I may have lost the plot

Thomas Pynchon
Penguin, 2000

As I finish more of these mega novels, I become more convinced that I am not reading them fast enough. GR took me nine months to read, mostly in long reading sessions spaced far apart among graduate studies and other commitments. But works like GR or INFINITE JEST and also Proust seem to demand a fast and intense reading. They have so many “playbacks,” so many repeated keywords and phrases and other lexical patterns, that one would not appreciate unless the beginning of the novel is still fresh in her mind as she gets to the end.

Part 4, “The Counterforce,” sprinkles phrases and chunks from the novel’s great opening passage, the underlined parts.

A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theater. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere.

There have to be more (to say nothing of “you never did the Kenosha Kid”). They signal that this big book is finally wrapping up, but there’s always that tantalizing sense that Pynchon the author is trying to guide us toward some critical Gnostic or Kabbalistic truth.

I kept turning the pages, but wasn’t thrilled the way I was with the episodes in Kazakhstan and the Zone. Here the history, politics, and vivid European settings move to the back drop, and the bohemian counterculture mystical material comes to the foreground. The whole thing seems to get back on the rails, even at the very same time that the novel’s form becomes far more atomized and scattered, as Slothrop, after many costume changes and identity swapping, is disintegrated and disseminated.

Instructing him, dunce and drifter, in ways deeper than he can explain, have been faces of children out the train windows, two bars of dance music somewhere, in some other street at night, needles and branches of a pine tree shaken clear and luminous against night clouds, one circuit diagram out of hundreds in a smudged yellowing sheaf, laughter out of a cornfield in the early morning as he was walking to school, the idling of a motorcycle at one dusk-heavy hour of the summer…and now, in the Zone, later in the day he became a crossroad, after a heavy rain he doesn’t recall, Slothrop sees a very thick rainbow here, a stout rainbow cock driven down out of pubic clouds into Earth, green wet valleyed Earth, and his chest fills and he stands crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural….

Things got on the rails as we follow the sacrificial process of the rocket launch. The quintuple-zero rocket’s “black device” is simply a box: Weissmann ritualistically sacrifices Gottfried. It evokes both the future of modern warfare and the primitive imaginary, as well as the props of a magic trick…

I enjoyed a few of the brief scenes in the sixth episode of this part, which seems to represent Slothrop’s “dispersion” into all sorts of media genre. Like superhero comics, with the Floundering Four, including a zoot suit-clad jazz cat named Maximilian and a chess-playing automaton named Marcel. The former says/sez to the latter:

“Hey man, gimme some skin man!” well not only does Marcel give him a heavy time about skin, skin in all its implications, oh no that’s only at the superficial level, next we get a long discourse on the concept of “give,” that goes on for a while, then, then he starts in on “Man.” That’s really an exhaustive one.

Roger Mexico comes back in the limelight, and he pisses on a bunch of people, and escapes with Seaman Bodine from a restaurant by shouting out sophomoric puns in a Monty Python type of sketch.

At the same time that the discourse is winding up, and the narrative pressure falls on the 00000 sacrifice sequence and a movie theater in California in the 70s run by some grotesque version of Richard Nixon, as if he were in hiding; the manifold of plots are frayed at the end, all the promising connections and near misses add up to a great shaggy dog story. It ends with a movie musical (which GR is, in prose form) with a hymn made by Slothrop’s puritan ancestor. “Now everybody—” and apocalypse. Foster Wallace ends BROOM OF THE SYSTEM the same way, only more cutely, maybe overbearingly cute, since it hinges on a missing word (which is word).

And it was hard to shake off these 800 pages and move on. I keep glossing back over my favorite bits and random parts; I have an insane desire to get right into MASON AND DIXON, or at least re-read LOT 49. Something I’ve heard about GR is that one will end up re-encountering the outlandish material as historical fact, a paranoid effect designed to extend the text beyond the book.


