Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: The V-2 Rocket Cartel as Multinational Corporate Conspiracy

Friday, July 7th, 2006

Published 12 years ago -

Gravity’s Rainbow

Thomas Pynchon

Essay by Dan Geddes

7 July 2006



Part 1 – Beyond the Zero

Part 2 – Un Perm’ au Casino Hermann Goering

Part 3. In the Zone

Part 4 – The Counterforce

Anarchy Over Monopoly


Further reading on Gravity’s Rainbow

See also:
The Crying of Lot 49,
Gravity’s Rainbow,
Inherent Vice,
Bleeding Edge and
Dys, an imaginary Pynchon novel


Don’t forget the real business of war is buying and selling. The murdering and violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violences, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. The true war is a celebration of markets. (Gravity’s Rainbow, 105)

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) is an encyclopedic novel, delving into subjects as diverse as rocket science, organic chemistry, Rilke’s poetry, Pavlovian psychology, and Tarot cards. Some critics have marveled at the multidisciplinary erudition shown in the novel. Others have avoided it, or set it aside as unreadable, despite it having won the National Book Award.

It remains a difficult novel to critique (or even to read), not only because of the myriad subjects it covers, but also due to the lack of an obvious storyline. Critics often focus on Gravity’s Rainbow as a “text”, or on its meta-textual effects. Its “plot” is difficult to summarize. It is clearly not a traditional novel. However, despite its unusual structure and density of language, clearly one of the main themes that emerges in Gravity’s Rainbow is the prevalence of corporate power and its attendant technologies. Corporate power crosses national lines, even (especially?) during times of war, even during World War II.

In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon suggests an international corporate conspiracy, working for both the Axis and Allied powers during World War II. Suggestions of this type in a historical novel are obviously not the same as claims made in historical works. It is doubtful that Pynchon is baldly asserting that companies such as GE and Shell brazenly profited from both sides (though his narrator suggests it and some of his characters believe it). Pynchon, or his narrator, hedges.

Gravity’s Rainbow is a work of fiction, largely informed by historical research, especially about the history of IG Farben. Many of the historical statements in Gravity’s Rainbow are clearly meant to be accepted as fact. Pynchon is clearly interested in sharing the information with his readers, and making it interesting. But it’s hard to tell how much of the historical data (some of which is true) is true. Perhaps Pynchon only hopes to interest people to do their own research, rather than make actual historical assertions about particular companies, individuals, or nations.

Pynchon also casts doubt on these suggestions of conspiracy, for example by suggesting that Lazlo Jamf, whose long career ties together many of the corporations, is only a figment of imagination. Or that Slothrop’s map of London (indicating the location of his sexual assignations, and matching perfectly with a map of where the V-2 rockets landed) is fanciful. Pynchon giveth, and Pynchon taketh away. While the subjective nature of human perception is an interesting topic for fiction, when the subjective nature of history is the subject of a historic fiction, there is something unsatisfactory about not even knowing what the author himself happens to be claiming (if anything) about actual historic events, other than their indeterminacy. This is not the case in scholarly historical works, where the historian must assert his or her vision of events. If Pynchon were only meditating on the nature of paranoia, it would not be necessary for him to supply such detailed background information in an authoritative narrative voice.

The nature of the conspiracy in Gravity’s Rainbow itself remains shadowy in any case. Of course, the conspirators (in the novel) try to conceal themselves, so as readers we only see glimpses. Yet Pynchon does not leave us stuck entirely in Slothrop’s paranoid subjectivity (as perhaps he could have). He, or the narrator(s), share such ample background material, and even utilize omniscience to provide us scenes with characters who are involved in the conspiracy, unseen by Slothrop or other principle characters.[1]

In the end, it’s difficult to determine whether Pynchon is asserting that cartels in general work together on both sides of war; or whether there really was an illegal corporate collusion in World War II. In any case, this is at least a major theme of Gravity’s Rainbow, and one found in one of the obvious literary influences on Pynchon, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.[2]

