Slow Learner: Early Stories by Thomas Pynchon - review by Derek Mahon

Derek Mahon

Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Stay

Slow Learner: Early Stories


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Among contemporary American writers, Pynchon is the chief practitioner of what Gore Vidal calls the R&D Novel, as distinguished from the R&R Novel. (For those unfamiliar with this sort of terminology, I should explain that R&D is corporate shorthand for Research and Development, R&R Bilko-ese for Rest and Recreation. Vidal takes, or took, a stern line with R&D; yet, interestingly, his own Duluth itself raised R&R to the power of R&D.) Born in 1937, Pynchon studied under Nabokov at Cornell, worked briefly for Boeing and, in 1963, published his first book, V., a demented comic-strip novel picked out by a stoned woodpecker on an electric typewriter too fast for him. The Crying of Lot 49, an ‘irrealist’ Californian quest-thriller with metaphysical overtones, followed in 1966, and the immense Gravity’s Rainbow (887 pages in the Bantam edition) in 1973. This last, though legendary, is largely unreadable except for its beautiful title and certain passages like the extraordinary Advent Meditation. I know two or three people who’ve got to the end of it, but most call it quits after a couple of hundred pages. The story of an American lieutenant stationed in London during the Second World War, whose erections anticipate German rocket launchings, it is long enough to repel all but the most determined readers; and, as an admirer of the enchanting Lot 49, I was pretty determined.

The trouble seems to be that we are not asked to read this author, reading being a thing of the past. We are asked to decode him, which means not only that we must know our Henry Adams, Rilke and Borges (which we probably do); we must know, too, about electronics and thermodynamics, Puritan theology and American radio shows of the 1940s (which we probably don’t). As so often with R&D writers, we need to have read what he’s read, and it helps to know something about him before we begin – for instance, that the Pynchons were pro-British in 1776; that Pynchon’s father, a stockbroker, went bust in 1929; that Pynchon was ‘ashamed of his teeth’ and submitted to expensive dentistry at one point (choppers are important in V.). In other words he’s the kind of writer for whom we require a guide (Tony Tanner fills this role admirably in the Methuen Contemporary Writers Series); being opaque, he is eminently teachable (though not himself an academic); and your criticisms are preempted by the work itself, which doesn’t claim to be ‘literature’ in any conventional sense.

Pynchon started as (and may remain) a Sixties writer. His early stories appeared in magazines between 1959 and 1964; and here they are, minus ‘Mortality and Mercy in Vienna’, published in the Cornell magazine Epoch and now, it seems, considered unworthy. There are five stories, all substantial, with a disarming introduction by the author:

It is only fair to warn even the most kindly disposed of readers that there are some mighty tiresome passages here, juvenile and delinquent too. At the same time, my best hope is that, pretentious, goofy and ill-considered as they get now and then, these stories will still be of use with all their flaws intact, as illustrative of typical problems in entry-level fiction, and cautionary about some practices which younger readers might prefer to avoid. In other words, this is how not to do it, boys and girls. But Pynchon, of course, is selling himself short; of the five stories, two are pretty good and the other three at least readable. Not bad for a goofy delinquent.

We start with ‘The Small Rain’, first published in the Cornell Writer, March 1959. Nathan Levine, a college graduate, has found peace as a GI. He’s stationed at Fort Roach, a dismal spot in Louisiana where he spends most of his time sleeping or reading low fiction like Swamp Wench; he’s at home in the coarse barrack-room ambience where he needn’t think or feel anything of consequence. Then a hurricane hits the bayou country and Levine is forced to look upon life and death. Hitherto he has lived in ‘a closed circuit, everybody on the same frequency’. Now, animated by disaster, he picks up a girl, ‘Little Buttercup’, who becomes his ‘swamp wench’ for a night, but it’s a sorry business: ‘In the midst of great death, the little death … It sounds like a caption in Life. In the midst of Life we are in death. Oh God.’ He goes back to sleep, listening to rain on the roof. The story is marred, towards the end, by an explicit allusion to The Waste Land: ‘Make it literary’, says Pynchon, ‘is a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took’. Aside from that, it seems to me entirely successful; and the title, echoing a well-known medieval folk lyric, underlines a cultural nostalgia implicit in the story, giving it a larger meaning.

The three not-so-hot items are ‘Low-Lands’, ‘Entropy’ and ‘Under the Rose’. In ‘Low-Lands’ a middle-class drop-out meets a gipsy girl on a rubbish dump and goes to live with her in an underground tunnel: the story is formulaic and overburdened with obvious symbolism. ‘Entropy’, though livelier, suffers from what Pynchon calls ‘a procedural error’: it derives from an abstract idea, to which characters and events are then made to conform. As it happens, the idea (entropy, a scientific term adopted by literature in the 1960s, means, very broadly, the tendency for everything to run down) is central to Pynchon’s novels, and its first appearance therefore of interest; but the story qua story (a bottle party degenerates into chaos, while upstairs a pet bird dies) is certainly ‘pretentious, goofy and ill-considered’. ‘Under the Rose’, later subsumed in V., is a Buchanesque tale of espionage set in Anglo-Egypt – Pynchon at his least interesting.

The last of these stories, ‘The Secret Integration’, is also the best. Set in ‘Mingeborough’, Mass, home of Gravity’s heatseeking Lieut Slothrop, it concerns a gang of high-school boys who, resentful of adult authority, play anarchic fantasy games involving the destruction of the town. One of their number is black. His parents, newly arrived in Mingeborough, are harassed by the local whites, who finally dump garbage on their lawn. Kicking through the garbage for clues, the boys find that most of it comes from their own homes. We learn that the black boy was only ‘an imaginary playmate’, and the others go home to ‘dreams that could never again be entirely safe’. For a wised-up character like Pynchon, there’s something oddly twee about this conclusion, as he seems to realise: ‘Maybe this small attachment to my past is only another case of what Frank Zappa calls a bunch of old guys sitting around playing rock ‘n’ roll. But as we all know, rock ‘n’ roll will never die, and education too, as Henry Adams always sez, keeps going on forever.’


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