Thomas Pynchon’s short story takes place in two Washington, DC apartments in 1957. It is winter, and the temperature is 37 degrees Fahrenheit. The starkly contrasting scenes within illustrate the author’s dual approaches to the concept of “entropy,” as the measure of disorder in the cosmos or a system of closed signals. In one apartment, a large, wild party is going on; in the other, two people share a calm, poignant experience. The two contexts of meaning are not mutually exclusive, however, as silence and communicative lapses apply in both apartments.
In the party situation, Meatball Mulligan and the guests are involved in two-day concerted effort to break the lease: the more chaos, the better. Music and its relationship to silence are featured through the blaring rock music and discussions of jazz musicians and compositions. In addition, members of the Duke di Angelis quartet experiment with playing music silently in a mime-like performance. Meatball converses with his friend Saul about the nature of love and communication. Most guests are drunk, and more than a few have passed out. A group of drunken sailors arrive, believing they have come to a brothel, and behave aggressively toward the women.
In the apartment upstairs, two people were trying to sleep. Callisto and Aubade, the tenants, have created a tropical atmosphere by sealing the windows and raising numerous houseplants. Concerned with the illness of a pet bird, he tries in vain to keep it warm near his own body. Callisto reflects on the relationship between mortality entropy, in the sense of the universe’s movement toward stillness through heat death. Callisto is writing his memories, via dictation to Aubade, and in them he references the autobiography of writer Henry Adams, who had commented on entropy. When his efforts fail and the bird dies, Aubade breaks a window to allow the cold winter air inside. Meanwhile, Mulligan’s party continues.
“Entropy” was the second professional story published by Pynchon, and this comic but grim tale established one of the dominant themes of his entire body of work. The setting is an apartment building in Washington, D.C., on a rainy day early in 1957. In a third-floor apartment, Meatball Mulligan and a strange group of friends and interlopers are in the fortieth hour of a break-the-lease party. Some of Mulligan’s friends are listening to rock music played on a huge speaker bolted to a metal wastebasket; when the music ends they carry on a hip discussion of the jazz music of the time, centering on Gerry Mulligan’s piano-less quartet. The Duke di Angelis quartet, as they call themselves, carry on an experiment, playing music without any instruments and without any sounds, a kind of telepathic nonmusic. Women guests are passed out in various places in the apartment, including the bathroom sink.
As the party continues, more people arrive. One man comes because he and his wife have had a fight about communication theory and she has left him. A group of coeds from Georgetown University arrives to join the party. So does a group of five sailors, who have been told that Mulligan’s apartment is a brothel. They refuse to leave, latch onto the unattached women, and continue the party. At one point a fight almost breaks out between the sailors and the musical group, but Mulligan decides to intervene and calm people down. At the end of the story, the party is continuing.
On the floor above, a man named Callisto and his girlfriend, Aubade, live in a closed environment. Over seven years, Callisto has created a sealed space, complete with vegetation and birds, cut off from the world outside. The temperature inside and outside is holding steady at 37 degrees. Callisto is holding a sick bird, trying to make it well with the warmth of his body, but in the end the bird dies. They have reached the moment of stasis predicted by the theory of entropy: There is no longer any heat exchange. Aubade breaks the window, and they wait together...
(The entire section is 1,245 words.)