Untoward Stories: Entropy / Thomas Pynchon

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire,
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

                                                                                                                               —`Fire and Ice’
                                                                                                                                    Robert Frost

‘A screaming comes across the sky.’

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, with that memorable opening line, captures a mixed bag essence of the devastating unmanned rocket attacks on England during WW II, the Blitzkrieg. Across a gamut of styles ranging from baggy pants whimsicality to the sober intricate prose of death and destruction, the novel stays true to its apocryphal underpinnings. With broad based complexity and prose structure throughout that are as the cover hype proclaims, `dazzling’, GR is smart, funny, well-crafted and intriguing, written with a highly honed narrative touch that surely puts it among the best novels of the 20th century. Like Proust, Rabelais and the writer whose New Yorker story a few years back went on for a page and a half of HAHAHAHAHAs, Pynchon probably isn’t for everybody. GR’s hero, the slovenly, libidinous, redoubtable Tyrone Slothrup, is among the least heroic of the Twentieth Century protagonists, right up there in the anti hero galaxy with Sam Spade, Holden Caulfield, Yossarian and Leopold Bloom.

Slow Learner; a short story retrospect, (1984), collects six early Pynchon stories, including the ‘disagreeable’ Low-Lands’ and our untoward nominated `Entropy’ (which takes an irreverent look into the eye of annihilation at a time when the world was perceived as drifting uncomfortably in that direction). With technique and vision tempered by experience as a tech writer at Boeing (a model for the corporate Yoyodine in his novel ‘V’) and at Cornell, where he was an undergraduate and later taught writing,  Pynchon notes that having to look at ‘Entropy’ again brought on a ‘bleakness of heart’. The story, he says, is ‘a fine example of a procedural error beginning writers are always being cautioned against’, noting: ‘It is simply wrong to begin with a theme, symbol or other abstract unifying agent and then try to force characters and events to conform to it.’

Fair enough, but maybe it’s okay to have deviated from good practice for one story, if only to better understand in retrospect the soundness of the prohibition. Dostoevsky, lauding the value of mistake, notes (from the underground) that two times two makes four is fine, but that ‘two times two makes five is sometimes also a very charming little thing.’ Because there are so many intriguing aspects to Entropy apart from its origins as a backwards literary contrivance and because it links up well with the times and traditions depicted, it still ranks with the best of Pynchon’s early work. He recalls writing the story ‘in 58 or 59’, and notes, ‘when I talk about ’57 in the story as ‘back then’ I am being almost sarcastic. One year of those times was pretty much like another.’

Indeed.

The story is set in those pre-sixties Neverland times when Ike was president, the Cleavers were running America, and everybody knew they might wake up to news that a major city had been annihilated by a preemptive nuclear strike. A study at the time reflected that two well-placed fifty megaton bombs could effectively destroy 90% of Chicago, leaving a barren radioactive wasteland. A few years later came Kubrick’s cold war dark comedy, `Dr. Strangelove’ where the good doctor, while barely managing to stifle a reflexive Nazi salute is asked if an all out nuclear exchange might very well destroy civilization. He responds with watchwords for the era, ‘Yes, —regrettably.’ Proliferation was an issue as well, as it is today. Humorist Tom Lehrer reminded everyone in song that China would soon be getting the bomb, ‘but have no fears, they can’t wipe us out for at least five years.”

Entropy’s season is ‘false spring in Washington’; `false’ in the traditional February sense, but also false when account is taken that doomsday will be preempting the ‘real’ spring. Washington, D.C., a rich source of cold war malaise, is a good setting; where Meatball’s place is ‘a tiny enclave of regularity in the city’s chaos’, where an ongoing lease-breaking party, in the loose anti-establishment tradition of the beats and the yet-to-be sixties hippies, ‘was moving into its fortieth hour,’ and ‘Meatball himself was sleeping over by the window, holding an empty magnum to his chest as if it were a teddy bear.

The easy-going fluidity of the prose, the underplayed, slightly irreverent tone, the casual reference to the temperature outside as ‘still 37’ all work to create a kind of low key, numbing resignation to the fact of imminent universal extinction. Somebody is trying to break in, meanwhile ‘a second story man’, but Meatball says not to worry. “We’re on the third floor.” Soon, three George Washington philosophy major coeds drop by, `each holding a gallon of Chianti,’ the party continues.

Callisto finds in entropy ‘an adequate metaphor’ for application in ‘his own world’, that is, ` the younger generation responding to Madison Avenue with the same spleen his own had once reserved for Wall Street.’  Saul, meanwhile, tells of slugging his wife after a fight over ‘communication theory’, admitting: ‘She ended up throwing a Handbook of Chemistry and Physics at me.’ She stormed out, and Saul seems to have accepted she isn’t coming back, not that it matters so close to the heat death of the universe. A bunch of drunken sailors pop in from Mr. Roberts, convinced that Meatball’s place is the ‘hoorhouse’ their chief was telling them about. Duke’s far out miming musicians and other assorted oddballs wander through, stopping to play cards, do pills, guzzle champagne, smoke weed or just hang out like the Lost Generation of old getting drunk with the perpetually partying rich, like the hippies who’ll soon be dropping acid at the anti-war rally, all united within the mosaic of the great contrarian tradition, all inside an isolated bubble of existence, carrying on in the face of impending doom.

 Meatball manages to stave off the chaos temporarily by restoring a semblance of order to the party, giving wine to the sailors, getting the girls calmed down and calling a repairman for the refrigerator, but upstairs the bird is dying in Callisto’s hands. The whole ‘private time warp’ is pierced by something, `a scream, an overturned chair, a glass dropped on the floor’, the girl shatters the glass bubble, and we see that the 37 degrees will prevail ‘outside and inside, and forever.’  Little gloomy at the end maybe, but it is, after all, a doomsday story.

Sometimes he’s tossed in with the post-moderns, but Pynchon is sui generis, and marking him down as just another smart-ass post-modern messing with literary conventions sells him way, way short. He’s one of our finest modern writers. His sense of history, science, pop culture, the arts, literature and a dozen other disciplines is genuine. On top of all that, he’s known to value his privacy, a most refreshing posture in this era of shameless self-promotion.