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New and Improved 'Jokes and Puns in Gravity's Rainbow'

Charles Hollander

July 2007

...Gravity's Rainbow contains so many jokes and puns that a typology might make a helpful doctoral dissertation. Here, only two of the best-known examples will serve as models: "The Disgusting English Candy Drill" (114-20) and "For De Mille, young fur-henchmen can't be rowing" (557-63). Each is lovingly set up. Steven Weisenburger calls "De Mille" the

"most elaborately staged pun in all of GR. ... Note that Pynchon has fashioned an entire narrative digression about illicit trading in furs, oarsmen in boats, fur-henchmen, and De Mille -all of it in order to launch this pun"

(1988: 240; 2006: 292). The Candy Drill similarly takes considerable narrative digression to get Slothrop with an English Nurse (Darlene), her landlady (Mrs. Quoad)-a self-described "all but absolute witch"-and a jar of candies reflecting a fiendish sensibility. Neither De Mille nor Darlene ever reappears: indeed, it is questionable whether Darlene ever existed or was a figure in a dream; but Mrs. Quoad is mentioned again only to cast doubt on Darlene's existence. So we might assume these sections have no other purpose than amusement.

... In addition to being entertaining, what do these sections have in common? They are implausible. "Fur-henchmen"? "Rowing"? "In boats"? A candy that "turns out to be luscious pepsin-flavored nougat, chock-full of tangy candied cubeb berries, and a chewy camphor-gum center" (118)? Implausibility is characteristic of Menippean satire, surely Pynchon's favorite form. In Menippean satire, characters come to stand for ideas in play in the text, and the interaction between the characters becomes the dialectic of competing ideas. For example, if Roger Mexico represents free-will, spontaneity, emotion and love, and Ned Pointsman represents determinism, conditioning and control, their personal interactions become freighted with a whole historical argument. To get the characters involved in meaningful exchanges, the plot must contrive implausibly, since outside of classrooms people usually don't just leap into conversations on such subjects. Implausibility is the order of the day for the antinaturalist genre that is Menippean satire.

... Another similarity is that neither of these episodes overtly obeys the usual imperative to advance the novel's plot, develop a character or play a variation on a theme. On the surface, at the narrative level, aside from their being funny, there might seem every reason to delete them altogether. The novel would move along pretty well without them. So why are these episodes in the text at all? Just for the laughs? There is precedent. Woody Allen, describing his scantily plotted screenplay for Bananas (1971), said he viewed the plots of his early films as "armatures on which to hang a million crazy jokes."

... According to the ancients, an author has two responsibilities: to entertain and to instruct. Here, instruction is in the subtext. These funny episodes actually carry some heavy freight in the form of allusions and buzzwords. In the Candy Drill, the only two wine jellies named are Lafitte Rothschild and Bernkastler Doktor (116). These are not just any red-wine and white-wine jellies. Rothschild is a famous European Jewish banking and viticultural family (with their fine Bordeaux [Chateau Lafitte de Rothschild] routinely winning medals for over a century), while Bernkastler Doktor is a famous German wine with its own pedigree. Bernkastler Doktor is not without a bit of typical Pynchonian irony, suggesting Nazi doctors when it could easily have been any other German wine, say, Riesling, or Gewurtstraminer. Since historically, one of the Rothschilds died at Auschwitz, the episode starts to take on a not-so-funny meaning at the allusive, subtextual level.

... Slothrop's suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous and disgusting English candies and wine jellies in this early section of Gravity's Rainbow seems to have a weightier meaning than previously noticed, involving many of the threads that center around Slothrop.  His suffering is a metaphor or perhaps a prefiguring, for what no-one (in the novel) knew for sure at the time: Millions of people (Poles, Jews, Gypsies, Christian German hmosexuals, German Communists, aged and infirm Germans, as well as aged and infirm Christians from the conquered nations) were being rounded up and forced, en masse, into gas chambers where millions perished.  It is a very deft, if highly mocking, treatment of what it might have been like to inhale those truly lethal toxic fumes, done tongue in cheek under the cover of what has come to be called Pynchon's "Disgusting English Candy Drill," where Slothrop inhales merely faux toxic fumes generated by Mrs. Quoad's candies.

... After Slothrop eats a handful of these "'surprises'" (116), his "tongue's a hopeless holocaust. [. . .] 'Poisoned . . .' he is able to croak" (118). And shortly, the narrator mentions another "famous confection" the descriptions of whose flavor "resemble the descriptions of poison and debilitating gases found in training manuals." In 1945, this rare confection can sometimes be found in out-of-the-way shops among other curios including gems set "in German gold" (119). Oddly, "Yrjö-a pretender but the true king" (119), whom we met in Pynchon's short story "The Secret Integration," reappears in this episode in Mrs. Quoad's reverie. King Yrjö, I have argued elsewhere, is analogous to King Carol of Rumania, a victim of fascist-antifascist struggles. King Yrjo blends here into the ambiguity of figures Slothrop feels "are supposed to be [. . .] our allies" (117).

