Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), by Thomas Pynchon, is arguably the foremost work of American postmodernist literature and is regarded as one of the most “difficult” books of the past century. Upon its publication, it elicited strong opinions from critics. Some decried it as self-important and unreadable, while others hailed it as the postmodernist equivalent of James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses.
Gravilty’s Rainbow takes place during the late stages of World War II, when German forces are raining down their new, technologically advanced V-2 rockets all over London. The plot revolves loosely around a US Army lieutenant named Tyrone Slothrop, whose every sexual encounter, it seems, occurs in the exact spot where a German rocket then lands a few days later. Alerted to Slothrop’s apparent predictive abilities, Allied commanders take him in for study. Near the close of the war, he escapes and bounces around Europe, pursued by mysterious individuals who, like him, are trying to discover the nature of a top-secret German rocket and the mysterious payload in contains.
Pynchon’s unbelievably dense and convoluted novel shuns a traditional linear plot in favor of a twisting narrative of multiple storylines and hundreds of characters. The story is littered with mathematical equations, songs, and other digressions, and each page is stuffed with allusions and references, from rock music to rocket science to tarot.
Thought Gravity’s Rainbow is nominally about World War II, its thematic concerns are wide-ranging: paranoia, war, sex, death, modern life, and even the nature of meaning itself. The novel wraps actual historical events, surrealist elements, and far-reaching conspiracy theories into a darkly comic hodgepidge not unlike that of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle – though far more complex. The result remains one of the more enigmatic, trying , and fascinating books of modern times.