Thomas Pynchon Predicted the Pandemic in ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’—Now Aren't You Sorry You Didn't Read It? 1

Recently an editor at the website Jezebel titled her essay on quarantine reading “You Don’t Have to Read Gravity’s Rainbow During Self-Isolation.” She instead recommended “trash” or books one had read as a child. Others in lit biz were quick to recommend Camus’ The Plague, and a recent piece in The New York Times suggested Moby-Dick, mostly for its finale of nature—the White Whale—exacting revenge on Ahab and the rest of the humans (except for Ishmael) on the Pequod. Depending on how long the pandemic lasts, I, too, would recommend Moby-Dick—as a precursor of and as a warm-up for Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, where the killer whale becomes the killer rocket. 

If it’s fiction you want these shut-in days, Pynchon’s is the American novel that offers the most profound understanding of how the pandemic is killing hundreds of thousands across the globe. Granted, each of us is most concerned that the virus doesn’t kill us, but you still might like to know Pynchon’s analysis—in 1973—of why you might die. And although Gravity’s Rainbow has a very pessimistic diagnosis of human history, that diagnosis might inspire the cognitive shift necessary for regeneration after the pandemic eases, if it does. Plenty of op-ed writers have offered cultural analyses and future prescriptions, but Pynchon’s fiction is further reaching, more imaginative, and more affecting.

Gravity’s Rainbow is also notoriously long and recalcitrant. But if you recognize its Brechtian “epic theater” as decidedly relevant to our current situation, reading it could be a good investment of your entertainment hours because the novel is an encyclopedia of humor, what scholars call “the carnivalesque.” Pynchon includes a Huck Finn-like Innocent Abroad as protagonist, a large gallery of fools and frauds, slapstick chase scenes, movie parodies, Catch-22 absurdities and Monty Python stupidities, as well as bawdy songs, Proverbs for Paranoids, and word play worthy of Nabokov, with whom Pynchon studied. I should also mention plenty of sex scenes to please just about every taste (and tastelessness). But be not fooled: the hurdy-gurdy carnival is present to conduct you into the big tent, where gravity-defying high-wire acts of human rocketry occur.

Also, be not afraid. You can finish Gravity’s Rainbow, as I told students to whom I assigned it, if you just keep going forward. Don’t loop back to get every joke and resolve every ambiguity. The multiple story lines will cohere—and diffuse again at the end. By then you should be moved by the novel’s emotional heart, presented in scores of variations: children away from home and threatened in the night, Hansels and Gretels without, unfortunately, their happy ending. For decades, Pynchon the prodigal prodigy has been criticized for his lack of affect, but readers who aren’t exhausted by the book’s generous excesses should ultimately feel Pynchon’s disgust with and pity for the human virus: “`Fathers are carriers of the virus of Death, and sons are the infected.’”

“Humans are the virus” is apparently a slogan Reddit Eco-Fascists use to rail against immigration and overpopulation. Pynchon’s viral tail and tale are much longer, summarized near the end of the novel: The “World just before men,” Pynchon writes, was “Too violently pitched alive in constant flow ever to be seen by men directly. They are meant only to look at it dead, in still strata, transputrefied to oil or coal. Alive, it was such a threat: it was Titans, was an overpeaking of life so clangorous and mad, such a green corona about Earth’s body that some spoiler had to be brought in before it blew the Creation apart. So we, the crippled keepers, were sent out to multiply, to have dominion. God’s spoilers. Us. Counter-revolutionaries. It is our mission to promote death. The way we kill, the way we die, being unique among the Creatures.” 

For Pynchon, humans are the “carriers of the virus of Death” because of two unique features: first is our foreknowledge that we will die. Because of this, and here Pynchon seems to be following Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, we desperate humans used our intelligence (that gave us foreknowledge) to invent ways of protecting ourselves and killing others, both human others and the threatening “green corona” of nature, the planet-wide other.

To dramatize the consequences of this anthropological and ecological vision, Pynchon sets Gravity’s Rainbow at the end of World War II in the killing “Zone” of border-broken Europe. Characters from all inhabited continents gather in this Zone to hunt the special rocket 00000 created by Nazi scientists, some of whom would soon move to the U.S. There are also glimpses of concentration camps and a reference to the atomic devastation of Hiroshima. Although about the 20th-century’s murderous past, as well as human prehistory, the novel and its rocketry really predict the future, our present in which death can surprise us from the sky, flying in from very far away—from nuclear weapons launched by North Korea or from a virus launched by a diseased bat in China. Gravity’s Rainbow may be the first globalized novel, one that understands that the technologies that we humans devised to keep ourselves alive and distant from others can be superspreaders of mass death. 

“For Pynchon, World War II was just an accelerated incident in humans’ long-running global war on nature.”

