Karl Jung is a Grass: Thomas Pynchon, performance with slideshow, 2012

I am reading a book by Thomas Pynchon which is called Gravity’s Rainbow

This presentation will refer back to it a lot, so I thought I'd talk about it first.

Thomas Pynchon is an American author. This is him. He is a reclusive character – hence all the question marks - he doesn't have any promotional photos for his books, and until someone ran a police check on him in the 80s, everyone thought he lived in Mexico. These are the only photos widely available of him, when he was in high school. Because of this 'recluse' status, there are loads of weird rumours about him, like that he was the Unabomber,

or that he had tried to kill the Executive Director of Peel holdings whilst on a trip to England .

In reality, his no-photo policy is just a mixture of shyness and contrariness.

Even when he appeared as a cameo on the Simpsons, he appeared with a paper bag over his head...

I guess he is like the king of the American post-modernist novelists – All these later writers like David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers are really influenced by his style and the themes he writes about. Gravity's Rainbow came out in 1973 and is an anarchic sprawling, multi-layered piece of fiction which weaves together loads of different stories and ideas. It is sort of hard to summarise but I'll need to at least give it a go in order to do the talk so here it goes.

It takes place in London at the end of the second World War, and then in Europe in the weeks after VE day. The whole book is about the V2 rockets that were fired at London by Germany in the last year of the war.

There is this American Intelligence Officer in London, called Tyrone Slothrop, and he is being followed by these war scientists because it seems that he can predict where the V2 rockets are going to fall. Basically, where ever he has sex, that is where the next rocket will fall. The idea is that his erection is sort of sensing where the rockets will land.

The thing to know about V2 rockets is that they work backwards, in terms of how people perceive them from the ground. With the blitz, you would hear the planes coming, then see the planes, then hear the bombs dropping, then see and hear the explosion. But V2 rockets are faster than the speed of sound, so you would see the explosion, and then, moments later, you would hear the screeching sound of the rockets approaching. They reversed the causal chain in terms of your subjective empirical perception.

The book relates this reversal of causality to the possibility of predicting events. As in, V2 rockets reverse the causal chain of noise and thing-that-makes-noise, and therefore are, in a way, working backwards in time. Sort of like if you could bet on a horse race after it finished and you knew who won.

But the thing is that Slothrop, the character who is predicting these events, doesn't know that he is doing it. He just goes around London having sex, it is everyone else who makes the link between his erections and the V2 Rockets.

After VE day, he goes on the run, leaving London and going to Europe, because he realises that he is being watched by “Them”, but he doesn't know why.

“Them” is an important term in the book – the paranoid idea that there are people who are watching you, and who are controlling everything. “Them” is who you have to look out for, “they” connect the dots, without “Them” nothing makes sense

So “They” end up following Slothrop around post-war Europe – which Thomas Pynchon refers to as 'The Zone' - and Slothrop follows his cock, via a succession of sexual encounters with women, men, children and animals towards this Nazi rocket base – at the base is the next stage of the V2 rockets, which are faster and more powerful than anything ever built. This is what “They” are really after. They are following Slothop's cock to secret Nazi technology.

These ideas of prediction and causality and technology are also linked to Slothrop's paranoid theories about why “They” are following him.

And this really becomes the central theme of the book, because it turns out that everyone in The Zone has various paranoid theories about what is happening and who is behind it. Everyone is getting incomplete information, and this naturally leads to everyone having a different interpretation of what is going on.

Paranoia, in the context of The Zone, becomes quite a functional, useful thing. It helps the different characters make sense of what is happening. I suppose Post-war Europe was totally chaotic, so anything that explained what was happening was better than nothing, even if it was based on misunderstanding and falsehoods.

In the book, paranoia is seen more as an excess of reasoning, sometimes true and sometimes untrue, but never un-useful or unreasonable. In fact, sometimes it seems that paranoia is the only way that any of the characters can make sense of the chaos in which they are trying to live.

At one point someone is talking to Slothrop about the hierarchies of paranoias. There is your basic paranoia, which is all about Them, the “Them” that is watching you and out to get you and knows what you will do next.

But if you want to really get into it, then you need to move onto “Us” or “Me” paranoia. As in, the paranoia that even your own actions are motivated by other, mysterious reasons that you can't possibly comprehend.

Once you have cultivated this paranoia, says the character, then you can really understand The Zone, because you can rid yourself of the fallacy of reason, i.e. you can finally submit to the chaos of reality, without believing that you have any influence over it whatsoever.

So for my bits of this talk, I'd like you to keep in mind the idea that perhaps all human reasoning, all our understanding of cause and effect, and all our attempts to predict what will happen next (in daily life, in the economy, in politics, in everything) are just different levels of paranoia, different but equally ill informed psychotic hypotheses.