Rocketing to the Apocalypse

Gravity's Rainbow

by Thomas Pynchon
Viking, 760 pp., $4.95 (paper)

In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), an unlikely Jacobean tragedy is staged by a group of California players and described in the jocular manner of S. J. Perelman revisiting an old movie (“Evil Duke Angelo, meanwhile, is scheming to amalgamate the duchies of Squamuglia and Faggio, by marrying off the only royal female available, his sister Francesca, to Pasquale, the Faggian usurper…”). When the evil Duke orders the execution of the hero, “a gentle chill, an ambiguity, begins to creep in among the words” of the play.

Heretofore, the naming of names has gone on either literally or as metaphor. But now, as the Duke gives his fatal command, a new mode of expression takes over. It can only be called a kind of ritual reluctance. Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown on stage….

The name that is not being named here is that of the sinister, ubiquitous Tristero, a subterranean league of couriers who have been fighting monopolies of communication since the Middle Ages. Transplanted to America, they have wrought havoc with Wells Fargo, and continue to subvert and circumvent the US Postal Service. The Tristero system is used by countless Americans who have no knowledge of its meaning or history, people who have dropped out of the official network for all kinds of reasons, charmed by the stealth and the stubbornness of the counter-couriers.

The heroine of the book, having stumbled on the Tristero while trying to execute the will of an old lover, having found traces of its presence on forged stamps, in the old play, in old books, in whispered conversations, and in cryptic signs and slogans littered about the night in San Francisco, finds herself shakily facing four possibilities: the Tristero really exists, a conspiracy of communication among the excluded and the exiled; she is hallucinating it; a plot has been mounted for her benefit, possibly by her old lover, his stab at immortality, a plan for persistence in a living mind, a bequest of apparent paranoia; or she is having a fantasy about such a plot, in which case she is paranoid.

What is important about the four possibilities is that they all involve insanity, the heroine’s, her lover’s, or the world’s, and that there is no middle ground in the book between this madness and the totally insulated loneliness from which the heroine is longing to escape at the beginning, the high tower from which no prince will ever rescue her. Her choices are the tower all alone or a madness with others, a relation with others which can be mediated only by madness, and Pynchon makes it clear that these grim options confront America itself, as well as his heroine: the tower or the Tristero. The heroine, again like America, is half-trying to get back to the tower, as the Tristero, at the end of the book, clicks shut around her.

This is a characteristic…

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