Gravity’s Rainbow cannot be reduced to Slothrop’s gradual discovery of the international rocket cartel, but this strand is a main plot thread, upon which so many other strands hang upon. It seems clear that Slothrop, if anyone, is the main character, and so it makes sense that the main storyline would follow him and his odyssey of discovery. Starting in Part 2, Gravity’s Rainbow follows Tyrone Slothrop on his journey through war-torn Europe to learn about the V2 (really the A4) rocket, and its many surprising connections to himself.  While researching the A4, Slothrop learns about disturbing connections between the largest corporations on both sides of the war: IG Farben’s interlocks with Shell, ICI, GE, Du Pont, and so many others.

Part 1 – Beyond the Zero

Many readers pick up Gravity’s Rainbow only to be frustrated by the dense language and lack of apparent storyline, and so they never finish reading it. Upon first reading, Part 1 does not make it obvious where the novel is going. We are introduced to a dizzying number of characters, and it is not clear how they are connected. In Part 1, more pages are devoted to Roger Mexico and Jessica than to Slothrop. Part 1 serves as an introduction, one that will make sense for many readers (only) upon a second reading. Most of Slothrop’s revelations about the rocket cartel do not come until Parts 2 and 3 (Part 3 alone is nearly half the book). However, upon re-reading, Part 1 begins to make more sense, and we can see how Pynchon introduces his main themes.

The novel begins in London with Pirate Prentice’s banana breakfast, which is interrupted by a phone call. Prentice’s boss, someone in The Firm (British secret service) tells him that there is a message waiting for him at Greenwich. “It came over in a rather delightful way.” (11)[3]. Prentice’s message has come over via the rocket, suggesting it was sent by the Germans, or at least someone at a German rocket firing site. So the collusion of Great Britain and Germany, or at least their intelligence services, is hinted at early on. Slothrop sees Prentice pick up the “graphite cylinder, about six inches long and two in diameter.” (21) When, Pirate opens the message, inscribed geheime kommandosache, he finds that capsule contains coded instructions for him. “The message is tantamount to an order from the highest levels.” (72) However, it’s odd that a British agent would receive his orders from a German rocket fired from Holland to Greenwich. Yet this is how Prentice is ordered to rescue Katje Borgesius from Holland, and later deploy her in the Slothrop surveillance project.[4]

We first see Slothrop, or rather his desk, through the eyes of Teddy Bloat, also a member of the Firm, who has been ordered (by the Firm, presumably) to photograph Slothrop’s map of London. For whatever reason, Slothrop’s map, filled with colored stars, indicating the location of his sexual encounters, corresponds to the map of where the A4 rockets have landed. This correlation is our first connection of Slothrop with the rocket, and our first indication that Slothrop is under surveillance.

Perhaps one of the first hints we see of the rocket cartel is near the end of Part 1 during the Walther Rathenau séance scene, where Rathenau’s spirit speaks about the role and structure of IG Farben. Rathenau tells IG Generaldirecktor Smaragd the massive cartel is just a “very clever robot. The more dynamic is seems to you, the more deep and dead, in reality, it grows…The persistence, then, of structures favoring death.” (167). Rathenau also hints at international cooperation necessary for the growth of the IG.

There is a link to the United States. A link to Russia. Why do you think von Maltzan and I saw the Rapallo treaty through? It was necessary to move to the east. (166).

Rathenau’s vision of the IG will become clearer in Parts 2 and 3, where we learn much more about its role and its international interlocks with great corporations from Allied nations, especially Great Britain and the United States.

Finally, Thomas Gwenhidy, a colleague of Pointsman at the “White Visitation” also has paranoid suspicions about the rockets that foreshadow Slothrop’s suspicions in Part 2:

It was known, don’t deny it—known Pointsman!  that the front in Eu-rope someday must develop like this? move away east, make the rock-ets necessary, and known how, and where, the rockets would fall short. Ask your friend Mexico? look at the densities on the map? east, east, and south of the river too, where all the bugs live, that’s who getting it thick-est, my friend.” (173)

Gwenhidy admits that he is paranoid, but still believes there is a pattern to the distribution of rocket attacks.

