Gravity's Rainbow is a far-ranging story covering a vast number of subjects. Its central dramatic device is the V-2 rocket, the German production of which at the close of World War II features prominently in the narrative. The story moves from character to character and concept to concept, using a circular plot mimicking the titular rainbow to explore New Math, principles of speculative quantum physics, and other fringe elements of science and warfare technology.
The opening pages of the novel follow Pirate Prentice, an employee of the Special Operations Executive, first in his dreams, and later around his house in wartime London. Pirate's associate Teddy Bloat photographs a map depicting the sexual encounters of U.S. Army Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, an employee of a fictional technical intelligence unit called ACHTUNG. Each of Slothrop's sexual encounters in London appears to precede a V-2 rocket strike in the same place by several days. Employees of a fictional top secret psychological warfare agency called PISCES, headquartered at a former insane asylum known as "The White Visitation" investigate Slothrop's apparent precognition, including statistician Roger Mexico and Pavlovian behavioral psychologist Edward W. Pointsman, among others. Slothrop's encounters and the rocket sites match the Poisson Distributions calculated by Roger Mexico, leading to reflections on topics as broad as Determinism, the reverse flow of time, and the sexuality of the rocket itself. Many characters not significant until later are introduced in "Beyond the Zero", including Franz and Leni Pökler, while others who appear significant in Part One, such as Thomas Gwenhidwy and Jessica Swanlake, vanish from the narrative and don't re-appear until the closing pages of the novel. Indeed, most of the four hundred named characters only make single appearances, serving merely to demonstrate the sheer scope of Pynchon's universe. Slothrop is also submitted to various psychological tests, many involving the drug sodium amytal. Flashbacks reveal the story of Katje Borgesius, a Dutch double agent who infiltrated a V-2 rocket-launching battery commanded by a sadistic SS officer named CaptainBlicero, who kept Katje and a young soldier named Gottfried as sex slaves. Pavlovian conditioning is a recurring topic, mostly explored through the character of Pavlovian researcher Pointsman. One of the more bizarre Pavlovian episodes involves the conditioning of octopus Grigori to attack Katje. Early in part two, the octopus attacks Katje on the beach in France, and Slothrop is "conveniently" at hand to rescue her.
In part two, "Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering", Slothrop is sent away by his superiors in mysterious circumstances to a casino on the recently liberated French Riviera, in which almost the entirety of Part Two takes place. He is in fact being monitored by associates of Pointsman, including Katje and a linguist named Sir Stephen Dodson-Truck. Katje and Slothrop have sex after Slothrop rescues her from the octopus. At the Casino, he learns of a rocket, with the irregular serial number 00000 (Slothrop comments that the numbering system doesn't allow for four zeroes in one serial, let alone five), which features a mysterious component called the S-Gerät (short for Schwarzgerät, 'black device'), made out of the hitherto unknown plastic Imipolex G. It is hinted at that Slothrop's prescience of rocket hits is due to being conditioned as an infant by the creator of Imipolex G, Laszlo Jamf. Later, the reality of this story is called into question,as are the very existence of Slothrop's original sexual exploits. Slothrop becomes increasingly paranoid, and begins to suspect he is being monitored. He escapes from the casino into the coalescing post-war wasteland of Europe, "The Zone", searching for the 00000 and S-Gerät. In the closing of PartTwo, Katje is revealed to be safe in England, enjoying a day at the beach with Roger Mexico and Jessica, as well as Pointsman, who is in charge of Slothrop's furtive supervision. While unable to contact Slothrop (or prohibited from contacting him), Katje continues to follow his actions through Pointsman.
