Gravity's Rainbow, 50-100pp., Matt's Take

[Ben’s been murdered at work, so his posts will be along shortly.]


It’s in these pages that the story begins to get a little bit more explanatory; not fully so, given that we’re only a 7th of the way in, or, perhaps 3/14ths, but yes. And there’s a few bits where you can perhaps see where the Pulitzer committee called it “obscene” — not that I agree, but there are a few bits that are cringeworthy (though one is hilarious).


The hilarious bit is prefaced by the Kenosha Kid segment, where Slothrop comes up with several different ways to parse the phrase “You never did the Kenosha Kid,” by re-applying punctuation and emphasis — which would be a pretty memorable bit anyway, even if it didn’t lead into one of the more memorable bits itself, memorable because it’s funny and also pretty oogy. It’s a bit where Slothrop is hallucinating a sequence after being put under Sodium Amytal, to help the government understand racial tensions at home, where in order to retrieve his mouth harp[1] and, as it turns out, avoid the impending rape by the bathroom attendant and his cohorts — he’s got to go into the toilet.


OK — as a liberal-type white dude, some of it is a little hard to talk about — i.e. how all of the potential rapists in the fantasy are black and even talk with a bit of an Amos & Andy kinda thing — but this is because Slothrop isn’t exactly the most Enlightened of folks, and well, at that time (i.e. the 1930s, when the fantasy/hallucination takes place), not many people WERE. But yes. ANYWAY, though — there’s lots of amusing bits about racism in this part, for example, how Slothrop can identify the shit of his white college buddies individually, but how “all Negro shit looks the same”. Or, how he can identify that it is, in particular, a Negro Dingleberry that gets lodged in his nostril. And the fear/distrust where it turns out that the bathroom attendant he’s known all this time as Red (due to his dyed red hair) is really named Malcolm, and not only that, but is a ringleader and procurer for depravity. And, well, there’s the matter of the harmonica, which Slothrop goes after — “for the sake of tunes to be played, millions of possible blues lines” — sort of a hint of the idea of the whites co-opting black culture there.

And, of course, in this chunk of the book, we also get the word about the Germans employing the Herero in their mystical war effort — a play on the concept of the Magic Negro (again, not on Pynchon’s part, but the part of the characters). There’s a few parts where this shows up — one of the Herero goes ice skating, and the children are both curious but scared and treat him with a sense of mysticism, or, the part where Blicero, in the Südwest, has sex with one.

Oh, Blicero. One of the creepiest characters, at least so far, anyway. Still. I suppose it’s good that I’ve run out of things to say about race, because, jeez, Blicero. One of the German Captains working on the V-2, who in the meantime is just chock full of sexual quirks. If “quirk” is the right name for someone who dresses in full drag, complete with a rubber vagina with sable fur pubic hair and stainless steel vagina dentata. Or one with a Hansel and Gretel fetish/fantasy. Or, well, basically any of the other stuff that he’s into. His sex slave, Gottfried, is at least appearing to be, to some extent, willing in it — shanghaied in at first, but seemingly to embrace it — at least partially because he knows that, given fiction, he’ll be saved at the last moment.

I don’t think that this is a meta-fictional reference, or perhaps it is on another level — but rather Gottfried just overlaying what he knows and believes and has learned from fairy tales in his childhood; given that the situation is that of a fairy tale (albeit a warped one — even more so than the original fairy tales were), it makes sense to him that at the climax, the woodsman will come and save the day. Of course, we, the readers, aren’t so sure of that, given that things don’t happen that way in real life. (But, of course, IS this real life? As it IS fiction we’re reading — so, yeah — I suppose it IS metafictional, but like the best metafiction, it works perfectly well and understandable in the narrative rather than just being a fancypants trick.)

But yes — we’re also introduced to Katje in this section, as she is rescued by Pirate and goes to live with him and his crew in the house from the beginning — where she sees Osbie Feel making hallucinogenic cigarettes using everyday kitchen objects — the oven, of course, triggering the Blicero memories, as the oven — or Der Kinderofen — being central in Blicero’s fantasies, and indeed, his entire worldview.


Like I said, this is a dense chunk of a very dense novel. Getting back to Slothrop, we’re also shown how he came to be a potential rocket-predictor, and the source of the first section’s title, “Beyond The Zero”. See, as an infant, he was conditioned to find certain stimulus (which is unknown, but assumed to be a loud noise) sexually arousing, given that an infant’s erection is basically a 1/0 binary state, meaning no subjectivity in recording data. And, of course, as is the ethical thing, after the experiment was done, he was de-conditioned. There’s the question, though, of whether he was conditioned to Zero (where there’s no longer the reaction to the stimulus) or Beyond The Zero (where there’s no remnants of it whatsoever) — or if Beyond the Zero means what they think it means. See, the V-2 rocket is known for having the Explosion first, and THEN the sound of the incoming rocket — so, perhaps, by Beyond The Zero, the stimulus/response is REVERSED — i.e. Slothrop has the erection FIRST (which’d explain how his girl-sexin’ map matches the rocket blasts from 2-10 days before the explosions) and then the loud noise. In the first 50 pages, there’re also a couple of references to the idea of reversing stimulus/response, particularly in Pointsman’s dialogue. But it’s not quite clear yet if this is indeed going on and other folks have different ideas (including the idea that Slothrop is somehow using psychokinesis to direct the rockets to his sex-sites to sort of basically erase the evidence). But yes. I’m not sold on that one, and am interested more in the S/R reversal idea.

I fear that this is becoming long and incoherent, so I shall stop — but hopefully Ben’ll reply soon, and then we can do a bit more structured back and forth, and less of this kind of basically giving ideas of what the plot events are along with my half-assed interpretation of them.


[1] Wikipedia refers to this sequence as being about a Jew’s Harp; I always thought it was a Harmonica — particularly with some of the references to the worn wood, the water coming up the sides, the reeds hitting the porcelain. Admittedly this isn’t terribly important, but in a way, it kinda is, as it folds in with the race element of this section (and the novel) that I’m gonna talk about in a bit. ?

2 comments

  1. fmstack

    Man, sorry for not getting anything done in time… in any case, I suppose I get the appropriate punishment, what with having to be the one to write about Blicero’s Hansel & Gretel fantasy now…

  2. Rev. Syung Myung Me

    Sucker!

    I guess I kinda did, but yes.

    Honestly, I should probably write these beforehand instead of immediately before I go to bed/go to work. Oh well. I keep forgetting bits to mention. i.e. I almost forgot to mention the whole Beyond The Zero bit, which is honestly one of the themes of the goddamn book, heh.

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