donderdag 2 mei 2013

From Cartoon To Crossroads: Tyrone Slothrop

Hieronder een essay die ik jaren geleden schreef over het hoogst interessante 'hoofdpersonage' van Thomas Pynchons waanzinnige meesterwerk Gravity's Rainbow. Tyrone Slothrop is een veel te moeilijke puzzel die amper de moeite is om te maken. Af en toe een puzzelstukje in je hand nemen om het te koesteren, is meer dan voldoende.

From Cartoon to Crossroads:
An Overview of Tyrone Slothrop’s Characterisation in Gravity’s Rainbow

Thomas Pynchon has used a variety of different techniques of characterisation in his masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow, resulting in a wide range of many different characters. This essay will try to show how Tyrone Slothrop, the protagonist of Gravity’s Rainbow, is characterised and which techniques Pynchon has used for his characterisation. First, a brief general overview of some striking techniques will be provided, with a few examples of both major and minor characters. Second, the first appearances of Slothrop will be analysed and discussed, in order to have a first overview of how his character is formed. Third, a more or less coherent, if that is even possible, image of Slothrop’s characterisation will be lined out, and many different aspects of this curious figure will be highlighted. Is Slothrop a “flat” or a “round” character and does he evolve throughout the novel? It will soon become clear that it is not important to understand Slothrop’s character as a whole, and that the reader should not, like Slothrop, be too paranoid in his or her search for meaning, while missing out on all the fun. It is, however, very interesting to discover in which ways Slothrop can be linked to both mythical as historical persons, and even concepts and themes.

Generally speaking, Pynchon’s characters tend to be rather abstract, according to some critics, who argue that his characters do not seem humane enough, because of Pynchon’s “obsessive concern with theme”[1] and symbolism. This would make it difficult to imagine most of his cartoonish characters, who remain rather “sketchy, curiously vague”[2] and take on an archetypal, anonymous image in the reader’s mind.
There are several techniques Pynchon has used to render his characters. One of them is the use of synecdoche[3], which is the representation of a character through only one part of his or her body, a piece of clothing or accessory. Usually, the name of the character is not mentioned, only one part of him or her. Arguably the most common synecdoche in Gravity’s Rainbow is Slothrop’s penis, which will be further explained below. Another one is Bianca Erdmann’s taffeta dress[4], or Gottfried’s yellow hair, which links him to Blicero’s white hair.
Captain Blicero, “the Zone’s worst specter”[5], is a rather peculiar character whose real name is Weissmann. He is the allegoric figure of death, and everything white in the novel is related to him. His hair is white and so is his name, which means “white man” in German, making him a stereotypical nazi officer and advocate of white supremacy.[6] This is only one of several instances of meaningful names, and most of them are quite funny or ironic, such as Floyd Perdoo, who is assigned to find back Slothrop[7] in the Zone, or Klaus Närrisch, which means “foolish” in German[8]. Less of a joke is Miklos Thanatz’s name, which also refers to death, just like the ship Anubis, aboard of which he is a passenger. As for Slothrop’s name, it suggests his “sloppiness”[9], which is certainly one way of explaining his character.
There are characters who never actually appear in person but whose presence looms over the entire novel, such as Laszlo Jamf, who is only remembered by those other characters who knew him in the past. When he was still an infant, Slothrop was conditioned by this curious doctor, who used the erect plastic Imipolex G in his experiments. Slothrop’s incessant attempts to reconstruct Jamf might not be as reliable as one may think they are, as his recollections of his conditioner fail to be precise[10]. Dr. Jamf is one of the many mysteries in the novel, and at the end of it, the analyst Mickey Wuxtry-Wuxtry even suggests that “[t]here never was a Dr. Jamf”[11], which puts into doubt the existence of one of the book’s key figures.
Many characters are characterised through their astrological sign. As Leni Pökler was born under the sign of Cancer, she is, like her husband Franz Pökler, “a water person”[12]. This explains Leni’s strong sense of possession, but ironically so, because she leaves her husband with only one suitcase. Franz might yearn for the dissolution of his identity because he is a Pisces, the sign of death and dissolution[13]. Indeed, this practical engineer effaces his own self completely into the assignment Blicero gave him. A character’s tarot can be equally full of information about how he or she is to be interpreted, and can even foretell his or her destiny. Weissmann’s final card – “what will come” – is the World, which might be an omen of his possible emigration to America[14], where he would be free of blame and where he could be incorporated in American society, just like the historical characters of Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornberger. There is also a lot of meaning to be found in Slothrop’s tarot. The fact that this presents him as a helpless fool will be briefly discussed below.
Male characters are generally presented as ambitious persons who are out on a quest in search for meaning, who are trying to reach the Holy Center but are merely able to continuously approach it. One of the characters, the German villain and “white knight of the black market”[15] Gerhardt von Göll, is called Der Springer, and compared to a “knight who leaps perpetually […] across the chessboard of the Zone”[16]. This leaping corresponds to the male desire to transcend and will in the end turn out to be utterly in vain. Other symbols for this useless yearning include the rocket, the rainbow and Slothrop’s penis. All of these motives can be subtly linked to any male character, which is yet another way of giving identity to a figure. These are only a few of many techniques of characterisation, but it would be useless to give an exhaustive list of them, as this paper focuses on just one character, but arguably the most important one of the novel, and the one which almost all the other characters relate to: Tyrone Slothrop.