Let no one say that allegory is reductive, that it closes off possible interpretations. The only evidence you need to the contrary is the nearly infinite pool of secondary literature on Pynchon. Clearly allegory opens up more room for interpretation; and it lends itself to a kind of abstraction that verbal narrative can best sustain. For now, I’m keeping myself to a couple of books edited by Harold Bloom, one on Pynchon and one just on GR.

By way of an introduction Bloom throws down a reading of the Byron the Bulb sequence at the beginning of Part 4. Byron’s ballad struck me as the story of a vanguard intellectual, a “voice of conscience” in Heideggerian jargon—and Bloom points out the association with Lord Byron, who died assisting the national liberation of Greece.

When M-Day finally does roll around, you can bet Byron’s elated. He has passed the time hatching some really insane grandiose plans—he’s gonna organize all the Bulbs, see, get him a power base in Berlin, he’s already hep to the Strobing Tactic, all you do is develop the knack (Yogic, almost) of shutting off and on at a rate close to the human brain’s alpha rhythm, and you can actually trigger an epileptic fit! True. Byron has had a vision against the rafters of his ward, of 20 million Bulbs, all over Europe, at a given synchronizing pulse arranged by one of his many agents in the Grid, all these bulbs beginning to strobe together, humans thrashing around the 20 million rooms like fish on the beaches of Perfect Energy—Attention, humans, this has been a warning to you. Next time, a few of us will explode. Ha-ha.

But even the bulbs experience the administered society; there is a light bulb cartel called Phoebus, just as there is (or is not) a rocket cartel, the They, the cabal of military finance puppetmasters. Moreover, Byron is immortal and can never burn out. His(?) fate after an attempted revolution is worse than martyrdom; he is forever a reluctant prophet.

But here something odd happens. Yes, damned odd. The plan is to smash up Byron and send him back right there in the shop to cullet and batch—salvage the tungsten, of course—and let him be reincarnated in the glassblower’s next project (a balloon setting out on a journey from the top of a white skyscraper). This wouldn’t be too bad a deal for Byron—he knows as well as Phoebus does how many hours he has on him. Here in the shop he’s watched enough glass being melted back into the structureless pool from which all glass forms spring and re-spring, wouldn’t mind going through it himself. But he is trapped on the Karmic wheel. The glowing orange batch is a taunt,cruelty. There’s no escape for Byron, he’s doomed to an infinite regress of sockets and bulb-snatchers.

Phoebus in its instrumental rationality confines bulbs, or Bulb as such, to only one function, when Bulb has so much more potential to realize. (There’s a factoid that the original German word for the bulb filament was seele, soul; a likely basis for this whole piece.)

Bloom reads a complete systematic allegory to Gnosticism in Byron’s story. Byron the bulb possesses the gnostic spark, and attains absolute knowledge, but is powerless to act on it (recall Marx’s 11th thesis). Byron cannot return to the foremother/forefather of the abyss, the “structureless pool from which all glass forms spring and re-spring.” It seems to be an arrested dialectic, neither Byron nor the System will ultimately win or lose. One will never quite absorb the other.

And GRAVITY’S RAINBOW will always be a prose novel, and not quite a 40s-era musical comedy film.


Yes, allegory. Maureen Quilligan’s paper in this book makes an incredibly strong case. She points out the link to Slothrop’s Puritan ancestor also announces a literary connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his historical allegories, like “Young Goodman Brown,” or, more psychedelic, “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” and “The Celestial Railroad.”

She brings to our attention an episode I haven’t mentioned. But if the Pokler’s trouble with his family was the emotional center of the book, another crucial thematic center is Tchitcherine’s attendance of “the first penary session of the VTsK NTA (Vsesonynznyy Tsentral’nyy Komitet Novogo Tyurkskogo Alfavita).” In a flashback to the early 20s, with war communism raging and the Bolshevik party working through the national and colonial question, Tchitcherine is in the soviet Caucuses, specifically in Azerbaijan. It’s a Party congress for a new standardized Turkic alphabet.

