The New York Times
15 April 1984
By Michael Wood
[Purchase PDF of review from NYT]
IT'S always an occasion when the invisible man comes to dinner.
Thomas Pynchon, like J. D. Salinger, is a writer who has been hiding away for years, and in ''Slow Learner'' he cautiously paints himself back into the public view. Indeed, he makes more of an appearance than he has ever done, since the volume not only collects five early works but offers an easygoing, seemingly vulnerable 20-page introduction by the vanishing author himself. Mr. Pynchon is hard on his old faults, and at first seems to find little virtue in what he calls his apprentice work. ''There are some mighty tiresome passages here,'' he warns. ''I was operating on the motto 'Make it literary,' a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.'' ''Do not,'' he adds later, ''underestimate the shallowness of my understanding.''
This introduction had me worried for a while. Was this man of such patient discretion about to crumble and cry, to spill his soul on the confessional page? It would be like the Scarlet Pimpernel having a breakdown. Why was Mr. Pynchon presenting these pieces if he didn't like them? But my worry soon subsided. There is no confession, only the reflections of a writer looking back over ground traveled, and a very engaging, informal history of an odd American time, the tag end of the 50's, too late for bop and beat, too early for the hippies. Faced with the obvious, growing power of ''The Secret Integration,'' the last of these stories, even Mr. Pynchon has to admit that ''I am pretty content with how it holds up,'' in fact ''there are parts of it I can't believe I wrote.'' Then, characteristically, diving for shelter even while he is on display, he asserts that ''The Crying of Lot 49'' (1966) was a ''story'' marketed as a ''novel,'' ''in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I'd learned up till then.''
It is true that ''The Crying of Lot 49,'' with its stark alternatives of paranoia and insight, seems an earlier, more schematic work than ''V.'' What happened, I think, was that Mr. Pynchon understood and then simplified the sprouting implications of ''V,'' which was a much more ambitious at tempt to situate Americans in history. ''V'' also has its schematic, preachy moments, but above all it offers a profusion of times and places - 1898, 1899, 1913, 1922, 1946, 1956, Egypt, Italy, Paris, South- West Africa, Malta, New York - all recreated with affectionate, but not solemn care and sympathetic invention. The book often has a wistful, belated air for this reason. ''I am the 20th century,'' a girl who has 72 pairs of Bermuda shorts says, reading her poem aloud, but then adds after a few jazzy lines, ''It's a phony college-girl poem. Things I've read for courses.''
In his introduction to ''Slow Learner'' Mr. Pynchon, who was born in 1937, says of his generation: ''There were no more primary choices for us to make. We were onlookers: the parade has gone by and we were already getting everything secondhand, consumers of what the media of the time were supplying us.'' It was the generation of students Lionel Trilling became very worried about; they were receiving Kafka's despair and Conrad's anguish as commodities, dished out in literature courses among other requirements.
What is admirable about Mr. Pynchon is that, knowing this, he doesn't give up or set out to become a lumberjack, searching for fabulous, untainted writerly experience. He writes with the resources that writers always have, but will not always use: memory, imagination, curiosity, access to accumulated funds of knowledge. This approach paid off particularly in ''Gravity's Rainbow'' (1973), where Mr. Pynchon impeccably describes details of life in wartime England - and speculates, amid a densely imagined postwar Europe, not on the personal quests and panics of his earlier novels, but on the possible master connections of modern history: the links between rocketry and Puritanism, for instance, or between language and death; between race and sex, and sex and class; between the anonymous cruelties of economics and the things we are now (but were not always) prepared to do to each other. He portrays, in Tony Tanner's phrase, ''the carnival of modern consciousness,'' the nightmare from which we are not likely to awake, and the novel ends with a rocket falling on the movie-house our civilization has become. We may quarrel with or fail to comprehend whole chunks of this difficult book, but there can be no doubt that it is here to stay, a major work whose local liveliness is such that its parts make us want to bet on the whole.
THE faults of his early stories are just what Mr. Pynchon says they are - ''bad habits, dumb theories,'' purple prose and a portentousness that crops up in all his writing. What he doesn't talk about, although it is a perfect answer to our question about why he is publishing this book, is how extremely good the stories are for all their faults, how quickly they carry us into their scruffy, variegated, wonderfully imagined worlds. (Another reason is that several of these five stories, originally published in magazines or quarterlies, have surfaced in pirated editions.)
"The Small Rain'' centers on one Nathan ''Lardass'' Levine, a sort of ancestor of Benny Profane in ''V,'' and an enlisted man who is sleeping his days away at Fort Roach, La. He is a college grad who takes the army as a refuge from feeling and thought, from what a character in ''V'' calls ''the acquired sense of animateness.'' He is sent out on a detail helping to clear up after a hurricane, and one day, without being ordered to and without knowing why, he joins a group collecting corpses from the flood. ''The smell of decay hung in the air, like vermouth, it seemed to Levine, after you'd been drinking it all night. . . . It was mostly this that Levine remembered afterward, the peculiar atmospheric effect of gray sun on gray swamp, the way the air felt and smelled. For ten hours they cruised around looking for dead. One they unhooked from a barbed wire fence. It hung there like a foolish balloon, a travesty; until they touched it and it popped, hissed and collapsed.''