A useful way of getting familiar with Pynchon’s characterisation of Tyrone Slothrop would be to closely examine the way he is characterised in the first twenty-five pages of the novel (although he only appears after twenty pages), and to derive the most important aspects of his character. The first time the reader encounters the name of Tyrone Slothrop is when Teddy Bloat secretly enters his office to take pictures of his peculiar London map. Since Slothrop is not in, the first impression the reader gets of him is through the “godawful mess” that is his desk[17]. In a typical Pynchonean enumeration, the reader gets an overload of information about Slothrop’s interests, habits, preferred brands, etc. It is true that the novel can been considered as an echo chamber, but here, at the beginning of the story, the reader’s own inventory of recurring themes and motives as well as important events in the novel, is still too blank to discover all of the proleptic allusions provided in this description. One example are the scattered pieces of jigsaw puzzles showing, besides the inner thigh of a pin-up girl, parts of the amber left eye of a Weimaraner”[18], a theme that will resurface more than once later on in the novel.
There is already an early characterisation of Slothrop that is typical of Pynchon. His English colleague Oliver “Tantivy” Mucker-Maffick compares his singing voice to George Formby, a ukelele playing comedian of the forties[19]. All throughout Gravity’s Rainbow, there are recurrent comparisons of a fictional character with a historical one, most often from popular culture, as is the case here. Another example is Slothrop imitating John Wayne’s speaking rhythm[20]: “‘Yeah, I…’ why is Slothrop drawling this way? ‘saw ya watching…last night too, mister …’”[21]. Slothrop’s use of Kreml hair tonic reveals his “love-pirate” factor. Indeed, Slothrop is someone who, as the ad for Kreml hair tonic used to suggest, “always steals away the loveliest looking girls.”[22] Virtually every stereotypically good-looking bimbo he encounters, be it in London, in Monte Carlo or in the Zone, goes to bed with Slothrop, although in some cases, it is the girl who seduces Slothrop for totally different reasons, and not the other way around. There is, for instance, Katje Borgesius, who is assigned by The White Visitation to seduce him. Slothrop’s “Lothario factor”[23] is soon confirmed when Bloat discovers his London map of sexual conquests, showing one star for each girl he has copulated with, resulting in an impressive constellation. Yet, at the same time this map is presented to us, the existence of these girls is already put into doubt, an uncertainty which will be elaborated as the novel progresses. Whether Slothrop is really able to predict rocket strikes or whether the map is just “[s]ome sort of harmless Yank hobby”[24], is at this point not clear yet, and will, perhaps, not be ascertained at all. Both his desk and his map actually reveal a lot about Slothrop, even if he did not yet appear in the novel himself. The Don Juanesque nature of our at this point still unfamiliar protagonist certainly matters, but what seems to be most important about this person is that he is a total mystery. And indeed, after having read the novel, the impenetrability of its main character might prove to be one of its most challenging aspects. This is even more so because he takes on many disguises, becoming a functional element in Pynchon’s use of pastiche of many different genres, rather than a real person of flesh and blood.
The first time the reader finally comes across Slothrop – who at that time does not have the official status of protagonist in the reader’s mind, as he or she is probably still focussed on Pirate Prentice as the main character – is in the next episode. After a brief introduction, the narrative already slides into a multitude of analepses, both to his life in London and his childhood back in America. The reader is even offered a brief but informative overview of nine generations of Slothrop’s ancestors. This is how we first encounter him:

Ha! Neither of them returning Slothrop’s amiable nod. Tough shit, fellas. But shrewd Tyrone hangs around, distributing Lucky Strikes, long enough to find at least what’s up with this Unlucky Strike, here[25].

