A Screaming Comes Across the Sky: Re-Reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

With no end in sight to my stay-at-home lifestyle, it seemed like as good a time as any to re-read Thomas Pynchon’s 760-page tome, Gravity’s Rainbow. Populated with over 300 characters and hundreds of historical and cultural references, from classical Teutonic mythology to Tarot cards, the 1973 novel also features a convoluted plot line with rapid chronological shifts (sometimes without warning the reader), along with stream-of-consciousness riffs and digressions. It is a Kilimanjaro kind of reading endeavor made accessible only by the study of extra sources (and there is an abundance).

Don’t be alarmed

But what makes the book worthy of the vacant looks or disparaging eye-rolls from one’s reader-friends is its continuing relevancy. On one simple level, Gravity’s primary setting is Europe at the end of World War II, and this year marks the 75th anniversary of V-E day (Victory in Europe) and V-J day (Victory in Japan). On a deeper level, a couple of the major themes of the book—such as the potential of  hidden multinational forces that contribute to an ongoing sense of paranoia and anxiety—seem to fit our current pandemic mindset quite well.

From the Seeds of World War II Devastation

Much lip service is currently being paid to this period in history. People refer to their stay-at-home vegetable plots as Victory Gardens. Then there are the phrases such as “Not since World War II has…”  or “we are mobilizing industry on a scale that hasn’t been seen since World War II,” that populate news and government communications alike. The latter statement seems silly when comparing the current struggle to provide masks, ventilating machines, and nose swabs to the U.S. wartime capacity in the 1940s, which could build a standard 10,500-ton merchant vessel in about five days.  

President Donald Trump’s self-pronouncement of himself as a wartime President adds more to one’s cynicism.  If Trump is a wartime President, that moniker only makes sense if the 45th President is compared to George W. Bush, whose invasion of Iraq was responsible for hundreds of thousands of civilian and military deaths (meanwhile, coronavirus deaths in the United States will soon surpass 175,000), or President Lyndon Johnson, whose administration inflated death numbers of the enemy to mislead the American public that the U.S. military was winning the war in Southeast Asia. Sounds like a page out of the current White House playbook.

Mixed in with the debris and death of World War II—punctuated at the end with atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—was the power struggle between Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union over how Germany was to be divvyed up. These strategies included gaining control of the German rocket program, which had been developing new technologies since the early 1930s. (The 1919 Treaty of Versailles did not include limits on rocket development because rockets existed only on distant drawing boards.)

Part of that control in the late stages of the war was to roundup as many German rocket scientists and engineers as possible. The most notable was Werner Von Braun, who later came to the United States to pioneer the U.S. rocket and space program (and even earned a cameo appearance in Amazon’s Hunters, a series based on the premise that the U.S. government overlooked the Nazi resumes of these scientists). A Von Braun quote graces the first page of Gravity’s Rainbow. A lesser well known but equally influential player was Walter Dornberger who directed the German military rocket program. After the war he came to United States to begin an illustrious career with Bell Aircraft and later Dornberger worked on developing earlier versions of the Space Shuttle.

Approximately 200,000 workers, which included highly skilled engineers and technicians working in the German rocket program, were responsible for the V-1 and V-2 rockets. In July 1944, the month following D-Day invasion of Normandy, V-1 rockets landed in Britain causing 30,000 casualties and destroying 20,000 homes a day. More like a buzz bomb than a rocket, the V-1 could deliver a major payload but had a limited range.  Had the Allies not captured the V-1 launch sites in France or if Adolf Hitler had not insisted on developing the “sexier” and more expensive V-2 rockets, the war may have ended very differently. The V-2 attacks began in September 1944 and continued through March of 1945, and though they were “less destructive” they were terrifying for English civilians as the rockets were known for their parabolic (rainbow-like) trajectory. One could hear the rocket overhead which would then cut out in complete silence before hitting the ground and sending out a ball of fire before making a sound.

Slouching Towards the Altar of the V-2

And thus, is the main historical backdrop for Gravity’s Rainbow. One of the main characters, American lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop is at the epicenter of the narrative because his whereabouts can predict where V-2 rockets will strike. This has come to the attention to a special organization known as PISCES (Psychological Intelligence Schemes to Expedite Surrender). Located at a former mental hospital in coastal England, PISCES is made up of statisticians, “and a Behaviorist here, a Pavlovian there,” who have discovered that Slothrop’s erections/sexual encounters are linked to the locations where V-2 rockets have struck. What ensues is a zealous attempt by the British, the Americans, the Russians, and the defeated Germans to harness the future of the rocket in part by monitoring Slothrop’s travels in war-ravaged northern Germany. And understandably so, since gravity is an invisible force that controls everything, and the rocket defies gravity. Pynchon scholar Joseph Slade makes the point that the V-2 is the protagonist of the story. It is introduced in the very opening line of the novel (“A screaming comes across the sky.”) as it descends upon London.