Part 2 – Un Perm’ au Casino Hermann Goering

Part 2 depicts Slothrop’s time stationed on the French Riviera. While there, he begins to discover the international cartel behind the creation of the A4 rocket. He also begins to see the bizarre connections between himself and the cartel, reaching back even to his infancy.

Slothrop’s assignment is to study materials about the A4 program, but of course he is also simultaneously under surveillance by the Firm, as part of Pointsman’s experiment (about the perhaps Pavlovian connections between the rocket attacks and Slothrop’s erections). Slothrop’s research into the A4 rocket program eventually leads him to some startling conclusions.

He shares his suspicions with Hillary Bounce of Shell:

“Are you blokes aware….that Jerry—old Jerry, you know [the German military]—has been in that The Hague there, shooting his bloody rockets at that London, a-and using, the …Royal Dutch Shell headquarters building, at the Josef Israelplein if I remember correctly, for a radio guidance transmitter? […]”

“I mean,” Slothrop now working himself into a fuss over something that only disturbs him, dimly, nothing to kick up a row over, is it? “doesn’t it strike you as just a bit odd, you Shell chaps working on your liquid engine on your side of the Channel you know, and their chaps firing their bloody things at you with your own…blasted…Shell transmitter tower, you see.”

[Bounce:] “No, I can’t see that it makes—what are you getting at? Surely they’d simply have picked the tallest building they could find that’s in a direct line from their firing sites to London.

“Yes, and at the right distance too don’t forget that—exactly twelve kilometers from the firing site. Hey? That’s exactly what I mean.” Wait, oh wait. Is that what he means?”

“Well, I’d never thought of it that way.”

Neither have I, Jackson. Oh, me neither folks… (241)

Bounce himself proudly wears the

… IG Farben Award for Meritorious Contributions to Synthetics Research.  Bounce got that one back in ’32. The industrial liaison it suggests was indeed dozing at the bottom of Slothrop’s mind when the Rocket Guidance Transmitter Question arose. It has even, in a way, inspired the present teletype plot. Who’d know better than an outfit like Shell, with no real country, no side in any war, no specific face or heritage: tapping instead out of that global stratum, most deeply laid, from which all appearances of corporate ownership really spring? (GR, 243).

These are moments in the text when we are not certain whether this is the omniscient narrator, or the third-person narrator narrating from Slothrop’s perspective.

The corporate cartel can also be seen in patenting of Imipolex G, a new synthetic plastic, developed by L. Jamf. Slothrop was presumably exposed to Imipolex G as “Infant Tyrone” (hence, the continuing surveillance of Slothrop by IG Farben, and their corporate legatees):

The patent for Imipolex G was thus cross-filed for both the IG and for Psychochemie. Shell Oil got into it through an agreement with Imperial Chemicals dated 1939. For some curious reason, Slothrop will discover no agreements between ICI and the IG seemed to be dated any later than ’39. In this Imipolex agreement, Icy Eye could market the new plastic inside the Commonwealth in exchange for one pound and other good and valuable consideration. That’s nice. (250)

Slothrop begins to draw together these disparate facts:

A few things are immediately obvious. There is even more being zeroed in on him from out there than he’d thought, even in his most paranoid spells. Imipolex G shows up on a mysterious “insulation device” on a rocket being fired with the help of a transmitter on the roof of the headquarters of Dutch Shell, who is co-licensee for marketing the Imipolex—a rocket whose propulsion system bears an uncanny resemblance to one developed by British Shell at around the same time…and oh, oh boy, it just occurs to Slothrop now where all the rocket intelligence is being gathered—into the office of who but Mr. Duncan Sandys, Churchill’s own son-in-law, who works out of the Ministry of Supply located where but at Shell Mex House, for Christ’s sake… (251)

Slothrop comes to feel that seeing the war as a struggle between opposing nation-states is largely an illusion:

. …never a clear sense of nationality anywhere, nor even of belligerent sides, only the War, a single damaged landscape, in which “neutral Switzerland” is a rather stuffy convention, observed but with as much sarcasm as “liberated France” or “totalitarian Germany,” “Fascist Spain,” and others… (257)

His discoveries eventually lead Slothrop to go AWOL from his hotel room in the Riviera, and to escape to Zürich, and from there into Germany (the Zone), where he makes further discoveries about his connection to the international rocket cartel.