Our first impression of “shrewd Slothrop” is that of someone sneaking around but who is more or less ignored by the others. Besides, not much later in the novel, Tantivy suggests that Slothrop, a sex, smoke and alcohol addict, is utterly lonesome in London. Apart from all those girls, that is. Later in the novel, the narrator suggests that Slothrop must indeed go it alone.
As we dive into Slothrop’s consciousness, we get some more information about his job at ACHTUNG. Apparently, Slothrop was perfectly able to adjust to the V-1 strikes on London and more or less predict where the bombs would fall, but since the first V-2 blasts in September 1944, he is really scared and began chain-smoking, hence all the ash and butts on his desk. Sometimes he even smokes two cigarettes at a time, “making them point down like comic book fangs”[26]. This is an obvious reference to one of his later avatars: the comic book hero Rocketman. But this is, of course, a link the reader would only discover upon a second reading of the novel.
And it goes on like this. Characterisation in Gravity’s Rainbow, a true echo chamber, happens through many different techniques. All of them add to the image the reader must construct of any of the characters, and it is this variety of images we have of Slothrop that makes it so difficult to mould them into a coherent, whole character, which in the end is quite a Sisyphean thing to do, because ultimately, Gravity’s Rainbow’s protagonist scatters all over the Zone.

Probably the most apparent of Slothrop’s aspects is his paranoia, which first “flood[s] up” when he goes on a date to meet one of his stars on the map, only to encounter both ladies. His immediate reaction is that there must be “some horrible secret plot”[27] he does not know about, and it is indeed all throughout Gravity’s Rainbow that he fears “They”[28] are out to get him, that there is some conspiracy against him. On his mission from London to Monte Carlo to the Zone, he cannot stop seeing things that are not there. Or are they? As the story moves on, certain elements of his paranoia are confirmed, others remain in the dark. His paranoia is reinforced by his obsession with a rocket that has his name on it and that can fall right on top of his head any minute[29].
When Slothrop leaves London and wakes up after his first night in Monte Carlo, he “perversely […] waits for a sudden noise to begin his day, a first rocket”[30], so much has he got used to the London rocket blasts. Monte Carlo is the place where his paranoia grows worse. In the following passage, his colleagues Tantivy and Bloat try to cope with his excessive mistrust:

“Listen,” Slothrop talking into his highball glass, bouncing words off of ice cubes so they’ll have a proper chill, “either I’m coming down with a little psychosis here, or something funny is going on, right?” […]
“Ah, yes, do you really think so?”
“Come on, that octopus.”
“The devilfish is found commonly on Mediterranean shores. […]”
“Tantivy, it was no accident. […]”
Tantivy moans. “God, Slothrop, don’t know. I’m your friend too, but there’s always, you know, an element of Slothropian paranoia to contend with. …”
“Paranoia’s ass. Something’s up, a-and you know it!”[31]

Slothrop, a laughing stock to many other characters as well as to the reader, makes a fool of himself as he sees conspiracies everywhere. There are many instances when other characters, such as Tantivy in the passage above or Gerhard von Göll aboard Frau Gnahb’s ship[32], have to point out his absurd paranoia and tell him he is being ridiculous. Both his exaggerated assertions and actions, inspired by his paranoia, can be very funny at times. This means that there is something to say for Proverb for Paranoids 5, and that Slothrop, a paranoiac’s caricature, indeed constantly puts himself into paranoid situations[33], be it deliberately or unconsciously, which may lead us to put this character’s reliability into question. Moreover, many of his suspicions can be easily explained. However, the episode following this passage reveals some sincerity in Slothrop’s suspicions about that octopus, which seems to be an essential element for Slothrop and Katje to meet. Much later in the novel, the narrator suggests that paranoia can be used as a drug, as a way to escape reality, to transcend preterition[34]: “Like other sorts of paranoia, it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the Creation, a secondary illumination – not yet blindingly One, but at least connected, and perhaps a route In for those like Tchitcherine [or Slothrop] who are held at the edge. …”[35]

This brings us to Slothrop’s preterition, which is constantly alluded to in the novel. Whenever he or another character is referred to as a pig (or less subtly wears a pig tattoo on his stomach, as for instance Osbie Feel does), Pynchon points at his or her preterition. That is why Slothrop even dresses as a pig and in this disguise spends the night with Frieda the (real) pig. It is probably because of Slothrop’s cartoon-like character, that he is so unsubtly compared to pigs. The following short passage shows one of the many instances that Pynchon works with this pig image:

“Oh,” Katje groans, somewhere under a pile of their batistes and brocade, “Slothrop, you pig.”
“Oink, oink, oink,” sez Slothrop cheerfully[36].

