by Michael Denison
There are indications that Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 book Gravity’s Rainbow is patterned after a traditional Oriental Go game. The game originated in China about 2500 years ago and is popular now all over Asia. In Japan, it is a national pastime and there are regular Go tournaments with all of the fanfare that we associate with international chess tournaments. There are also Go clubs and regular Go columns in the daily newspapers. A recent film, AlphaGo, covers the eventually successful attempts to design a computer program that could beat humans at Go.
For those not familiar with it, Go is a war game. It is fought on a wooden board marked with 19 and 19 crossing lines. These form 361 not-quite-square rectangles, although the game is played not on these spaces, but on the lines and intersections between them. Each player has 180 disc-shaped pieces, made of wood, slate, stone, or some more modern material, in their army. One player has all black stones and the other has all white. To win a game, the players must take turns and surround open areas with fortified walls that cannot be captured. In the end the player in control of the most space wins.
Chess has long been famous for its ability to teach strategy and tactics, but chess deals with small numbers and great differences in power between individual pieces. Go, on the other hand, deals with large numbers of equal pieces. To extend the military metaphor, the general in a chess game is fighting with infantry, cavalry, and light and heavy artillery. The general in a Go game is fighting on an open field with huge numbers of infantry.
Now for the comparison. Gravity’s Rainbow is a long book about rockets, but it is about rockets in the same way that Moby Dick is about whales. Just as an entire universe revolves around the white whale in Moby Dick, so an entire universe spins, (literally, in the last scene of the book) around the V2 rocket numbered 00000 in Gravity’s Rainbow.
Pynchon’s book has a huge cast of characters and a complex plot. It is a cyclical novel, beginning again where it leaves off at the end. It is a novel about small people caught up in great events and it is a novel about patterns in space and time and of the people who cannot see them. It is a book full of the sudden “shock of recognition” (“Oh, that Peenemünde!”) and of slowly-gathering awareness.
Pynchon warns us, on the very first page of Gravity’s Rainbow (Picador, p.3), of what we are getting into: “No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into.” This statement can just as easily and accurately describe a typical Go game.
To begin with the comparison, Pynchon’s book contains huge numbers of references to the colors black and white. On page 391 of the Picador edition, we find following references to black and white: Schwarzkommando, Schwarzgerät, “schwarz-“, Blackwoman, Blackrocket, Blackdream, Black-words, Blackrocket (again), Schwarzgerät (again), Black-phenomenon, and blackness. On the following page, 392, we find: white blossoms, a white room, white cube, snow buntings, snow, and the white room (again). On the next page, 393, we find: dark, black, white/black, shadows, a black Parisian frock, black ash, and are introduced to a character named Bianca, which means white one. Although the number of references to black and white varies with each page, the total number of times the words “black” and “white”, or words meaning the same things, or words referring to these things, are used is staggering, and far too many than could be logically accounted for by sheer coincidence. Writers of Pynchon’s caliber do not, we assume, allow such concentrations of reference to happen accidentally.
The black/white theme is carried forth throughout the book in the names of characters, places, military operations, animals, decor items, ships, and many other things. There are also hidden references that are included by making references to things that happen to be black or white (Galena, cocaine, certain chemicals) although the color is not mentioned outright. Imopolex-G, the erectile plastic so crucial to the book is, at some times, white, and, at other times, black. One of the most important characters, Captain Blicero, has a named rooted in the German word for “bleach”. Another important character is named Weissmann. The Allied command post is “The White Visitation,” etc., etc., etc.
In the penultimate scene of the book, during the ascent of the V2 rocket, Gottfried, the man encased in the rocket, ponders the following: (Picador 759) “What is this death but a whitening, a carrying of whiteness to ultrawhite, what is it but bleaches, detergents, oxidizers, abrasives – Streckefuss he’s been today to the boy’s tormented muscles, but more appropriately is he Blicker, Bleicheröde, Bleacher, Blicero, extending, rarefying the Caucasian pallor to an abolition of pigment, of melanin, of spectrum, of separateness from shade to shade, it is so white that. . ”
The similarities between Gravity’s Rainbow and Go entail more than just references to black and white, however. The book and the game share an essential kinship in shape. Although the book is continually going off on tangents it never strays very far from the enormous, moving, all-encompassing thing that is the war, the game that the characters are not in control of and which uses them as pieces, replaceable and expendable, useful only as part of a certain needed critical mass. So, too, the game, although played out through many small skirmishes which are all parts of on greater uniting whole. In an ideal Go game, all of the pieces will be connected together at the end of the game in one satisfyingly artistic unified pattern.
