Gravity's Rainbow | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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Gravity's Rainbow | Part 3, Episodes 4–7 : In the Zone | Summary

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Summary

Part 3, Episode 4

It is shortly after May Day (May 1), and Slothrop and Geli Tripping are on top of a mountain peak, "the Brocken," in the Harz Mountains. The site is famed for gatherings of witches on May Day. Geli shows Slothrop how the early morning sun on the Brocken casts their giant shadows on the clouds below. "God-shadows," Slothrop thinks.

Slothrop recalls running into "a Schwarzkommando picket" outside the entrance to Mittelwerke. The Hereros questioned him. Slothrop thinks there is something "between Tchitcherine and the Africans." Geli says what's between them is "hate ... old-time, pure, personal hate."

Coming down the mountains, they run into Russian and American troops. Marvy has been gunning for Slothrop, "gnashing about the Harz." Geli advises Slothrop to fly to Berlin in a balloon with a friend of hers, Schnorp. "You want to go where Marvy isn't," she says.

Once in the air, Schnorp and Slothrop find their balloon pursued by Major Marvy in an airplane. Schnorp is bringing custard pies to Berlin to sell, but he sacrifices them for use as ammunition against Major Marvy. Slothrop hits Marvy in the face with a pie. Schnorp tells him to aim for the plane's engine. A cloud bank gives them cover, but Major Marvy pursues them into the cloud. Marvy cut his plane's motor, gliding or "volplaning" silently, the better to hunt Slothrop. The plane appears; Schnorp drops a ballast bag on it, damaging the engine. The plane drops with a "muffled scream." Schnorp and Slothrop watch the sunset from their balloon.

Part 3, Episode 5

It is "full summer" in the Zone. Tchitcherine is in the Zone, on a "private, obsessive" mission involving the Rocket. He also feels "a compulsive need ... to annihilate the Schwarzkommando and his mythical half-brother, Enzian."

The focus shifts back in time to the Soviet Union during Stalin's reign. Tchitcherine is posted to remote Kyrgyzstan. Tchitcherine and two colleagues work "with the local Likbez center." (Likbez is short for liquidation of illiteracy.) Tchitcherine is part of the alphabetization campaign, a Soviet effort to make sure all its diverse peoples had a written language. His other companions are a Chinese laborer and a "traveling 'native' schoolteacher," Džaqyp Qulan. ("Native" is in quotation marks because Džaqyp is a Kazakh, an ethnic minority in Kyrgyzstan.)

Rumors connect Tchitcherine to a "Soviet courtesan" in Moscow, perhaps for whose sake he was exiled to Central Asia. Other rumors connect him to "the legendary Wimpe," a traveling German drug salesman specializing in opioids. Tchitcherine himself thinks he was sent east "because of Enzian, it's got to be damned Enzian."

The narrative shifts focus to Tchitcherine's father, who was a gunner in the Russian navy. He was on board a Russian ship in 1904 when it sailed to a South West African port, en route to the Pacific in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). There the Russian sailor fathered Enzian, and he then sailed away: "His future was with the Baltic fleet."

The episode shifts focus to the alphabetization campaign, and then to a Kirghiz singing duel between two young lovers. Tchitcherine realizes soon some traveling specialist will write down these songs "in the New Turkic Alphabet he helped frame ... and this is how they will be lost." Tchitcherine goes into the desert, searching for "the Kirghiz Light," a phenomenon like the Northern Lights. He has a mystic experience. The episode concludes with a shift to postwar Germany, where "in the Zone, hidden inside the summer Zone, the Rocket is waiting."

Part 3, Episode 6

Slothrop has been in Berlin at least a week. He fell ill from "drink[ing] out of an ornamental pond in the Tiergarten [a park in Berlin]." He crawled to a cellar to wait out the illness.

