“Toto, I have the feeling we’re not in Kansas any more…”
— Dorothy, arriving in Oz
It hadn’t rained for weeks. Still, rainbows beam in the sunshine. Rainbows painted and crayoned by kids, taped to windows, facing outwards to the world, for passersby to see. Rainbows maintaining morale in difficult times. Brightly coloured rainbows, symbolising hope, supporting “key workers”—the nurses, doctors and care-givers risking life on the frontline. “After the storm comes a…,” one caption said, above an especially vivid rainbow.
Now, I love rainbows. Yet in lockdown Britain, much as I tried to smile seeing them, none could allay my unease. They were screamings across the sky—or else coughings across the ward. Daily the body count topped a thousand. Each time I ventured outdoors my anxiety grew. Strolls became evermore nerve-wracking. I’d cross the street to avoid people, veer off the sidewalk, pit myself against oncoming traffic rather than confront a fellow pedestrian ahead. Blind corners menaced. Somebody creeping up on me, getting too close, terrified. Supermarket runs brought on the jitters. Soon all outside contact tormented, unleashed an agoraphobic paranoia. I knew I wasn’t alone feeling this. My left eyelid started to twitch, still twitches. I began sleeping badly. Wild, surreal dreams plagued my slumber when I did drop off.
I’m not sure when it dawned, when I chose to confront that tug I felt each day, that warping of time and space. I’m not sure when I decided to defy gravity. Defying gravity meant somehow journeying over the rainbow—Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece from 1973. The rainbow had been there all along, on my bookshelf for more than thirty years, lying unread. Sure, I’d dabbled here and there with it, delved into it a bit, promising myself that, one day, I’d muster the courage and energy to complete its nine hundred pages, from start to finish.
I’d heard plenty these days about the spate of reading groups tackling Moby-Dick, virtually discussing Ahab’s monomania alongside the President’s. But Melville’s Great White isn’t a patch on Pynchon’s V2. Here was a book, and a man, for our times, a maestro. He’d made self-isolation a life-form, paranoia a permanent mode of being, quarantining himself for a half-century or more, avoiding everybody in his splendid velvet underground. I remember the old days, when I lived in a broom closet on the Upper West Side, when you could venture out without fearing crowds, happily strolling down Broadway to Zabar’s. Back then, I’d even discovered where the great recluse actually lived, on West 81st Street, twelve blocks down from me. But it’s only now, years later, that I seem really ready to deal with Pynchon’s rainbow, to enter his Zone and get it, to finally feel its curve, unmistakably.
They say you can’t hear the killing. It’s a silent death. If you hear the explosion you’re still alive—this time. But what about the next one to drop? Early on in Gravity’s Rainbow, the mad neurologist Doctor Spectro explains, “Imagine a missile one hears approaching only after it explodes. The blast of the rocket, falling faster than sound—then growing out of it the roar of its own fall, catching up to what’s already death and burning. . . A ghost in the sky.” The virus is like this ghost in the sky, a silent passing. You don’t know until afterward, once the coughing starts, the fever begins, exploding after you’ve already been hit, catching up to what’s already death and burning. The rainbow is the pandemic’s trajectory, the curve under which comes life or death.
The English statistician Roger Mexico and super servicewoman Jessica Swanlake lie awake under the threat of this rainbow, snuggled up in bed, their affair in hiding, hearing a rocket strike close by, “the casement window blown inward, rebounding with a wood squeak to slam again as all the house still shudders.” Their hearts pound. Will the invisible death train spare them? My wife and I have wondered likewise these past months, lying awake in bed, in quarantine, our hearts pounding. Outside, the traffic has stopped; all is quiet, rather eerie. We talk about the day’s news—the bad news, the numbers, our fears, what will happen tomorrow, another day having passed. After a while, we stop talking, just listen together in the silence. Her breathing slows, calms, and suddenly I realise she’s asleep. My nightly commune with Pynchon resumes.
From my bed comes an urge to run lose like Tyrone Slothrop, Pynchon’s alter-ego anti-hero. The British and American military are running psychological tests on him in London, Pavlovian experiments. Yet he wrenches himself free from their grip, and embarks on a search for himself and a rocket in the Zone—in the ruins of Occupied Europe. It’s 1944-5, the War is officially over, yet somehow battles still rage. In the Zone, reality isn’t what it appears. There, a destructive military machine morphs into a destructive economic machine, squabbling over war spoils, trying to cash in on rocket technology. Industrial cartels (ICI, Shell, GE, Agfa, I.G. Farben) scramble for a piece of the peace. National borders blur before the buck.