Part 3. In the Zone

As Part 3 begins, Slothrop reads the documents that connect Lazlo Jamf to IG Farben and ultimately to the Slothrop Paper Company, and thus to himself. Jamf had performed Pavlovian experiments on baby Tyrone (Slothrop, as a baby), involving applying a mysterious stimulant (possibly Imipolex G or one of its forerunners) to his penis. Jamf had invented Imipolex G, and sat on the board of the Grössli Chemical Corporation, later bought by IG Farben.

Slothrop discovers a transaction between Jamf and Lyle Bland, of Boston Massachusetts (his “Uncle Lyle,” a business contact of his father’s). Bland gave contracts to the Slothrop Paper Company to print private currency for Weimar Republic, in cooperation with Hugo Stinnes, a financial wizard who helped precipitate the crash of the German Mark for his own profit.

Slothrop discovers that surveillance duties on him—baby Tyrone—were transferred to different companies as part of merger agreements. Pointsman’s assumption of the surveillance duties of Slothrop (which were once the responsibility of IG Farben) shows how the corporate liaisons transcend borders even during a world war. Slothrop has been under surveillance since Part 1: Teddy Bloat photographing his London map, his transfer to St. Veronica’s for observation (the hospital later being blown up by a rocket), the visits of Pointsman’s operatives (Harvey Speed and Floyd Perdoo) to locations on his London map, his surveillance on the Riviera and in Zürich, where he finally loses their tail.

Slothrop’s discovery of the Jamf papers is the climax of his own quest for the rocket.

I’ve been sold, Jesus Christ I’ve been sold to IG Farben like a side of beef. Surveillance? Stinnes, like every industrial emperor, had his own company spy system. So did the IG. Does this mean Slothrop has been under their observation—m-maybe since he was born? Yaahh . . . (GR, 286)

This is the paranoid-vertigo moment of Slothrop’s story. After this, though he has many adventures in the Zone, he makes no further discoveries about his personal connection to the cartel. (What, after all, could top this?)

He continues to have glimpses. He visits the Nordhausen rocketworks, and escapes with the help of Professor Glimpf, who brings him to Zwitter’s laboratory, where Slothrop wonders “What’s a Nazi guidance expert doing this side of the fence at Garmisch, with his lab intact?” (314), suggesting it had been spared by the Allies. But others, like Roger Mexico, do end up learning more, in part by their search for Slothrop; Slothrop could be said to have spawned the Counterforce.

After Part 3, Slothrop is largely scattered as a character. Throughout Parts 3 and 4, we continue to learn more about the interlocking corporate histories of the cartel from the narrator, and through other characters, such as Andreas, Enzian, Pökler, Tchitcherine, Lyle Bland, and Roger Mexico.

Andreas from the Schwarzkommando, like Slothrop, suspects a cartel made up of both the victors and vanquished:

Perhaps it’s theater, but they [US and USSR] seem no longer to be Allies . . . though the history they have invented for themselves conditions us to expect “postwar rivalries,” when in fact it may all be a giant cartel including winners and losers both, in an amiable agreement to share what is there to be shared…. (326)

Enzian, the Schwarzkommando leader experiences what seems to him an “extraordinary understanding” about the corporate interlocks before and during the war:

This serpentine slag-heap he is just about to ride into now, this ex-refinery, Jamf Ölfabriken Werke AG, is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only waiting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on …modified, precisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of the plan both sides—“sides?” —had always agreed on…

yes the “Allied” planes all would have been, ultimately, IG-built, by way of Director Krupp, through his English interlocks… (520)

