- 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.
Pynchon is especially severe on a story called ‘Entropy’, one of the long-time favourites of those who like to suppose that his meanings can be pinned down if only readers will bone up on such things as thermodynamics – a subject about which Pynchon, while majoring in English at Cornell, learned something in his courses on engineering physics. It is a story in which Meatball Mulligan is giving a frantic and exhausting three-day lease-breaking party on one level of an apartment, while upstairs Callisto and his girlfriend Aubade lie around, immobilised, thinking about the Laws of Thermodynamics, Henry Adams, heat death, and the imminent decline of all energy. It is a mostly charming, sometimes tiresome showoff piece, but the way it is laid out offers, as does the apartment itself, a neat diagram of how in the novels Pynchon apportions things on a more massive and complicated scale. It divides itself between torpor and pranks, between inertia and the wild projection of elaborate and possibly insane schemes, each feeding on the other but with all of it ultimately deadening. The story appeared in 1960 in Kenyon Review, where Robert Lowell would very likely have seen it, and where he would, I suspect, have found the penultimate line of his poem ‘The Flaw’, addressed to a woman lying beside him: ‘Dear Figure curving like a question mark’. Callisto’s girlfriend ‘lay like a tawny question mark facing him’.
In any case, Pynchon now warns us not ‘to underestimate the shallowness of my understanding of entropy’, or of those scientists the story associates with it – Willard Gibbs, Rudolf Clausius and Norbert Weiner. But no one who listens to the way these matters are talked about by Callisto would ever have seriously cared how much Pynchon knew about them or didn’t know. As offered up by Pynchon, the theory is evidence of a kind of pretentiousness on the part of pre-adult university graduates heavily sedated with classroom versions of literary Modernism and its by then fashionable excruciations. Pynchon chooses in the Introduction to confuse himself with his characters when he remarks: ‘Given my undergraduate mood, Adams’s sense of power out of control, coupled with Weiner’s spectacle of universal heat-death and mathematical stillness, seemed just the ticket. But the distance and grandiosity of this led me to short change the humans in the story.’ What ‘humans’ can he be talking about? Their absence, their ‘short changing’ of themselves, is precisely the point of the story. To complain about it is to miss the point.
He has a similar caveat about the first story he wrote, ‘A Small Rain’, published in 1959. There he introduces army specialist third class Nathan ‘Lardass’ Levine lying in his bunk in Fort Roach, Louisiana. Like Callisto in ‘Entropy’, Levine is ‘drowsy’, ‘motionless’, ‘inert’. He is then moved as part of his unit to a college campus, the staging area for an operation in a nearby town all of whose inhabitants have been killed in a hurricane. The account of his surreptitious entry into the town is the best part of the story, filled with portents of apocalypse. Images of stasis and death are again juxtaposed with cut-up behaviour, especially on campus, and in the middle of it all is a scene of flaccid love-making between Levine and a co-ed: ‘ “In the midst of great death,” Levine said, “the little death.” And later “Ha. It sounds like a caption in Life. In the midst of Life. We are in death. Oh god.” ’
Pynchon once again misreads his own story, claiming that ‘apparently I felt I had to put on a whole extra overlay of rain images and references to The Waste Land and A Farewell to Arms. I was operating on the motto “Make it literary,” a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.’ But even in the brief passage I’ve just quoted from the story it is obvious that it is not Pynchon but Levine who is ‘literary’ – he is said to have the highest IQ in the battalion – and that even he recognises how much he thereby loses of direct human feeling and experience. The story effectively satirises its own literariness. It makes no sense to suggest that ‘I failed to recognise just for openers that the main character’s problem was real and interesting enough to generate a story on its own,’ since that is exactly what he does recognise.