Does Levine find his way back to life because of this encounter with death? Perhaps. At the end of the story he is asleep again. The hovering presence of T. S. Eliot's ''The Waste Land'' in this text is a little tiresome, to use Mr. Pynchon's word. All these characters are waiting for rain, see, rootless soldiers in a dry and then soaked land. ''Jesus Christ I hate rain,'' one figure says. ''You and Hemingway,'' another answers. ''Funny, ain't it. T. S. Eliot likes rain.'' But Levine's brush with death is memorable, and beneath the natty symbolism lurks an old reality, not quite faced, but not avoided either.
The landscape of ''Low-lands'' moves steadily toward fantasy. The scene changes from a Long Island house full of sewers and cellars and ''innumerable tunnels, which writhed away radically like the tentacles of a spastic octopus'' to a nearby dump littered with ''abandoned refrigerators, bicycles, baby carriages, washing machines, sinks, toilets, bedsprings, TV sets, pots and pans and stoves and airconditioners''; beneath its blasted surface the dump is honeycombed with tunnels and secret rooms, the work of a 30's terrorist group. Dennis Flange, a well-off ex-navy man, is thrown out of his home by his wife and finds in the dump a romantic, diminutive rescuer in the shape of a lovely girl called Nerissa, only three and a half feet tall.
Flange, like Levine, is hiding in various ways from life's entanglements, and perhaps little Nerissa, as Mr. Pynchon suggests in his introduction, is a picture of what Flange thinks he can manage. But Flange's method is not sleep or indifference. He has an image of what he calls the Low-lands - any level, passionless space where a man could stand, but not stand out, like the sea when it looks solid or the flattened floor of the dump. What Flange fears is ''eventual convexity,'' the rising wave, the dump filled in so that the plain becomes a hill, ''so that he would be left sticking out like a projected radius, unsheltered and reeling.'' These moral landscapes are metaphors for his need, and the impossibility of his position is part of Mr. Pynchon's implied argument.
Flange meets Nerissa at ''a desolate hour somehow not intended for human perception,'' and this, in many ways, is Mr. Pynchon's hour. Amid a shuffling, funny, amiable life, the 50's behaving as if they would last forever, someone sees what he was not supposed to see, as if the heart of darkness were to open up in Nassau County. The story brings us very close to ''V,'' which has the same mixture of austere thought and broad but enjoyable bad jokes. By the time of ''Gravity's Rainbow,'' of course, the ordinary world is not so amiable or funny to start with; it has fallen into war and its aftermath, and is mined with conspiracies, like the dump in ''Low-lands.''
"Entropy'' is the best known of Mr. Pynchon's stories, much anthologized and commented on. It gains from being placed in the company of the other early pieces, because its characters, like those in the other stories, can be seen searching for images, means of arranging their lives in their minds. Thus Callisto in ''Entropy'' seals himself in his room, ''a tiny enclave of regularity in the city's chaos,'' thinks about entropy and awaits the end of the world, the moment when all temperatures, inside and out and everywhere, will be the same, and so no heat of any kind will be transferred.
MEANWHILE, downstairs at an endless shambles of a lease-breaking party, a group of jazz musicians are pursuing the art of Gerry Mulligan to what they take to be its logical conclusion; Mulligan's group had no piano so, these characters argue, one had to think the chords. The next step, obviously, is to ''think everything.'' The group then silently, telepathically, renders ''These Foolish Things,'' except that one of them, mistakenly, takes off into ''I'll Remember April.'' Another try has to be interrupted because they are not all in the same unheard key.
Critics are fond of this story, with its neat antitheses - the death wish in one place, the disorder of life in another, or as Mr. Pynchon himself rather too niftily puts it in his introduction, ''Arabesques of order competing fugally with the improvised discords of the party downstairs.'' But I find that ''Entropy's'' abstraction makes it rather pale in comparison with the other pieces in ''Slow Learner.'' Still, I treasure the crazy communion of those silent musicians. What difference does it make, if there is nothing to hear, whether one of them is playing the wrong tune, or no tune? How could they even know? It makes all the difference, I would say, and that is how we know a lot of what we know - like whether we are loved, and when people are lying to us. It's all a matter of ''inference,'' of ''imaginative anxiety,'' as Mr. Pynchon says in ''V.'' We can get all sorts of things right by those means. Wrong too, of course, but nobody's perfect.
'Under the Rose'' is an early version of Chapter Three of ''V,'' in which Herbert Stencil plunges into a past Mr. Pynchon constructed out of Baedeker's ''Egypt'' and English spy novels. The year is 1898, the time of the Fashoda incident, which brought France and England to the brink of war and served as a premonition of the violent new century to come. In ''V'' the chapter is important because it introduces the lady V herself, Victoria Wren, of Horkshire, whose ''natural habitat'' is said to be ''the state of siege,'' and who comes to be associated with all the horrors and cataclysms of modernity.
