Gravity’s Rainbow


I’ve been putting off this post all day. I finished Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon today. It was part of my “Gravity’s Rainbow Challenge” to read the novel in under two months. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a post on it, but I felt that it is too major not to. It is said that people have written entire Ph.D. theses on just a single page of this novel. This is unverified rumor, but it wouldn’t surprise me. This leads me to a dilemma.

Dilemma: If I take something small and doable for a post, maybe just a detail somewhere, then it is pointless for people who haven’t read the book. There is no reference point. If I do just a general review, then it would be to miss the point.

So most people consider this to be THE postmodern novel. Some would say the greatest novel of the twentieth century (although I think Beloved officially won that or something). This was not my first Pynchon experience, so I sort of new what to expect. I also went in prepared with resources for help if I needed it. Overall, it wasn’t as hard as people make it sound. There was surprisingly a clear main character and also clear other main characters that weren’t quite as main as that one (Tyrone Slothrop).

I guess I’ll just offer advice. If you are thinking about reading it but are worried, don’t be. Just do it. It isn’t that hard. You may come out having no idea what it was about, but there is a story and you should be able to get that. For at least 200 pages, keep a list of main characters and how they relate. You probably won’t need it after that, but it will save time in the beginning with all the switching around that is done every couple of pages. I used a blank sheet of computer paper. After I was done trying to keep track of characters, I used it to keep track of ideas or details that I thought were important.

For a more advanced reading, I’d say to try to figure out how each of the quotes at the beginning of the section and the name of the section are pertinent. Trust me, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. I have at least three distinct interpretations of Part I: Beyond the Zero now. If you don’t know German or Spanish, look up the parts that are in these languages. It may be important. Read Rilke’s Duino Elegies before starting. Be familiar with Kabala and Tarot traditions. The names of things and the act of naming something is important.

For a super advanced reading, I’d say learn calculus (and the philosophy of infinitesimals), quantum mechanics, differential equations, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Maxwell’s Demon/entropy and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Now I call this a “super advanced reading,” but in my interpretation, you miss the whole point if you don’t relate it to incompleteness of formal systems and uncertainty in infinitesimals.

What did I think? Well, it is without a doubt worth the effort. It is the most impressive work of literature I’ve ever read. It was mostly enjoyable, too. I was expecting pure unreadable erudition, but it really wasn’t. In fact, the style of writing changed to fit what was necessary for the section. Often times it would switch to screenplay, play, poem, song, letter, and more as the format of writing. I lost many nights of sleep working out what I consider to be the main theme. I actually wish I could write a big paper on this right now, since I think it has been largely ignored. I truly feel that it is an embodiment and expression of how the incompleteness theorem and uncertainty principle affect our everyday lives.

There is also a very interesting theory proposed that not only are unobserved particles wavefunctions, but we as humans are wavefunctions. It is sort of zen-like. He claims that the more we live in the moment, the more our wavefunction is spread out. The more we pay attention to the past and cling to things, the more instantiated our wavefunction is. The act of achieving enlightenment is to be completely in the moment which means your wavefunction is completely everywhere and thus you are one with everything.

Note that I have not said the slightest thing about the plot. This was on purpose. If you go and read a plot summary somewhere after reading this, just know that it is not accurate. There is no such thing as a plot summary and to try to say the slightest thing about the plot would be to miss the point of the novel completely. It is an experience rather than a work of literature. I highly recommend experiencing it if you have the time and energy to devote to it.

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3 thoughts on “Gravity’s Rainbow

  1. How important would you say quantum mechanics is to the novel? I guess what I’m asking is, is this a book that could have been written without quantum theory?

    I ask because this may or may not have import to my dissertation, which may or may not have to do with physics (not physics in general, but physics and the literature of terrorism).

  2. I would say that without a doubt this could not have been written without quantum theory.

    Could someone read this with absolutely no knowledge that quantum theory exists or what the vaguest notion of quantum mechanics says and get a totally legitimate interpretation…it is quite possible.

    Physics appears quite explicitly:

    ” But to the likes of employees such as Roger Mexico it is music, not without its majesty, this power series Ne^{-m}(1+m+\frac{m^2}{2!}+\frac{m^3}{3!}\cdots +\frac{m^{n-1}}{(n-1)!}) , terms numbered according to rocketfalls per square, the Poisson dispensation ruling not only these annihilations no man can run from, but also cavalry accidents, blood counts, radioactive decay, number of wars per year…”

    “At the instant the charge (B_IL) accumulating in flight equaled the preset charge (A_IL) on the other side, the capacitor discharged. A switch closed, fuel cut off, burning ended. The Rocket was on its own.”

    “…a little pendulum was kept centered by a magnetic field. During launch, pulling gs, the pendulum would swing aft, off center. It had a coil attached to it. When the coil moved through the magnetic field, electric current flowed in the coil. As the pendulum was pushed off center by the acceleration of the launch, current would flow–the more acceleration, the more flow. So the Rocket, on its own side of the flight, sensed acceleration first…. To get to distance from acceleration, the Rocket had to integrate twice–needed a moving coil, transformers, electrolytic cell, bridge of diodes, one tetrode…”

    and many more.

    Now these are all classical physics references. The quantum physics is much more subtle. It is in the worldview changes that are going on during WWII (when quantum theory was trying to be interpreted). It is in the fact that although the description of how the Rocket would fly given above is completely determined through physics, there is still some error. Everything must be done statistically. There is randomness inherent in how it will actually go as compared to how it actually does go. Sometimes these things are made explicit, but if you aren’t looking for them, they won’t jump out like the things above.

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