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.