Naturally there are weird characters, both the alphabet script and more walk-on grotesques from Pynchon’s depraved imagination. And of course there are party politics, as the Turkic language becomes a terrain of struggle between Arabic and Cyrillic writing systems, that devolve (like the cut ending of DR. STRANGELOVE) into pranks and hijinx, including a plot to pie Stalin in the face.

There is a crisis over which kind of g to use in the word “stenography.” There is a lot of emotional attachment to the word around here. Tchitcherine one morning finds all the pencils in his conference room have mysteriously vanished. In revenge, he and Radnichny sneak in Blobadjian’s conference room next night with hacksaws, files and torches, and reform the alphabet on his typewriter. It is some fun in the morning. Blobadjian runs around in a prolonged screaming fit. Tchitcherine’s in the conference, meeting’s called to order, CRASH! two dozen linguists and bureaucrats go toppling over on their ass. Noise echoes for a full two minutes. Tchitcherine, on his ass, notes that pieces of chair leg around the table have been sawed off, reattached with wax and varnished over again. A professional job, all right. Could Radnichny be a double agent?

Quilligan says in her analysis: “Pynchon is concerned with what happens to language when it gets written down; through alphabetization, the means of human communication get bureaucratized and language loses (at the same time it gains another) magic power.”

Recall Pynchon in his letter identifying “analysis and differentiation” with the West or modern civilization, and “unity and integration” with the East or premodern societies. I find this hasty and Romantic. But you can see it at work in the linguistic theme (which also has a hint of Pynchon’s luddism). We have a primitive imaginary that’s remarkably close to the one in Horkheimer and Adorno’s DIALECTIC OF ENLIGHTENMENT, in which enlightenment as such, the concept, doesn’t have a historical location, but is always already de-mystifying social structures, hence ritual sacrifice transforms into language use through a series of substitutions, from actual people to animals, to images, to prayer. Tangled up with this is both mid-century formalist theories of language and the beginnings of poststructuralism. In this discourse, writing is an institutional weapon for administration and control, as Quilligan states.

The other American writer that takes writing as a magical practice seriously is Clark Ashton Smith of Weird Tales. He and Pynchon are on a seriously close wavelength here. Ashton Smith used comically arcane and dense prose for some black purpose. Pynchon writes clearly if gratuitously, but for him the magic is in atrocious puns. For punning not only dissolves the serious; it helps us grasp “something other” than the standard referents, a type defamiliarization. “Because bad puns are in a sense anomalies of structure,” Quilligan sez, “they may be pointers to truth, may be initially so uncomfortable a signal of the author’s medium that we are forced to see the use of language in a different way. And that way may be to accept the use of language as magic.”

For Weissmann/Blicero, way back at the beginning, “words are only an eye-twitch away from the things they stand for.” I’m tempted to scoff at the postmodernist skepticism about language. People today have an image of Nazism in their heads as hyperrational, Enlightenment on steroids. But Pynchon’s novel, if only indirectly, speaks to national socialism’s unhinged obsession with mysticism and crazy race science —fascism in general preys on petty bourgeois romanticism. I prefer Karl in the GRUNDRISSE when he writes: “Production by an isolated individual outside society – a rare exception which may well occur when a civilized person in whom the social forces are already dynamically present is cast by accident into the wilderness – is as much of an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to each other.”

But the task of getting your head around Pynchon’s book matches the (postmodern) experience of getting one’s head around the world system as a totality. These meganovels have a charismatic aura about them, as if they were books of the world. GRAVITY’S RAINBOW is like a book of 20th century intellectual history, among all of its other things, as this reading brought me to appreciate.


  1. Oh, banana!
  2. Anal explosive
  3. Pynchon is surrealist in travel
  4. I may have lost the plot

3 thoughts on “I may have lost the plot”

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