Reading: Gravity’s Rainbow: A Portrait of the Artist as Engineer


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Gravity’s Rainbow: A Portrait of the Artist as Engineer


Birger Vanwesenbeeck

State University of New York, Fredonia
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The generic debate surrounding Gravity’s Rainbow can be divided into two groups. On the one hand, there are critics such as Palmeri, Weisenburger (Fables), Seidel, Morgan, and Kharpertian, who have argued that Pynchon’s novel fits in with the tradition of the Menippean satire. Drawing attention to the subtle and intricate ways in which Pynchon’s third novel parodies and aggrandizes the discourse of the power elites, these critics see Gravity’s Rainbow as the latest exponent of a long and particularly illuminating tradition of the literary gadfly, which runs from Petronius, over François Rabelais and Jonathan Swift, to Pynchon. The defining characteristic of Gravity’s Rainbow for these critics, is, as Kharpertian puts it, “the critical exposure of official cultural institutions and demystification of power [as well as] the focus on the ugly, the painful and the ridiculous” (108-9). A second group of scholars, while hardly oblivious to Gravity’s Rainbow’s satirical dimension, defines Pynchon’s generic affiliation instead in terms of the encyclopedic narrative. In the wake of Edward Mendelson’s influential essay “Gravity’s Encyclopedia,” these critics, including LeClair and Hite, have pointed out that what is central to Pynchon’s novel is the broadly conceived vision of the world that it offers. Like the original eighteenth-century Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert, Pynchon’s novel bespeaks a summative gesture that tries to envelop all the variety and richness of the world between the covers of one book, complete with mathematical formulas, foreign alphabets, and explanatory illustrations. As Mendelson himself put it, “[e]ncyclopedic narratives attempt to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture, while identifying the ideological perspectives from which that culture shapes and interprets its knowledge” (30). Whether or not this encyclopedic vision mirrors the summations fostered by the works of Dante and Shakespeare, as Mendelson originally argued, or whether Gravity’s Rainbow should instead be read as a postmodern deconstruction of the very idea of summation and order, remains a topic of critical debate. Yet, what is clear to both groups, as well as to those who locate Gravity’s Rainbow in the satirical tradition of Gargantua and Pantagruel, is that, when trying to define Pynchon’s novel generically, size matters.
How to Cite: Vanwesenbeeck, B., (2009). Gravity’s Rainbow: A Portrait of the Artist as Engineer. Pynchon Notes. (56-57), pp.144–157. DOI:
Published on 22 Sep 2009.
Peer Reviewed


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