Avathoir: Welcome back to our continuing read through of the works of Thomas Ruggles Pynchon! We’re terribly sorry for how long this has taken but we promise that it’s going to be going much faster now that I have less obligations getting in the way. Where we last left off we had gotten into some pretty heavy stuff with his first novel, but we in many ways should have started here: Slow Learner collects his apprentice work (five short stories), which include a few characters that would show up in different forms later on, including two stories remarkably similar to chapters of V. a few years later. I have to admit that while I love short fiction, I have a bit of skepticism regarding what we might call “the Early Years” many writers put out after the fact. Usually they come out when the author has published at least their first novel, and includes short stories they may have published earlier or didn’t get published that they can’t let go of (Delicate Edible Birds, Lauren Groff’s short fiction collection, is a key example of this, having at least four stories that were not published she nonetheless put in there and they’re the weakest of the book). Similarly, when early stories have been found by authors and published later, they feel to me unfair to the writer, that they represent when they were still finding their talents and as such should be judged at the very least on a curve if read at all.
So I think we’ve got a difficulty with this book, at least from my perspective. At least one of these stories appeared in the Cornell student literary magazine rather than a more prestigious one, and that these stories are work that Pynchon by his own introduction admits that he doesn’t really like very much (I agree with this assessment with the exception of one, which will get to in a bit). It’s not a book he seems to have deliberately wanted to publish: it came out during the 17 year dry spell between Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland, and must have surely seemed disappointing. Outside of the lengthy intro (which we will talk about in a little bit if you just keep scrolling down, faithful readers), do you think there’s a case for these stories to be considered as part of Pynchon’s oeuvre, wallflower? Or are they too minor and juvenilia that can’t be thought of like his masterpieces?
wallflower: With one exception, I wouldn’t consider these stories good, but they’re definitely Pynchonian and worth reading. (He didn’t include his first published story, “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna,” which is even worse and more pretentious than the title suggests. By “pretentious,” I mean pretending to rewrite The Waste Land as a short story.) I don’t know anyone, including me, who thinks Public Enemies is a good film but it’s still a Michael Mann film, and there’s still stuff in there that no one else would do, good and bad. So it is with these stories; if you’re into Pynchon, it’s worth taking the small amount of time to go through these. (It’s particularly fascinating to see how “Under the Rose” gets transformed from a nearly straightforward action/espionage story into a perspective-shifting chapter of V.) If you’re not into Pynchon or just starting with him, there’s worthwhile stuff here and we’ll try and pick it out for you.
Rereading these stories, I was thinking of the Secret Sauce you mentioned in our discussion of V., “that thing that makes an artist singular.” Pynchon’s unique voice was there at the beginning, and you hear it most clearly in “Entropy.” There are enough flashes of good here to make it worth reading even if his self-criticism is dead-on: “The lesson is sad, as Dion always sez, but true: get too conceptual, too cute and remote, and your characters die on the page.” “Entropy” has the split narrative of V., alternating between the Beat life of the 1950s (here, a “lease-breaking” party in Washington, D.C.) and a very Herbert Stencil-like character, Callisto, meditating on entropy and the heat death of the universe in the apartment upstairs from the party. Here, Pynchon is entirely too schematic and, William Vollmann-style, wants to make absolutely sure we know everything he’s read–Callisto openly cites Henry Adams, Gibbs, Boltzmann, Stravinsky–both charges you could make against V.
Quick digression: at least in V. he would do the work of actually reading his references. In one of the funniest moments in the Introduction to Slow Learner, Pynchon recalls writing “Entropy”:
In the character of Callisto I was trying for a sort of world-weary Middle-European effect and put in the phrase grippe espagnole, which I had seen on some liner notes to a recording of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat. I must have thought this was some kind of post-World War I spiritual malaise or something. Come to find out it means what it says, Spanish influenza, and the reference I lifted was really to the worldwide flu epidemic that followed the war.
I sympathize, even if every reference I’ve ever made completely checks out shut up stop looking at me like that. With Pynchon, I suspect a lot of his exhaustive research for his novels came from trying to avoid this kind of mistake.
What works here, and what works in V. and would continue all through his career, is that voice of his, not fully present in the first story “The Small Rain.” (An Army story, this one feels like it could just as easily been written by John Updike or Philip Roth.) From this beginning, Pynchon has always been a wonderful describer–able to look at the everyday world and find its beauty, strangeness, and transcendence. Just the act of assembling a tequila sour comes out as something close to poetry in his text. He also started here extending the range of literary metaphors into science, something that would come to its full power in Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day. Callisto’s vision of a kind of social heat death, where every point has been saturated with the same amount of information, is a kind of clumsy use of the idea of entropy, and it may also be right. If he hadn’t yet found out how to make real character to match his interest in ideas, that’s not fatal at short-story length. “Entropy” makes a good Gateway to Pynchon, twenty pages or so that flowered into an entire career.
