Since Trump started calling Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man,” Google searches for the lyrics of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” have exploded. It’s hard to see any connection between the lonely astronaut in John’s song and the leader of North Korea. One rides a rocket, the other directs rockets to be fired. But there is a strong connection between, not Kim, but Trump and another “rocket man” in a work of art considerably more substantial than John’s ditty: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, the American novel I consider the most important to be published since the end of World War II, which the book is about. The novel shared the National Book Award in 1974.
In Gravity’s Rainbow, the sexual contacts of one Tyrone Slothrop, an American officer in London during the Blitz, seem to predict the location of German rocket strikes in the city. Intelligence Services become interested in Slothrop’s “gift” and assume he has rocket expertise that will help them understand the Germans’ mysterious 00000 rocket. After Slothrop is sent to the south of France to study what the Allies know of the 00000, he becomes paranoid about the spies’ use of him and deserts for his personal investigation of his and friends’ possible connections to rocket 00000. Slothrop is a comic bumbler, but his travels around Europe bring him into contact with various persons in the German rocket program, some of whom were brought to the United States after the War. At one point, Slothrop dons a rocket costume and is afterwards known as “rocket man.” He does not solve the mystery of the 00000 and does not return to America, but near the novel’s conclusion he ends his obsession with rockets, sheds his identity as rocket man, and fades away, about as happy an ending as one can expect from this increasingly pessimistic book.
For Pynchon, Slothrop is a humorous device, a Quixote of rockets instead of windmills. But in Gravity’s Rainbow and in modern history, the rockets he chases are real and come to have the capacity that Kim is working toward—the ability to carry nuclear warheads. Rocket 00000 does not. Instead, we find near the end of the novel that the rocket carries a human sacrifice, possibly a suicidal victim, Pynchon’s symbol for the destruction of nuclear war (to which he alludes only elliptically). The victim—the literal man in the rocket—is a young homosexual named Gottfried. His master, the man who launches the rocket in this ultimate act of Sado-masochism, is the Satanic Blicero. Gottfried’s death launch atop the giant phallus of 00000 has strong overtones of anal intercourse, an act from which no future generation can enter the world. Put more bluntly than Pynchon does: these two rocket men employ the mechanism by which humans can commit mass murder and mass suicide. Or even more bluntly, with our rockets we are perversely fucking ourselves to death. In the novel, this action is perpetrated by white males, but Pynchon makes it clear with his other characters that the rocket men of the globe drag along with them to destruction women, children, and people of color.
But “rocket man” symbolizes even more than patriarchal mastery for Pynchon. Rocket man is more generally “technology man” that dominates and slowly destroys the earth, not just its human inhabitants. This wider interpretation of Pynchon’s symbol is best summarized in a passage where he describes the “World just before men,” the fecund brew of living things that, once dead, could be mined and pumped (coal and oil) out of the earth to fuel destructive technologies and development that, while extending human life, also alienate humans from their earthly home. Set in World War II, Gravity’s Rainbow is ultimately about humans’ thousand-year War on Nature. The primal causes are fear of death and desire for transcendence, for the symbolic immortality of the tools and buildings that outlast their makers. For a brief moment the victim in 00000 is in “heaven”—before his fated descent and death. In Pynchon’s long view, human history may also be a brief ride because of its mastery and destruction of nature. Except for the Luddites, Pynchon implies, we humans are all rocket men and women.
In Pynchonian light, Kim is a rocket man but Trump is the rocket man on Viagra. In Gravity’s Rainbow, rockets are compared with towers such as the Tower of Babel, constructs of pride and greed. Trump is the builder of towers, those structures in the sky that have his name blazoned on them. Trump’s association of himself with his buildings as giant phalluses is no accident, for he identifies power in sexual terms. He is the male master whose wake is filled with subjugated women. That his ambitious rocket/buildings have brought him close many times to financial self-destruction is no accident. His environmental policies and cabinet choices are those of rocket man: mine and pump and pollute for short-term benefits, future generations be damned or, more precisely, fucked.
From the perspective of Gravity’s Rainbow, Trump is, unfortunately, not an American aberration but a dramatic summation. Slothrop traces his roots back to the Puritans. For Pynchon, early Protestant steeples were “rockets,” symbols of transcendence based on extermination of the natives, the cutting of forests, the adoption of slavery, and the creation of a powerful ruling class. Political Fascism as such was created in America’s war-time enemy, Germany. But for Pynchon, environmental Fascism—the domination and exploitation of nature—ruled America in past and will rule in the future through monopolistic industries and multinational corporations such as Exxon. Trump the developer, his corporate pals in extraction industries, his hatred of environmental regulations, and his Fascist sympathizers would be no surprise to the man who wrote Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel in which greed overwhelms all morality.
The rocket traces half an arc, at odds with the circular and cyclical nature of nature itself and of early human communities that lived according to that cycle. For the victim in 00000, there is no living return. As Pynchon says, quoting Rilke, “Once, only once.” For industrialized cultures, there may also be no return to sustainable life. Perhaps this is the reason why there is a futuristic, science-fiction component—the “Raketen-Stadt”—near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow. Here John’s astronaut and Pynchon’s rocket man do connect: escape from the cycles of life and death enforced by gravity, no return but further “transcendence” even if, as John’s character says, Mars is no place to raise a family. With his “Make America Great Again” slogan, Trump promises an impossible return to a time when only a few nations had rockets and nuclear weapons, when America was a transcendent hegemon and its president a true rocket man in his power over mass death. Now that “power” is mostly bombast and bluster in the face of mutually assured destruction. Rocket men such as Kim and Trump must be content with ruling over rocket states where power is concentrated in the few, where national or corporate interests rule, and where citizens’ have little affect on the state. Both rely on a fake cult of powerful personality, but they are more like Pynchon’s victim in 00000 than the person who launches that rocket.
Of American fictions that illuminate Trump, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning best presents a context of American national politics in which to see Trump’s presidency. Gravity’s Rainbow is both wider in its purview and more profound, internationalist and world historical. In the past, some readers or would-be readers of the novel have dismissed Pynchon as a paranoid. But these readers had not experienced Trump as president, the product of rocket-man culture who now has his small hands on the buttons that could—in some crazed Sado-masochistic act of mastery and destruction—fire off the rockets that will fuck us all.
Tom LeClair is the author of three books of criticism and six novels, including Harpooning Donald Trump, Lincoln's Billy, and the Passing series. His fourth and final installment in the series, Passing Away, will be published by Waxing Press in 2018. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati.This essay originally appeared on Medium.com here.