It means this War was never political at all, the politics was all theatre, all just to keep the people distracted…secretly, it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology … by a conspiracy between human beings and techniques, by something that needed the energy-burst of war crying…I need my night’s blood, my funding, funding, ahh more, more…The real crises were crises of allocation and priority, not among firms—it was only staged to look that way—but among the different Technologies, Plastics, Electronics, Aircraft, and their needs which are understood only by the ruling elite… (521)

Admittedly, Enzian’s revelation is fueled by “surplus Pervitins” (an early form of methamphetamine), but Slothrop and Roger Mexico experience similar revelations, and the narrator himself confirms them by relating copious facts of industrial liaisons.

During Pökler’s story, we are told of the great dream that started organic chemistry and made the IG, and its unquenchable demand to grow, possible:

Kekulé dreams the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the Word. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used. The Serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” is to be delivered into a system whose only aim it to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity—most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the world can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. (412)

Major Marvy is an agent of the great corporations: “You ain’t got General Electric breathin’ over your shoulder, fella. Dillon, Reed . . . Standard Awl.” (565) These corporations also have interlocks with German corporations.

When Tchitcherine asks Marvy what GE is doing chasing the rocket, Marvy explains: “Now GE has connections with Siemens over here, they worked on the V-2 guidance, remember—” (565).

Shortly after, Tchitcherine, who is in many ways a foil for Slothrop, also has a revelation into the Rocket Cartel.  He thinks:

Oh, Wimpe. Old V-Mann, were you right? Is your IG to be the very model of nations? … “Say there.” It appears to be a very large white Finger, addressing him. […]

A Rocket-cartel. A structure cutting across every agency human and paper that ever touched it. Even to Russia . . . Russia bought from Krupp, didn’t she, from Siemens, the IG ….

Are there arrangements Stalin won’t admit . . . doesn’t even know about? Oh, a state begins to take from in the stateless German night, a State that spans oceans and surface politics, sovereign as the International or the Church of Rome, and the Rocket is its soul. IG Raketen….Tchitcherine is certain. (566)


“He’s been trying hard not to believe too much in the Rocket-cartel. Since his illumination that night, Marvy drunk, Bloody Chiclitz declaiming on the virtues of Herbert Hoover, Tchitcherine has been watching for evidence. Gerhardt  von Göll, with his corporate octopus wrapping up every last negotiable item in the Zone, must be in it, consciously or otherwise.” (611)

Gerhardt von Göll (“der Springer”) is indeed, the Milo Minderbinder figure, viewing everything as fodder for the market. Although he directed the fake Schwarzkommando documentary for the British, he also has ties to the IG natürlich:

That’s how Gerhardt von Göll is, anyway. Graciela knows the man: there are lines of liaison, sinister connections of blood and of wintering at Punta del Este, through Anilinas Alemanas, the IG branch in Buenos Aires, on through Spottbilligfilm AG in Berlin (another IG outlet) from whom von Göll used to get cut rates on most of his film stock, especially on the peculiar and slow-moving “Emulsion J,” invented by Laszlo Jamf … (387)

Lyle Bland, whose names Slothrop discovers in Jamf’s dossier, serves as an important point man for the cartel in America. The narrator confirms that it was Bland who arranged to keep an adolescent Tyrone Slothrop under surveillance (using Bert Fibel, who works variously for Vereingte Stahlwerke, Siemens, GE, as the agent) (587). Bland himself, after taking part in some Masonic rituals, begins to experience out-of-body episodes (and so will ultimately move to the next world, and no longer be a captain of industry).

Another scene that Slothrop never sees is the final passage of Part 3, where the narrator relates the conversation of Clive Mossmoon and Sir Marcus Scammony:

Labour wants the American [Slothrop] found as much as we do. We sent him out to destroy the blacks, and it’s obvious now he won’t do the job.[…] Slothrop was a good try at moderate solution, but in the end it’s always the Army, isn’t it? (615)

This short final scene in Part 3 further confirms the extent of the conspiracy ranged against Slothrop. Thus, the rocket cartel does not exist only in the imagination of the (rightfully) paranoid Slothrop. Other characters suspect its existence or take part it in.

