Gravity's Rainbow | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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Gravity's Rainbow | Part 1, Episodes 9–11 : Beyond the Zero | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Episode 9

Jessica dreams about something "stalking through the city of Smoke—gathering up slender girls ... by the handful." A bomb blast wakes her from her dream. Mexico briefly wakes and goes back to sleep. They are in their hideaway house in the bombed-out "stay-away zone."

Jessica gets up for a cigarette. She wonders how dangerous their hideaway is. Roger has tried to explain to Jessica the statistical probabilities of being hit by a V-2. There are two views. There is an "angel's-eye" view of the distribution of strikes, and "their own chances, as seen from down here." The statistical equation shows the picture from the angel's-eye view. Jessica wants to know if an equation can tell them where it's safe. Roger says no.

The memory ends and the narrator remarks the V-2 rockets are falling on London in a Poisson distribution. The Poisson distribution is a mathematical function that gives the probability for independent events happening in a certain interval of time. Thus Roger's work shows the rockets fall according to chance. Those at the White Visitation view Roger as a prophet, but only because they don't understand statistics.

"Both [Pointsman and Mexico] know how strange their liaison must look," the narrator comments. Mexico is "the anti-pointsman." Pointsman, "like his master I.P. Pavlov," thinks minds work in a binary way. Little clusters of cells are excited or they are not, on or off. While "Pointsman can only possess the zero and the one," Mexico is comfortable "in the domain between the zero and the one," the area of probability.

The narrative returns to Jessica standing at a window awake while Mexico sleeps. Suddenly a rocket lands "quite close beyond the village." The narrator remarks, "Death has come in the pantry door ... with a look that says try to tickle me."

Part 1, Episode 10

The episode begins with a letter from Slothrop. Its return address is the Abreaction Ward in St. Veronica's Hospital. The letter is numbered 1 and is the first of several variations on the phrase "You never did the Kenosha Kid."

A song with the refrain "Snap to, Slothrop" marks Slothrop's return to at least semiconsciousness. He is in the Abreaction Ward and there is a "needle in [his] vein," as the preceding song says. He has apparently been fantasizing the Kenosha Kid variations. The PISCES group is using drugs on Slothrop, in what the reader will later learn is an effort to probe the racial anxieties of white Americans. PISCES stands for Psychological Intelligence Schemes for Expediting Surrender. It is a psychological warfare organization and part of the White Visitation.

The PISCES representative suggests they talk "some more about Boston today" and "the Negroes, in Roxbury." Slothrop describes a scene at the Roseland Ballroom in Boston in 1938 or 1939. The Roseland was a popular venue for jazz performance and swing dancing in the 1930s and 40s. As Slothrop slips into the drugged state he finds himself in the men's room above the ballroom. His harmonica falls into the toilet and he decides to follow it.

Before diving in, Slothrop considers diving headfirst will leave him vulnerable, "his ass up in the air helpless." He imagines "brown fingers, strong and sure, all at once undoing his belt ... holding his legs apart." Also on the scene is "Red," a shoeshine at the Roseland. (As a young man, the African-American leader Malcolm X [1925–65] shined shoes at the Roseland, where his nickname was Red.)

Slothrop wriggles down the toilet. He can still faintly hear "sounds of 'Cherokee' [a jazz song] still pulsing very dimly above." He sees "traces of shit" he can identify as "belonging definitely to this or that Harvard fellow of his acquaintances." Later Slothrop advances further, into a populated underworld.

The scene shifts to one about "Crutchfield or Crouchfield, the westwardman." The narrator clarifies Crutchfield is "not 'archetypical' westwardman,' but the only." There follows a meandering catalog of solitary things: the "one Indian" who fought Crutchfield, one of various other ethnic minorities, one rattlesnake, one buffalo, "and on, and on, one of each of everything." Crouchfield's "little pard of the moment is Whappo, a Norwegian mulatto lad."

The scene shifts to a battlefield in the Ardennes in France, and then back to a winter night in Boston, on Beacon Street. Finally, there is a return to the wordplay of the Kenosha Kid.

Part 1, Episode 11

The episode begins by quoting the technical specifications of an invisible ink called Kryptosam. A message written in Kryptosam is revealed by contact with semen. The specifications were written by Dr. Laszlo Jamf of the Agfa Corporation in Berlin.

