Our history is an aggregate of last moments • Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon - Contemporary Literature • 1970–Present

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Our history is an aggregate of last moments • Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Contemporary Literature • 1970–Present




The encyclopedic novel


1851 Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is the first great encylopedic American novel.

1963 Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. anticipates Gravity’s Rainbow in its panoramic and information-packed scope.


1996 Dealing with addiction, family relationships, tennis, entertainment, advertising, Quebecois separatism, and film theory, the encyclopedic novel Infinite Jest, by US writer David Foster Wallace, has 388 endnotes.

1997 Using baseball — and one baseball in particular — as its central conceit, US author Don DeLillo’s complex novel Underworld stretches from the 1950s to the 1990s and involves both fictional and historical characters.

The term “encyclopedic novel” refers to a capacious, complex work of fiction that includes swathes of specialized information on subjects ranging from science to the arts to history. It attempts to create, through a virtuoso effort of imagination, a fictional world beyond the reach of linear storytelling. In his novel Moby-Dick, Herman Melville combined, among other things, biblical and Shakespearean references, facts about whales, and realistic descriptions of life on board a ship. In Gravity’s Rainbow, set at the end of World War II, Thomas Pynchon interweaves wartime secret operations with pop culture, surrealism, perverse eroticism, rocket science, and mathematics.

Determinism and disorder

Within a formidably complex plot, with shifts in time and around 400 characters, the novel is a display of prodigious erudition. Its themes include paranoia, determinism, death, and entropy — a term from thermodynamics that indicates a steady decline into disorder.

The central symbol in the book is the German V-2 rocket, an image both of transcendence and of a frightening, unknown future. The book’s opening words describe the sound of a V-2 hitting London: “A screaming comes across the sky.” Symmetrically, at the end of the novel, a rocket is about to detonate. In between, numerous plots and subplots propel the characters through a succession of wildly improbable scenarios, in which paranoia and fear of death are often rendered with black humour.

The book’s main plot lines revolve around the quest by several characters to uncover the secret of a V-2 rocket numbered 00000. One such character is an American GI, Tyrone Slothrop, whose sexual encounters in London occur at the precise sites where V-2 rockets will fall. Slothrop later rescues a Dutch girl named Katje, who is a double-agent, from an octopus conditioned to attack her. The octopus has been trained by Laszlo Jamf, who had conducted Pavlovian experiments on Slothrop as a child and is the inventor of an “erotic” plastic from which a capsule in rocket 00000 is made. When the rocket is launched, a young boy, Gottfried, is strapped inside this capsule: he is the sex slave of the book’s Nazi arch-villain, who by sacrificing Gottfried seeks to transcend his mortality.

Such bizarre scenes are shot through with a profusion of ideas, including allusions to science and philosophy. The reader, like Slothrop, struggles to find meaning.


The sheer scale and complexity of Gravity’s Rainbow make it notoriously resistant to interpretation. It is possible to tease out themes by looking at the symbolic implications of the rainbow, and their opposites, and pinpointing their relevance to the novel.

Paranoid truth-seeking

All systems by which we might make sense of our lives, whether they are scientific, mystical, religious, or political, are described at a certain point in the novel as paranoid. Against human attempts at rationalization, Pynchon posits a complex reality in which events occur according to inscrutable laws — while perhaps entertaining the idea that true paranoia lies in precisely such a world view.

In his short story “The Secret Integration” (1964), white schoolchildren with a black imaginary friend experience adult racism, after which their dreams “could never again be entirely safe”. Gravity’s Rainbow traces a parallel loss of innocence on a massive scale, and Pynchon no doubt relished the idea that reading itself could no longer be entirely safe after his virtuoso feat of fictional black magic.


The V-2 rocket is a key presence in Gravity’s Rainbow, which features a project to assemble one, while embracing a profusion of chaos, perversity, and paranoia.


Born in 1937 in Long Island, New York, Thomas Pynchon counts among his ancestors the founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, USA. Pynchon attended the high school in Oyster Bay, and went on to study engineering physics at Cornell University, but left before graduating to serve in the US Navy. He returned to Cornell to study English. In the early 1960s Pynchon worked as a technical writer at Boeing in Seattle; he would later draw upon his experiences there in his fiction (especially Gravity’s Rainbow). He spent some time in Mexico before moving to California. After Gravity’s Rainbow his fiction became less stylistically challenging and more humanistic and political. Pynchon is known for being protective of his privacy, and shy of media coverage.

Other key works

1966 The Crying of Lot 49

1984 Slow Learner (stories)

2006 Against the Day

2013 Bleeding Edge

See also: Moby-DickLes MisérablesWar and PeaceUlyssesCatch-22Infinite Jest