Even the fact that Slothrop plays a Hohner is part of his preterition[37], which compares him to Orpheus, who was equally unsuccessful in saving his beloved from death.
Slothrop’s preterition is immediately connected with another important aspect of Slothrop: his helplessness and impotence, which is also a major theme in the novel. Like many other characters, he is a knight who sets out on a quest for a Grail – in Slothrop’s case the Rocket – only to find himself unable to reach it. This is one of many instances of Holy Center Approaching in Gravity’s Rainbow, “the number one Zonal pastime”[38]. Slothrop is out on a mission to get the hang of his raison d’être, to understand fully why he is in the Zone, and, of course, to find the Schwarzgerät. But Slothrop will fail in his quest and will never find his grail. There will not be any sort of revelation or conclusion. The final point towards which the novel is relentlessly moving will never come. This is true for all of the major characters in Gravity’s Rainbow, none of whom will find closure “in the end”. None of these unsuccessful grail-seeking fools will ever be allowed inside the privileged circle and will be preterites for the remains of their lives.[39]
One of the first references to our anti-hero’s impotence is when the narrator calls him “a Saint George after the fact”, when he is “investigating V-bomb ‘incidents’” back in London[40]. Slothrop arrives too late to fight his “Beast”, the V-2 rocket, and only comes “after the fact”[41], unable to prevent the rocket blast. The only thing he can do is pray to God but, understanding the uselessness of prayer, he stops after a while. His helplessness is probably most powerfully rendered through a song: The Penis He Thought Was His Own[42]. If Slothrop thinks he is on his own and can enjoy some freedom, he is wrong. There is this “terrible secret”[43] that his penis is not his own, but has been conditioned by Dr. Jamf and that everything that happens to him has been carefully planned by “Them”, who closely observe him. He has not been able to shape his own destiny yet, he has been “sold to IG Farben like a side of beef” and “has been under their observation – m-maybe since he was [born]”[44]. There also seem to be “sub-Slothrop needs They know about, and he doesn’t”[45], which make his moves rather predictable to Them.
Still, he seems to have managed to escape their control and is now yearning for freedom[46]: “It dawns on Slothrop, literally, through the yellowbrown window shade, that this is his first day Outside. His first free morning. He doesn’t have to go back. Free? What’s free?”[47] Despite the fact that the Zone is a place of freedom and opportunities, Slothrop’s freedom has to be put into perspective. Indeed, as Tchitcherine later points out, “[h]e doesn’t even know what his freedom is, much less what it’s worth”[48]. This makes Slothrop less more than a puppet, with Them pulling his strings whenever They feel like, leaving him no room for autonomy whatsoever. His identity is connected with the Rocket 00000, a fivefold negation, thus reinforcing his non-identity and his lack of autonomy[49]. In this respect, “‘How high does it go?’ is not even the right kind of question to be asking, because the organization charts have all been set up by Them.”[50]
Another effect of the Zone is that Slothrop starts “being a sap[51], a “soft touch”[52], which does not mean he stops sleeping with as many girls as possible. But Slothrop actually falls in love from time to time. Still he is always more concerned with his own safety than with his girls. When hiding for the Russians in a filthy bedsheet, both his and his young female saviour’s hearts are pounding, “his for his danger, hers for Slothrop”[53]. Another instance of his powerlessness is when he learns of Tantivy’s death in a newspaper: “Ten minutes later, back up in his room, he’s lying face-down on the bed, feeling empty. Can’t cry. Can’t do anything.”[54] This is not, however, because he is mourning his friend, but because he starts to think that Tantivy’s death is nothing but a fake, and continues seeing conspiracies everywhere.