If you can think beyond the death and havoc these rockets delivered, one must be in awe of such a technological achievement. Gravity’s Rainbow describes the origins (and myths) of the rockets that would later make the voyages into space possible, which still capture the imagination of crowds such as those who trekked to Cape Canaveral during a pandemic (e.g. Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch in May of 2020).  Besides governments and military regimes, huge multinational corporations directly and indirectly developed the rocket science that lead to the V-2. General Electric, Siemens, Krupp, Shell, Standard Oil and I.G. Farben all played various parts during the war. One of the more sinister corporations was I.G. Farben, which developed Zyklon-B, the gas that was used with deathly efficiency at Auschwitz. After the war, I.G. Farben was split into other entities. One of the companies is now Bayer, which is currently embroiled in 10 billion dollars’ worth of lawsuits claiming that its weed-killer Round-Up causes cancer.

Many of the German corporations used slave labor and in Gravity’s Rainbow the major rocket installation at Nordhausen was right next to the death camp at Dora. The relationship between German industry and their multinational bedfellows is quite well documented in other books. Pynchon utilizes one of the important characters—a young German chemical engineer Franz Pökler—to illustrate this complicity.

Coincidently Gravity’s Rainbow was published the same year as Anthony Sampson’s The Sovereign State of ITT, a blockbuster book about the multinational conglomerate, which began in the 1920s as a European version of AT&T. Slade cites the Sampson book to demonstrate how a corporation like ITT worked for both the Allies and the Axis powers: “While ITT Focke-Wulf planes were bombing Allied ships, and ITT lines were passing information to German submarines, ITT direction finders were saving other ships from torpedoes.”  After the war, ITT brazenly asked for and received war reparations from the Allies to compensate for the bombing of their Focke-Wulf factories.


Feeding the Conspiracy with Paranoia

Like adding too much flour and water to sourdough starter — another popular pandemic ritual — I feel like I am overfeeding the conspiracy theories that are bubbling over already. Corporate malfeasance and evil power of the multinationals have long been tropes of literature and film. You cannot watch many movies or television shows without the villain being linked to a morally bankrupt corporation that has masterminded everything. These tropes (often seemingly played by Christopher Plummer) reinforce conspiracy theories. Currently the motherload of conspiracy theories comes from the QAnon community, which has mushroomed to the point that its disciples are running for Congress. Trump is considered a savior/superhero of the QAnon movement who is protecting the country from the powerful government deep state, which is heavily involved in child sex trafficking. It is doubtful that the QAnon zealots will see the dissonance of the recent news conference where Trump wished the best to Ghislaine Maxwell, an alleged accomplice of convicted sex offender Jeffery Epstein.

At the risk of defending such reckless beliefs, paranoia does serve a function in the Pynchon world. Slade writes:

As Pynchon uses the concept, paranoia is a sort of holding action for the self, a means by which the individual traces the paths of force in the grids and systems that surround him. Implicit in paranoia is the constant possibility that the paranoiac may be wrong, that the conspiracy he perceives may not exist or that it may have an entirely different shape, but without it he may become a Slothrop, his self helpless in the present. Paranoia is a way of structuring or restructuring, the world along comprehensible lines, and if does not reveal the Word, it may suffice until the Word does manifest itself. In the modern world, Pynchon’s universe, paranoia is rightful heir to rationalization.

For a long time, I have had this notion, which I cannot attribute to single source, that the root cause of the proliferation of paranoia, conspiracy theories and religious fundamentalism is that technology and society is changing our lives too fast. Pynchon saw the atomic and rocket age as a contributor. But the rise of the Internet and social media, breakthroughs in genetics and robotics are all being poured in a daily tsunami of information and being fed into our smartphones. Sometimes our only defense is to shut everything down or pull out a book the magnitude of Gravity’s Rainbow that can consume us.

Perhaps it might have been better to pick a different book, but fortunately, Pynchon has provided some coping mechanisms.

The Pynchon Proverbs for Paranoids

In his novels, Pynchon presents alternative histories but woven in threads of historical fact.  His world is very disorganized, clandestine, and hedonistically amoral. There is a lot of sex, drugs and music and the narrator is often hip, detached, and playful. Pynchon usually populates his narratives with all kinds of humor from slapstick to satire and parody and wordplay to keep his message from being too oppressive. 

