Lydia Davis on Thomas Pynchon

A rather appealing specimen of early Pynchon is the last story in his collection Slow Learner. The story, “The Secret Integration”—first published in the Saturday Evening Post more than forty years ago (three years after V. appeared)—involves a gang of young practical jokers and a rich childhood setting of an old town with a new development, a sprawling estate with a derelict mansion, and a downtown, complete with seedy hotel. In one deftly described scene, the boys coast on their bikes down a long hill in the early evening toward the hotel, “leaving behind two pages of arithmetic homework and a chapter of science” and, on the TV, “a lousy movie, some romantic comedy.” Because all the televisions in town receive only one channel, the boys, as they fly by, are able to follow the movie’s progress from house to house, through doors and windows “still open for the dark’s first coolness.”

In his introduction to Slow Learner, Pynchon, who somewhat preempts our reactions to the story, remarks that he likes it more than he dislikes it. In fact it is so likable that one envies the boys their comfortable society and the fields, streams, and town of their games. Their collaboration and apportioning of assignments is charming (to develop an arsenal for sabotaging the railroad; to enlist malcontent first-graders to destroy the boys’ latrine; to infiltrate PTA meetings); the elaborateness of their schemes, and the number that succeed, is impressive; and the animation of the central character, Grover the boy genius—with his enormous vocabulary, fund of information, and flights of hilarity—is particularly savory. The pranks the boys plan are potentially devastating to the community, yet, as Pynchon says in a lovely bit of writing, the boys would never actually take “any clear or irreversible step,” because “everybody on the school board, and the railroad, and the PTA and paper mill had to be somebody’s mother or father, whether really or as a member of a category; and there was a point at which the reflex to their covering warmth, protection, effectiveness against bad dreams, bruised heads and simple loneliness took over and made worthwhile anger with them impossible.”

There is a lyrical humanity in this story, an almost unapologetic gentleness, inviting and inclusive, that contrasts with the weightier, complex pessimism and bravura of Pynchon’s later works, in which perhaps it is more difficult for the characters to go home and be comforted at the end of the day.

From the Summer 2005 issue of Bookforum.

Slow Learner (Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow)

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From page 641 of Gravity’s Rainbow. More hidden future-titles.

Read “Entropy,” a short story by Thomas Pynchon

“Entropy”

by

Thomas Pynchon

Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere…. We must get into step, a lockstep toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change. – Tropic of Cancer

Downstairs, Meatball Mulligan’s lease-breaking party was moving into its 40th hour. On the kitchen floor, amid a litter of empty champagne fifths, were Sandor Rojas and three friends, playing spit in the ocean and staying awake on Heidseck and benzedrine pills. In the living room Duke, Vincent, Krinkles and Paco sat crouched over a 15-inch speaker which had been bolted into the top of a wastepaper basket, listening to 27 watts’ worth of The Heroes’ Gate at Kiev. They all wore hornrimmed sunglasses and rapt expressions, and smoked funny-looking cigarettes which contained not, as you might expect, tobacco, but an adulterated form of cannabis sativa. This group was the Duke di Angelis quartet. They recorded for a local label called Tambú and had to their credit one 10″ LP entitled Songs of Outer Space. From time to time one of them would flick the ashes from his cigarette into the speaker cone to watch them dance around. Meatball himself was sleeping over by the window, holding an empty magnum to his chest as if it were a teddy bear. Several government girls, who worked for people like the State Department and NSA, had passed out on couches, chairs and in one case the bathroom sink.

This was in early February of’57 and back then there were a lot of American expatriates around Washington, D.C., who would talk, every time they met you, about how someday they were going to go over to Europe for real but right now it seemed they were working for the government. Everyone saw a fine irony in this. They would stage, for instance, polyglot parties where the newcomer was sort of ignored if he couldn’t carry on simultaneous conversations in three or four languages. They would haunt Armenian delicatessens for weeks at a stretch and invite you over for bulghour and lamb in tiny kitchens whose walls were covered with bullfight posters. They would have affairs with sultry girls from Andalucía or the Midi who studied economics at Georgetown. Their Dôme was a collegiate Rathskeller out Wisconsin Avenue called the Old Heidelberg and they had to settle for cherry blossoms instead of lime trees when spring came, but in its lethargic way their life provided, as they said, kicks.

At the moment, Meatball’s party seemed to be gathering its second wind. Outside there was rain. Rain splatted against the tar paper on the roof and was fractured into a fine spray off the noses, eyebrows and lips of wooden gargoyles under the eaves, and ran like drool down the windowpanes. The day before, it had snowed and the day before that there had been winds of gale force and before that the sun had made the city glitter bright as April, though the calendar read early February. It is a curious season in Washington, this false spring. Somewhere in it are Lincoln’s Birthday and the Chinese New Year, and a forlornness in the streets because cherry blossoms are weeks away still and, as Sarah Vaughan has put it, spring will be a little late this year. Generally crowds like the one which would gather in the Old Heidelberg on weekday afternoons to drink Würtzburger and to sing Lili Marlene (not to mention The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi) are inevitably and incorrigibly Romantic. And as every good Romantic knows, the soul (spiritus, ruach, pneuma) is nothing, substantially, but air; it is only natural that warpings in the atmosphere should be recapitulated in those who breathe it. So that over and above the public components—holidays, tourist attractions—there are private meanderings, linked to the climate as if this spell were a stretto passage in the year’s fugue: haphazard weather, aimless loves, unpredicted commitments: months one can easily spend in fugue*, because oddly enough, later on winds, rains, passions of February and March are never remembered in that city, it is as if they had never been.

Read the rest of “Entropy” online here—alongside a Spanish translation and explanatory notes—or read it in the collection of early Pynchon shorties Slow Learner.