As the novel moves along, Slothrop will symbolically be compared, and often ironically so, to many mythical, legendary or biblical figures. Slothrop is Theseus in Katje’s labyrinthine wardrobe[55]; Tannhäuser looking for “some Frau Holda, some Venus in some mountain”[56] with Margherita Erdmann as his Lisaura; Orpheus, who descends into his underworld, the Dora camp, and is obsessed with bringing back Bianca, his dead Eurydice[57]. His recovery of the lost Hohner, but a transformed one, makes him a sort of double Orpheus, both serving as a spirit-medium for the ghosts of harpists[58], and playing his mouth organ, which is the more obvious connection with this mythical figure. As he treks along the Zone, Slothrop is compared to a “profane pilgrim”[59] instead of a Puritan one, making his Progress a parody of “a Bunyanesque Pilgrim’s”[60].
After Slothrop’s relatively “brief” appearance in the beginning of the novel, he does not appear again until his sodium amytal hallucinations. Slothrop does remain of crucial importance, however, and the reader’s suspicions that he might be the real protagonist of the novel, are reinforced. Most of what happens between the two sections centres around Slothrop’s capacity to erotically predict V-2 strikes and how Pointsman and other characters try to comprehend Slothrop, inasmuch as the reader tries to understand the novel. These attempts are important for the reader’s understanding of Slothrop, who, at this point, shares the same mysterious status as most protagonists at the beginning of a story. The reader still has to form a picture of this character in his or her mind. In the case of Tyrone Slothrop, however, the reader will never arrive at a full understanding of the character, and Slothrop remains a highly mysterious and almost flat character, with only few humanlike attributes, always very general and almost allegoric.
The myth and mystery of Slothrop does not only occupy the reader but also Pointsman and other members of The White Visitation, who try to interpret his behaviour. During these speculations, Slothrop is depicted not only as a paranoid slave[61], but also as a highly exceptional being, a “statistical oddity”[62] who is able to sense something in the air that others cannot[63]. Dr. Rózsavölgyi finds that Slothrop’s psychological tests “indicate a diseased personality”[64], a worrying given that is reinforced by the fact that he is considered “a strong imperturbable”[65]. These outsider perspectives, however, are subverted by the increasingly more intimate, but never fully coherent[66] view the reader gets of Slothrop[67].

After many pages of being synecdochically depicted as an essentially phallocentric man, a personified penis[68], Slothrop starts taking on several disguises at the beginning of his journey through the Zone. His sexuality’s decentralisation starts when, curiously, he gets a nasal erection instead of a normal one[69]. A powerful metaphor of the scattering of his identity occurs much earlier in the novel, when Katje Borgesius makes “one American lieutenant disappear”[70] and throws a red tablecloth over him. Not much later Slothrop discovers that not only all of his friends have all of a sudden disappeared, but that also both his clothes and his ID are stolen. He has literally lost his identity and has to take on his first disguise: Ian Scuffling, the English war correspondent, who has “a way with words”[71]. It is only much later that Slothrop, now Rocketman, a comic book hero with superpowers such as invisibility[72], receives a new ID. Säure Bummer gives him a “special pass”[73]: as of now, Slothrop is Max Schlepzig, someone who, as later turns out, actually did exist. When he gets out of his Russian uniform and into his pig suit, Russian soldiers think he is a deserter[74]. Slothrop changes clothes (and identities) again in a brothel in Cuxhaven, and escapes a very painful and tragic fate when Major Marvy, a fat American soldier, now wearing the pig suit, gets castrated in his stead[75].
Slothrop’s identity grows progressively more confusing, not only to the reader, but also to the other characters. Some of them do not even know whether he is European, English or American. To many characters, and also, apparently, to the narrator and the reader, Slothrop is a puzzle[76]. But literally so: halfway through his trip in the Zone, he starts losing coherence, he starts scattering. This unrealistic condition is first mentioned and mathematically explained when he is aboard the Anubis:

Slothrop […] has begun to thin, to scatter. “Personal density […] is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.”
“Temporal bandwidth” is the width of your present, your now. It is the familiar “∆t” considered as a dependent variable. The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are. It may get to where you’re having trouble remembering what you were doing five minutes ago, or even – as Slothrop now – what you’re doing here[77].

Slothrop’s initial one-dimensional identity, to use Marcuse’s term, has diffused into many avatars, until the point that he actually starts disintegrating. This means that Slothrop, as a character, makes a radical development from a synecdochically to a metaphorically generated character, from a more or less coherent to a highly incoherent one[78]. In fact, this process goes so far that in the last chapter of the book, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine Slothrop, as he loses his identity and becomes a living crossroads:

At last, lying one afternoon spread-eagled at his ease in the sun, at the edge of one of the ancient Plague towns he becomes a cross himself, a crossroads, a living intersection where the judges have come to set up a gibbet for a common criminal who is to be hanged at noon[79].

