Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is an exceptionally long and well-regarded novel, tackling the question of modernity and overwhelming technological change. In it, Slothrop, an American serviceman deployed in London at the end of World War Two with an uncanny ability to sense where rockets will strike the city, is subject to the machinations of shadowy elites who are using him to find the Nazi rocket, the Schwarzgerat 00000. Under his superiors’ influence, Slothrop combs the post-war German countryside for information, descending into schizophrenia. His illness illuminates the anxieties of his time: global, human, and helpless.
Released in 1973—the same year the US removed its troops from Vietnam and the beginning of ‘stagflation’—Gravity’s Rainbow felt the Cold War at its height and reflected the era’s deep mistrust of the power of technology and institutions. Depicted as a necessity to understanding rocketry, Slothrop’s paranoia – through a modern reading – is seen as a reaction to the stress of dying by nuclear ICBMs, obliteration riding upon Nazi-designed rockets. In the novel, Slothrop becomes obsessed with an international Rocket Cult manipulating industries to develop V-2 missiles and finds through a series of revelations that his childhood, schooling and Army placement were planned. And so his paranoia is validated. In this, Gravity’s Rainbow reflects the governmental betrayals felt by American citizens who were still reeling from the manipulations in Vietnam and by Nixon, the unease felt from Operation Paperclip, where Nazi scientists such as Wernher von Braun were pardoned and positioned in US research and design for rocketry, and the constant existential threat from nuclear missiles. These forces were completely out of ordinary citizens’ control, yet thrust upon the globe. How else to meet the Cold War’s insanity but with insanity?
For all its length, Gravity’s Rainbow does not declare its intent in a sentence. Yet Pynchon intersperses clues between depictions of raucous orgies and occult metaphysics. Sitting in the movie theater towards the novel’s end, as a Nazi rocket hammers down upon them, the Cold War audience’s role is to be victim of forces beyond their control. The role of a contemporary audience is to understand those vicious relics and their progeny, decayed but not yet overcome.