great Britain. There emerges a mysterious correlation between the missile fire and Slothrop’s sex life: Days before these rockets fall on the city, Slothrop is sexually aroused, and the locations of his trysts are bombed several days later. As Slothrop’s sexual arousal appears to either cause or be caused by missile fire, British and American intelligence services learn about Slothrop’s unique ability, and they monitor him closely. Part of the surveillance team works at a former psychiatric hospital named the White Visitation, where paranormal researchers, psychics, and statisticians devise methods of psychological warfare against the Nazis. The staff includes Roger Mexico and Edward Pointsman. Slothrop is interrogated at the White Visitation and, after he is released, he meets up with a woman named Darlene. After Darlene and Slothrop have sex, a rocket falls nearby.
Pointsman, who experiments on stray dogs, is fascinated by the bizarre correlation between Slothrop’s sexual urges and missile fire. Rather than allowing Pointsman to study Slothrop, however, his superiors give him an octopus named Grigori. At the same time, other White Visitation members are part of Operation Black Wing, a psychological warfare division whose research into race has led to a plan for exploiting Germans’ shame, guilt, and fear of their colonial past; for this reason, when the White Visitation researchers earlier interrogated Slothrop, they quizzed him about his racial anxieties. With the information they extracted, the Operation has developed propaganda about Black African rocket scientists working in the German rocket research groups. They hope the propaganda will cause division amongst the German researchers.
Unbeknownst to Slothrop, his visit to the White Visitation was not his first experience as an experimental subject. In the past, the famous (now deceased) psychologist and chemist Laszlo Jamf experimented on a juvenile Slothrop without his knowledge. During these experiments, Jamf conditioned Slothrop to become sexually aroused at a certain stimulus; the stimulus remains shrouded in mystery. The people at the White Visitation want to know the nature of this stimulus so that they can predict rocket attacks.
Some time later, Slothrop is sent to Monaco, accompanied by two British agents named Tantivy and Bloat; they scheme to somehow introduce an unsuspecting Slothrop to a woman named Katje Borgesius, who works for the White Visitation and has been assigned to gather information on Slothrop’s missile-prognosticating libido. As part of this scheme, Tantivy and Bloat stage a scene in which Pointsman’s trained octopus Grigori attacks Katje, prompting Slothrop to save her. The ruse introduces Slothrop to Katje, and the two begin a sexual relationship (as Katje’s assignment has entailed).
Katje has her own backstory: She is a Dutch woman who worked with the Nazis when the Netherlands was invaded. She was taken under control of a German officer named Blicero (also known as Weissmann) in a sadomasochistic relationship of domination, abuse, and roleplay. Katje fled to Britain because she felt guilty about her role in the Nazis’ murderous actions.
Though Slothrop suspects that Bloat, Tantivy, and Katje are in cahoots and deceiving him for some unknown reason, he continues spending time with Katje. When Bloat and Tantivy disappear from Monaco, they are replaced by a British agent named Dodson-Truck, who teaches Slothrop about rockets while examining Slothrop for any reactions. Slothrop begins to feel increasingly paranoid, particularly when a mysterious man steals his uniform and identity documents. He eventually learns about a special German rocket numbered 00000. He begins to suspect that multinational chemical companies are involved in a global conspiracy against him. These forces—referred to by the paranoid Slothrop as “They”—soon appear everywhere. After attending a wild party, Slothrop abandons his commitment to the military and accepts a job in Nice, then Switzerland: He performs chores for mysterious figures, fetching information. During this period, he learns what he can about rocket 00000 and the involvement in the project of Laszlo Jamf.
By May 1945, World War II is practically over in the European theater. With the Nazis defeated, Slothrop continues to search for information about the rockets. He learns that he was the subject of Jamf’s experiments; his father allowed Jamf to experiment on his son in exchange for a scholarship to Harvard for the young boy. Slothrop visits the factory where the rockets were built.
While traveling, he meets an African man from a former German colony. This man, Enzian, is leading a group of Herero rocket scientists who are trying to build a rocket of their own. Like Katje, Enzian was once under the abusive sexual control of Blicero. While near the rocket factory, Slothrop meets a witch named Geli Tripping, and after spending the night with her, he learns she is the lover of a mysterious Russian agent named Tchitcherine. Slothrop leaves quickly. Unknown to Slothrop, Tchitcherine is Enzian’s half-brother, and he is working with a man named Marvy, an American officer who shares an interest in the rockets. Slothrop, who must escape from the rocket factory when Marvy finds him, eventually takes a hot air balloon to Berlin with the help of a man smuggling pies.
Eventually, he meets a man named Säure Bummer, who dresses him in a Rocketman outfit and recruits him to retrieve a large quantity of drugs hidden in Potsdam. Slothrop manages to acquire the drugs, but he is later captured and interrogated by Tchitcherine. After being released, he meets an actress named Margherita Erdmann and accompanies her on a boat down the Oder River. The passengers on the boat take part in a wild orgy, and Slothrop has sex with Margherita’s young daughter, Bianca. A storm throws Slothrop from the boat, but he is rescued by the crew of a barge who take him to the Peenemünde rocket launch site, where he helps them rescue the famous film director Gerhard von Göll. During the rescue, Slothrop steals a Russian military uniform. He then takes his recovered drugs back to the boat from which he fell into the river, only to find Bianca dead aboard the boat.
During this time, Katje joins a team at the White Visitation named the counterforce. The counterforce plans to rescue Slothrop and foil the elaborate conspiracy of Them. Slothrop becomes untethered from everyone. He wanders around Germany, particularly in the lawless, chaotic area known as the Zone. He saves Enzian’s men from an attack by Marvy and plays the role of a folkloric pig hero in a German festival. When he visits a brothel, it is invaded by the police. Slothrop changes clothes; when Marvy (also at the brothel) wears Slothrop’s pig costume, he is mistaken for Slothrop. Men sent by Pointsman mistakenly abduct Marvy and perform a surgical castration on him that was intended for Slothrop.
In the final part of the novel, the counterforce travels to Germany on a doomed mission. The failed castration of Slothrop has resulted in Pointsman being dismissed in disgrace. Slothrop stops searching for information about the rockets and has a psychological crisis, becoming scattered all across the Zone. The narrative becomes increasingly disjointed and episodic. Enzian and the Hereros assemble their own rocket, number 00001. Enzian plans to put himself inside the rocket as a form of ritual sacrifice for his people. In the past, Blicero performed a ceremony, putting one of his young lovers inside Rocket 00000 and firing it in the direction of true North. The narration describes the rocket launch in great detail. The novel ends decades later as a rocket arches through the sky in the air above a Los Angeles cinema.
By Thomas Pynchon