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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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As a scholar working on literature, I am often asked to describe my work in potted form. This necessarily involves an introduction to the work of Thomas Pynchon, an extremely difficult task. Pynchon's novels cannot be considered normal literature; they are vast, sprawling pieces that encompass hundreds of characters, vast historical scope and dense prose. When I first started working on Pynchon, I would extoll the virtues of the linguistic play, the indeterminacy that is so typical of Pynchonesque high-postmodernism. This does not do the texts justice; as The Modern Word puts it: "Right . . . you know, and Ulysses is about two guys and their day, and Moby Dick is about a whale".

These days, when asked to sum up Gravity's Rainbow, I describe it as a genealogical history; a history of the present. I try something like this:

One of the most astute observations of Gravity's Rainbow is that the evil of mankind (or "nature") "does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation"; an observation framed in the epigraph attributed to Wernher von Braun. This implies a transposition to a new setting, persisting and always collecting around centres of power, embodied by the novel's final, America-bound, transatlantic V-2/ICBM. Through this impossible moment, wherein the Rocket that is so central to the text morphs into the absolute symbol of Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction, Pynchon highlights that behind twentieth-century America's technological and economic supremacy lies the dark negotiations of Operation Paperclip and a re-embodiment of the right-wing politics supposedly vanquished in the Second World War. How many of us notice, inscribed upon our antibiotics, the second label, permanently hidden beneath the surface-level, reading “sulfonamide” and “I.G. Farben”? How many of us see, when we watch satellite television, the German technician crying: “Vergeltungswaffe”? It is this uncovering of a sinister history that drives the novel's paranoia; it's not paranoia if they're really after you. Pynchon achieves this through a fusion of styles that induce historical dramatic irony, bringing a heightened sense of self-awareness. As a result, his novels should be considered highly political.

This type of summary is so reductive that it doesn't even touch on the vast scope of the work -- I haven't even mentioned the word "Slothrop" or given an outline of the "plot" -- but, when you need to describe Pynchon quick 'n' dirty, how else can it be done?