Pirate Prentice and Buck Mulligan: Ulysses’ Rainbow?


Paul here.  Daryl gave me the go-ahead to throw a post of my own here (and since no one else was writing about it…here goes).

I’m going to start this post with this admission: Not only have I not read Gravity’s Rainbow before, I don’t even know what it’s about (aside from what I have read for this week).  I haven’t read any commentary or criticism, I didn’t even read the back cover.  So I’m flying blind.

I mention that because I’m going to talk about Ulysses; however, I have literally no idea how this plays out in the rest of the story, or if it plays out at all.  I’m also going to refrain from looking up secondary sources for this post because I don’t want to create be an academic treatise, it’s more of a reader’s casual observations.

Ulysses is probably the most influential 20th century novel (and you can read plenty about Ulysses on this site too).  This is especially true for “modern” writers looking to push the envelope–of which it seems clear Pynchon is one.  Stylistically, I don’t think Gravity’s Rainbow could have existed if Ulysses hadn’t been published.  But at the same time, it’s not like Pynchon is mapping Gravity’s Rainbow to Ulysses (right?  I didn’t actually count chapters or anything.)

Ulysses opens with the famous words, “Stately plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

Gravity’s Rainbow opens with an equally impressive (although admittedly unrelated to Ulysses) opening salvo: “A screaming comes across the sky.”  The very beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow has nothing to do with UlyssesUlysses, a book about one day in the life of two men pales in scope when compared to Gravity’s Rainbow, a book (so far) about German bombs falling on England in World War II and the members of the possibly secret organizations that are tracking the bombs (or something–bear with me if it eventually becomes about fairies and rainbows).

So, the opening of the books are quite different.  The first three pages of GR are about an evacuation (I’m not going to go in that direction about evacuation, even if Joyce did) from the screaming across the sky.  But then Pynchon introduces us to the first two men in the story: Captain Geoffrey “Pirate’ Prentice and Teddy Bloat.

As Ulysses opens Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus wake up after a night of drinking.  And so do Pirate and Teddy.  Indeed, Teddy falls off of a balcony in a drunken sleep; Pirate gets a cot under him to break his fall just in time.  Then Pirate proceeds up to the roof and we get a little Ulysses-lite.

We have established Buck Mulligan on the roof.  His appearance: “A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained behind him on the mild morning air” and his action: “he peered down the dark winding stairs.”

Pynchon is more verbose than Joyce (at least this chapter of Joyce) but we can see that Pirate is in a similar structure with similar dress:

Then he threads himself into a wool robe he wears inside out so as to keep his cigarette pocket hidden, not that this works too well, and circling the warm bodies of friends makes his way to French windows, slides outside into the cold, groans as it hits the fillings in his teeth, climbs a spiral ladder ringing to the roof garden and stands for a bit, watching the river.

Of course, instead of the open razor that Mulligan carries, Pirate is carrying bananas (I won’t speculate about the meaning of potential violence inherent in the razor vs the utterly non violent nature of the banana or how it compares to a novel that is ultimately about war and death).

Obviously very different things are happening in the two books: Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus discuss death on the tower, while Pirate is by himself watching as death streams across the sky.  But when both parties return down the spiral staircase it is time for breakfast.  Mulligan and Dedalus eat sugared toast while Pirate and his crew eat what sounds like a rather delicious broiled banana sandwich.  And from there things diverge quite drastically.

I don’t want to belabor the point or look for similarities that aren’t there, I was simply struck by these coincidences in the opening of these two apparently unrelated books.  However, just to prove to myself I was on to something, I checked online to see if anyone had made anything of this.  Evidently there are ample connections between the two books, but there’s one article in particular that I like to think confirms my suspicions:  McCarron, William. “The Openings of Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow.” Conference of College Teachers of English of Texas 53 (1988): 34-41.  Sadly it is not online anywhere that I can find.

What’s the point of this?  Well, none really, but it might be fun to keep an eye out for more allusions to Joyce while enjoying the book.

Oh and that picture above, it’s from a T-shirt that you can buy here.

16 thoughts on “Pirate Prentice and Buck Mulligan: Ulysses’ Rainbow?

  1. Marco Carbone (@crazymonk) February 27, 2012 / 8:09 pm

    Nice thoughts, Paul — it’s hard to imagine that the correspondences aren’t intentional. My first time through GR I hadn’t yet read Ulysses, but this time around I’ll keep an eye out for more convergences.

  2. Daryl L. L. Houston February 27, 2012 / 10:10 pm

    I was unable to find the article you cite either. Bummer, as that’d be pretty interesting.

  3. Carol Lerner February 27, 2012 / 11:43 pm

    Thanks! Now I will look for references too. Before reading this post, I also thought of Buck when I read Osbie’s song, performed with a banana in his pants. Like Buck’s Joking Jesus with his shaving bowl.

  4. Chase Edmond February 28, 2012 / 11:22 am

    I’ll keep my eyes open, too. I now remember that the first time I read Infinite Jest, I had not read Ulysses. Then, the second time, I found references and allusions (Some obvious, like using “scrotumtightening” as an adjective) all over the place, which made it a richer experience for me. Given Joyce’s ubiquitous influence, there’s no reason to think GR won’t be the same.

  5. Jeff Anderson February 28, 2012 / 12:19 pm

    I just basically admitted as much over at Daryl’s post, but I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by style to the extent that I don’t register actual plot happenings, so I didn’t even catch these parallels until you mentioned that you were thinking of writing on them, Paul. And I agree with you that GR feels like it’s purposely trying to extend the capabilities of the novel; with such a goal, what better opening to invoke than Ulysses‘s? Good eye!

