- A "Gravity's Rainbow" Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon's Novel
After years of Gravity's Rainbow criticism that has gone back and forth over the same material to advance or attack a body of existing readings, we finally have Steven Weisenburger's groundbreaking study of Pynchon's sources. I mean to use the Pynchonian or demotic "we" here, constituted in opposition to "they" but eerily expandable to the point where They become Us, because A "Gravity's Rainbow" Companion not only will change the face of Pynchon scholarship: it will make converts. Like the analogous textual and contextual glosses on Ulysses, it should prove nearly as necessary as the work on which it comments, guaranteeing the readability of a novel that could previously be dismissed as too allusive, too labyrinthine, too cryptic. Perhaps most important, Weisenburger has exorcised the spectre of the loose baggy monster, the thesis that Gravity's Rainbow is a rambling and haphazard work, perhaps even the product of a brain ravaged by antisocial and mindless pleasures. The Pynchon who emerges from these annotations is scrupulous in his historical documentation and unexpectedly syncretic in his compounding of astrological, numerological, and mythological allusions. Playing scholar [End Page 305] adventurer in the wake of Pynchon's own prodigious research, Weisenburger is able to discern everywhere the invisible hand of authorial control.
Some of Weisenburger's key texts seem in retrospect so obvious that the rest of us can only hang our heads: the four-volume Teutonic Mythology of the Brothers Grimm, for instance, where Tannhaüser, Blicero, Domina Nocturna, and the etymological forebears of Plechazunga cohabit macaronically, or the London Times for the late war years, where Pynchon gathered information about the weather, the phases of the moon, the progress of the war, advertising, rationing, and BBC programming, or the Baedeckers for Belgium, Holland, England, and the relevant sections of Germany. Others are so obscure that the stroke of brilliance lies in having asked: thus Weisenburger has uncovered a real history of a real New Turkic Alphabet and a real significance in the name Dzaqyp Qulan and has noted in the name of Slothrop's mother a diagnostic for detecting opiates. He has also worked painstakingly with colors, numbers, and such culturally debased sign systems as the astrological calendar, palmistry, and the Tarot to uncover patterns of circularity embedded mandalalike in larger circles, wheels within wheels. And he has assembled the data of international conspiracy, the evidence that the war was, after all, a matter of markets, to the point where the political force of this novel should never again be lost on anybody.
Weisenburger has also noted the relatively few places where Pynchon nods—mostly in matters of anachronism—along with places where earlier critics thought Pynchon nodded and were themselves dreaming. Inevitably, Weisenburger himself has occasional bad moments, as in some of the translations or his very tortured explication of the Pavlovian riddle, "What did the Cockney exclaim to the cowboy from San Antonio?" (the answer has to be "Cor, Tex!"—apparently a pun far too simple for his wheels-within-wheels sensibility). By and large, however, A "Gravity's Rainbow" Companion is a stunningly comprehensive and revelatory study that should be required reading for hard core fans, for the mushier core of people who have started the book but couldn't find anything to hold on to, and perhaps even for the antiPynchonites among us: for Them. It may be the means by which the most important novel of the second half of the century gains academic respectability. Now everybody— [End Page 306]