Part 4 – The Counterforce

Part 4 concerns itself very little with Slothrop, who famously scatters as a character. Instead, the Counterforce that his odyssey engenders makes further discoveries about the cartel, along with some more tantalizing suggestions from the narrator.

In this passage, Roger Mexico expresses skepticism that V-E day really meant peace:

But, “Roger,” she’d smile, “it’s spring. We’re at peace.”

No, we’re not. It’s another bit of propaganda. Something the P.W.E. planted. Now gentleman as you’ve seen from the studies our optimum time is 8 May, just before the traditional Whitsun exodus, schools letting out, weather projections for an excellent growing season, coal requirements beginning their seasonal decline, giving us a few months’ grace to get our Ruhr interests back on their feet—no, he sees only the same flows of power, the same impoverishments he’s been thrashing around in since ’39. […]There’s something still on, don’t call it a “war” if it makes you nervous, maybe the death rate’s gone done a point or two, beer in cans is back at last and there were a lot of people in Trafalgar Square one night not so long ago…but Their enterprise goes on. (628).

The mention of getting our “Ruhr interests back on their feet” suggests that Mexico suspects an international industrial liaison.

His fears are almost immediately confirmed by Milton Gloaming, as he learns that IG Farben had a department devoted to Slothrop surveillance:

He’d found himself on a taskforce with one Josef Schleim, a defector of secondary brilliance  […]. He’d heard of Slothrop, yes indeed … recalled him from the old days. When Lyle Bland went out on his last transmural journey, there’d been Green Reports flapping through the IG offices for weeks, Geheime Kommandosache, rumors coupling and uncoupling like coal-tar molecules under pressure, all to do with who was likely to take over the Slothrop surveillance, now that Bland was gone. […]

In any case, he remembers the Slothrop surveillance being assigned to a newly created “Sparte IV” under Vermittlungstelle W. […] IV handled Slothrop and nothing else, except—Schleim had heard tell—one or two miscellaneous patents acquired through some dealings with IG Chemie in Switzerland.”” [Impolex G] (630)


“Surveillance?” Roger is fidgeting heavily, with his hair, his necktie, ears, nose, knuckles, “IG Farben had Slothrop under surveillance? Before the War? What for, Gloaming.” (631)

Roger Mexico then makes the connection:

IG Farben, eh? Mr. Pointsman has been chumming almost exclusively with these days, with upper echelon from ICI. ICI has cartel arrangements with Farben. The bastard. Why he must have known about Slothrop all along. The Jamf business was only a front for . . . well say what the hell is going on here? (631)

Mexico is outraged, and decides to find Mossmoon (known to be one of Pointsman’s backers) and confront him. Even while running the gauntlet of Mossmoon’s secretaries he sees further evidence of the cartel:

In runs a short but spunky secretary, bit of a chubbette here, and commences belting Roger in the shins with the excess-profits tax records from 1940 to ’44 of an English steel firm which happened to share a patent with Vereinigte Stahlwerke for an alloy used in the liquid-oxygen couplings for the line running aft to the S-Gerat in A4 number 00000.” (632)

The fact that Mossmoon’s secretary is German (Miss Müller-Hochleben) further suggests the strange collusion.

Mexico then barges into Mossmoon’s office and leaps onto the table, and begins to urinate on it. While Mossmoon is an executive for ICI, the other executives Mexico is urinating on come from many countries, including Germany:

“…actually the fall of warm piss is quite pleasant as it sweeps by …. slashing up and down starched fronts, Phi Beta Kappa keys, Legions of Honour, Orders of Lenin, Iron Crosses, V.C.’s retirement watchchains, Dewey-for-President lapel pins….” (636)

Improbably, Mexico escapes in one of Pynchon’s beloved chase scenes, but Part 4 continues with further confirmation that Slothrop’s discovery of the rocket cartel was not (just) some paranoid fantasy.

