Errant Reader: “Entropy” – Thomas Pynchon (1960)

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I’m going to be honest with you. This post was a difficult one to write. I actually started reading “Entropy” in December. The story’s pessimistic conclusion made it a little difficult for me to linger over though. There’s also the fact that this was the story that I was least looking forward to writing about in this series. It wasn’t the one I least wanted to read. I find it to be an intriguing story. My reluctance to write revolves around a collection of causes: trouble settling in and really reading the story, difficulty finding the time to sit down and write, and – I’m just going to admit it – a lot of the story revolves around my weakest areas as a Pynchon reader/scholar. I’m rubbish at physics. Nevertheless, here goes.

“Entropy” is likely Pynchon’s most anthologized short story. It’s generally used as an introduction for students into the wilds of Pynchon’s writing. In this regard it’s an excellent specimen. In a brief set of pages you get most of the major themes present in Pynchon’s work. It is a grand pastiche of art, science, pop culture, drugs, and a healthy amount of irreverent humor. And Physics.

Let’s face it, this story has it in spades. The underlying metaphor of the second law of thermodynamics tends to dominate scholarship about the story. Admittedly, I haven’t read much about “Entropy,” but I still feel like I’m wading into some murky waters here. My immediate reaction when faced with this sort of challenge is to educate myself. As I sit writing this there are about three web pages open about Thermodynamics on my laptop. I’m not making a lot of progress though.

Besides, I’m simply not drawn to the fatalistic conclusion of the story that the concept of entropy ultimately demands. Maybe it’s personal circumstances, but “Entropy” has always struck me as much more pessimistic than Pynchon’s other work. It’s an outlier. As I reread “Entropy” though I found myself focusing on its more hopeful aspects. There’s a caveat to my reading: the threads of this story are densely interwoven and it’s difficult to break my reading away from the rest of the story. Perhaps it’s even a bit foolish. It’s my blog though so I’m going for it.

“Entropy” has two main narratives set in the same apartment building in early February of 1957 Washington DC. One follows Meatball Mulligan as he rounds out the second day of a wild lease breaking party. Somewhere in the same building Callisto and his lover Aubade live in a hermetically sealed apartment where they struggle with the philosophical ramifications of the inevitable heat death of the universe. (The more I write these plot summaries for Pynchon’s stories the more I worry that they come off as both reductive and flippant. This sounds over the top – not that the critique is necessarily wrong in regard to Callisto and Aubade). The real power of the story comes from the interweaving of these two plots. Like the inevitability of heat loss, the tow stories bleed into each other and begin to display a chaotic uniformity.

The story opens with a curious conflation of false signals marking beginnings and endings. There’s a sense of things ebbing to a conclusion since Meatball’s party is in its 40th hour. Meatball himself contradicts this sense though since he’s only just waking up and soon we learn that the party is getting its second wind. Aside form achieving an equilibrium of drunkenness that staves off his hangover, Meatball doesn’t do much in the way of partying. Instead, his primary tasks involve stemming the chaos of his party: consoling a friend whose wife has left him, making sure that a drunk girl doesn’t “drown” in the bath (she’s sitting on the drain and yelling about the water overflowing the tub), assuring a set of party-crashing sailors that his apartment is not, in fact, a “hoorhouse,” and just generally making sure that things don’t degenerate into an all out brawl. This false ending is mirrored by a false beginning in DC:

“It is a curious season in Washington, this false spring. Somewhere in it are Lincoln’s Birthday and the Chinese New Year, and a forlornness in the streets because cherry blossoms are weeks away still and, as Sarah Vaughan has put it, spring will be a little late this year. Generally crowds like the one which would gather in the Old Heidelberg on weekday afternoons to drink Würtzburger and to sing Lili Marlene (not to mention The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi) are inevitably and incorrigibly Romantic. And as every good Romantic knows, the soul (spiritus, rauch, pneuma) is nothing, substantially, but air; it is only natural that warpings in the atmosphere should be recapitulated in those who breathe it” (78-79).

From the start then, things are warped and not quite as they seem. Any sense of permanence does not extend much beyond the boundaries of this false spring. Meatball’s party is perpetual, yet fleeting since it is meant to mark the end of his lease. The false spring creates warpings that pervade the actions of the inhabitants in the area. The story then warns us outright to proceed with caution since things are in a state of flux.

