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Reviewed by
Luc Herman and Steven Weisenburger. Gravity’s Rainbow, Domination and Freedom. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2013. viii + 258 pp.

Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) is Thomas Pynchon’s Big Rocket Book. He may have written physically larger books like Against the Day (2006), [End Page 164] which weighs in at a portly 1,085 pages, but Gravity’s Rainbow will always be the Big One: the Badass, to use one of the writer’s preferred terms of endearment. Turned down by the 1974 Pulitzer Prize board for obscenity (though winning the National Book Award the same year), Gravity’s Rainbow is a landmark text that has dominated Pynchon’s oeuvre for over four decades, showing off his remarkable qualities as a “surrealist, pornographer, [and] word engineer” (17), as he once described himself, and many other interesting things besides. Unsurprisingly, then, the novel, set principally at the end of World War II and focusing on a quasimystical version of the German V-2 rocket, has often been singled out from the author’s other writing to become the subject of a series of important monographs: Kathryn Hume’s mythography, for example; Thomas Moore’s unpicking of its connectedness; Molly Hite’s study of its systems of order; or Mark Richard Siegel’s treatment of its creative paranoia.

But despite all the critical attention, Gravity’s Rainbow resists exegetical burnout. Steven Weisenburger has published two companion volumes to this difficult text (1988 (2011), providing generations of grateful scholars with sources and contexts for Pynchon’s allusive labyrinth. Now he and Luc Herman, well known for his “genetic criticism” of the writer, have collaborated on a new monograph dealing with the Big Rocket Book, considering its historical context more programmatically. In a tone that is at once scholarly and engagingly, ironically humorous, Herman and Weisenburger argue that Pynchon’s novel hasn’t yet been sufficiently understood as a literary product both of and about the “Long Sixties” (21): the period running from the later 1950s of the Beats and Burroughs to the tail end of the counterculture in the early 1970s.

So alongside a wealth of cultural and social history detailing the emergence of what we think of as the sixties, from Howl to the Fugs to art-anarchist groups like Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, the writers frame their study with some key critical texts that helped shape the period and with which, they suggest, Pynchon engages in his fiction. Frankfurt School avatars Eric Fromm and Herbert Marcuse join Norman O. Brown as the three most prominent figures here; the themes of domination and freedom of the book’s title are largely refracted through this diverse and influential body of thought, displacing, we should note, Max Weber, Marshall McLuhan, and Norbert Weiner as earlier critical touchstones for Pynchon’s work. Involved in the debate also are contemporary ideas of positive and negative freedom popularized by Isaiah Berlin.

The study is divided into three parts. The first interweaves Gravity’s Rainbow with Fromm’s attention to the self-enslaving practices of Protestantism, Marcuse’s dialectical understanding of the impotent [End Page 165] freedom of art, and Brown’s revolutionary sense of the polymorphous sensual body. Notions of the collusiveness of freedom with its opposite are much in play here and are ingeniously deployed to read the novel as a Long Sixties document. The Counterforce invasion of the Krupp Wingding, for example, anticipates those Yippie antics so easily co-opted by what Marcuse termed repressive tolerance. Fromm’s thesis that Calvinism encourages surrender to powerful groups helps us understand some of the sadomasochism in the text as an ongoing metaphor for affective political conformity: a detailed portrait of engineer Franz Pökler’s “escape” “from Bürgerlichkeit into a masochistic steady-state accented with romantic idealism [Nazism]” (120) is drawn later in the study.

Less obviously, Herman and Weisenburger also pick up on the unsavory character Thanatz, noting his suggestion that “the state would disappear if sadomasochism were practiced generally within families” (33). Within Thanatz’s family, of course, it is practiced. In a twist on Fromm toward Brown, perhaps, Thanatz seems to offer a rather Sadian critique of a repressive state that necessarily appropriates power and pleasure games like SM for itself, police uniforms replacing private fetish gear. For Thanatz, perversion is freedom, Herman and Weisenburg suggest.

Such sharp readings rightly blur definitions of what freedom or unfreedom might be in Pynchon and elsewhere. Further on, however, the writers get squeamish about this, suggesting ethical interpretations of the more dubious sex scenes in Gravity’s Rainbow, which infamously include pedophilia, coprophilia, and incest fantasies, considering them “withering satire[s] of control” (81)—of patriarchy, empire, and so on. Yet surely something compelling and particular is lost by subtracting the self-consciously pornographic side of Pynchon entirely or presenting it as a feint. And if we think of iconic countercultural moments like the 1971 obscenity trial of Oz magazine’s “School Kids” issue, which also concerned sex and the family, these issues really have a Long Sixties flavor to them too.

The second and third parts of the book deal with “Domination” and “Freedom” respectively. “Domination” presents the Pavlovian programming of antihero Slothrop, the cartel economy that Gravity’s Rainbow famously suggests is “the real war” (108) (and, we must suppose, the real 1960s US), and Pynchon’s terrifying picture of Nazism itself. “Freedom” is more textually dynamic and critically inventive: Herman and Weisenburger investigate the potential for freedom in Pynchon’s writerly techniques, particularly in his disorienting “mind-to-mind” focalization shifts (164), which embed characters’ perspectives in one another and resist the vertical epistemological systems we might recognize from more authoritarian realist novels and omniscient narrators. [End Page 166]

This section closes with a fascinating account of Slothrop’s repeated invective against Them—“Fuck you!”—a speech act balancing negative freedoms with something dangerous and unstable: a knowingly futile, Bartlebyesque gesture. The book concludes with a glance to Vineland (1990) and the Long Sixties, all washed-up in Reagan’s 1980s; for Pynchon’s characters and ourselves, Herman and Weisenburger argue, it’s always too late: like the hysteron proteron of the Rocket, we have missed our moment. The postmodern world is less a place of weightless play than a fumbled state of generalized “mis-knowing” controlled by “technology, capital and war” (219), the perception, they tell us, germinating Pynchon’s text.

It’s hard to argue with much of this. The readings of the novel are superbly informed and fine grained and the scholarship throughout is excellent: a wide array of 1960s cultural history supplies both deep background and direct subject matter for Pynchon’s opus. Some of this latter material is familiar—Judith and Stewart Albert’s 1984 collection The Sixties Papers provides a good overview—but the authors are correct to say that Gravity’s Rainbow itself hasn’t been considered at length in this way, unlike The Crying of Lot 49. Joanna Freer’s Thomas Pynchon and American Counterculture (2014) has recently picked up this baton too. Perhaps some of the terms of Domination and Freedom established by Fromm, Marcuse, and Brown fade out a little when, say, Agamben’s Homo Sacer (1995) is used to read Pynchon’s representation of the Dora concentration camp. It’s impossible, really, to keep the protean Gravity’s Rainbow entirely within a 1960s paradigm. And it would be interesting to track the novel’s engagement with the economic closing of the Long Sixties in the rise of neoliberalism. But otherwise this is a sustained and entirely convincing study by scholars with an incomparable grasp of their primary material. Indeed, usefully for Pynchonians everywhere, this book will now help align Gravity’s Rainbow with the forensic examination of the 1960s we find in the author’s California Trilogy. So with Herman and Weisenburger’s help, we can peer into that mesmerizing parenthesis of light just a little while longer. [End Page 167]

Doug Haynes
University of Sussex, UK