Mr. Information echoes Roger Mexico’s concerns about the war going right on even after V-E day:

Yesyes, Skippy, the truth is that the War is keeping things alive. Things. The Ford is only one of them. The Germans-and-Japs story was only one, rather surrealistic version of the real War. The real War is always there. The dying tapers off now and then, but the War is still killing lots and lots of people. Only right now it is killing them in more subtle ways. Often in ways that are too complicated, even for us, at this level, to trace. But the right people are dying, just as they do when armies fight. (645)

In the famous “Byon-the-bulb” passage we are introduced to another multinational trust, the Phoebus cartel:

There is already an organization, a human one, known as “Phoebus,” the international light-bulb cartel, headquartered in Switzerland. Run pretty much by International GE, Osram, and Associated Electrical Industries of Britain, which are in turn owned 100%, 29%, and 46%, respectively, by the General Electric Company in America. Phoebus fixes the prices and determines the operational lives of all the bulbs in the world, from Brazil to Japan to Holland (although Philips in Holland is the mad dog of the cartel….) (649)

The Phoebus Cartel, led by GE, carefully weighs how much tungsten to add to each bulb, so that other industrial concerns maximize their profit, although it seems it will give Germany an advantage during the war:

Too many tungsten filaments would eat into available stockpiles of the metal—China being the major world source, this also brought in very delicate questions of Eastern policy—and disturb the arrangement between General Electric and Krupp about how much tungsten carbide would be produced, where and when and what the prices would be. The guidelines settled on were $37-$90 a pound in Germany, $200-$400 a pound in the U.S. This directly governed the production of machine tools, and thus all areas of light and heavy industry. When the War came, some people thought it was unpatriotic of GE to have given Germany an edge like that. But nobody with any power. Don’t worry. (654)

We get a last look at the industrial collusion when Jeremy invites Roger to a party by a Krupp (leading German arms manufacturer) manager.  When Roger Mexico and Pig Bodine crash the Krupp party, they find his servants burning “scrap paper (old SHAEF directives, mostly)” (714). Since SHAEF is the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, this suggests that Krupp (or at least one of its executives) was regularly being fed top-secret SHAEF directives. Since the party is attended also by “reps from ICI and GE” Pynchon is drawing a picture of industrial collusion that crosses the wartime alliances and continues during war and peace.

Anarchy Over Monopoly

In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon depicts major corporations of both Germany and the Allied powers working together before the war, during the war and after the war. The war itself is a product of a conspiracy, because They know that the war will boost Their profits and speed up technological development of the key industries: oil, steel, military technology, pharmaceuticals. War accelerates research as well as redistributes wealth.[5]

In contrast to the concentration of power seen in the rocket cartel, Pynchon seems to favor local markets (usually impugned as black markets by the taxing authorities).

…The true war is a celebration of markets. Organic markets, carefully styled “black” by the professionals, spring up everywhere. Scrip, Sterling, Reichsmarks continue to move, severe as classical ballet, inside their antiseptic marble chambers. But out here, down here among the people, the truer currencies come into being. So, Jews are negotiable. Every bit as negotiable as cigarettes, cunt, or Hershey bars.” (105)

Some of the heroes are people making “arrangements” in the Zone (Säure Bummer, Pig Bodine, Geli Tripping, Slothrop himself) alongside so many others (Frau Gnahb, Blodgett Waxwing, Gerhard van Göll).