    • Paul Debraski February 29, 2012 / 12:59 am

      Jeff, I’m totally with you only style overwhelming! When I was writing my post on IJustReadAboutThat I was actually skimming it all again and I picked up so much more the second time around. For this coming week (no spoiler here) I find 1.14 almost impenetrable so far! Somehow that Buck Mulligan thing just grabbed me.

      • Jeff Anderson February 29, 2012 / 3:30 pm

        I’m super impressed with what you put together over there, though. For all that we love to really dig in here, I find myself turning back again and again, book after book, to your place to ground what I’m talking about in the actual events in the text. From one style junkie to another: bravo!

        And in a matter that’s really only tangentially related, by way of Pirate’s Banana Breakfast: Last weekend I made banana jam in the bread machine my mother-in-law gave us for Christmas. It’s easy and quite good, but it’s pink! Just bananas, lemon juice, sugar, and pectin, and the little banana bits still in are just banana-flesh-colored, but the jelly part is pink. I feel this is a detail Pynchon could well have included for VERY CONFUSING verisimilitude.

      • Paul Debraski February 29, 2012 / 3:35 pm

        Thanks, Jeff *blush*. It’s a labor (some more laborious than others) of love.

  6. Dennis Fleming February 29, 2012 / 12:36 pm

    I was sondering something about the opneing this time around. Given Pirate’s talent for entering into the fantasies and dreams of others, could the opening dream be someone else’s? I was thinking it might be Spectro. Some of the prose seems to reflect the hopelessness he expresses while he muses about his patients. Comparing the sections Viking:p50 ll. 6-12 and V: p5 ll 21-30 we get the same sense of dispair, the same feeling of going through the motions.

    I can’t think of any other character who would fit the bill: Pointsman is too driven to notice these, the war is an opportunity for him. Roger Mexico is too child like. Slothrop, too oblivious.

    • Christine February 29, 2012 / 7:17 pm

      I wondered if the opening were a dream as well, but I’m way too green at this text to have identified a potential mind-meld target. I’ll keep my eye on Spectro from now on….

  7. DCN March 1, 2012 / 10:13 am

    With regard to Ulysses, two things come to mind:

    The first is how different they are at their core. The novel’s are pointed in different directions–one inward and one outward (in extremely rough terms). Ulysses seeks to plumb the depths of the individual mind and Gravity’s Rainbow explodes outward toward the interrelation of all things. Obviously, there are counterarguments: Ulysses is very much about the social structure and the place; Gravity’s Rainbow explores the inner workings of Slothrop and deals A LOT with people’s fantasies; yet overall I believe the novels work in extremely different ways. Maybe a way to bring both strands together is to say Ulysses is about individual minds working in and straining against the social structure and Gravity’s Rainbow is about the social/political system working in and straining against the individual mind. Think about how much of Slothrop’s drug fantasy is based on cliche, stereotype and the movies he’s seen and books he’s read. Think about Pirate taking over other people’s fantasies for them (for the government).

    My second thought is about how alike the books are, even beyond their difficulty: The shifting styles, the appropriation of song and film and newspaper forms. They are both collages, created out of the creations of the societies that they are about.

    • g2-95e91ebfda4fc268358c41bb52401cedm March 1, 2012 / 1:34 pm

      Not to mention the subtle shifts in interior monologues that make you stop to try and figure out who is thinking what. I’m especially thinking of the shift from Spectro to Pointsman. (I don’t have my book with me, but in the chapter where we first meet Spectro we are clearly in his mind when he muses about his inadequacies with his patients, but quickly move to Pointsman when he starts to fantasize about human subjects in a horribly pedophilic sort of way. I see this a lot in the book and I think of it as a way to underscore differences in character or highlight traits.

  8. Chase Edmond March 12, 2012 / 10:40 am

    I don’t know if this will pop up in anyone’s inbox. It is not a new topic; even if it was, I am not sure how to start one, or if I have access to, but from this (third) week’s reading, I noticed a very general similarity with Ulysses.

    After the first three episodes of Ulysses, where the third is pretty darn difficult and surreal, we are then (in what is informally “Part 2”) given access to the thoughts and feelings of a new character, Bloom, and for a while given a somewhat straightforward narrative, or at least a more clearly understood one than that which immediately preceded it.

    It is sort of the same for GR. While we have certainly been introduced to Slothrop before Part 2, we have not been given such clearly understood access to him and his feelings (definitely not in episode 10, where we are given intimate but VERY surreal access. Nor, really, in the episode where paranoia is not so identified as “true” (as Darrel mentions in today’s post), and the meaning behind various candies and their unexpected effects is much more open to interpretation). The novel also takes a bit of a step back, difficulty-wise (at the beginning of Part 2, at least). While there are many looming questions, the “action,” as it were, is pretty straightforward.

    Anyway, this may be obvious, or ridiculous, or both, but the similarity, if it exists, struck me immediately. (That’s a lotta commas; sorry.)


    • Paul Debraski March 29, 2012 / 10:05 am


      This is really spot on I think. It just happens that my cube mate is reading Ulysses (on his own, yes). So I am reliving it with him and he keeps bringing up things (he’s in Chapter 5 now) that make me think of GR.

      The funny thing is that Ulysses is meant to parallel The Odyssey, although I don’t thin kit REALLY does–I mean it’s obviously used a frame, but it’s not a map. And now it feels a bit like a telephone game, where Ulysses is kind of a frame for GR, although even less so. Perhaps he is just giving us shout outs to Joyce (who does get name checked in the book at one point).

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