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Reading Gravity's Rainbow After September Eleventh: An Anecdotal Approach
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© 2002
PMC 13.1

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 does not have Gravity's Rainbow in mind when he urges New Yorkers to read about London during World War Two. What Mayor Giuliani's interview reinforces, however, is how tenaciously the mechanism of comparison occurs to us in the light of contemporary events and how transparently we appeal to the relations between events, texts, and contexts.

In the wake of September Eleventh, the questions that literary criticism has asked about the precise nature of the relationship between text and context, events and history, and narrative and culture take on a new kind of urgency. In this essay, I would like to take seriously Mayor Giuliani's suggestion that we turn to texts and history in order to make sense of current events. Specifically, I want to set the discourse of childhood and innocence in Gravity's Rainbow in dialogue with the proliferation of post-September Eleventh anecdotes about children who selflessly break their piggy banks to contribute to relief funds. It seems as though each news organization and each local newspaper has its own version of this familiar kind of story. What is the relationship between these anecdotes of innocence and charity, the devastation at the World Trade Center site, and the United States' present military campaign in Afghanistan? How are anecdotes such as these poised in an important position at the nexus of event, narrative, and history? How can understanding these recent anecdotes help us to understand Pynchon's sexualized depiction of children in Gravity's Rainbow? Conversely, what can Pynchon's discourse of innocence in that novel teach us about how the recent piggy-bank anecdotes do cultural work in our current war? Finally, how might a new understanding of the function of anecdotes in general contribute to broad efforts in literary criticism to comprehend the connections between texts and history? In the process of addressing such questions, I mean to develop a space within anecdotes and the anecdotal...

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