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  • "Down to the people":Pynchon and Schlesinger "after the imperial presidency"
  • Sean McCann (bio)

The America which should have been is not the America we ourselves live in.

—Thomas Pynchon

I sound mighty anti-American . . . [D]on't blame me for that. Blame those who mouthed my liberal values and broke my American heart.

—Carl Oglesby

The perspective of the national state might be best synthesized as the "myth of the apocalypse."

—Theodore Lowi

In the three decades since its publication, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow has been studied from almost every angle possible, but one relatively obvious feature of the book has been rarely noted.1 On at least one level, Thomas Pynchon's novel is organized by its evident disappointment in presidential leadership. Of course, precisely what defines the structure of Pynchon's encyclopedic text is famously and perhaps suitably difficult to define. But, to the extent that the gargantuan novel has a central narrative, Gravity's Rainbow centers loosely on the story of Tyrone Slothrop, the hapless antihero whose erotic conquests are mysteriously keyed to the attack of Nazi V-2 missiles on war-time [End Page 247] London, and it concerns Slothrop's quest to understand the hidden history of his life and its entanglement in the obscure design of military-industrial society. No human character is as central to this story as the totem that occupies the central place in its allegorical design. For it is the V-2 that does most to hold together Pynchon's narrative—an apt feature for a novel that views modern history as "a conspiracy between human beings and techniques" and worries it is "the needs of technology" that have assumed the upper hand in the bargain.2 The story begins in London, 1944, with a foreboding vision of a rocket attack. It ends in late twentieth-century southern California, where we are encouraged to believe that the whole proceeding narrative has merely described images projected on a film screen into which a missile is about to crash. In between, the rocket is the crucial object in the various obsessive quests that bring together the novel's major characters and the resonant image of the nefarious forces that define the history of the modern world. "The true momentum of his time," Slothrop learns, is "indenture to the Rocket" (312). The apparent political powers of the world, by contrast, are "all theatre" (521).

Fittingly, then, Pynchon establishes an extended counterpoint between his antihero Slothrop and an equally unheroic modern presidency. In his childhood, we learn, young Tyrone idolized Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now he is disenchanted to discover that Roosevelt was "a being . . . assembled" by mysterious unnamed powers, "a being They would dismantle" (374). As a Harvard undergrad, Slothrop partied with John F. Kennedy, who is described ambivalently as both a symptomatic representative of the evils the novel discerns and as the possible representative of a tragically missed alternative. At Potsdam, he steals hashish from Harry Truman. Finally, in the novel's closing pages, we leap forward in time to encounter Richard M. Zhlubb, a satirical portrait of Richard Nixon, who is made to seem both the antithesis to Kennedy and the logical culmination of his failure. Since Nixon shows up in an earlier incarnation in the novel's opening scenes—as the giant adenoid who haunts the nightmares of a minor character—he frames Gravity's Rainbow as surely, if less dramatically, as does the rocket itself.3

In one, perhaps reductive, sense, that use of Nixon might be said to clarify a major concern of Pynchon's novel. Flanking its images of the modern presidency with the figure of Nixon, Gravity's Rainbow satirizes the notion, only recently a prevailing belief among American liberals, that executive power was the core component of democratic government. At the heart of the fantasy of presidential leadership, Pynchon suggests, the repellent figure of Nixon was waiting to emerge all along. Making Nixon the "Manager" of the novel's structurally enclosing cinema, moreover, Pynchon underscores one of his [End Page 248] most striking suggestions—that the apparent political powers of our world are merely "theatre" (756). Pynchon's Nixon is neither a leader...