Pirate has been provided with a Kryptosam message to make visible. To stimulate his fantasies the piece of paper also contains a pen-and-ink drawing of his former lover, Scorpia Mossmoon. She is wearing "the dark stockings and shoes he daydreamed about often enough but never—." His sentence is unfinished; he wonders how "They" know so much about his fantasies.

Pirate's semen reveals a coded message "in a simple Nihilist transposition." He decodes the message, which the narrator summarizes: "There is a time given, a place, a request for help." He burns the message, which fell "on him from higher than Earth's atmosphere." The message was in the V-2 rocket. "There is more to this than he can see," and he will have to immediately go to the place mentioned in the message.

Analysis

Part 1, Episode 9 contrasts the statistician's "angel's-eye view" with the more personal, limited perspective of Roger Mexico and Jessica. Pynchon could have called this a bird's-eye view, but a bird could not comprehend the human drama of the bombing of London. An angel might see it as a human does. It is also more common to attribute such an overview to God, rather than to angels. But angels did not arrange history, whereas God might have (depending on one's religious beliefs). Thus the angel's-eye view is the view of a being who perhaps sympathizes with but does not intervene in human affairs.

The contrast between the angel's-eye view and the personal one is repeated in Jessica's and Mexico's discussion of Pirate Prentice's remarks. Prentice had spoken of paying dues in the war. Mexico scoffs at dues-paying as "Calvinism" (a form of Protestantism named for John Calvin, 16th-century Protestant reformer of Christianity). In contrast to the distance of the noninterfering angel, the more personal, "Calvinist" view of the 1944 bombing of London centers on the guilt or innocence of the victims. For Mexico the statistician, there are no contrasting columns of dues-payers and dues-shirkers. "Everyone's equal. Same chances of getting hit. Equal in the eyes of the rocket."

The contrast between the angel's view and Jessica and Mexico's down-to-earth view also maps onto the contrast between Mexico's statistical view and Pointsman's psychological one. Pointsman is not necessarily a Calvinist. But Pointsman believes in cause and effect, and in binary states: brain cells are excited or not, on or off (just as a Calvinist is saved or damned). It is not immediately obvious why statistics should be contrasted with cause and effect. Mexico, after all, is "devoted to number and to method, not table-rapping or wishful thinking" like his colleagues at the White Visitation. Mexico's Poisson distribution of bombs records the eminently cause-and-effect occurrence of bombs being sent up in Holland and falling down on London. But Pointsman sees in statistics a loss of history. For the statistician, each square of the London map has the same chances of being hit each time. The history of that small area is irrelevant to its chances. Horrified, Pointsman wonders, "Will Postwar be nothing but 'events' ...? No links? Is it the end of history?"

Part 1, Episode 10 also shifts between an angel's-eye view and a personal, psychological one. The setting is the Abreaction Ward of St. Victoria's—the domain of psychology. But Slothrop's drug-induced fantasies are oddly impersonal. They do not yield much of Slothrop's own backstory. Instead, they are representative fantasies. The Roseland toilet sequence yields up the representative racial and sexual fantasies of an average white male college student in New England in the 1930s and 40s. Slothrop, to judge by the content of this dream or fantasy, associates African-American men with sexual aggression. He associates blackness in general with feces and with death. Even the PISCES scientists examining Slothrop are interested in his racial fantasies as representative, not for what they reveal about Slothrop in particular. They will use this data for their Operation Black Wing, a psychological warfare operation. This is revealed in the next episode (Part 1, Episode 12), where it is said Slothrop is "willing to go under light narcosis to help illuminate racial problems in his own country."

The "Crutchfield or Crouchfield" material seems very idiosyncratic in contrast to the rest of Slothrop's dream sequence, but even here the content is somewhat impersonal. The fantasy's motif of a white imperial wanderer and his indigenous lover/companion is taken up in the rest of the novel, with Blicero the German and Enzian the Herero tribesman in South-West Africa. Rather than open up Slothrop's personal psyche, the drug experiments in the Abreaction Ward seem to open up the psyche of the novel itself.

Part 1, Episode 11 reveals the way individual psychological quirks can be taken up and used by the war or by the mysterious "Them." The message Pirate is meant to decode with the help of "Kryptosam" and his own semen arrives with a conveniently personalized erotic drawing. Pirate wonders if "They (They?) somehow have managed to monitor everything he saw and read since puberty." Slothrop is not the only paranoid character. Paranoia is the privileged or primary mode of thinking in the novel.

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