The narrative is set primarily in Europe at the end of World War II and centers on the design, production and dispatch of V-2 rockets by the German military, and, in particular, the quest undertaken by several characters to uncover the secret of a mysterious device named the "Schwarzgerät", which will be installed in a rocket with the serial number "00000".
Frequently digressive, the novel subverts many of the traditional elements of plot and character development, traverses detailed, specialist knowledge drawn from a wide range of disciplines, and has earned a reputation as a "difficult" book.
In 1974, the three-member Pulitzer Prize jury on fiction supported Gravity's Rainbow for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. However, the other eleven members of the board overturned this decision, branding the book "unreadable, turgid, overwritten, and obscene." The novel was nominated for the 1973 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and won the National Book Award in 1974. Since its publication, Gravity's Rainbow has spawned an enormous amount of literary criticism and commentary, including two reader's guides and several online concordances, and is frequently cited as Pynchon's magnum opus.
Gravity's Rainbow is composed of four parts, each of these composed of a number of episodes whose divisions are marked by a graphical depiction of a series of squares. It has been suggested that these represent sprocket holes as in a reel of film, although they may also bear some relation to the engineer's graph paper on which the first draft of the novel was written. One of the book's editors has been quoted as saying that the squares relate to censored correspondence sent between soldiers and their loved ones during the war. When family and friends received edited letters, the removed sections would be cut out in squared or rectangular sections. The squares that start each of the four parts would therefore be indicative of what is not written, or what is removed by an external editor or censor. The number of episodes in each part carries with it a numerological significance which is in keeping with the use of numerology and Tarot symbolism throughout the novel.
"Part 1: Beyond the Zero" consists of 21 episodes, which corresponds exactly to the number of cards in the Major Arcana of a Tarot deck if the Fool card is not counted or assigned a null value, hence the name of this part; "Beyond the Zero". The events of this part occur primarily during the Christmas Advent season of 1944 from December 18–26. The epigraph is a quotation from a pamphlet written by Wernher von Braun and first published in 1962: "Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death."
"Part 2: Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering" (French for "A Furlough at the Hermann Goering Casino") contains 8 episodes, a number that evokes the mathematical symbol of infinity and makes repeated appearances throughout the narrative. The events of this section span the five months from Christmas 1944 through to Whitsunday the following year; May 20, 1945. The epigraph is attributed to Merian C. Cooper, speaking to Fay Wray prior to her starring role in King Kong, as recounted by Wray in the September 21, 1969 issue of the New York Times: "You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood."
"Part 3: In the Zone" comprises 32 episodes, a number some speculate is related to the gravitational acceleration of 32 feet per second per second and also bearing significance to the Kabbalistic tradition. The action of Part 3 is set during the summer of 1945 with some analepses to the time period of Part 2 with most events taking place between May 18 and August 6; the day of the first atomic bomb attack and also the Feast of the Transfiguration. The epigraph is taken from The Wizard of Oz, spoken by Dorothy as she arrives in Oz and shows her disorientation with the new environment: "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas any more..."
"Part 4: The Counterforce" is made up of 12 episodes, this number being most commonly associated with the 12 Apostles and the total number of zodiacal signs. The plot of this part begins shortly after August 6, 1945 and covers the period up to September 14th of that same year; the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, with extended analepsis to Easter/April Fool's weekend of 1945 and culminating in a prolepsis to 1970. The simple epigraphical quotation, "What?" is attributed to Richard M. Nixon, and was added after the galleys of the novel had been printed to insinuate the President's involvement in the unfolding Watergate scandal.
The novel's title is a reference to the parabolic trajectory of a V-2 rocket (the 'rainbow-shaped' path described by the missile as it moves under the influence of gravity, subsequent to its engine's deactivation); it is also thought to refer to the 'shape' of the plot, which many critics, such as Weisenburger have found to be cyclical, like the true shape of a rainbow, which is often believed to be just an arc. This follows in the literary tradition of Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Melville's The Confidence-Man.
The plot of the novel is complex, containing over 400 characters and involving many different threads of narrative which intersect and weave around one another. The recurring themes throughout the plot are the V-2 rocket, interplay between free will and Calvinistic predestination, breaking the cycle of nature, behavioral psychology, sexuality and conspiracy theories such as the Phoebus cartel and the Illuminati. Gravity's Rainbow also draws heavily on themes that Pynchon had probably encountered at his work as a technical writer for Boeing, where he edited a support newsletter for the Bomarc Missile Program support unit. The Boeing archives are known to house a vast library of historical V-2 rocket documents, which were probably accessible to Pynchon. The novel is narrated by many distinct voices, a technique further developed in Pynchon's much later novel Against the Day. The style and tone of the voices vary widely: Some narrate the plot in a highly informal tone, some are more self-referential, and some at times may even break the fourth wall. Some voices even narrate in drastically different formats, ranging from movie-script format to stream of consciousness prose.
