Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"A City of the Future": Gravity's Rainbow and the 1962 Seattle World's Fair

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"A City of the Future": Gravity's Rainbow and the 1962 Seattle World's Fair

Article excerpt

"I'm caught in it," Thomas Pynchon wrote to his friend Kirkpatrick Sale on May 28, 1962, referring to Seattle. "It's killing me. [...] I'm losing my mind" ("Letter" 1962). (1) In this letter Pynchon lays much of the blame on the Seattle World's Fair, then in the second month of its half-year run. The arc of Gravity's Rainbow somehow reaches from 1945 Europe to the Los Angeles of the early 1970s, where, in the dominant reading of its final scene, aV-2 rocket launched in the final days of World War II has transformed into an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) descending on a crowded movie theater run by night manager "Richard M. Zhlubb," sealing Pynchon's furious history of the continuity, from Nazi Germany to Nixon's Cold War United States, of militarism and empire ([1973] 2006, 769). (2) Here I claim that Gravity's Rainbow also reaches, in more surreal and sublimated form, to Seattle, where Pynchon lived while working as a technical writer for Boeing's Bomarc Service News from February 1960 to September 1962, when he decamped to Mexico. (3) The center of my historicizing argument is a set of highly specific links, as yet critically unexamined, between the nightmare landscape of historical pastiche recurring in Gravity's Rainbow--the oppressive realm of performance, spectacle, and exhibitions known as the "Raketen-Stadt"--and the Seattle World's Fair. Running from April 21 to October 21, 1962, and also known as the Century 21 Exposition, the Seattle World's Fair was--from the several years of planning to the construction of its signature landmark, the Space Needle--a dominant feature of the city's news during Pynchon's time there. Criticized as a civic risk in an age when World's Fairs seemed to have lost their appeal as public spectacle, Century 21, billed as "America's Space-Age World's Fair," became a huge financial success, bringing in more than ten million attendees, and it is widely credited by historians with hastening Seattle's transformation from provincial outpost to cosmopolitan center (Becker and Stein 2011).

In biographical materials from this 1962 moment (such as his letter to Sale) and news coverage that seems to be the basis for some Pynchon scenes, there is ample evidence that important aspects of the novel Pynchon published eleven years later were shaped by the Seattle World's Fair, its technological triumphalism, and its suspect optimism about a benign Space Age--the ideological notion that, in the text's terms, "a good Rocket to take us to the stars" will win the "perpetual struggle" with "an evil Rocket for the World's suicide" (GR 741). Pynchon's highly surreal Rocket City, called "a City of the Future," maps readily onto

Seattle, the Boeing-inspired nickname of which, Jet City, Pynchon revises in light of the weapons systems produced at the city's largest employer, heir to the German rocket production facility nicknamed the Raketen-Stadt during the war (687). So, too, at several points does the world of Gravity's Rainbow--a book clearly attempting to imagine World War III out of the materials of World War II and finding that "it has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now" (3)--map onto the Seattle World's Fair, a future-obsessed event that featured a major exhibition titled "The World of Tomorrow" (Official 1962, 28). A 2012 documentary marking the fiftieth anniversary of the fair, aptly titled When Seattle Invented the Future, shows footage of exhibitions proclaiming that everything from the now routine (call forwarding) to the not-yet-here (flying cars and meals that cook themselves) would be "commonplace in the City of the Future" (When 2012).

Pynchon's earliest works were tutored by Henry Adams's vision of the Dynamo at a World's Fair, the Paris Exposition of 1900, part of the substrate of V. and cited in "Entropy" (Pynchon [1984] 1985, 69). At the other end of Pynchon's career, Against the Day, opening at Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition, manifests his inclination to ruefully anatomize World's Fair settings for their technological boosterism and recapitulation of colonial patterns in theme and physical layout. …

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