Discounting a few actual allegorical appearances as Rilke’s Angel, the Fool of the Tarot deck or some sort of Christ-like figure, and some analepses to his childhood[80], Tyrone Slothrop is only presented to the reader through rumours in the last chapter[81]. This scattering and vanishing of the novel’s protagonist mirrors the first images we get of Slothrop, not through rumours, but through the description of his messy desk. In both cases, Slothrop is not there, and the characterisation is second-hand and indirect, which might add to confusion. Slothrop’s fate is indeed not very clear. Whilst Shoeshine boy Malcolm X and Jack Kennedy got murdered, the narrator suggests that “They [may] have something different in mind for Slothrop”[82]. Slothrop’s scattering (“he has become one plucked albatross”) makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Counterforce to find him again, “in the conventional sense of ‘positively identified and detained.’”[83]
Slothrop is no more. His disintegration, leading up to what appears to be his final disguise, suggests that if there is a chance of freedom in the Zone, you have to pay a price in order to obtain it. Slothrop’s Promethean rebellion against Them has resulted in his own Fall. His yearning for freedom has resulted in his own dissolution. This fall can be linked to the Rocket’s descent, which makes Slothrop’s trajectory that of a rocket. He has been launched when he was conditioned by Dr. Laszlo Jamf, ascends under control of The White Visitation, reaches Brennschluss when he moves to the Zone and, just when he thinks he is able to overcome gravity, to transcend the limits of nature, he starts scattering.[84] The crossroads he has become can be read as a metaphor of his supposed freedom. Slothrop can take many different roads and has finally escaped both control and comprehension. In fact, Seaman Bodine, the big Rocketman fan, is one of the few persons who is still able to see Slothrop as a whole, to hold him together as a concept. One more effect of Slothrop’s “sketchy” character is the fact that the reader will probably not be sad or moved to tears when Slothrop “dies”. His disappearance is much more presented as a fact than as a tragedy.
The last glimpse of him (or at least some part of him) the reader gets is on a picture with the astrological rock band The Fool[85], obviously with his kazoo and mouth organ. However, knowing his tarot, the narrator deems it more appropriate to look for him “among Humility, among the gray and preterite souls, to look for him adrift in the hostile light of the sky, the darkness of the sea”[86].
Another important way to approach Slothrop might indeed be his tarot. Slothrop, as a “holy Fool”, is linked to the Arcanum number zero, which represents the Fool[87], and which, according to Weisenburger, says something about his impossibility to approach the Holy Center, as he does not know where the center is[88]. His tarot suggests his foolishness, feebleness and selfishness, as well as his status of a mock-hero[89]. There is much uncertainty about Slothrop’s date of birth (was he born in March, August or September?)[90] and about his horoscope, which, according to one interpretation, would be so full of opposites that he is, as Weisenburger puts it, “astrologically zeroed out”[91]. But if he really is a “double Virgo”[92], as his father complains about, then the former interpretation is not valuable anymore. It is this kind of uncertainty that looms over the novel, as well as it determines Slothrop’s identity. But maybe there are other aspects of his that are in fact much more crucial.

Is there anything we can tell about Slothrop’s looks? Possibly the most striking characteristic is his moustache, which he starts growing when he arrives in Monte Carlo. He starts experimenting with the hair on his upper lip and is compared to a whole list of famous people with a moustache. In an funny and somewhat grotesque chase scene, Slothrop “takes out a pocketknife and saws off pieces of mustache on both sides”[93] so that he looks like Hitler, as Professor Glimpf deems it necessary to tell him. Back in London, Cynthia, a “lady with a lunchbox”[94] points at Slothrop when she states that Germans love to drop bombs on “fat, plump Americans”[95] like him. These are some of the few references to Slothrop’s looks, which, admittedly, are of only minor relevance, apart from those features that make him comical.
The reader may also speculate about Slothrop’s ideology or sexual preferences. During Slothrop’s toilet ride, the reader, who might go at lengths to try to like this character, may be offended and rebutted by Slothrop comparing the skin of Afro-Americans to the colour of shit. Despite the fact that ideology is indeed an important aspect of characterisation, it must first be noted that Slothrop rarely shows any signs of this. Every possible ideology seems to be absorbed or made impossible by his paranoia, which in itself is a very bigoted way of seeing the world. Later on in the novel Slothrop appears, like Tchitcherine, to have been conditioned to abhor black people[96]. When the narrator calls some Afro-Americans “a whole dark gang of awful Negroes”[97], this is indeed on the part of Slothrop, who is the focaliser here. But it is on the part of a brainwashed Slothrop, a slave to his own conditioning, highly powerless and paralysed. Something we might suspect Slothrop of, however, is his possible paedophilia. Aboard the Anubis, he is aroused by the looks of Bianca Erdmann, whom he thinks is only 11 or 12 years old, but in fact must be around 16 or 17[98]. The same night, Slothrop and Bianca make love, our Lothario still under the misapprehension of her being 11 or 12 years old.
The many disguises Slothrop takes on during his mission in the Zone, one of them being Rocketman, another Plechazunga the pig[99], are part of his multidimensionality. But Slothrop himself proves to be a comical figure all throughout the novel, a paranoiac who dives into toilets, who goes through disgusting candy drills, gets nasal erections[100], wears ugly Hawaiian shirts, wraps himself in purple bedsheet and comically stumbles down a tree while chasing a burglar (“Show some respect,” the other haw-haws, “it’s Lawrence of Arabia!”[101]). There is something highly amusing about his resistance against Them, as he represents what Fran Mason terms “ the Chaplinesque little man fighting authority”[102]. This is only one of many genres embodied by Slothrop. Others include western, detective, gangster, superhero, picaresque novel, etc. It is clear that Slothrop, not much of a hero, might have other qualities which make him valuable as the protagonist of this novel.