As if to showcase both the erudite and the naughty, the narrative contains numerous descriptions of illicit sexual encounters and drug use by the main characters and supporting cast, sandwiched between dense dialogues or reveries on historic, artistic, scientific, or philosophical subjects, interspersed with whimsical nonsense-poems and allusions to obscure facets of 1940s pop culture. Many of the recurring themes will be familiar to experienced Pynchon readers, including the singing of silly songs, recurring appearances of kazoos, and extensive discussion of paranoia, an increasingly central motivator for the novel's many main characters. In many cases, this paranoia proves to be vindicated, as the many plots of the novel become increasingly interconnected, revolving around the identity and purpose of the elusive 00000 Rocket and Schwarzgerät. The novel becomes increasingly preoccupied with themes of Tarot, Paranoia, and Sacrifice. All three themes culminate in the novel's ending, and the epilogue of the many characters. The novel also features the character Pig Bodine, of Pynchon's novel V.. Pig Bodine would later become a recurring avatar of Pynchon's complex and interconnected fictional universe, making an appearance in almost each of Pynchon's novels thereafter.
The novel also shares many themes with Pynchon's much later Against the Day, and indeed some critics have called Against the Day a "prequel" to Gravity's Rainbow. Against The Day becomes increasingly dark as the plot approaches World War One, and Gravity's Rainbow takes these sentiments to their extreme in its highly pessimistic culmination of World War Two.
The opening pages of the novel follow Pirate Prentice, first in his dreams, and later around his house in wartime London. Pirate then goes to work at ACHTUNG, a top-secret military branch, with Roger Mexico and Pointsman, who both worked there at the time. It is here the reader is introduced to the possibly promiscuous US Army lieutenant named Tyrone Slothrop (at certain points in the book, Pynchon leads the reader to doubt the very existence of the women Slothrop claims to sleep with), whose erratic story becomes the main plot throughout most of the novel. In "Beyond The Zero", some of the other characters and organizations of the book note that each of Slothrop's sexual encounters in London precedes a V-2 rocket hit in the same place by several days. Both Slothrop's encounters and the rocket sites match the Poisson Distributions calculated by Roger Mexico, leading into reflections on topics as broad as Determinism, the reverse flow of time, and the sexuality of the rocket itself. Slothrop meets a woman named Katje, and they fall in love, maintaining a relationship until Slothrop's sudden removal to Germany in part three. Many characters not significant until later are introduced in "Beyond the Zero", including Franz and Leni Pökler, Roger Mexico and Jessica, and Thomas Gwenhidwy, some of whom don't appear until the closing pages of the novel, many of whom don't appear again at all. Indeed, most of the four hundred named characters only make singular appearances, serving merely to demonstrate the sheer scope of Pynchon's universe. Slothrop is also submitted to various psychological tests, many involving the drug Sodium Amytal. Pavlovian conditioning is a recurring topic, mostly explored through the character of Pavlovian researcher Pointsman. One of the more bizarre Pavlovian episodes involves the conditioning of octopus Grigori to respond to the girl Katje. Early in part two, the octopus attacks Katje on the beach, and Slothrop is "conveniently" at hand to rescue her. Their romance begins here, extending into Part Three and the events that follow.
In part two, "Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering", Slothrop is studied covertly and sent away by superiors in mysterious circumstances to the Hermann Goering casino in recently liberated France, in which almost the entirety of Part Two takes place. There he learns of a rocket, with the irregular serial number 00000 (Slothrop comments that the numbering system doesn't allow for four zeroes in one serial, let alone five), and a component called the S-Gerät (short for Schwarzgerät, which translates to black device) which is made out of the hitherto unknown plastic Imipolex G. Several companions suddenly disappear or re-appear after extended amounts of time, including the two guards watching Slothrop and Katje. It is hinted at that Slothrop's prescience of rocket hits is due to being conditioned as an infant by the creator of Imipolex G, Laszlo Jamf. Later, the reality of this story is called into question in a similar fashion as the existence of Slothrop's original sexual exploits were. After getting this information, Slothrop escapes from the casino into the coalescing post-war wasteland of Europe, "The Zone", searching for the 00000 and S-Gerät. In the closing of Part Two, Katje is revealed to be safe in England, enjoying a day at the beach with Roger Mexico and Jessica, as well as Pointsman, who is in charge of Slothrop's furtive supervision. While unable to contact Slothrop (or prohibited from contacting him), Katje continues to follow his actions through Pointsman.