Pynchon’s book is divided into parts, in the same way that a Go game is, although the book is divided into four parts and a Go game usually consists of three. The opening stage of Go is called fuseki and consists of the placement of widely scattered pieces in strategic positions, in the hope that they can later be joined up and used to create large viable structures. So, too, the early parts of Pynchon’s book introduce us to characters and places that will later become important parts of the major structures of the novel.
The middle part of Go, like chess, involves the major fighting. In the novel, the major plot streams unfold and develop critical mass, the major characters are developed, etc.
The endgame of Go is called yose and at this point all of the major fighting is done and sometimes the outcome of the game is already obvious. The players clean up untidy sections of the board, finish fighting small skirmishes that were left long ago because of their unimportance, fill in neutral spaces that belong to neither player, and, in general, bring the game to a neat, artistic close.
In the book, this same state is reached long before the actual final pages. Slothrop, himself the main character for most of the book, simply disappears after he is no longer needed in the course of the action. Many other characters and plot threads are also simply let loose as they become no longer important. The final scene of the book has the rocket containing the hapless Gottfried poised in mid-flight, at its final delta-t, above the movie theatre where the very first scene of the novel begins. Once all of the obstacles that could have kept that event from taking place have been removed, the novel moves into its endgame. For the rest of the book, it is all tidying up, filling in empty spaces for cosmetic purposes, waiting for the anticipated end. Once the specific rocket that has been sought throughout the book has been found, there is nothing to stop the actions of Blicero as he completes his plan. He has won his game, the game that he was playing, of supreme importance to him alone, regardless of all that was happening around him. What happens to Gottfried, or Blicero, or Slothrop, or Tchitcherine, or Pirate Prentice, or Pig Bodine, or Greta, or any one else in the huge list of characters, becomes no longer relevant to anything. The game is over. It has been won.
Part of the enjoyment of playing Go is the period of meditation that follows it. The pattern that has been created on the board is studied for clues of tactical and strategic errors, for evidence of a unified plan of action, as a comparative analysis of respective strengths and weaknesses, and for the simple joy of the art it presents in the lines, the shape, and the contrast.
The book can, of course, be enjoyed in this same way, after reading. It is difficult to comprehend everything all at once, to digest it, to make all of the necessary references and connections. After there is no more possibility of more input, after the reader has received all of the possible data, then can a period of assimilation and meditation begin.
In summary, Gravity’s Rainbow resembles a Go game in overall form, consisting of an early, tentative, introductory section, a large middle section containing most of the actual fighting, the plot and character advancement, and a final, closing section where the game, and book, coast to a tidy conclusion. Both the game and the book deal with large numbers of beings of lesser importance, caught in struggles where anonymity and sheer numbers are deciding factors. Both works, in the end, depend upon artistic sensitivity for their full appreciation. Both works represent struggles between opposing sides and both works, either figuratively or literally, represent those opposing sides in terms of black and white imagery.
Although it might be possible to make a convincing argument for a relationship between Gravity’s Rainbow and chess (also played, usually, with black and white pieces, and, also, a war game) I think that the essential spirit of chess is different from that of Go, and that the essential spirit of Pynchon’s book, for reasons discussed above, matches that of Go, not chess. The details, the black/white terminology and references, the overall concept, the sectional form of the book, the recursive structure, and the dependence on a meditative digesting of the entire work, all convince me that the comparison of Pynchon’s book and the game of Go is a legitimate one.
Michael Denison is a retired professor of theatre and film who taught for 35 years in Europe and Asia.