If the possible interpretations of Slothrop are not exhaustive – they might be, because for every reader, there is a different possible reading of Gravity’s Rainbow – then at least there are too many of them to mention. As Dalsgaard points out[103], all depends on the reader’s historical and cultural background. If the reader is not familiar with the Tannhäuser myth, the narrator’s question about Slothrop, “And where is the Pope whose staff’s gonna bloom for you?”[104] will certainly not ring a bell.
The overload of information and connections, of images associated with his characters, is one of Pynchon’s techniques to put the reader in the place of Slothrop. Like this disintegrating protagonist, the reader will probably never approach the Holy Centre of full meaning, will never drink the juice of Knowledge, carefully kept inside a hidden Grail. Since the novel, and for that matter, the world, is too complex to grasp, Pynchon might have something different in mind for the reader. Despite the endless brilliant references, metaphors, ironic comparisons to relatively well-known heroes of myth, legend and religion, but also popular culture; and, of course, Slothrop’s brilliant development from a one-dimensional, metonymically generated cartoon hero to the multi-dimensional, metaphorically generated crossroads he has become, the most important thing about Slothrop – and, arguably about the novel as a whole – might be to have fun, to relax and enjoy the mindless pleasures the novel provides, to have a good laugh with Slothrop’s preposterous, farcical behaviour. The reader need not be paranoid about all of Slothrop’s possible avatars and incarnations; instead, he or she should sit back and enjoy Slothrop’s paranoia, moving in ridiculous ways.

Works cited and consulted
DALSGAARD, Inger Hunnerup, Gravity’s Rainbow: ‘An Historical Novel of a Whole New Sortin MANGEN, Anne & GAASLAND, Rolf (eds.), Blissful Bewilderment: Studies in the Fiction of Thomas Pynchon, Oslo, Novus Press, 2002.
DEN TANDT, Christophe, Management and Chaos: Masculinity and the Corporate World From Naturalism to Gravity’s Rainbow, in KRAFFT, John M. et allApproach and Avoid: Essays on Gravity’s Rainbow, Ann Arbor, Cushing-Malloy, 1999.
HITE, Molly, Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1983.
HOCHMAN, Baruch, Character in Literature, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1985.
LARSSON, Donald, A Companion’s Companion: Illustrated Additions and Corrections to Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion, <Http://>, 2000, last consulted on 7th of February 2010.
MASON, Fran, “Just a Bunch of Stuff That Happened”: Narratives of Resistance in Gravity’s Rainbow, in KRAFFT, John M. et allApproach and Avoid: Essays on Gravity’s Rainbow, Ann Arbor, Cushing-Malloy, 1999.
MOORE, Thomas, The Style of Connectedness: Gravity’s Rainbow and Thomas Pynchon, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1987
PYNCHON, Thomas, Gravity’s Rainbow, London, Penguin Books, 1973.
WEISENBURGER, Steven, Gravity’s Rainbow Companion, Athens, The University of Georgia Press, 2006.
WEISENBURGER, Steven, Haunted History and Gravity’s Rainbow, in KRAFFT, John M. et allApproach and Avoid: Essays on Gravity’s Rainbow, Ann Arbor, Cushing-Malloy, 1999.

