A Paranoid Companion to Thomas Pynchon: The Early Stories and Novels
Chapter 1: Thomas Pynchon and the Novel of Transcendence
In V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon seems to place himself in the position of a final speaker or prophet giving warning of the coming death of communication. As a writer in the tradition of the romance-novel, the allegorical novel of transcendence, Pynchon exploits the problem inherent in the genre: Is the “transcendental leap” a direct connection between the human and the divine, or is it a fall over the edge into madness? In simple allegory--John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance--the hero may be temporarily deluded by error, but, when he recovers from error, the connection to God will be clear. However, in complex allegory, the question of transcendence or madness is argued on both sides, sometimes with the added notion that the transcendental leap may be genuine but that it ends up in a Void. This I take to be Pynchon’s dialectic, arguing that the facts of the case are open to multiple interpretations, but the heroes of his early novels all search for the right hermeneutic, the key to unlock the mystery of the universe.
Pynchon’s early novels fit into the definition of the novel as romance.3 His characters are two-dimensional to the point of becoming comic book or T.V. caricatures. In Gravity’s Rainbow, the hero, Tyrone Slothrop, becomes “Rocketman,” a variation on the comic book characters Superman and Plasticman, who are also referred to in the book. Not relating to society, to the present, or to the past, Benny Profane, the schlemiel-hero in V, is typical of Pynchon’s characters, as he wanders the Street of the twentieth century, adrift without a past or a future.
The involvement of Pynchon’s characters with each other is narrow and obsessive. There are no emotionally reciprocal relationships in the ordinary sense. In the novel V, Stencil, Jr. and Sr. follow the Lady V. in a dogged, fixed way. Stencil, Jr. forms the pattern of his life on a quest for her, to the point that he becomes merely “He who looks for V.”4 Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow also shows this obsessive but emotionless involvement with other characters. His relationship with women is reduced to sexual conquest, as he scores with literally thousands of women. Slothrop pursues the scientist, Laszlo Jamf, and the V-rocket in much the same way that Stencil, Jr. quests for the Lady V. And Oedipa Maas’s relationship with the late Pierce Inverarity in The Crying of Lot 49 revolves around Oedipa’s quest to uncover the secret mail system W.A.S.T.E., an obsession planted in her mind by Pierce before his death.
Pynchon’s early novels abound with astonishing occurrences, implausible events that add to the evidence of the operation of the allegorical V. The novel V, for example, is full of atrocities and bizarre events. In one episode, when a young woman undergoes plastic surgery to have her nose reshaped, Pynchon describes the operation in all its barbarity and torture. In other episodes a young man has his face shot off, a priest converts the rats of New York to Catholicism, and a young girl is gang-raped. There are also many instances of transvestism, voyeurism, fetishism, and pederasty. If these events have any meaning, it is as signs (or symptoms) of the V at work.
Pynchon’s entire project of elucidating the allegory of the V is genre-related, as he places himself in the mythic and symbolic tradition of the romance-novel. The novel as romance pursues “truth” in the surreal and at the edges of human experience. Pynchon finds his insights at the interface between disciplines and the coming together of symbolic seams in the universe. He looks for obscure incidents in history formed at the “interfaces” between cultures to find clues to the workings of the V. Pynchon’s allegorical method fits well the conventions of the romance-novel that allow the novelist to go beyond the realm of ordinary reality in search of “truth.”
Pynchon hints in both V and Gravity’s Rainbow that he sees himself as continuing the tradition of Hawthorne and Melville.5 He may have Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Melville’s Moby Dick in mind as intertexts for his early novels. As allegory, The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick offer problems of interpretation for characters and reader of what appear to be allegorical signs, opening a dialectic in which differing “readings” are available. I would suggest that Thomas Pynchon found the allegorical complexity of Hawthorne useful as a model for his own allegory of the V6.
The form of Pynchon’s three novels is typical of romance-novels and resembles Moby Dick in particular. Each is a quest for truth by a leading character. Like Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale as a way to confirm and avenge the malignity of God, the heroes in Pynchon’s novels search for something that will unveil and defeat a vast conspiracy against the world. Stencil, Jr. in V pursues the Lady V, who represents a grand cabal. Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49 is looking for the origins of the secret mail system W.A.S.T.E. and its perpetrator, the mysterious Tristero. Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow is pursuing the secret behind the German rocket bombs V-1 and V-2. In Chapter Nine of V, Pynchon compares monomaniacal quests in his novel to the pursuit of the whale and perhaps implies that quests like Ahab’s are always deluded and invariably result in spiritual and physical death: Lieutenant Weissmann, lost in his fantasies, lights a whale-oil lamp as Kurt Mondaugen sings of “spouter whales” (235); and a pack of strand wolves picks clean the carcass of a whale, leaving only “false ivory” (248).
