- Slow Learner by Thomas Pynchon
Cape, 204 pp, £8.50, January 1985, ISBN 0 224 02283 0
With V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) to his credit so far, Thomas Pynchon, American of no known address, is possibly the most accomplished writer of prose in English since James Joyce. This is not to say that he is also the best novelist, whatever that would mean, but that sentence by sentence he can do more than any novelist of this century with the resources of the English-American language and with the various media by which it is made available to us, everything from coterie slangs to technological jargons, from film to economic history, from comic books to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, from the Baedeker to the Bible. The works of other novelists may prove, as the phrase would have it, more humanly satisfying than his, but Pynchon chooses to use his immense talents as a writer and encyclopedist to show why he cannot offer satisfactions of that kind. His jaunty complaints in the Introduction that the stories in Slow Learner fail to provide full, lifelike characters are for this reason alone so curious and irrelevant as to suggest either that he is kidding – and I am afraid he isn’t – or that he is tired. I do not mean that in his fiction he is anti-humanist, but that what he finds of the human, when embodied or inscribed in language, is shown to be mostly grotesque, as names like Pig Bodine or Pierce Inverarity or Tantivy Mucker-Maffick or Scorpia Mossmoon will suggest, and that what he cherishes about human beings is scarcely discernible, except in those extraordinarily poignant catalogues of waste in which his writing abounds. In that respect he resembles Mucho Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, who stopped being a used-car salesman because ‘he had believed in the cars. Maybe to excess.’
how could he not, seeing people poorer than him come in, Negro, Mexican, cracker, a parade seven days a week, bringing the most godawful of trade-ins: motorised, metal extensions of themselves, of their families and what their whole lives must be like, out there so naked for anybody, a stranger like himself, to look at, frame cockeyed, rusty underneath, fender repainted in a shade just off enough to depress the value, if not Mucho himself, inside smelling hopelessly of children, supermarket booze, two, sometimes three generations of cigarette smokers, or only of dust – and when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residue of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused (when so little he supposed came by that out of fear most of it had to be taken and kept) and what had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost: clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10c, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the markets, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a gray dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes – it made him sick to look, but he had to look ... Even if enough exposure to the unvarying gray sickness had somehow managed to immunise him, he could still never accept the way each owner, each shadow, filed in only to exchange a dented, malfunctioning version of himself for another, just as futureless, automotive projection of somebody else’s life.
Evidences of what in the Introduction he likes to call ‘human reality’ are, in his fiction, merely residual, scattered, and unavailable for any kind of consistent embodiment. He is therefore best thought of as a parodist of structure and of structuring, including his own. The most consistently reassuring evidence of the human in his writing is the writing itself, the energies of attachment and repulsion at work in his transitions from one subject or one idiom to another, the supple and unintimidated way in which he opens himself up to every aspect of contemporary existence. He revels in schemes, codes, systems that delight his interpreters; he is endlessly full of meaning. But it is meaning with a vengeance, while his sincerities reach out tentatively toward the unarticulated human life that, like the city dumps which hold so much of it, exists on the outskirts.
In his Introduction he is anxious not to make large claims for these early stories, dating from 1959, when he was 22, to 1964, and he indicates that, for him, The Crying of Lot 49 is not a novel, though it was published as one, but a story ‘in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up to then’. Why such essentially vain self-criticism? And if Pynchon really does feel so deprecatory, if the collection is therefore of mostly historical value, then by what critical scruple did he choose to omit the only other story he has published, ‘Mortality and Mercy in Vienna’ (Epoch, Spring 1959), which is as good as all but two of the others, and why did he not include his one essay up to the publication of this book, ‘A Journey into the Mind of Watts’ (1966)? Had these been included, we would have had a far more useful collection of all his shorter pieces.
But Pynchon does not want anyone to think that his volume in any way sufficiently represents him. Instead he suggests again and again, even by means of the title, that he has since learned to do things in an importantly different way. Unquestionably he became far more ambitious, just as The Waste Land is more ambitious than, say, ‘La Figlia che Piange’. And yet Eliot’s earlier poem is an embryonic version of the later one, and these stories have a similar relation to V. or to Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon wants to disguise this fact from himself and from us, as if to confirm that what he finds wanting in the stories, such as fullness of character and ‘human reality’, is supplied by the novels. In fact, they are not to be found in the novels either, and are not meant to be.