For Pynchon, rockets are not just weapons or carriers but symbols of all industrialism that mines the coal and pumps the oil (mentioned in the earlier quote) to build towers and fuel machines that seem to promise rising above the “living critter” planet Earth. When 00000 is fired in the novel, the rocket is both an act of murder and an act of suicide, for a youth rides within it to “no return.” Humans have been committing murder for millennia. It’s the suicide that our industries have now enabled on a planetary scale that is new. For Pynchon, World War II was just an accelerated incident in humans’ long-running global war on nature. If this seems a truism to all but Republican lawmakers in 2020, remember please that Pynchon was writing his environmental novel 50 years ago.

At the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow, German rockets are raining down on London. At the end of the novel, rocket 00000 seems to be coming down in Los Angeles. On a globalized Earth, no populated place is safe. A character in The Matrix makes explicit, some 26 years after Gravity’s Rainbow, the effect of superspreading humans:

“You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.”

Perhaps cancer is a more precise analog for humans’ relation to nature, since viruses are not really alive. In any event, both can destroy their host, bringing about the very death humans wanted to avoid as they depleted much of the natural world and then abandoned it to live in a megalopolis that Pynchon calls the “Raketen-Stadt,” the Rocket City. The coronavirus rocket came down in New York City and other densely populated centers. In the novel, children are moved out of London to protect them from the V-2 rockets. In New York City, the rich fled to their country homes. The rest of us were left behind and to our own devices like the abused and murdered children in Pynchon’s Zone.

Pynchon knew about the rich, the elite, the “They” who control technology, economics, and politics, who promise security to us, whom he calls the “preterite,” the unchosen: “’Can They keep us from even catching cold? From lice, from being alone? from anything? Before the Rocket we went on believing, because we wanted to. But the Rocket can penetrate, from the sky, at any given point. Nowhere is safe.’” Pynchon even knew somehow about Trump and his administration, our current “They”: “’They have lied to us. They can’t keep us from dying, so They lie to us about death.’”

Symbols of globalism, industrialism, and monopolism, rockets also represent the human desire for transcendence, for death-denying immortality in the heavens that rockets pierce. Pynchon sees the rocket prefigured in the pointed steeples of American Christian churches that promise souls’ return “home” to God. But “no return” is the constant refrain in Gravity’s Rainbow. Like the ancient organisms that gave us petroleum, we die here and return only to the earth. 

“The last words of “Gravity’s Rainbow” are a hopeful song,”

One of the novel’s last lines is a call to bring “the Towers low”—the rocket towers, the megalopolis towers, the sacred towers. After the bubonic plague in Europe, some cities built “plague towers” to memorialize the dead and thank God for “saving” the cities. The tallest is in the Czech Republic, the most famous in Vienna. Will towers of fealty and thanks be erected after the current pandemic? Or will humans come around to Pynchon’s position that no salvation exists in the heavens, that no He—or They—exists to deliver humans from a pandemic or from our suicidal destruction of our only home?

Student of cybernetics, artist of control and chaos, user of inherited words going back to the Puritans, Pynchon implicates himself as semiotician with a late reference to William Burroughs, who thought language, enabler of restrictive codes and official lies, was the destructive human virus, so he cut up sentences and fragmented texts.  Before quoting from Naked Lunch, Pynchon says, “I know what your editors want, exactly what they want. I am a traitor. I carry it with me. Your virus. Spread by your tireless Typhoid Marys.” Though diffuse, sometimes obscene, and obsessed with addiction like Naked Lunch, Gravity’s Rainbow does not as radically attack as Burroughs did the death-dealing language virus, the carrier of cultural repetition and repression. Pynchon gives editors and readers more of what he believes they want—more amusement and a more consistent argument about planetary life and death. Those features are why he speaks to us still. The last words of Gravity’s Rainbow are a hopeful song, followed by the singalong request: “Now everybody—”

“It is only now, when deaths have abated where I live in Brooklyn, that I feel I can write this ‘Pynchon told us so.’”

Our children need not be told—now—Pynchon’s version of human history, but if there is to be a cognitive supershift—to prevent future superspreading—perhaps we should tell them the outlines of Pynchonian history and, when they are old enough, put Gravity’s Rainbow in their hands. I was persuaded by Pynchon’s alarm in 1973 and have lived with the possibility of apocalypse since then. I had not stocked face masks and toilet paper, but I was also not surprised by the virus rushing across global skies much faster than Melville’s nature-avenging mutant whale could move through water. It is only now, when deaths have abated where I live in Brooklyn, that I feel I can write this “Pynchon told us so”—just as Melville did in more ambiguous terms in Moby-Dick.  

The tragedy of Ahab is classical personal hubris. The tragedy in Gravity’s Rainbow is species hubris. That hubris is with us still, with us in our political leaders who refuse to accept that America is not exceptional, with anyone who refuses to accept that humankind is not transcendent but contingent and fragile, subject to agents that can be seen only through a microscope. There is no pot of gold at the end of Pynchon’s Rainbow. But there is possibly enriching human humility. We will need it in our Pynchonian future.