... So what might seem casually dropped words in the middle of the Candy Drill are more highly charged than they first appear. We get allusions to the German "war against the Jews," weapons of mass destruction, extermination camps, the confiscation of Jewish assets and melting what was appropriate into "German gold," enemies masquerading as allies and vice versa, the whole spasm of fascism that arose in the '20s and '30s and culminated in the war. All of this is by way of quodlibets, a medley of unattributed allusions, as Mrs. Quoad's name suggests. These proper nouns (names of wines), buzzwords (holocaust, poison gases), a character from an earlier work (King Yrjö) constitute a sinister subtext to the comical Candy Drill, a subtext that sustains the major themes of the novel.  The subtext is the counter-narrative that goes against the grain, or in the opposite direction, of the silly narrative.

... To let us in on his intent Pynchon uses the word "holocaust" once, though not in the sense that it has come to be used since WWII; "his tongue's a hopeless holocaust."  This term, with some other buzzers, like "pure nitric acid" (Nitric acid fumes on the mucous membranes of the lungs causes a brief if agonizing death.), and "horrible alkaloid desolation" (the pouring of lye on the cadavers), are terms sprinkled around this episode.  This is how Pynchon uses metonymy, or the substitution of some attributive or suggestive words for what is actually meant.  It seems Pynchon wants us to carry the notions of the historical Holocaust, a disgust at the millions who were gassed, and how their corpses were disposed of, while we enjoy a tension-filled chuckle over the series of actually quite unlikely candies Slothrop eats, and their various effects on him.  This episode might be a good example of "stoner humor."  "Hey I shouldn't be laughing at this!?!  But it's funny.  Right?"

... To further clarify his method, Pynchon actually describes the candies with their shapes being those of "hand grenades," ... "a .455 Webley cartridge," ... "a six-ton earthquake bomb," and a "licorice bazooka;" all instruments of war.  He couldn't have been more explicit, failing to shape a candy guillotine. These named candies are metaphors for actual instruments of war, or political murder. The episode is getting less-and-less-funny through Pynchon's use of symbols.

... Mrs. Quoad has something to do with Slothrop's memories.  "I'm the only one with a memory around here," Mrs. Quoad sighs.  I think this is a swipe at the Holocaust deniers who (at the time of GR's publication) were just raising their arguments that the industrial slaughter of millions was a story invented for anti-Nazi propaganda purposes, or was at least a gross exaggeration of what actually did happen.  Mrs. Quoad goes on to explain; "We help each other [to remember], you see."  The narrator writes, "but this room has gone on clarifying: part of whoever he [Slothrop] was inside it has kindly remained."  It may be a stretch, but this section seems in praise of the Holocaust survivers' ability to hold on to their humanity in spite of the dehumanizing horrors they were subjected to.  Pynchon doesn't lecture, nor dwell on this: he merely mentions it in passing.  Soon Mrs. Quoad tempts him with candies, as might a witch in a Grimm's fairy tale.  By having her declare herself as an "all but outright witch," Pynchon seems to be raising the notion of allegory here.  That would give greater credence to the interpretation's involving Holocaust deniers.

...Slothrop's girl of the moment is Darlene (her name from the same root as "darling," or "beloved"), as Slothrop's mother's name is Nalline, a somewhat sound-alike to Darlene.  Except Nalline is a morphine-like compound (Another stoner joke?).  There is a lot of health and death talk among the three (Slothrop, Darlene, and Mrs. Quoad), and we are reminded from the start, by Slothrop's and Darlene's shedding each a tear at realizing they have survived the London blitz to enjoy yet another tryst, we are reminded that death is everywhere around.

...After Slothrop's confectionery-torture at the hands of the mischievous Mrs. Quoad, "His head floats in a halo of [menthol] ice."  And, "Even an hour later, the Meggezone still lingers, a mint ghost in the air."  On the dream level (It is never clear if this sectioin is 'factual' or a dream.), Slothrop, now a "mint ghost" with a "halo," has died as we've known him, killed by candies metaphorically standing for weapons, candies that emit mock "poison and debilitating gases found in training manuals."

... Slothrop's disintegration begins from this point and it is now he begins his haloed and ghostly ascent to heaven, as Norman O. Brown would have him do.  Indeed, as some suggest, the entirety of Gravity's Rainbow might make most sense interpreted as a dream, or a series of dreams, or parables.  After all, the name Gravity's Rainbow, in and out of German, yields to an alternate translation, Eine Schwer Parabel, or A Grave Parable.

...The disintegration of the hero is a characteristic of one of the types of dramas set out in Northrop Frye's discussion of various genres, the Menippean Satire ... as one might have expected.  So there are many threads combining in this section, itself being quite as dense as any similar section in the novel.  Pynchon anticipates some studies published a few years after Gravity's Rainbow, but many historical articles had been written since the war.  Particularly applicable is Lucy Davidovich 1975 account of the Holocaust.  Some literary critical articles have cited Pynchon's indebtedness to Norman O. Brown and Northrop Frye.  Pynchon alludes to them, as well as the Holocaust rememberers, without ever saying, "Slothrop dies now, and is resurrected, and begins on his Norman O. Brown path, in the genre-style suggested by Northrop Frye, in his discussion of "the disintegration of the hero."  But that's how it looks to me.