What were some of the things you noticed, good, bad, and Pynchonian? What would you recommend to our readers to seek out or avoid here?
Avathoir: First, though it’s been several years and the person in front of me literally had a stroke while I was in the theater watching it, Public Enemies is Good (are you sure you’re not thinking of The Keep?). Second, to answer your question I should probably talk about the one story here I had no reservations about “The Secret Integration”. This is the longest story in the collection at around fifty pages, and is in many ways the most normal thing he wrote. It’s a story of such singularity that he could have easily taken a very different pathway in his life based on it that I am intrigued, although not surprised, he didn’t end up doing.
I’ll recount the basic plot: a young kid (presumed to be around 8th grade) and his friends discover that the PTA is all up in arms about something, and become determined to spy on it, only to learn that it’s a huge debate over whether to integrate their school or not. It’s a pretty normal plot. You can imagine a lot of people writing it and all coming with a very similar story, but not Pynchon. For one, there’s the fact that our hero Tim has a truly bizarre collection of friends: A child genius who doesn’t speak to his father because of a foreign policy argument, a nine year old recovering alcoholic, and perhaps in the first moment of real poignancy in his career, the only black child in the neighborhood, who early in the story he walks in on his mother making a harassing racist phone call too. I mean, a child genius is a normal character precocious writers work into their stories (gee I wonder why that is) but a child alcoholic? One who got hooked on beer when he was EIGHT and is now an AA spokesman? That’s such a wonderfully bizarre little detail that you feel more charmed by it even though it’s a little bit annoying. I wonder if Rian Johnson read this at any point when he was dreaming up Brick.
But I digress: The thing that makes this story Pynchonian is that it’s the only story (“Entropy” comes close, but it doesn’t quite succeed in my opinion) that is able to create the Boschian tapestry that Pynchon clearly wants to do. I mentioned the basic plot, but there’s also breaking into a hotel and an argument about how to kill warts, among countless other things I’m surely forgetting. At the same time there’s the same tenderness as in Sphere going to meet his lover and Fausto’s romance in V. in the sheer empathy he writes Carl with. There’s no Dignified Minority Child here, he’s just writing about a kid who feels bad for another kid.
Which I suppose with the talk about youth means we should examine the real reason that I think we have this story collection in our sights: The introductory essay, one of only two things (the other being his introduction to his late friend Richard Fariña’s novel Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me) that Pynchon has written about his life in explicit detail and with no masks. While the Fariña essay is fundamentally about how much he misses a person who was a dear friend to him and how this friend’s death affected him, this is much more of Pynchon it seems apologizing to us: forgive me for giving you these stories, he seems to be saying. I give them to you because I’m not finished with my real books but also because this is how I can make you understand me.
Pynchon, like almost no modern authors, cultivates an aura of mystery, the kind that only recluses and people who get famous after they die have: we fundamentally do not get to know these authors, because they are at a remove from the concept of being known. While I cannot begrudge Pynchon this, the essay here I find endlessly frustrating. We learn about what he likes, hints at his process, and his apologies for these stories literary and moral failings, but this essay also seems to be an admonishment of who he used to be: it seems this essay, more than anything else, is a reveal of Pynchon saying that things are Going to Be Different when you hear from him again.
Am I reading too much into this, though? What do you think about the far too many things I’ve posited here?
wallflower: Honestly, I’m surprised at how much I agree with you–the one exception is that although I think you’re exactly right about what he’s saying in the Introduction, I find it inspiring rather than frustrating. (There’s a simple reason for my reaction, and I’ll get to that.) “The Secret Integration” is the longest, latest, and best story in this collection; it’s also the last short story he’s ever published. I like your description of “the most normal thing he ever wrote”; it’s as if he did an experiment, “what if I wrote something that could be published in The Saturday Evening Post?” (Fun fact: it was published in The Saturday Evening Post. I’m not sneering at all here–they were also publishing a lot of Joan Didion’s great early essays.) You could easily imagine Norman Rockwell painting scenes from this (and I wish he had, he was always a sneakier and more subversive artist than he gets credit for) and the story ends with an O. Henry-style twist that we will NOT give away.