Slothrop’s knows it’s all a scam, that there are sinister forces orchestrating it all, out to get him, never coming clean. Today, we’d place the pharmaceutical, medical insurance and techie cartels at the top of this roster of schemers. Plots get overlaid with counter-plots, about which ordinary mortals have little inkling. Slothrop’s right, of course; but the problem here is that reality follows one of his “Proverbs for Paranoids”: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” Another problem seems our big problem: “There’s nowhere to go, Slothrop,” someone warns him, “nowhere.” And it’s true, a pandemic means literally that: it’s everywhere, and we’ve no place to hide, not for long anyway, notwithstanding one’s privileges.
The Zone unsettles in war’s aftermath. Perhaps it is unsettling because, as we ease lockdown, it mirrors our own disarray and chaos. We bury the dead while convincing ourselves the worst is over. A crisis of truth-telling, a battlefield of unknowns and imponderables, of information blockage. Science versus anti-science. Public health paling beside private gain. In our Zone, free-floating anguish prevails.
Slothrop chased the rainbow from point to point. Its arc reduced itself to a series of equations, to aerodynamics and electronics, to propulsion and insulation, to guidance systems. His quest was for a rocket—an “R”—with a serial number 00000, pointing northwards. Epidemiology has its own “R” factor, pointing outwards, exploding everywhere. This is the reproductive value of a virus, how infectious it is, the average number of people a single individual might infect with it. Our quest is for a R-0 or below (an R-negative), suggesting the virus’s passage is diminishing. An R value above 1 is bad, since infection is spreading exponentially, being silently passed on to an ever increasing number of persons.
Maybe Pynchon, our Laureate of intrigue and paranoia, should write his next book about the pandemic, calling it R. After all, he’s already written a V., as well as a sort of V2, Gravity’s Rainbow. Why not R-Zero, about a search for an epidemiological Holy Grail—a Coronavirus vaccine? An older rocketman Slothrop might engage in this latest mission, peeling back the investigative layers it’ll likely necessitate, haunting the laboratories and corridors of institutional darkness. The novel might try to resolve the conundrum of our times: entropy, the measure of disorganisation in a closed system, the collective chaos resulting from cosmic heat-death. It might be a field guide to entropy management, offsetting our thermodynamical gloom.
In the 1850s, German physicist Rudolf Clausius said the entropy of an isolated system always continually grew. Order and predictability gradually decline. In an early Pynchon story, “Entropy,” from 1960, the character Callisto thought this an adequate metaphor to apply to our lot. “He was forced,” Pynchon says, “in the sad dying fall of middle age, to a radical reevaluation of everything he had learned up to then; all the cities and seasons and casual passions of his days had now to be looked at in a new and elusive light.”
Callisto confronted entropy the same way Pynchon confronts it: by hermetically sealing himself off, constructing in his apartment a tiny enclave of regularity in the city’s chaos. It’s one mode to survive a pandemic. But it mightn’t be the most resilient method to maintain healthy human relations. Perhaps the other solution is the alternative Pynchon touts in the final part of Gravity’s Rainbow—a counterforce, a dialectical ballet of force meeting an opposition, a collision that establishes a new order. “Creative paranoia,” Pirate Prentice reminds Roger Mexico, “means developing at least as thorough a We-system as a They-system.”
A counterforce is scattered throughout the Zone, even throughout our Zone. It’s there to disarm and dismantle the Man. Melvillians believe Ahab is the Man, the avatar of our times, the narcissist who eventually sinks his ship. Yet the masochistic nazi rocket captain Blicero–“White Death”—seems more representative of our demented political incumbents, who climax in tyranny, in seeing giant penises launch into the sky, photo-shooting the countdown. As the rockets rain, falling at nearly a mile a second, there’s still time, Pynchon says, if you need comfort, to touch the person next to you, that there is always a hand to turn the time. This thought alone is enough to bring on a moment’s soporific calm—before another restless night.