[1] MOORE, 1987, The Style of Connectedness: Gravity’s Rainbow and Thomas Pynchon, p. 63
[2] Ibid., p. 64
[3] HOCHMAN, 1985, Character in Literature, p. 112
[4] WEISENBURGER, 2006, A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion, p. 279
[5] PYNCHON, , 1973, Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 666
[6] MOORE, p. 74
[7] WEISENBURGER, p. 169
[8] Ibid., p. 269
[9] MOORE, p. 108
[10] Ibid., p. 72
[11] PYNCHON, p. 738
[12] WEISENBURGER, p. 107
[13] Ibid., p. 108
[14] WEISENBURGER, p. 375
[15] PYNCHON, p. 492
[16] Ibid., p. 376
[17] Ibid., p. 18
[18] Ibid., p. 18
[19] WEISENBURGER, p. 28
[20] LARSSON, 2000, A Companion’s Companion: Illustrated Additions and Corrections to Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion, Part 3
[21] PYNCHON, p. 473
[22] WEISENBURGER, p. 28
[23] Ibid., p. 28
[24] PYNCHON, p. 19
[25] Ibid., p. 20
[26] Ibid., p. 21
The emphasis is mine.
[27] Ibid., p. 22
[28] The first occurrence of “Them” is already quite early in the novel, when the narrator presents Slothrop’s obsession with a rocket with his name on it, suggesting “Their” omnipotence.
PYNCHON, p. 25
[29] Ibid., p. 25
[30] Ibid., p. 181
[31] Ibid., p. 192
[32] Ibid., p. 528
[33] Ibid., p. 292
[34] Yet, what follows will point out that this is wishful thinking for many preterites in the novel.
[35] PYNCHON, p. 703
[36] Ibid., p. 206
[37] WEISENBURGER, p. 324-325
[38] PYNCHON, p. 508
[39] HITE, 1983, Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon, p. 22
[40] PYNCHON, p. 24
[41] WEISENBURGER, p. 32
[42] PYNCHON, p. 216-217
[43] Ibid., p. 216
[44] Ibid., p. 286
[45] Ibid., p. 490
[46] This yearning for freedom and wish to escape Their control, as well as his capacity for disguise, make Slothrop a “trickster”, according to Christophe Den Tandt. This puts him in the same camp as The Counterforce and opposes him to “totalizers”, who yearn for domination.
DEN TANDT in KRAFFT et all, 1999, Approach and Avoid: Essays on Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 78
[47] PYNCHON, p. 256
[48] Ibid., p. 390
[49] HITE, p. 38
[50] PYNCHON, p. 251
[51] Ibid., p. 333
[52] Ibid., p. 568
[53] Ibid., p. 571
[54] Ibid., p. 252
[55] WEISENBURGER, p. 129
[56] PYNCHON, p. 364
[57] Ibid., p. 472
[58] WEISENBURGER in KRAFFT et all, 1999, Approach and Avoid: Essays on Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 13-14
[59] WEISENBURGER, p. 33
[60] MOORE, p. 57
[61] PYNCHON, p. 48
[62] Ibid., p. 85
[63] Ibid., p. 49
[64] Ibid., p. 81
[65] Ibid., p. 90
[66] Quite to the contrary: as the novel progresses, Slothrop seems to elude the reader’s grasp.
[67] HITE, p. 145
[68] Ibid., p. 118
[69] Ibid., p. 119
[70] PYNCHON, p. 198
[71] Ibid., p. 293
[72] Ibid., p. 379
[73] Ibid., p. 377
[74] Ibid., p. 571
[75] Ibid., p. 609
[76] Ibid., p. 391
[77] Ibid., p. 509
[78] I borrow these terms from Hochman’s taxonomy.
HOCHMAN, p. 89
[79] PYNCHON, p. 625
[80] Slothrop even influences the narrator from time to time. He is literally everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
[81] HITE, p. 120
[82] PYNCHON, p.688
[83] Ibid., p. 712
[84] HITE, p. 117
[85] LARSSON, Part 4
[86] PYNCHON, p. 742
[87] MOORE, p. 240
[88] WEISENBURGER, p. 271
[89] Ibid., p. 370-371
[90] Ibid., p. 356
[91] Ibid., p. 327
[92] PYNCHON, p. 699
[93] Ibid., p. 309
[94] Ibid., p. 25
[95] Ibid., p. 26
[96] MOORE, p. 100-101
[97] PYNCHON, p. 64
[98] WEISENBURGER, p. 262
[99] Fran Mason draws attention to the fact that Slothrop, instead of taking on the role of Plechazunga, defeater of the Vikings, rather acts out as Porky Pig.
MASON in KRAFFT et all, 1999, Approach and Avoid: Essays on Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 174
[100] PYNCHON, p. 439
[101] Ibid., p. 201
[102] MASON in KRAFFT et all, p. 176
[103] DALSGAARD in MANGEN & GAASLAND, 2002, Blissful Bewilderment: Studies in the Fiction of Thomas Pynchon, p. 99
[104] PYNCHON, p. 364

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