... And just for the fun of it, Pynchon has Mrs. Quoad (or some sinister figure) peeping through a window or a glass door at Slothrop and Darlene while they are making love.  Slothrop spots this Peeping Tom (or Thomasina) and can't quite make up his mind if it is a little-old-lady voyeur, or an intelligence-type operative who has been assigned to keep him under surveillance.  If Slothrop can't make up his mind whether he knows or knows-not who is peeping, is this a variation on Oedipa's never knowing if she knew or knew-not if Pierce's naming her as executrix of his estate was a "joke, or something that mattered to the world?"  Which leads us readers to wonder if we got "it," or not, whatever "it" was.

... Their section ends as yet another rocket falls nearby, which sexually arouses Slothrop, and the lovers make the best of a bad situation by going at each other, yet again.

... Another of Pynchon's favorite tropes is what I call "misdirection."  This amounts to having a character's name be a word we'd expect to find in a very complete dictionary, say, the Oxford English Dictionary, and when we go to the alphabetized place where it should be, we find instead a series of cognates or a most likely homonym.  In The Crying of Lot 49 Pynchon offers a character named "Nefastis," which leads us to "nefastous," a synonym for "nefarious," meaning "wicked, iniquitous, villainous," and the preceding entry, meaning "not to be spoken of, abominable."  He gives us a clue to track down from the text to a reference book, which leads us to another, nearby entry that holds the information he wants us to find.

... Or, sometimes he'll play "spot that quote" with the reader.  In Against The Day he offers a direct quote from Dante's Inferno, from the carving above Hell's gate that reads; "I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY."  Of course we readers have to first recognize the quotation as being from the Inferno, and go to it to find the whole of the carving above the gate that reads;


Since Pynchon is nothing if not a satirist, and since satire requires that we share a common notion of right and wrong, and since Dante is nothing if not a moralist, it seems the key to this misdirection is "JUSTICE MOVED MY MAKER ON HIGH."  Pynchon seems to confirm this way of looking at this passage when he refers to the Chums of Chance saying, "As if those boys might be agents of a kind of extra human justice..." (Pynchon's italics).  It is  this type of misdirection, I think, that is at work in the "fur-henchmen" pun.

... The pun "For De Mille young fur-henchman can't be rowing," is traceable to the 1927 song "Fifty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong" (Rose, Raskin and Fisher), popularized by Sophie Tucker, "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas." The song satirizes the idea of the freedoms Americans were supposed to enjoy during the roaring twenties, freedoms circumscribed or forbidden by provincial convention (prudery or dress codes), by local laws (statutes banning public displays of affection or allowing censorship) and by Federal intervention (prohibition); and it offers as counterpoint the degree of freedom French society unflinchingly tolerated at the time (and does today), punctuating its assertions with the refrain "Fifty million Frenchmen can't be wrong." For example:

When they put on a show, and it's a hit
No one tries to censor it.
Fifty million Frenchmen can't be wrong.
And when a book is selling at its best
It isn't stopped; it's not suppressed.
Fifty million Frenchmen can't be wrong.

Whenever they're dry
For brandy or rye,
To get it, they don't have to give up their right eye.
And when we brag about our liberty
And they laugh at you and you and you and me
Fifty million Frenchmen can't be wrong.

...Here Pynchon's technique is misdirection. Something in the text, the De Mille pun, points to something outside the text, Sophie Tucker's song, containing material that is thematically relevant to the novel. Freedom from state intrusion on personal and civil liberties has been one of Pynchon's major themes at least since "A Journey into the Mind of Watts" (1966); it is obviously in play in Gravity's Rainbow, and is perhaps most visible and accessible in Vineland (1990).

...Pynchon (somewhat like Woody Allen) uses most of his narratives as armatures on which to hang jokes, puns, discursions, meditations, allusions, quodlibets, etc., about thematic issues that repeatedly concern him: "power" and "unreason" (Pynchon, WSR 29), the relation of individual and state. The more elaborate the joke, the more likely it is to be thematically important; the more seemingly removed the passage is from the manifest issues of the text (the narrative), the deeper we may have to look to find the referent (the counter-narrative). Since text and subtext in Pynchon's fiction take turns carrying the thematic charge, we have to keep our magic eye peeled to, as the narrator tells us at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, "Follow the bouncing ball" (760).

-Baltimore, MD


...My thanks to the indefatigable Keith McMullen for unearthing the lyrics.

Works Cited

Permission to publish

Charles Hollander says he was unhappy with the original piece which was shortened to meet space requirements in a "hard-copy" journal.  Now, on the net, with more or less unlimited space to work in, he has rewritten this piece for your amusement and edification.

It will be known as the 'New and Improved Jokes and Puns in Gravity's Rainbow' (July 2007).