In the case of Gravity’s Rainbow, he offers five adages that I added to in my own vernacular when I first read the book forty years ago. They are the Proverbs for Paranoids:

Proverbs for Paranoids, 1: “You man never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.”

Proverbs for Paranoids, 2: “The innocence of the creatures is in inverse to the immorality of the master.”

Proverbs for Paranoids, 3: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.”

Proverbs for Paranoids, 4: “You hide, they seek.”

Proverbs for Paranoids, 5: “Paranoids are not paranoids because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.”

These are kind of plug and play kind of maxims that can be used in many occasions, but the two that have been most useful in the pandemic Dog Days are numbers 3 and 5. 

In Proverbs for Paranoids, 3, Pynchon reminds us that there is a need to be focused on asking the important questions. Trump is the perfect example. His strategy and power come from his ability to distract. If he can get you thinking about something else (and asking the wrong questions) he continues to go on his merry way.  He is like the bullfighter, using his red cape to distract and enrage the charging bull to the point of weariness. Perhaps that will be the ultimate reason that he will not be re-elected. People are tired of Trump — like some television show that is way overdue for cancellation.

Proverbs for Paranoids, 5 asks a larger question. “Who or What (if anything) is behind Trump?” Are we just being paranoid? (Maybe this is just old-fashioned incompetence.) Or as Pynchon suggests maybe we are at fault by allowing ourselves to stumble into these bad situations.

And the situation has become bad. In his The Order of the Day (2017) Éric Vuillard’s succinctly describes how the German industry supported Adolf Hitler as early as 1933 and provides a corporation by corporation scorecard of which slave-labor camps these companies “utilized.”  These multinationals survived and flourished after the war and still are around today. Villard even explains how it is done: “Corruption is an irreducible line item in the budget of large companies, and it goes by several names: lobbying fees, gifts, political contributions.” (Another recent example is FirstEnergy of Akron Ohio, allegedly bribing Ohio Speaker of the House, Larry Householder with $61 million dollars so he could orchestrate a billion buyout with taxpayer money for their nuclear power plants.)

A Rainbow is a Spectrum

Upon completing the rereading of Gravity’s Rainbow, I am left with as much uncertainty as when I started a few months ago on this endeavor although I have no doubt about the relevancy or worthiness of its cult classic status.  My problem rests with the status of my own paranoia.

Am I just another garden variety paranoiac, located on the same spectrum as the colorful QAnon folks? Except I reside in a different band, shoulder to shoulder with other aging boomers who are reconciling their opinions on who really is in power and what can (if anything) be done about it.  Like the trajectory of the V-2s that extends beyond the horizon, I probably will never witness where all this personal angst will finally land. Gravity’s Rainbow was not The Word I was hoping for, but it is as an all-consuming and entertaining crutch of a novel that has helped me hobble through these pandemic Dog Days.  

Special thanks to Francis Walker of the Gravity’s Rainbow Support Group (https://bit.ly/30712Rx)  for his invaluable feedback on an earlier draft of this piece.

Murray Browne is a writer living near Atlanta, Georgia.  He is the author of Down & Outbound: A Mass Transit Satire (2017) and The Book Shopper: A Life in Review (2009). Links to his books and blogs can be found at this website at murray-browne.com. This is fourth essay for Dog Day Classics.

With Dog Days Classics, we ask writers to look back on, reread, and reassess the books that they loved or that influenced them over the years.  Since then, many of our best contributors have revisited books by the likes of Roberts Caro and WiebeBarbara FieldsH.P. LovecraftKaren HalttunenMichael Holt and more.  (We’ve also opened up the series to other kinds of works beyond books or essays, to include music and film.)  The whole idea was just to use the waning days of Summer to write shorter, more casual pieces than the epic, longform articles that we often publish.

Selected Bibliography

Bump, Philip. “15 Years After the Iraq War Ended, the Death Toll is Still Murky” The Washington Post. March 20, 2018.

Clerc, Charles. “Introduction” in Approaches to Gravity’s Rainbow. Edited by Charles Clerc. Columbus:Ohio State University Press,1983.

Johnson, Paul. In Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (Revised) New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.

LaFrance, Adrienne. “Nothing Can Stop What is Coming” (QAnon), Atlantic Magazine, Vol. 328, No. 5. May, 2020.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Viking, 1973.

Roberts, Andrew. Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.

Slade, Joseph W. Writers for the Seventies: Thomas Pynchon. New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1974.

Toloyan, Khachig. “War is Background in Gravity’s Rainbow” in Approaches to Gravity’s Rainbow. Edited by Charles Clerc. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983.

Vuillard, Éric. The Order of the Day. New York: Other Press, 2017.

Weisenburger, Steven. A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1983.