Slothrop is unsure, but "it seems a while back" he ran into Enzian and the Schwarzkommando again. They wore a symbol with the letters K, E, Z, V, H. These letters stand for "the five positions of the launching switch in the A4 control car." (As mentioned early in the novel, A4 is another name for the V-2 rocket.) Slothrop and Enzian conversed about the Schwarzkommando, the Hereros, and the fragility of the inner workings of the rocket. Just like Slothrop, the Schwarzkommando are looking for "der Fünffachnullpunkt ... the quintuple zero." Tchitcherine is in league with Major Marvy against Enzian.

Slothrop meets a German selling "reefer," a man named Emil "Säure" (acid) Bummer. Säure and his friends have been "looting a stash of Wagnerian opera costumes." In addition to getting him high, they give Slothrop a "pointed helmet with horns, a full cape of green velvet, a pair of buckskin trousers." He puts them on, after removing the horns from the helmet, and becomes "Raketemensch," or Rocketman.

Slothrop, Säure, and the two girls with Säure stumble, high, through Berlin. In a bar they meet Seaman Bodine of the U.S. Navy. Bodine has hidden "six kilos! of pure, top-grade Nepalese hashish!" in Potsdam, Germany. He can't get the hashish because world leaders have converged on Potsdam for the peace negotiations. Slothrop proposes "Rocketman" can get the hashish out of Potsdam. In return, Säure offers a million counterfeit German marks. Slothrop agrees.

Part 3, Episode 7

The next morning Slothrop wakes up at Säure's place in Berlin. He prepares for his trip to Potsdam to retrieve the hash. It is "stashed under an ornamental bush outside a villa at 2 Kaiserstrasse, in Neubabelsberg." Neubabelsberg is a neighborhood of villas in Potsdam; it is "the old movie capital of Germany," its former Hollywood. Säure tells Slothrop he should enter by way of a canal. The roads will have checkpoints. Then Säure and Slothrop walk through the American sector of Berlin. They come upon posters of the Allied leaders; Slothrop asks, "Who's that guy in the glasses?" It is President Truman; Slothrop was unaware Roosevelt had died. He takes the news hard. Everyone around Slothrop, including Säure, seems to be a simulation. The buildings too seem fabricated, like a movie set.

Säure mentions Tchitcherine is in Potsdam, which disturbs Slothrop. Säure suggests he talk to "der Springer," who "leaps perpetually ... across the chessboard of the Zone," like the knight chess piece. Säure arranges a fake ID for Slothrop with the name Max Schlepzig.

At Zehlendorf, near Potsdam, some Russian soldiers challenge Slothrop. Slothrop fears Tchitcherine is behind this somehow, but he is allowed to pass on. He reaches the canal, steals a boat, and paddles all day toward Potsdam, which is heavily guarded.

The address Bodine gave him, 2 Kaiserstrasse, in Neubabelsberg, turns out to be the temporary White House for the American government representatives in Potsdam. Unchallenged, he finds the bag of hash under a bush. Film star Mickey Rooney walks out onto a balcony and makes eye contact with Slothrop, who is still in Rocketman costume. Slothrop creeps away, only to be stopped moments later. Someone whispers to him, "Yes, you were followed all the way." He is grabbed and hauled away.

Analysis

As with the chase by miniature train in Part 3, Episode 2, the pie fight with Marvy is comical. All around them in the Zone, battles have been raging, real battles in which artillery was fired and soldiers died. Slothrop has lived through the V-2 rockets raining death and destruction on London. But the actual battles depicted in Gravity's Rainbow are amusing. The stakes seem low and the consequences slight. This shift in emphasis, from slaughter to slapstick, helps Slothrop have his own journey as a character. Pynchon is not beholden to the conventions of war stories in Gravity's Rainbow because it is something other than a war novel.