It is equally wrong to say, as he does of another story, ‘Low-lands’, that its hero, a man named Flange, ‘wants children – why it isn’t clear – but not at the price of developing any real life shared with an adult woman. His solution to this is Nerissa, a woman with the size and demeanour of a child.’ Pynchon seems compelled retrospectively to imagine alternatives which were never available to the characters in the first place and which are, besides, when compared with the dire cultural situations in which he originally put them, irrelevantly platitudinous. Flange nowhere expresses a desire to have children, and his taste for child-women is one shared by any number of Pynchon’s males throughout his novels, which are heavily populated with barely pubescent bed partners. With the possible exception of Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake (‘a young rosy girl in an ATS uniform’) in the wartime London of Gravity’s Rainbow – Pynchon does not find a place in his fiction for any such ‘real-life’ sharing or ‘adulthood’.
If Pynchon is deciding that he ought to be more like E.M. Forster, to whom he makes a number of justly admiring allusions in Gravity’s Rainbow, he will discover that he is probably only trying to avoid the rather bleaker implications of his much stronger affinity with Beckett, Borges and Burroughs. ‘Only connect,’ said Forster, who showed how difficult it was to do so. Everyone should want to ‘connect’: but though there are hints that Pynchon subscribes to the epigraph to section one of Gravity’s Rainbow, which quotes Wernher von Braun to the effect that ‘Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation’ – so that we’ll all be connected some time anyway – Pynchon does seem to long for something closer to home, for what are popularly called fulfilling human relationships. And yet, in the world projected by his fiction, ‘connections’ are mostly disastrous, the results of an excess of paranoia to which there is no good alternative. ‘There is something comforting – religious, if you want – about paranoia,’ remarks Tyrone Slothrop, hero of Gravity’s Rainbow, when he thinks he is losing his mind, and ‘there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.’
The distance Pynchon has travelled from the Modernism of Eliot, with its Classical and religiously orthodox tendencies, can be measured by comparing his paranoidal alternatives to the confident – and smug – distinction made by Eliot between the poet and the ordinary man, allowing for the possibility that someone may be both at once. ‘The ordinary man,’ he tells us, ‘falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.’ The point where Anglo-American Modernism breaks away from the Post-Modernism of someone like Pynchon is located exactly here: where amalgamations or the formation of ‘new wholes’ become in themselves the likely evidence either of chaos compounded or of systematic repression.
This is more or less the subject of the two most impressive stories in the collection, ‘Under the Rose’ (1961) and ‘The Secret Integration’, which appeared in 1964, the year after the publication of V. ‘Under the Rose’ is set in Egypt during the Fashoda Crisis of 1898 and has at its centre two British agents, Porpentine and Goodfellow, three German spies, Moldweorp, Lepsius and Bongo-Shaftsbury, and a girl named Victoria Wren, a prefiguration of the object of the quest of V., where ‘Under the Rose’ was to appear, in greatly revised form, as Chapter Three. Here, as in the other stories, Pynchon presupposes a condition of imminent crisis or blankness which excites in his characters all sorts of fun and games – ‘apocalypse’, in Porpentine’s phrase, ‘as an excuse for a glorious beano’. But the rules of play are breached by Porpentine’s gradual discovery that he cannot so surrender to the idea of the inevitable Final Clash as to stop feeling for the suffering of others. Even though he recognises that what he does can make no difference to the approaching Armageddon, he finds that his actions do matter to him. He begins to worry about the mistreatment by his competitors of a little girl on a train and of a whore whom he had seen Moldweorp slash with his cane one night in Rome. He is followed into the desert and shot by Moldweorp, and thinks, before he dies, that ‘he’d crossed some threshold without knowing. Mongrel now, no longer pure ... Mongrel, he supposed, is only another way of saying human.’
Pynchon is not satisfied with the story, though he likes it more than the others, and for reasons that by now, in the Introduction, have become nagging and tiresome. ‘The problem here,’ he writes, ‘is like the problem with “Entropy”: beginning with something abstract – a thermodynamic coinage or the data in a guidebook – and only then going on to try to develop plot and character. This is simply, as we say in the profession, ass backwards. Without some grounding in human reality, you are apt to be left with another apprentice exercise, which is what this uncomfortably resembles.’ Perhaps by ‘profession’ he means the oldest one in the world, because what is actually ass-backwards is his reading of his own story. Porpentine’s whole career testifies to the insolubility, in such a world as his author allows, of the problem Pynchon wants in retrospect to have solved ahead of time. Before Porpentine’s death, the one thing that ‘made him, he believed, more human’ was ‘skylarking’ – yet another form of Pynchon’s pranksterism.
