I may be dim, but both times I’ve read this far into Gravity’s Rainbow, I’ve been puzzled by the scene in which, chasing tail after his discharge from the abreaction ward, Slothrop lands himself in an old lady’s flat eating nasty candy. It’s a funny enough scene, but it always seemed sort of out of place amid the pretty serious stuff surrounding it.
It took a return to exercise after a lapse and the subsequent temptation of a box of Girl Scout cookies to open my eyes to what’s going on here. There it lay on the dresser, not even my favorite kind (Samoas win that title), but open, by gar, and all but leaping into my mouth as I dismounted the exercise machine and wiped away my sweat. Heart still pounding from exertion, I casually inspected the nutritional information printed on the box of cookies. Seven grams of fat and 170 calories in a serving; one cookie would cost me 2.3 grams of fat and 57 calories. As I did a little cost-benefit analysis, the connection struck me.
Blicero and Katje and Gottfried enact over and over again a fetishized game of Hansel and Gretel, and just a few pages later, Slothrop finds himself invited into an old crone’s house to feast on candy. Slothrop’s little confectionary adventure is a light-hearted callback to and dramatization of the folktale that Blicero appropriates. And the lesson in that folktale (bad parenting exemplum aside) and in Pynchon’s dual retelling of it has to do with temptation and its payoffs.
Blicero succumbs to the temptation of bedding a woman he suspects may be working for the British. Although he knows he’ll finally be given a push from behind into some oven or another, he’s certain it won’t come in the form of an air raid thanks to betrayal by Katje. But then she does leave, and he prepares for the worst, paying for his temptation in two, somewhat paradoxical, ways — he is, first, convinced that he was wrong to trust Katje after all and, second, denied the consummation of the betrayal he fears. Accustomed to controlling his playthings, he is now stripped altogether of control, and even of the illusion of making of his fate a sort of gift (a form of control in its own right, if what one reads about the rules in a sadomasochistic partnership is accurate — ie, that control of a situation is always just a single safe word away for the person being subjugated).
Slothrop’s temptation too comes at a cost, for we learn in 1.17 that the abreaction ward from which he has just been discharged has been bombed, and with it poor Spectro, who back in 1.8 shared a tense moment with Pointsman in which he tried to steer the behaviorist away from the temptation to try to experiment on Slothrop. Dipping his wick after entering that candy-strewn apartment costs lives, including that of a rare ally. (Of course, it’s not at all clear whether coitus is the cause or the effect here; still, I think the point is worth considering.)
Pointsman too confronts a great temptation. He’s tired of collecting the spit of dogs and isn’t terribly interested in studying the octopus Grigori, no matter how big and smart he is. He wants a man to poke and prod, and he wants in particular the man whose secret all the scientists paranormal and otherwise also covet. As 1.17 closes, we find Pointsman constructing rationalizations for designing an experiment around Slothrop, suffering be damned (“the man will suffer — perhaps, in some clinical way, be destroyed”), and he has his eye on the Nobel. It’s not just the shiny trophy he has his eye on, though; there’s something Faustian about Pointsman, and the connection Pynchon makes between his quest for knowledge and Theseus’s triumph in the labyrinth seems telling, for like Theseus, in order to win, Pointsman must destroy the creature that lies at the center of the labyrinth once he’s wended his way through it. Pointsman’s fall to temptation comes at the ultimate cost, in other words, of what scrap of humanity he may have left.
(It also occurs to me that like Theseus with his yarn, Hansel and Gretel leave breadcrumbs behind to help find their way out of their peril.)
Candy. Quim. Fame. Knowledge. Girl Scout cookies seem pretty insignificant as I ladder up that list, but it’s still hard not to feel a little satisfaction at having resisted.