Geli Tripping explains it to Slothrop soon after he enters the Zone:

“It’s an arrangement,” she tells him. “It’s so unorganized our here. There have to be arrangements. You’ll find out.” Indeed he will—he’ll find thousands of arrangements, for warmth, love, food, simple movement along roads, tracks and canals. Even G-5, living its fantasy of being the only government in Germany now, is just the arrangement for being victorious is all. No more or less real than all these others so private, silent, and lost to History. Slothrop, though he doesn’t know it yet, is as properly constituted a state as any other in the Zone these days. (290-91)

Schnorp, who gives Slothrop a ride to Berlin in his hot air balloon, from which they throw pies at Major Marvy’s plane, reassures Slothrop about the loss of his pies:

“No, no. Stop worrying. This is like the very earliest days of the mercantile system. We’re back to that again. A second chance. Passages are long and hazardous. Loss in transit is a part of life. You have had a glimpse of the Ur-Market.” (336)

The Zone lies in a state of anarchy, but for Pynchon this doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing. “No zones but the Zone.” (333) This state of anarchy is actually sought out, to be briefly enjoyed by the Argentinean anarchists, and by Slothrop, to some extent, before control is re-asserted. Ironically enough, Slothrop finds the closest thing to freedom in The Zone, after a lifetime of being under surveillance by the multinational cartel.


While Gravity’s Rainbow is in the end a multi-faceted work, and cannot be reduced to single plot strand, Slothrop’s (and other characters’) discovery of the international rocket cartel is perhaps the main storyline. It is the central mystery to unfold. Because the discovery is so improbable, and because of Slothrop’s admitted paranoia, there is a cloud of uncertainty over what actually transpires in Gravity’s Rainbow. The depiction of uncertainty appears to be deliberate, itself even one of Pynchon’s themes, that history is indeterminate, but you can never be certain how far to take revisionism. Characters in Gravity’s Rainbow entertain some disturbing ideas about an international corporate cartel, playing both sides in the war. Pynchon himself can expose his readers to such ideas, without going fully on a limb and making specific claims as in a historical work.

His great novel dramatizes an individual’s discovery of a mind-boggling industrial collusion.

7 July 2006

Further reading on Gravity’s Rainbow

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon (Penguin) 1995 edition.

Some Things That “Happen” (More Or Less) In Gravity’s Rainbow, Michael Davitt Bell, Williams College. This excellent summary of the action clarified or confirmed my own reading of certain passages.

Pynchon’s Mythography: An Approach to Gravity’s Rainbow, Kathryn Hume (Southern Illinois University Press) 1987.

A Companion’s Companion: Illustrated Additions and Corrections to Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion, Donald F. Larsson, Department of English, Minnesota State University, Mankato.

IG Farben, A summary of notes from the book IG Farben by Richard Sasuly, Boni & Gaer New York, 1947. This piece makes a convincing case that Sasuly’s (now out-of-print) work was an important source for Pynchon’s IG Farben historical material.


[1] The Counterforce’s deepest penetration into the Their conspiracy is the scene when Roger Mexico bursts into Clive Mossmoon’s office in London, and discovers the captains of industry of both the Axis and the Allies sitting around the table wearing medals and honors  (Orders of Lenin, Iron Crosses, Victoria Crosses) of the great powers, including Russia and Germany.

[2] In Catch-22, Milo Minderbinder, who administers supplies for an American air force unit stationed in Italy during World War II, expands into selling American supplies to the Germans at a profit, and even works out a deal for Germany to bomb his own base. He is always forgiven by his superiors due to the great profits he makes. Heller was satirizing companies like Ford, whose German subsidiaries built trucks for the Nazis, but later Ford received war damage compensation from the U.S. government for the damage caused by Allied bombing in Germany.

[3] Pirate’s caller is not identified, but it sounds a great deal like Sir Marcus Scammony, whom we see as a power-broker of the conspiracy, speaking with Clive Mossmoon at the end of the Part 3.

[4] Of course, the most likely explanation is that Katje herself slipped the note into a rocket. In any case, the potential dramatic effect of Pirate’s decryption of the message to pull out Katje is lessened by the 50 pages that separate Pirate’s retrieval of the graphite cylinder containing the message (witnessed by Slothrop) from the scene where he actually reads it.

[5] Pointsman reminds himself that the war years are especially valuable, because one year of wartime research is worth 14 years of peacetime research.

See also:
The Crying of Lot 49,
Gravity’s Rainbow,
Inherent Vice,
Bleeding Edge and
Dys, an imaginary Pynchon novel

See also: Book reviews and criticism

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