It is in Gravity’s Rainbow that we see the greatest resemblance to Melville in Pynchon’s work.7 Gravity’s Rainbow is conceived on the same vast scale as Moby Dick. We can even speculate that Pynchon set out deliberately to write a longer book than Melville’s epic and, in fact, succeeded. However, there are deeper and more significant similarities between the two novels than mere length. Ahab in pursuit of the whale and Slothrop in search of the V-rocket have many points in common. The whiteness of both whale and rocket are inscrutable and frightening, signifying the fear of the Void. In Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael ponders the idea of whiteness: “Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the Milky Way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows--a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?”8
The whiteness of the whale represents annihilation and inscrutability to Ahab in Moby Dick just as the V-rocket does for Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow. After the rocket is launched, the rocket-bomb ceases to be controlled by man. It takes on, Pynchon tells us, a life of its own. Its course across the sky is a parabola dictated by the laws of physics. Its path traces an arc, “gravity’s rainbow,” on its way to releasing death upon the world. As the V-rocket approaches its target, one hears “a screaming across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now” (GR 3).9 The annihilation and the void symbolized by the rocket can be seen clearly in the passage above if emphasis is placed on the word “nothing”: “. . . There is nothing to compare it to now.” The V-rocket, in its whiteness and destructiveness, is the Void, the result of embracing the forces of our own obliteration. The V-rocket is a manifestation of the larger V, the life-annihilating force of the Modern Age, and “gravity’s rainbow” is the course the V takes. It stands for the self-destructive assumptions inherent in Modernism. Once the equations have been worked out, the arc of destruction becomes inevitable. As allegory, “gravity’s rainbow” is literally and figuratively a parabola, the arc of the rocket and a “parable” of death by our own hands.
There are parallels between Ahab in Moby Dick and Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow. Both are New Englanders, and Pynchon stresses Slothrop’s Puritan heritage. They share, as Pynchon says of Slothrop, the “Puritan reflex of seeking other orders behind the visible” (GR 188). Slothrop pursues the V-rocket throughout Europe in an effort to discover what secret it holds for him personally. Ahab follows the white whale in a monomania of vengeance to “strike through the mask” (MD 220) of the outward universe, to thrust beyond the wall of inscrutability and malevolence that the white whale represents to him. In their search for the reality behind the mask, both Ahab and Slothrop are dismembered and, finally, killed. Like Herbert Stencil in V, Slothrop “had left pieces of himself . . . all over the western world” (V 364) in pursuit of the V-rocket. Slothrop’s personality disintegrates, and, as Pynchon tells us, it is reputed that the fragments of Slothrop “have grown into consistent personae of their own” (GR 742). Both Slothrop and Ahab become lost in what they seek. Slothrop, in pursuit of the V-rocket, becomes “Rocketman,” losing all identification with his former self. Ahab, in pursuit of the whale as an evil force, loses himself in evil and is dragged down, connected to the whale by a harpoon line. Finally, their fate is similar to that of the Scurvhamites mentioned in The Crying of Lot 49. An obscure Puritan sect of Manichaeans, the Scurvhamites practiced the vilest and most ungodly crimes by siding with the devil in order to hasten the apocalypse or Second Coming. Pynchon chronicles this sort of dualistic thinking throughout his early novels, and much of it can be traced to Melville’s Moby Dick as an allegorical model.
In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon’s Slothrop is a paranoid character who “has become obsessed with the idea of a rocket with his name on it” (GR 25) just as Ahab fixes upon the notion that the whale that cut off his leg was out to get him. Ahab says of the whale, “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it” (MD 221). The white whale taunts Ahab and tasks his abilities in malicious mockery, or so he thinks. However, Ahab also wonders whether there is any significance in the whale or the world, as he ponders the possibility of meaninglessness: “And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher . . .” (MD 549). If there is no inherent meaning in the objects of the universe, as distinguished from a meaning projected on it by human beings, then the world a zero, “an empty cipher.” If the meanings we project on to the world are the fears of evil out to get us, then we are looking at paranoia. But if what we see is truly visionary, then we have discovered transcendental truth. There is grandeur as well as grandiosity in Ahab’s quest. Melville’s complex allegory offers opposite interpretations: the One of all-meaning truth (They really are, God is, conspiring to destroy us.) versus the Zero of the Void, faced directly or covered up by the all-meaning of paranoia projected on to the empty cipher of the universe.
