Gravity’s Rainbow is set in Europe around the end of World War II and tells the story of a variety of characters’ attempts to uncover the secrets behind a rocket known as 00000, and the device called the Schwarzgerät.
London-based US Army lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop catches the attention of his superiors when it is noticed that the locations of his reported sexual encounters correspond with the sites of subsequent V-2 bombings. They dispatch him to the Herman Goering Casino in liberated France, where he learns of the 00000 rocket and the Schwarzgerät device. He escapes the mysterious casino and begins wandering Europe, helped and hindered by various agents and organisations pursuing their own often covert agendas.
Eventually, Slothrop suffers a gradual psychological decline, with the rest of the narrative punctuated by bizarre hallucinatory sequences. The last confirmed sighting of Slothrop is on the cover of an album by an obscure Californian band.
The focus of the narrative transfers to other characters also connected to the 00000 rocket. The story of the rocket is told in flashbacks, along with the revelation that it was fired in 1945. The Schwarzgerät is revealed to have been a capsule designed to contain a human being. The novel ends mid-sentence as the rocket is about to hit its target, raising the possibility that the reader themselves is killed in the blast. The novel also opens with the striking of a V-2 rocket, forming a narrative circle of ‘rainbow’ that mimics the arc of the V-2 rocket in flight.
In a novel that breaks down the Western distinction between real and unreal, characters are subjected to forces beyond their comprehension and manipulated for purposes that the reader cannot fully determine. In a final act of narrative grace, the reader is sacrificed to the destructive parabola of Western scientific power.