Slothrop's quest continues for some time "In The Zone" as he is chased by other characters. Many of these characters are referred to as "shadows," and are only partially glimpsed by the protagonist. Much of the plot takes place on "The Anubis", a ferry on which many different characters travel at various times. Slothrop meets and has an extended relationship with Margherita Erdman, a Pornographic film actress and masochist. Originally meeting her in an abandoned studio in The Zone, it is she who leads him on to the Anubis. Here, Slothrop later also has extended encounters with her twelve-year-old daughter Bianca, though it is unclear whether or not he has stopped his casual relationship with Margherita by this time. Margherita is later shown to know a great deal more about the 00000, S-Gerät, and Impolex G than she lets on, even having spent many days in a mysterious and ambiguously described factory and being clothed in an outfit made from the "erotic" plastic. Towards the end of this section, several characters not seen since early in the novel make a return, including Pirate Prentice, in his first appearance since the novel's very start, as well as Roger Mexico. "In The Zone" also contains the longest episode of the book, a lengthy tale of Franz Pökler, a rocket engineer unwittingly set to assist on the S-Gerät's production. The story details Pökler's annual meetings with his daughter Ilse, and his growing paranoia that Ilse is really a series of impostors sent each year to mollify him. Through this story, we find out sparse details about the S-Gerät, including that it has an approximate weight of thirty-four kilograms (This is later shown to be the weight of the severely malnourished Gottfried). The story ultimately reveals that the 00000 was fired in the spring of 1945, close to the end of the war. Slothrop spends much of the time as his invented alter-ego Rocketman, who wears a white Zoot Suit and the cone of a rocket-nose. Rocketman completes various tasks for his own and others' purposes, including retrieving a large stash of Hash from the centre of the Potsdam Conference. This continues until he leaves the region for northern Germany, continuing his quest for the 00000, as well as answers to his past. It becomes steadily apparent that Slothrop is somehow connected to a Dr. Laszlo Jamf, and a series of experiments performed on him as a child (though in typical Pynchonian fashion, we are repeatedly led to doubt even this).
Slothrop later returns to the Anubis to find Bianca dead, a possible trigger for his impending decline. He continues his pilgrimage through northern Germany, at various stages donning the identities of a Russian General and mythical Pig Hero in turn, in search of more information on his childhood and the 00000. Unfortunately, he is repeatedly sidetracked until his persona fragments totally in part four, despite the efforts of some to save him. Throughout "The Counterforce", there are several brief, hallucinatory stories, of superheroes, silly Kamikaze pilots, and immortal sentient lightbulbs. These are presumed to be the product of Slothrop's finally collapsed mind. The final identification of him of any certainty is his picture on the cover of an album by obscure English band "The Fool" (another allusion to Tarot, which becomes increasingly significant), where he is credited as playing the Harmonica and Kazoo. At the same time, other characters' narratives begin to collapse as well, with some characters taking a bizarre trip through Hell, and others flying into nothingness on Zeppelins. A variety of interpretations of this fact exist, including theories that all of the involved characters have a shared consciousness, or even that the other characters are part of Slothrop's mind, and thus disintegrate along with it. Slothrop's narrative ends a surprisingly long time before the novel's end, which focuses more on the 00000, and the people associated with its construction and launch (namely Blicero, Enzian, and Gottfried, amongst others). At this point, the novel also concludes many characters' stories, including those of Mexico, Pointsman, and Pirate, leaving only the 00000.
As the novel closes, many topics are discussed by the various protagonists around the world, ranging from Tarot cards to Death itself. Towards the end of "The Counterforce", it transpires that the S-Gerät is actually a capsule crafted by Blicero to contain a human. The story of the 00000's launch is largely told in flashbacks by the narrator, while in the present Enzian is constructing and preparing its successor, the 00001 (which isn't fired within the scope of the novel), though it is unknown who is intended to be sacrificed in this model. In the flashbacks, the maniacal Captain Blicero prepares to assemble and fire the 00000, and asks Gottfried to sacrifice himself inside the rocket. He launches the rocket in a pseudo sexual act of sacrifice with his bound sex slave Gottfried (who is possibly a child, suggested by his 35 kilogram weight) captive within its S-Gerät. At the end of a final episode, told partially in second person, the rocket descends upon Britain. The text halts, in the middle of a song composed by Slothrop's ancestor, with a complete obliteration of narrative as the 00000 lands (or is about to land) on a cinema. Thus the novel opens and closes in wartime Britain, and opens and closes with the landing of a V-2 rocket, perhaps the same V-2.
Many facts in the novel are based on technical documents relating to the V-2 rockets. Equations featured in the text are correct. References to the works of Pavlov, Ouspensky, and Jung are based on Pynchon's actual research. The firing command sequence in German that is recited at the end of the novel is also correct and is probably copied in verbatim from the technical report produced by Operation Backfire.
In reality, a V-2 rocket hit the Rex Cinema in Antwerp, where some 1200 people were watching the movie The Plainsman, on December 16, 1944, killing 567 people, the most killed by a single rocket during the entire war.