In this part of the novel, plotlines are still converging. Characters have connections: Slothrop is connected to Geli, who is connected to Tchitcherine, who is connected to Enzian. And Tchitcherine, Enzian, and Slothrop all hunt the "quintuple zero," the 00000 V-2 rocket. The paranoid systems also connect up. As the narrator says of Marvy's possible connection to other Slothrop antagonists, including Lyle Bland, "There may be no limit to their connections." If all the villains converge, then everything will reveal something about the main character, Slothrop. (However, in the end the novel does not go that way.)

As someone working on an alphabetization campaign, Tchitcherine was an agent of order, a bringer of systems. Thus he works against entropy, the tendency of systems toward increasing disorder. Entropy was originally conceptualized in thermodynamics, a science initially oriented to the workings of steam engines. However, thermodynamics also considers the work of atoms and molecules; this branch is called statistical mechanics. The narrator makes an analogy between letters of the alphabet and molecules: "How alphabetic is the nature of molecules." Tchitcherine himself is "a giant supermolecule" with an ability to systematize by forming bonds with others.

Tchitcherine recognizes the price of working for order on the alphabetization campaign. Writing down the beautiful songs of the dueling boy and girl would cause them to be lost. Now in the Zone, he is his own system. The narrator describes Tchitcherine as building a "little State ... in the German vacuum" of the Zone. His state has only one purpose, "a need to annihilate the Schwarzkommando and his mythical half-brother, Enzian." He also sides with Marvy and other occupying powers in "trying to shut [the Schwarzkommando] down." As Enzian's half-brother, Tchitcherine is his double or reflection. He is also Enzian's opposite, colluding with order rather than liberation.

Tchitcherine is also a double of Blicero, or Weissmann, as he was known in South West Africa. Just as Weissmann, the conquering colonist, had his indigenous Herero lover, so Tchitcherine, representative of the Soviet state, has his minority Kazakh companion, Džaqyp. Blicero and Enzian became lovers against a backdrop of the destruction of the Hereros by the Germans. Likewise, Tchitcherine was in Central Asia at a time of famine and death in the Soviet Union. The famine and death were caused by collectivization, the forcing of farmers onto collective farms to labor to meet production quotas. Although the most deaths occurred in the Ukraine, the highest proportion of deaths during collectivization was in Kazakhstan. Thus, like Enzian, Džaqyp is one of the few survivors of a decimated population. Pynchon here crystallizes a relationship of state domination (Germany over Hereros, Soviet Union over Kazakhs) into the personal relationships of pairs of men. The paired lovers (or perhaps simply friends, in the case of Tchitcherine and Džaqyp) demonstrate how much power the dominating one has.

As Slothrop becomes Rocketman, the narrator obliquely comments on the power of naming: "Names by themselves may be empty, but the act of naming ..." The narrator trails off, declining to say what powers fill the act of naming. Slothrop is surrounded by quite a crowd of partiers in Berlin. However, despite his companions in Berlin, his later isolation is foreshadowed in a conversation with Säure. "Are your people after it [the Schwarzgerät]?" asks Säure, meaning the Americans or British. "I don't have any people," Slothrop answers. He means he is not the agent of any government, but he also means he is alone. "They" have taken his one friend, Tantivy, and his own father allowed him to be experimented on.

In Potsdam a fantastical, fictional character—Rocketman, heroic and ridiculous—could potentially come in contact with real, historical figures from World War II. Rocketman's goofy mission—seizing some hashish—intersects with the mission of architecting the postwar peace. In a way, the people inside Potsdam's temporary White House are more real than Slothrop; they are historical and he is fictional. As though he is aware of this difference but unable to articulate it, Slothrop feels everything around him is unreal. Truman does not seem like the real president to Slothrop, and the narrator describes the change of presidents in the language of moviemaking: "the face [Truman's] that has silently dissolved in to replace the one Slothrop never saw [Roosevelt's]." Of all the real, historical power brokers in the villa, the only one Slothrop sees is an actor, Mickey Rooney. In this way Pynchon suggests history is also a simulation.

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