These are the elements of Pynchon’s allegory of the V. It is first of all the idea that the inherent meaningfulness of the universe and human existence has somehow vanished, sometime during the Modern era. In the novel V, he locates the beginning point of this decline in 1859 with Darwin’s Origin of Species, but I infer that in Gravity’s Rainbow the starting point is construed to be much earlier, with Newton’s invention of calculus and the publication in 1687 of the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), setting forth the physical laws of the universe, including the law of gravity. This aspect of Pynchon’s thesis argues that, once begun, the decline of meaning in the world is an impersonal process. After the new tenets of Modernism take hold--the rise of materialism, science, and technology, for example--the fall in spiritual meaning becomes inevitable.
By contrast, the second aspect of the allegory of the V insists on the Manichaean idea that the decline of meaning is not just happening but is being done to us by evil forces to advance their own purposes. All of the heroes in Pynchon’s three early novels come across strange occurrences and anomalies that they come to regard as the tip of the iceberg of some vast secret plan to destroy the world. Each develops conspiracy theories to explain these secret plots. Pynchon’s plots are literally plots, and he plays with the reader as he loads up his plots with actual facts, usually obscure facts, that he offers as evidence of some grand, malevolent design. The signs are everywhere, and they all lead to the V, symbol and cause of all the destruction.
Finally, there is the sneaking fear that the world was meaningless all along, and that to posit a meaningful world of the past is childish nostalgia for an imaginary Golden Age. In this view, when we look at the universe, we see, at best, “the smooth-faced custodian of the night hover[ing] behind neutral eyes and smile . . .” (GR 434). At worst, we might see beyond the mask of the material world something far more horrifying--the Zero. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon says, “And suppose, in the next moment, all of it, the complete night, were to go out of control and curtains part to show us a winter no one has guessed at . . .” (GR 29). The “winter” he refers to sounds like the permanent Antarctic winter that is the secret of Vheissu in the novel V. The “winter no one has guessed at” is the Void of annihilation.
According to one way of seeing, whatever happens just happens, and Tyrone Slothrop’s pursuit of the V-rocket and the agents of evil behind it is just a paranoid delusion--and Slothrop is only a buffoon. In this view, Slothrop’s quest is a way of “avoiding” the meaninglessness of the world’s horrors. As Pynchon says of Slothrop, “Either They put him here for a reason, or he’s just here. He isn’t sure he wouldn’t, actually, rather have that reason . . .” (GR 434). Without his paranoid fantasy, Slothrop would be adrift in the universe. With it, his life has meaning.
Finally, there is throughout Pynchon’s early novels the suspicion that Pynchon and his heroes might be on to something. Paranoid plots and conspiracy theories are seductive. In the allegory of the V, Pynchon’s complex dialectic offers conflicting hermeneutics to explain the story. The reader gets to choose.
3 In his study of the romance-novel, Richard Chase says that in contrast to the realistic novel, the romance presents human beings in deep, narrow, obsessive relationships rather than broad social interaction. “Astonishing events may occur, and these are likely to have a symbolic or ideological, rather than a realistic possibility.” The romance is likely to veer more freely than the realistic novel toward the allegorical, mythic, and symbolic. The American Novel and Its Traditions, Doubleday Anchor Books (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1957), (13).
4 Thomas Pynchon, V, Bantam Books (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1963) 210.
5 There are numerous references in both V and Gravity’s Rainbow to the Berkshires in Massachusetts where Hawthorne and Melville lived. Neither novel is set in the Berkshires.
6 To cite just one example, when the Reverand Dimmesdale looks at the shape of a cloud in the night sky, he sees the Scarlet Letter of his own adultery. The sign is meant for him. Others who see the “A” interpreted it differently. Does Dimmesdale have access to divine truth, or does he suffer from a paranoid delusion? If Dimmesdale does not have access to God’s will, if his version of supposed signs is an imposed interpretation, the simple allegory of The Scarlet Letter becomes complex, ambiguous, perhapsindeterminate, and open to interpretation by the reader. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, Pocket Books (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 161.
7 Richard Poirier noted the resemblance between Gravity’s Rainbow and Moby Dick a review of Gravity’s Rainbow, “Rocket Power,” in The Saturday Review of the Arts (March 1973) 59.
8 Herman Melville, Moby Dick (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1964) 263.
9 Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, Viking Compass Books, (New York: The Viking Press, 1973) 3.