Additionally, the novel uses many actual events and locations as backdrops to establish chronological order and setting within the complex structure of the book. Examples include the appearance of a photograph of Wernher Von Braun in which his arm is in a cast. Historical documents indicate the time and place of an accident which broke Von Braun's arm, thereby providing crucial structural details around which the reader can reconstruct Slothrop's journey. Another example is the inclusion of a BBC Radio broadcast of a Benny Goodman performance, the contents of which, according to historical record, were broadcast only once during the period of the novel and by which the events immediately surrounding its mention are fixed. Further historical events, such as Allied bombing raids on Peenemünde and the city of Nordhausen (close to the V-2 producing concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora) also appear in the novel and help to establish the relation of the work's events to each other.
The novel is regarded by some as the greatest postmodern work of 20th century literature, while others have declared it unreadable. Many have suggested it rivals Ulysses as the greatest literary work of the 20th century.
Though the book won the National Book Award for 1974, Pynchon chose neither to accept nor acknowledge this award. Thomas Guinzberg of the Viking Press suggested that the comedian "Professor" Irwin Corey accept the award on his behalf. Pynchon agreed, which led to one of the most unusual acceptance speeches of all time, complete with a streaker crossing the stage in the middle of Corey's musings.
The novel inspired the 1984 song "Gravity's Angel" by Laurie Anderson. In her 2004 autobiographical performance The End of the Moon, Anderson said she once contacted Pynchon asking permission to adapt Gravity's Rainbow as an opera. Pynchon replied that he would allow her to do so with one condition: the opera had to be written for a single instrument: the banjo. Anderson said she took that as a polite "no."
German avant-garde rock group Cassiber incorporated texts from the novel in their 1990 album A Face We All Know. The use of the texts was cleared with Pynchon's agent. In the apocalyptic 1988 film Miracle Mile, a character is shown reading Cliff Notes for "Gravity's Rainbow".
The novel also was the inspiration for the title of Pat Benatar's 1993 album Gravity's Rainbow.
Reportedly, a scene in the film Trainspotting (1996) is an homage to a passage where Tyrone Slothrop dives into a toilet.
The novel also figures in the animated television series The Simpsons: in the 13th-season episode "Little Girl in the Big Ten", Lisa Simpson spies a college girl's recreational reading material. Awestruck, she asks, "You're reading Gravity's Rainbow?" To which the college student replies, "Well, re-reading." This exchange may have motivated Pynchon to guest-star in three later episodes (though only twice in a speaking role), both of which preserve (and satirize) his anonymity by animating him with a paper bag over his head. Pynchon would later allude to the program in Against the Day, writing:
A German film, Prüfstand VII (Test Stand 7, 2002) is based upon Gravity's Rainbow. Starring Inga Busch as Bianca and Jeff Caster as Pointsman, it was nominated for the 2003 Adolf Grimme Award in the area of "outstanding individual achievement" (recognizing its writer/director Robert Bramkamp).
New York artist Zak Smith created a series of 760 drawings entitled, "One Picture for Every Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow" (also known by the title "Pictures of What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow") Title Page at www.themodernword.com. Occupying eleven rows and over eleven meters of wall space, the drawings attempt to illustrate, as literally as possible, every page of the book. The piece includes palm trees, shoes, stuffed toys, a lemon meringue pie, Richard Nixon, Sigmund Freud, an iron toad wired to an electric battery, a dominatrix, and other exotic images from the novel. The series had a successful reception at New York's 2004 Whitney Biennial event, and it gained a reputation "as a tour de force of sketching and concept" (Abbe 2004). In November, 2006, Tin House Books published these drawings in the book "Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow" (ISBN 097731278X).
The pop group Army of Lovers derive their name from a graffito reference ("an army of lovers can be beaten") in Gravity's Rainbow. (This is itself a reference to Plato in the Symposium, albeit with the meaning reversed). The 2007 Mercury Prize recipients from South London, Klaxons, have a song called "Gravity's Rainbow". The song "Proverbs for Paranoids 3" by Boston post-punk band Clickers quotes text from Gravity's Rainbow in its lyrics.
Derek Gregory named his last chapter in the influential The Colonial Present 'Gravity's Rainbows' (sic) after the book. Gregory's book, which has had a large impact in modern political geography, is a highly critical account of actions by Israel, the United Kingdom and the USA in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The ambient musical artist Rapoon has recorded two CDs under the title "The Kighiz Light," named after the poem in the book.
Also available is Steven C. Weisenburger's A Gravity's Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon's Novel (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1988, ISBN 0-8203-1026-3), which documents many of the references and allusions used in the book. A revised and expanded second edition of Weisenburger's book, now including maps and illustrations, was published in November 2006 under ISBN 0-8203-2807-3.