The New York Times
29 March 1984
[Purchase PDF of review from NYT]
IN an introduction to these five stories that is funny and wise enough to charm the gravity from a rainbow, Thomas Pynchon indicts his early writings for sins both juvenile and delinquent. They are guilty, he contends, of racism, sexism, proto-fascism and even an occasional plagiarism. They lack an ear and they try to be overliterary.
Worst of all, he insists, they are ignorant. ''Everybody gets told to write about what they know,'' he points out. ''The trouble with many of us is that at the earlier stages of life we think we know everything - or to put it more usefully, we are often unaware of the scope and structure of our ignorance. Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person's mental map. It has contours and coherence, and for all I know rules of operation as well. So as a corollary to writing about what we know, maybe we should add getting familiar with our ignorance, and the possibilities therein for ruining a good story.''
These pieces, Mr. Pynchon complains, are not even good at what he is famous for doing well. Because the story ''Entropy'' has been ''anthologized a couple-three times, people think I know more about the subject of entropy than I really do.'' ''But do not underestimate the shallowness of my understanding,'' he continues. ''For instance, I chose 37 degrees Fahrenheit for an equilibrium point because 37 degrees Celsius is the temperature of the human body. Cute, huh?'' ''Since I wrote this story I have kept trying to understand entropy, but my grasp becomes less sure the more I read."
As for his grasp of Surrealism, which was to contribute so much to his novels ''V'' and ''Gravity's Rainbow'': having little access to his dream life, he ''missed the main point of the movement, and became fascinated instead with the simple idea that one could combine inside the same frame elements not normally found together to produce illogical and startling effects. What I had to learn later on,'' he continued, ''was the necessity of managing this procedure with some degree of care and skill: any old combination of details will not do. Spike Jones Jr., whose father's orchestral effects had a deep and indelible effect on me as a child, said once in an interview, 'One of the things that people don't realize about Dad's kind of music is, when you replace a C-sharp with a gunshot, it has to be a C-sharp gunshot or it sounds awful.' ''
What is it like to read the stories after this bombardment? Well, forewarned is disarmed, predictably enough, and what we notice most are their virtues, not their shortcomings. All five of the pieces, which appeared originally in various magazines, have unusual narrative vigor and inventiveness. Each establishes its own special mood - whether it is the sultry tension of the hurricane in ''The Small Rain,'' the junkyard chaos of ''Low-Lands,'' or the slightly paranoid fantasy-world of the children in ''The Secret Integration'' - and each contains its moments of Pynchonesque comedy - the miming musicians in ''Entropy'' or Porpentine's tumble down the stairs in ''Under the Rose.''
Pynchon's ear may be off in recording the accents of Tidewater Virginia in ''The Small Rain,'' but it is marvelously on in the ramblings of an alcoholic black musician in ''The Secret Integration.'' And if there is something a little cute about making his A.A. partner a 9-year-old reformed beer drinker, or about inserting into the story characters with names such as Etienne Cherdlu and Hogan Slothrop, the good-naturedness of the story far exceeds its tendency to show off.
''Slow Learner,'' then, as well as being ''illustrative of typical problems in entry-level fiction, and cautionary about some practices that younger writers might prefer to avoid,'' has certain virtues to celebrate. In fact, if it is as much of a failure as Mr. Pynchon insists, then it makes failure as a writer positively inviting.
All the same, it is a slightly risky game that Mr. Pynchon is playing here. For one thing, there's an element of egotism in coming down upon oneself so hard, a sense of undue self- importance already apparent in the author's passion for anonymity. More significantly, Mr. Pynchon's self-needling distracts us from a deeper problem in his early writing. This is a contempt for the world created by grown- ups - a contempt that is charming in ''The Secret Integration,'' which after all is overtly about children, but is slightly insidious in ''Under the Rose,'' which treats the background of World War I in the tone of comic opera.
One finds oneself wondering if something about the insouciant, loose-jointed style of Mr. Pynchon's later novels doesn't reflect an unwillingness on his part to take the past seriously. In the light of the stories in ''Slow Learner,'' each of which condemns in some way the world handed down to its protagonists, one has to wonder if underneath it all the author's attitude toward European history in ''V'' and ''Gravity's Rainbow'' isn't just plain snotty.
Actually, I plan to stand by my admiring judgment of these later novels, and of his novella ''The Crying of Lot 49.'' I'm assuming that their author had grown by the time he wrote them. But considering how in his introduction he turns his back on his earliest stories - how he even disparages ''The Crying of Lot 49,'' ''which,'' he writes, ''was marketed as a 'novel,' and in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I'd learned up till then'' - I have to wonder if he isn't eventually going to leave me out on a limb with my admiration.