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Reading Gravity's Rainbow After September Eleventh: An Anecdotal Approach
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Reading Gravity’s Rainbow After September Eleventh:
An Anecdotal Approach

This essay asks two primary questions: what and how can Gravity's Rainbow tell us about the world we live in after 9/11? Do anecdotes gain currency in times of war? Specifically, this essay seeks to read a sampling of the profuse post-9/11 anecdotes about children who break their piggy-banks and donate money to relief funds alongside Thomas Pynchon's graphic sexual depictions of children in the setting of World War II. How do each of these kinds of representation affect a state's ability to establish itself as innocent and to prosecute war? Centering on the figure of Zwölfkinder, a miniature of the state run by children in the novel, the essay explores how the state launders its institutions and its finances through its children. This state-in-miniature is akin to the diminutive form of the anecdote, which functions similarly as a site of innocence creation. Gravity's Rainbow's refusal to constitute children as either innocent or experienced blocks the kind of innocence production that post-9/11 "piggy-bank" anecdotes help to establish in the context of the state-written innocence/experience narrative. Children in such multiply mediated anecdotes become points of contact for the diverse desires of the public, the media, and other institutions, where the state takes its ultimate pleasure. In fact, rather than a recent phenomenon related directly to the 9/11 disaster, this specific form of piggy-bank anecdote has a history and is tied to specific ideological responses to war, as demonstrated in an early nineteenth-century anecdote that is structured almost identically to these newer ones. At the same time, however, the essay discusses the delicate historicity of this form and asks how history expresses itself in these and other anecdotes, questioning generally how these anecdotes are poised at an important nexus between event, narrative, and history.--dr

Since the September Eleventh airplane attacks on the World Trade Center, it is difficult to imagine American readers responding to the opening sentences of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in quite the same ways as they had previously. “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now” (3). Suddenly these famous words are thrust into new contexts, and yet, I would like to argue that the idea of “comparison” still pervades our ways of understanding. Who can forget the horrifying doubling and déjà vu of the images of the second airplane crashing into the second tower? That scene of doubled impact and destruction at once creates the desire for and, with its sense of radical singularity, denies bases of comparison. Pynchon recognizes that in the face of traumatic or devastating events we seek refuge in the comfort of comparison, in our sense that what bears similarity offers solace.

Indeed, the events of September Eleventh were first brought into sense through frames of comparison, or metaphor. Immediately, evocations of the attack on Pearl Harbor shot through the media. That the movie Pearl Harbor enjoyed recent success at the box-office only helped to prime the American imagination for that easy parallel of surprise attack. Among other functions, the Pearl Harbor comparison helped to locate September Eleventh within an archetypal American loss-of-innocence story. But Pearl Harbor did not offer a metaphor for thinking about the vulnerability of a major metropolis, terms that newly pressed themselves upon the imagination. For this reason, it is fitting that New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was the first person to invite comparisons between New York and London during the Battle of Britain. “I think people should read about the Battle of Britain and how the people of London lived through the constant daily bombardment by the Nazis,” Mayor Giuliani told Barbara Walters in an interview that aired on September nineteenth. “They took terrible casualties, terrible losses. They never gave up. They never gave up their spirit and they figured out how to go about their lives and they prevailed. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid, but you don’t give in to it.” Mayor Giuliani probably...