When Pynchon folded ‘Under the Rose’ into the novel, he dropped some of the characters, including Moldweorp, and added a few others, but, more important, he substantially altered the mode of presentation. He wanted, it seems to me, to give the episode an enhanced political-human dimension. For one thing, he transformed what can be called his data bank for the story – Karl Baedeker’s guide to Egypt for 1899 – into an instrument of cultural imperialism, a kind of grid which precedes the observer and determines what he will see and what he will not see. For another, instead of confining the point of view to Porpentine, the novel gives it to seven different figures. Three of these are Egyptian working-class people, the others are of various nationalities, but each is relatively anonymous and poor. None is given a place in the main plot, but all are allowed extensive musings on their daily lives, their loved ones, especially their children. Thus in the story Porpentine reports on climbing a tree so as to look into the hotel room where Victoria and Goodfellow are lying in bed: in the novel, however, this is changed so that Porpentine is himself the object of the half-amused, half-contemptuous scrutiny of a Syrian acrobatic burglar named Girgis who is crouching in the bushes outside Shepherd’s Hotel. He thinks Porpentine is no more than ‘another comic acrobat’ trying unsuccessfully to break into the hotel, as he himself intends to do. Instead of a view de haut en bas we get, so to speak, a social and geographic view de bas en haut. By this process of distributing points of view to those outside ‘Baedeker land’ and its mentality, Pynchon is trying to find a conspicuous place in his writing for what he calls ‘human reality’, while leaving pretty much intact, because oblivious, the absurd behaviour of an imperialist European haut monde.
A similar juxtaposition of cultural forces is at work in ‘Journey into the Mind of Watts’, where, as against the ‘basic realities’, the ‘bitter realities’, of the black ghetto, Pynchon describes white Los Angeles as ‘that creepy world full of pre-cardiac Mustang drivers who scream insults at one another only when the windows are up; of large corporations where Nice-guyship is the standing order regardless of whose executive back one may be endeavouring to stab; and of an enormous priest caste of shrinks who counsel moderation and compromise as the answer to all forms of hassle; among so much well-behaved unreality, it is next to impossible to understand how Watts may truly feel about violence.’ The ‘human reality’ of Watts is under what he calls ‘a siege of persuasion’, of Baedeker mentality now projected by a vastly more powerful technology than existed at the turn of the century in Egypt – ‘the attempt to transmogrify the reality of Watts into the unreality of Los Angeles’.
He is inevitably drawn to such devastating cultural situations as these, and his notion that they allow for the representation of ‘human reality’ in any central or effective way is so obtuse as to sound like a concession to what in the Watts piece he mockingly calls ‘the humanitarian establishment’. Baedeker world is now everywhere, and, as suggested by the title of the most affecting story in this collection, the only possible integration into the world of the people excluded from it is, perforce, ‘The Secret Integration’. The recalcitrant faction here is the Spartacus Gang, a bunch of middle-class pre-teen boys in New England’s Berkshire County. Their pranks and practical jokes are directed at ‘hated institutions’ like the school or the paper mill, and their ‘patron saint’ is one Crazy Sue Denham, ‘that legendary and beautiful drifter who last century had roamed all this hilltop country exchanging babies and setting fires’. Essentially, the gang is opposed to the parental, grown-up world, as represented by the Parent Teacher’s Association, but the boys all know that ‘the reality would turn out to be considerably less than the plot’ (as it customarily does in Pynchon), ‘that something inert and invisible, something they could not be cruel to or betray (though who would have gone so far as to call it love?), would always be between them and any clear or irreversible step.’ They know, that is, the security of warm beds and home.