As a separate story in this collection, with certain passages more fully developed (or not yet fully trimmed), ''Under the Rose'' tells the story of ''V'' in miniature but without the baleful woman as a focus. It recounts the subtle transition from a world governed by rules and persons to one based on pathology and anonymous ideas. The English spy Porpentine and his German counterpart Moldweorp are enemies but ''cut from the same pattern: comrade Machiavellians, still playing the games of Renaissance Italian politics in a world that had outgrown them.'' They operate now ''in no conceivable Europe but rather in a zone forsaken by God,'' and the place begins to look like the location of ''Gravity's Rainbow.''
"It was no longer single combat. Had it ever been?'' The last, sudden question expresses a characteristic, brilliant Pynchon worry. The world has changed, ours is the century of horrors, the loss of our humanity is our favorite human cliche. But has the world changed in that sense, and if it hasn't, what are all those fictions of change about? Did we have all that much humanity to lose? ''Suppose,'' Herbert Stencil's father says in ''V,'' ''sometime between 1859 and 1919, the world contracted a disease which no one ever took the trouble to diagnose because the symptoms were too subtle - blending in with the events of history, no different one by one but altogether - fatal.'' Can there have been such a disease? If not, did nothing happen between 1859 and 1919 except the passage of time and the brutalities that never go away? Porpentine is killed among the pyramids, but his colleague survives, and ''sixteen years later, of course, he was in Sarajevo,'' failing to prevent another, more famous assassination.
Grover Snodd, in ''The Secret Integration,'' is a ''boy genius with flaws'' - too dumb, his friend Tim thinks, to cover up how smart he is. He and his pals lived in Mingeborough, in the Berkshires, and are carefully preparing a children's revolt on the model of the slaves' uprising in the movie ''Spartacus,'' which they have just seen. As the story proceeds, it becomes clear that the revolt won't take place, that the children's ''insecurity and discontent'' are not all they might be, and that mums and dads are more needed than resented: ''There was a point at which the reflex to their covering warmth, protection effectiveness against bad dreams and simple loneliness took over and made worthwhile anger with them impossible.'' A familiar enough perception, and it is set against the children's discovery of adult isolation. Tim is asked to make a phone call to Los Angeles and thinks, like Jack Kerouac, of America spread out in the night from coast to coast, ''and how hard it would be, how hopeless, to really find a person you needed suddenly, unless you lived all your life in a house like he did, with a mother and father.'' But the man Tim is telephoning is a black musician, an alcoholic far from any home he ever had, and through him Tim and Grover and their friends learn not only about loneliness but about color, and how people feel about it in the cosy white town. The one black family in the neighborhood is repeatedly, violently abused, and a heap of garbage is dumped on its lawn - sad, compromising muck in which the boys recognize their own parents' refuse. It is at this point that the boys' black friend Carl, full member of the Spartacus team, is revealed to be a phantom, a pal they have constructed in memory of the black musician they could do nothing for. ''He was what grownups, if they'd known, would have called an 'imaginary playmate.' His words were the kids' own words; his gestures too, the faces he made, the times he had to cry, the way he shot baskets; all given by them an amplification or grace they expected to grow into presently.''
The revelation of the black boy's status is awkward, but there is really nothing fantastic about the story. It is the most solidly specified of Mr. Pynchon's works before ''Gravity's Rainbow,'' and has dense and affectionate evocations of old houses, hotel rooms, sounds in the night, snatches of children's talk and games. In this tangible context, in the irrefutable reality of this familiar territory, the black friend has to be a phantom. If he were real, no one would let him in. The only integration possible is a secret one, and even that must end, because the children ultimately need their parents, as their parents need their prejudices. Entropy, the defensive torpor of Lardass Levine, the feelingless low- lands of Dennis Flange's dream, Porpentine's projected kingdom of death, have stealthily covered the earth, only their name now is maturity, the life children learn to live.
THOMAS PYNCHON was a cult figure in the mid-60's. Copies of ''V'' were passed around and annotated amid the Dylan records and the beginning of the end of the Beatles. He was then taken up in a big way by the academy and must be now among the most written about of contemporary authors. I have the highest opinion of Mr. Pynchon's work myself, but what I miss in the figure he has become for scholarly critics, in the difficult, meditative writer who is thought to put all merely lucid or entertaining practitioners to shame, is the sense of a man in a particular time and place, and of a living author whose faults as a writer are not to be extricated from his great virtues. This is just what ''Slow Learner'' helps to restore.
''What is most appealing about young folks,'' Mr. Pynchon writes at the end of his introduction, ''is the changes, not the still photograph of finished character but the movie, the soul in flux.'' ''Maybe,'' he continues in a slangy voice that bears history along just because it is dated, because you can hear the time in it, ''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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