Slow Learner

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Thomas Pynchon does not exactly rush into print. After the publication of his monumental Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), he remained silent for a decade—except for the blurbs he occasionally contributed to the books of other writers. His introduction to a new printing of Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, published by Penguin in 1983, may have marked a turning point in his publishing habits, since it was followed the following year by Slow Learner and by an essay in The New York Times Book Review.

Given the paucity of new Pynchon writing, the most significant aspect of Slow Learner, his collection of early stories, may be the author’s introduction. A piece of some length, it is witty and surprisingly candid. Readers enjoy playing hide-and-seek with this reclusive author, and he rewards them here with some intriguing hints about his personal life, notably that he may now be a father (whether in the biological sense or not is, typically, left ambiguous). He hints, too, that he has been in analysis (or so one interprets the reference to a time “before I had access to my dreams”). He also discusses the writers and thinkers by whom he was influenced as a young man. He mentions Henry Adams, certain nineteenth century scientists, Norbert Wiener, and Jack Kerouac and the Beats. For the most part, he confirms the source studies of his critics.

In commenting on his stories (and, incidentally, on his novel The Crying of Lot 49, 1966), Pynchon uses a tone of bantering self-disparagement, pointing out what he now considers to be embarrassing or merely funny infelicities of style, plot, and characterization. He emphasizes that only one of the stories (“The Secret Integration”) is, in his eyes, anything more than “apprentice work.” Nevertheless, Slow Learner has been politely received by critics in the popular press, most reviewers cheerfully accepting the rhetorical ploy of the introduction. Only the occasional critic has been so churlish as to quote the negative evaluations in the introduction and conclude that the stories are every bit as bad as Pynchon suggests they are. More typical are the confirmations of the respectful judgments of earlier, scholarly critics—observations that, yes, the stories are flawed but that the reader takes pleasure in them nevertheless. Michael Wood, for example, notes the authorial disclaimers but insists that “what Mr. Pynchon doesn’t talk about is how extremely good the stories are for all their faults.” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, similarly, says of the collection that “if it is as much of a failure as Mr. Pynchon insists, then it makes failure positively inviting.” Whether one should attribute these critics’ generosity to the success of Pynchon’s introduction (“forewarned is disarmed,” admits Lehmann-Haupt) or to a collective sense that critical discourtesy might forestall the appearance of this author’s more recent efforts (presumably the fruit of eleven years’ labor), one must conclude that the creator of Slow Learner remains a critical favorite.

Indeed, the collection merits critical approbation, for the five stories included abound with Pynchon’s characteristic imagination and humor. A sixth story, “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna,” does not appear in the book, and one is at a loss to explain the omission. The author does not refer to it in his introduction. Though this story is arguably Pynchon’s weakest, its shortcomings do not seem much graver than those of the stories which the author does include.

Pynchon makes up for the omission by including a rarity, a story entitled “The Small Rain,” which appeared in the Cornell Writer in 1959 and marked the author’s fictional debut. The story, which concerns an alienated soldier who participates in the relief effort after an especially destructive hurricane, suffers a little from undergraduate pretentiousness, but it is interesting to see a great writer learning to deploy motivic and symbolic detail. Pynchon introduces references to the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and The Waste Land. His protagonist, Nathan Levine, is one of T. S. Eliot’s hollow men, deracinated and spiritually dead. To heighten the bleakness of his vision of the Waste Land, Pynchon leaves in a thematic thread of sexual sterility. More than once he characterizes Levine as a “plowboy” but never allows him to rise above the more trivial or vulgar meanings of this appellation (which potentially links Levine mythically to the earth and its cycles of death and rebirth). Instead, the story closes with Levine copulating woodenly, like “the young man carbuncular” in The Waste Land. The fact that the hurricane and its aftermath have been covered by photographers from Life magazine inspires him to a sardonic postcoital pun on the familiar prayer-book phrase for “The Burial of the Dead”: “In the midst of Life. We are in death.” One of his army buddies likens him to the seed that falls on stony ground. He will, in other words, share in no vernal efflorescence; like the rest of his generation, he resists resurrection.

The Waste Land also makes its presence felt in the second story in the collection. In “Low-lands,” Pynchon continues to present images of a vitiated...

(The entire section is 2198 words.)