Slothrop's quest continues for some time in Part Three, "In The Zone", as he is chased by other characters. These include the sadistic American Major Duane Marvy and a drug-addled Soviet intelligence colonel named Vaslav Tchitcherine. Slothrop meets members of the Schwarzkommando, a fictional cadre of African rocket technicians, descended from survivors of the Herero genocide of 1904 who were brought to Europe by German colonials. An extensive subplot details a schism within the Schwarzkommando; one faction is bent on a program of racial suicide, while the other finds mystical, semi-religious meaning in the V-2 rocket. Another long subplot details Tchitcherine's quest to hunt and kill his half-brother Enzian, leader of the latter group of Schwarzkommando. Slothrop is briefly involved with a young witch named Geli Tripping, who is in love with Tchitcherine. Later, Slothrop meets and has a brief sexual affaire with Margherita Erdmann, a former pornographic film actress and masochist. Originally meeting her in an abandoned film studio in The Zone, he is led on by her to the Anubis , a private yacht filled with uninhibited European aristocrats. Here, Slothrop has sex with Erdmann's teenage daughter Bianca, though it is unclear whether or not he has stopped his casual relationship with Margherita by this time. Margherita, along with her partner Thanatz, are revealed to know a great deal more about the 00000, S-Gerät, and Imipolex G than they let on. Margherita and Thanatz had brought their traveling sado-masochistic act to Captain Blicero's rocket battery, from which Rocket 00000 had apparently been fired in the Spring of 1945, towards the end of the war. Margherita spent many days in a mysterious and ambiguously described factory, where she was clothed in an outfit made from the "erotic" plastic Imipolex G. Towards the end of this section, several characters not seen since early in the novel make a return, including the book's first character, Pirate Prentice, as well as Roger Mexico.
"In The Zone" also contains the longest episode of the book, a lengthy tale of Franz Pökler, a rocket engineer unwittingly set to assist on the S-Gerät's production. The story details Pökler's manipulation by an SS officer named Weissmann, who uses annual meetings with Pökler's daughter Ilse to coerce him into working on the S-Gerät. Pökler becomes increasingly paranoid that Ilse is really a series of impostors sent each year to mollify him. Through this story, we find out sparse details about the S-Gerät, including that it has an approximate weight of forty-five kilograms. It is later revealed through flashbacks to Enzian's past that Weissmann and Blicero are the same person. Slothrop spends much of Part Three in various disguises, first as an English war correspondent, then as his invented alter-ego Rocketman, wearing an operatic Viking costume with the horns removed from the helmet, making it look like a rocket nose-cone. Rocketman completes various tasks for his own and others' purposes, including retrieving a large stash of hashish from the centre of the Potsdam Conference. This continues until he leaves the region for northern Germany, continuing his quest for the 00000, as well as answers to his past. It becomes steadily apparent that Slothrop is connected to Laszlo Jamf through Lyle Bland, a Slothrop family friend who apparently played a role in funding Jamf's experiments on the infant Slothrop.
Slothrop later returns to the Anubis to find Bianca dead, a possible trigger for his impending decline. He continues his pilgrimage through northern Germany, at various stages donning the identities of a German actor, a Russian soldier, and mythical Pig Hero, while in search of more information on his childhood and the 00000. Unfortunately, he is repeatedly sidetracked until his persona fragments totally in part four, despite the efforts of some to save him. Throughout "The Counterforce", there are several brief, hallucinatory stories, of superheroes, silly Kamikaze pilots, and immortal sentient lightbulbs. These are presumed to be the product of Slothrop's finally collapsed mind. The final identification of him of any certainty is his picture on the cover of an album by obscure English band "The Fool" (another allusion to Tarot, which becomes increasingly significant), where he is credited as playing the harmonica and kazoo. At the same time, other characters' narratives begin to collapse as well, with some characters taking a bizarre trip within a shared dream and another encountering the god Pan. Much of Part Four takes place within the presumably hallucinated "Raketen-Stadt", a fascist futuristic dystopia. Slothrop's storyline disintegrates a surprisingly long time before the novel's end, which focuses more on the 00000, and the people associated with its construction and launch (namely Blicero, Enzian, and Gottfried, amongst others). At this point, the novel also concludes many characters' stories, including those of Mexico, Pointsman, and Pirate, leaving only the 00000.
As the novel closes, many topics are discussed by the various protagonists around the world, ranging from Tarot cards to Death itself. The narrative even jumps forward in time to the 1970s, where a character named "Richard M. Zhlubb" operates a Los Angeles theater. Towards the end of "The Counterforce", it transpires that the S-Gerät is actually a capsule crafted by Blicero to contain a human. The story of the 00000's launch is largely told in flashbacks by the narrator, while in the present Enzian is constructing and preparing its successor, the 00001 (which isn't fired within the scope of the novel), though it is unknown who is intended to be sacrificed in this model. In the flashbacks, the maniacal Captain Blicero prepares to assemble and fire the 00000, and asks his adolescent sex slave Gottfried to sacrifice himself inside the rocket. He launches the rocket in a pseudo-sexual act of sacrifice with a bound Gottfried captive within its S-Gerät. The text halts, in the middle of a song composed by Slothrop's ancestor, with a complete obliteration of narrative as the 00000 lands (or is about to land) on a cinema.