It’s Tom Sawyer time. But the story gradually turns into something closer to Huck Finn and his never resolved dilemma about Nigger Jim, with whom he could be loving and free only on the raft. One member of the gang is a black kid named Carl, child of the only black family in the neighbourhood. Some of the children have overheard their parents making anonymous and threatening phone calls to this family, but Pynchon very effectively does not register their reactions one way or another. The children take it in their stride, increasing the suspense over what the reader by now expects will be an inevitable conflict of loyalties. The crisis seems to occur near the end of the story, when the boys come upon heaps of garbage dumped on the black family’s lawn. Among the orange peel and stubs of cigars – described in another of Pynchon’s wonderful catalogues of the waste of ordinary lives – each child recognises ‘the shadow-half of his family’s life for all the week preceding’. In the face of such intimidating evidence and of the choices it demands, it is then revealed, however, that of course Carl does not exist at all except as a fantasy. ‘He was what grown-ups, if they’d known, would have called, an “imaginary playmate” ’: ‘He was entirely theirs, their friend and robot, to cherish, buy undrunk sodas for, or send into danger, or even, as now, at last, to banish from their sight.’ The white boys then ‘rollicked off into the night’s rain’ by themselves, like Porpentine, who felt that ‘a bit of skylarking ... made him more human.’ They go home to ‘a good night kiss, and dreams that could never again be entirely safe’.
Whenever a character in Pynchon even so much as promises to embody or enact the excluded ‘human’ he is just as quickly made to dissolve. This is the representative destiny of Slothrop, who, in the last section of Gravity’s Rainbow, is simply ‘scattered’. ‘It is doubtful he will ever be “found” again,’ Pynchon reports, dropping into Army lingo, ‘in the sense of “positively identified and detained”.’ This happens just after he is seen at a crossroads in the Zone – a version of occupied Germany – ‘crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural’, as he looks upon a rainbow, ‘driven down out of pubic clouds into Earth, green wet valleyed Earth’.
I suspect that Pynchon’s own efforts as a person to remain outside any of the networks of American literary-cultural life is further evidence of his conviction that to let yourself be humanly ‘known’ or identified is just as quickly to be appropriated and dehumanised by the System, made part of some vast effort by which contemporary institutions and contemporary media sort and ‘understand’ people so as to destroy any fragments of resistant life and reality. In the face of accumulating renown he has gone to ever greater lengths to remain unknown and unknowable, unclassifiable as a person.
His whereabouts at any given time are revealed only to a very few associates; he has granted no interviews and revealed nothing about his personal life, though he hints in the Introduction that he has by now had some ‘direct experience with marriage and parenting’. There’s no way to confirm this, or even to know what he means by it. His dossier at Cornell, from which he graduated in 1959 ‘with distinction in all subjects’, notably English literature and physics, has mysteriously vanished; his Service records in the United States Navy during two years taken off from the university, 1955-1957, were destroyed in a fire. For several months after graduation he helped prepare technical documents for Boeing aircraft in Seattle, Washington, but fellow workers report that he often did his work in a cocoon he built round his desk with huge sheets of paper: he was a sort of aerospace Bartleby, as one commentator puts it. Where his photograph should appear in the Cornell Freshmen Register there is a blank square; and one of the two available photographs (the other is from the Navy) is in the Year Book of Oyster Bay High School on Long Island, whose principal has been asked by Pynchon not to discuss his time there. By contrast, the reclusive Salinger has given traces abundant enough to let Ian Hamilton plan a biography; and while Hawthorne, who had troubles with Pynchon’s Calvinist ancestors for his characterisation in The House of the Seven Gables of Judge Pyncheon, is famously credited with 12 years of deep isolation in his family home in Salem, he in fact saw a good number of people who reported on his activities, he took several recorded trips, and was missing from the public eye only because the public eye at that time had little reason to look for him. The unique degree of Pynchon’s withdrawal from public scrutiny can be read as a refusal to surrender himself to forms of cultural power wherein knowledge of human life has become, in his view, inseparable from the effort to warp and control it, to reduce it to those compulsive plot-makings of which he is himself a master and a parodist.