Pynchon wrote and published this one after V. and he says of it “I was also beginning to shut up and listen to the American voices around me, even to shift my eyes away from printed sources and take a look at American nonverbal reality.” The characters feel like people he had to write about, like he’d met or heard of them and needed to imagine who they were, needed to give them a voice and a life and put them in fiction. Like you said, he’s doing here what he was attempting at least as far back as “Entropy”: describe a complex, vibrant world of bizarre but believable people, places, and things; it’s just that this feels like the first time he fully succeeded at it. It’s even better on this point than V.
What really makes this one land, what allows it to justify the whole collection, is Pynchon’s genuine concern for children, family, and community, his real sense of what it means to have friends. These kids love and support each other and it’s a source of hope against a world that has so much evil going on in it. (In almost the first scene, Tim’s mother is on the phone harassing Carl’s family.) He makes them real people, and finds real hope in them; he risks sentimentality and lands on something true and moving. By contrast, his treatment of children in Gravity’s Rainbow–well, probably the kindest thing I can say is “that shit is fucked. Up.” in a very loud voice.
In the Introduction, Pynchon sez (it’s his fault that I always write “says” that way) “there are parts of it I can’t believe I wrote. Sometime in the last couple of decades, some company of elves must have snuck in and had a crack at it.” Slow Learner was published in 1984, and here’s the thing: this was about the time he would have started writing Vineland (1990), my pick for the best thing he ever did. What characterizes Vineland and a lot of his post-Gravity’s Rainbow work is how much he pays attention to family. (With the possible exception of Mason & Dixon, everything from Vineland on is about one extended family.) The “They” that run the world are still there in the later books; the Systems are still there. (He’s much more willing to name both, too: capitalists and capitalism. This isn’t entirely a good thing.) Families, though, hold together throughout it and if they don’t always win, they still love each other through it, and that’s what counts. A few years back, commenter GaryX described exactly what post-1990 Pynchon is all about:
Yeah, the way I think of Pynchon, particularly after finishing Against the Day two days ago, is that he chronicles both the successful and failed connections, but post-Vineland he’s let some of the cynicism recede and recognize both are equally valid. There’s pain, happiness, and struggle in this life, and sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t. But if you could somehow step back and look at the whole picture, soar above it like the Chums of Chance and survey all the intersections at once without any concern for that tricky Δt, you’d see that the act of making the connection in the cruel and crazy world below is what matters and provides us with moments of escape from whatever indeterminate Forces might be out there beyond.
So the reason I don’t find the Introduction frustrating is simple: I read it after I read Vineland, and I felt like I’d found the secret origin of that masterwork and everything after. I think you’re right that Pynchon is saying things are Going to Be Different; he’s saying “I’m gonna try and get back to ‘The Secret Integration.’” I’m glad he did. (Also, I need to see The Keep one day.)
Avathoir: Well now I think you’ve given me a skeleton key here in a lot of ways. It’s well known how long he spent of Mason & Dixon but the realization that Vineland was a comparatively recent phenomenon for him makes a lot of things make much more sense. There is my personal sense that he’s beginning to let go of some his more pretentious tendencies as you go further into the collection, with “Integration” being the culmination of his career thus far. The only question now is what the influence of this story we’ll find in his work before 1990. Pynchon’s already elevated his standing significantly. I can’t wait for what’s next.
wallflower: Oh, Pynchon wasn’t ready to let go of those tendencies after “Integration,” and I’m glad he wasn’t–no one without that pretension could have attempted anything on the scale of Gravity’s Rainbow. All great artists need their flaws as much as their virtues, and it’s too our benefit that Slow Learner displays both.
Despite the way he’s let his public persona be defined by mystery (something Don deLillo contemplated in his novel Mao II), Pynchon is a more ordinary writer than that persona suggests; in terms of pages, his post-1990 output comes off as pretty much normal. I’m honestly encouraged by the way there’s a clear development in his career, by the he continues to develop aspects of his work and reject others. Slow Learner shows the source points of all of them: the use of scientific metaphors in “Entropy” that would lead to Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason and Dixon, and Against the Day; the love of family in “Integration” that would fully develop in Vineland and everything after; even his enjoyment of straight-up genre fiction in “Under the Rose” that’s come back for Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge. (Oh, and the repeated presence of all the incarnations of Pig Bodine, from his first appearance in “Low-lands” onward.) He’s crafted a remarkably unified body of work, and part of my enjoyment of Slow Learner comes from how it helps us see that.