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

Derek Mahon

Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Stay

Slow Learner: Early Stories


(Cape 193 pp £7.95)

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

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