I’ve been kind of quiet here.  It’s not because I’m behind or because I’m not enjoying myself.  Indeed, I’m really caught up in the book, but with the focus lately on the wild life of Slothrop there wasn’t a lot that I was thinking about aside from reckless speculation about plot.

But this week’s section about parabolas got me thinking outside the plot.

It’s obvious that Pynchon has done his homework for this book.  I mean, his knowledge of WWII, Germany and Africa are more than impressive.

I’ve already mentioned a vague parallelism to Ulysses (which I think has fallen by the wayside at this point).  So let me posit a new structural question/theory.

Is Gravity’s Rainbow structured in a parabolic arc in any way?  (Obviously this cannot be answered and remain within spoiler limits, so tread lightly).  I initially thought about this because I found the sections about Enzian and Tchitcherine kind of slow and difficult, especially compared to the fast paced earlier scenes.  (A second read made that less so).  But it seemed as if the book was moving along pretty briskly and then, just as it reached the center (or thereabouts) of the book, these two sections were heavy and laden with history and back story and complex stuff–very much unlike the Slothrop romp and fun sections.  True, there is a Slothrop section in between these dense sections, so that kind of blows the (poor) theory away.

Nevertheless, I wonder if anyone else has noticed any kind of structure to the book as a whole (in the way that Infinite Jest was superficially a Sierpinski Triangle) parabolic or otherwise.

6 thoughts on “Parabola

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston March 29, 2012 / 8:53 am

    It’ll be interesting to come back to this at the end. I’ve sort of forgotten how the last third of the book pans out, and there’s just so much information that I’m not sure I can get my arms around it all enough to see a larger parabolic shape.

    Maybe it’s worth noting that conventional stories tend to have (or so my middle and high school teachers had me believe) a roughly parabolic shape, with rising action, a peak/catastrophe/conflict, and then a denouement. Given all the leaping back and forth in time, it’s hard to imagine that the book, as written, has such a straightforward curve of a shape. That said, the image you’ve provided is kind of interesting, in that its focus is on the shape under the curve — and the way it’s made up of fragments that fit — than the curve itself, which’d be a pretty compelling way to think about the narrative. I’m just not sure I’ve got the brain power to put it all together.

    • Paul Debraski March 29, 2012 / 9:59 am


      Well, gee I forgot about that whole ‘every story is a parabola” thing from every English class I’ve taken. I did mean it in a bit more of a sophisticated way than that, so I’m glad you saw it. It’s really hard for me to get a big picture of this book, though. Obviously I haven’t finished it, but just the first half, seeing a structural setup isn’t easy. It’s entirely possible that there isn’t one, but he seems so technically minded, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t something.

  2. Christine March 31, 2012 / 11:34 pm

    I haven’t read the rest of the novel, so this is both premature and presumptuous, but perhaps the classic parabolic structure of “take time getting your main character up in a tree, throw rocks at her, then get her down again” is a broader arc, and less intracontinental ballistic than Pynchon’s “rocket the story into the stratosphere (or under the mountain) then let it lose most of its momentum as it turns, slowed precipitously by gravity and other boring physical laws, to come plummeting back down to earth.”

    Maybe. “Higher on the y, much smaller on the x” kind of thing? That way all English teachers can be right (yay for English teachers!) and Pynchon can put his own missile-shaped spin on things.

    (If you thought I’d get through one post or comment without such nonsense, you clearly don’t know how I cleave to the petty when faced with such intellectual ballistics.)

    • Paul Debraski April 1, 2012 / 10:46 am

      So you’re saying a lot of brennschluss…

  3. Daryl L. L. Houston April 3, 2012 / 10:06 pm

    It occurred to me tonight, as I plodded through a bit more of what has become more of a plodding book for me than in prior weeks, that gravity as we see it here on earth, pulls downward, resulting in the parabolic shape you provide when a thing is launched into the air. But consider the effect of gravity as manifest across a gap: a cord, say, attached at two points and tugged downward by gravity. And then consider that shape in the context of a book that sucks you into it and sends you ass over teakettle down its slope toward what seems one set of resolutions or goals or things to follow only to change direction midway through and become a bit more of a slog, a bit more, to belabor the physical metaphor here, of an uphill climb. I wonder, in other words, if it winds up being useful to think of the arc of GR not in the traditional sense I mentioned above but as a sort of inversion of it. Guess we’ll have to hang on till the end to see if the model winds up making sense, if we wind up getting back to familiar and more easy going territory by the end of the book.

    • Paul Debraski April 3, 2012 / 11:45 pm

      Most of the initial images I retrieved for a parabola were inverted–not that that means anything, just a nice bit of fuel for your idea.

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