The sense of fleetingness is immediately juxtaposed by Callisto and Aubade’s apartment. Here the description is clearly static:

“Hermetically sealed, it was a tiny enclave of regularity in the city’s chaos, alien to the vagaries of the weather, of national politics, of any civil disorder. Through trial-and-error Callisto had perfected its ecological balance, with the help of the girl its artistic harmony, so that the swayings of its plant life, the stirrings of its birds and human inhabitants were all as integral as the rhythms of a perfectly-executed mobile. He and the girl could no longer, of course, be omitted from that sanctuary; they had become necessary to its unity. What they needed from outside was delivered. They did not go out” (79-80).

Here we have an artificial unity held as a bastion against the more paranoid moments of Callisto’s concerns about the heat death of the universe. The weather plays another important part here as the thermometer outside continually reads 37°. Callisto obsesses about the inevitable static doom haunting the future, while living in just such a stasis on a micro scale.

Yet the apartment is not as sealed as it may seem. While heat and atmosphere is blocked, the metaphor of entropy is more pervasive than mere physics. The “atmosphere” of the apartment is directly influenced by that of Meatball’s party. The first introduction of Callisto occurs at just such a moment of transfer when thee music from Meatball’s party wakes Callisto up when “the last bass notes of The Heroes’ Gate boomed through the floor” (79). Notably, this same conclusion sets up the juxtaposition between Callisto and Meatball since Meatball is woken up at the same time: “It was that last cymbal crash that did it. Meatball was hurled wincing into consciousness” (81). These two characters and their respective storylines become entwined over their similar fates as characters who react to their surroundings: Meatball to the permeable unpredictability of his party, Callisto to the inevitable permeability of his cocoon.

This is reductionist, of course, there’s a bit more happening for both of these characters. I’m going to stick with that gist though and turn to what are, to me, the two most interesting characters in the story: Aubade and Miriam. Neither is as fleshed out as she deserves. Aubade is, in fact, simply “the girl” in the first paragraph she’s introduced. She only gains a name later after her function in helping Callisto come to define her. Miriam is also defined by her relationship with a man in the text. Specifically, she’s Saul’s ex-wife. Miriam doesn’t even have the benefit of appearing in the story and we only know about her through Saul’s efforts to describe the break up to Meatball. Despite their minor roles these two women are integral to the story as a whole. They are the only two characters to act decisively. I’m going to leave off talking about Aubade’s action though. It’s a bit too integral to the story and I’d rather preserve the ending for new readers (though I suppose new readers aren’t likely to be reading this, or if they are they don’t care about spoilers).

Miriam serves as a decent mirror to Aubade’s final act. Both have strong consequences. Saul’s description of the fight that ended his marriage sets up Miriam’s decisiveness. First, there’s the fact that Saul “slugged” Miriam. Her reaction was to throw a “Handbook of Chemistry and Physics” at Saul (only to miss and have it go through the window – an important symbolic act that I’m not going to dig into at this time) (85). Ultimately the fight was a bout communication theory and a “multi-unit factorial field electronic tabulator” or rather a computer capable of acting like a human (86). Saul suggests to Miriam that such a thing is possible, which leads to the fight with Miriam. Of course, Saul’s big problem is that that’s not possible based on the chaos surrounding Saul as he tells his tale to Meatball. It’s also not possible based on Miriam’s own reaction of leaving. Saul’s reaction relates this episode to the story as a whole: “Tell a girl: ‘I love you.’ No trouble with two-thirds of that, it’s a closed circuit. Just you and she. But that nasty four-letter word in the middle, that’s the one you have to look out for. Ambiguity. Redundance. Irrelevance, even. Leakage. All this is noise. Noise screws up your signal, makes for disorganization in the circuit” (86-87). Obliviousness is at the heart of Saul’s comment. To be human is to struggle with the inevitable leakage of signal in communication. As he speaks in terms of circuitry he ignores this key point of humanity. We’re not ones or zeros exclusively. There are all kinds of nasty four letter words that get in the way of “perfect” communication.

Miriam’s decisive action seems to affirm this. Saul is left struggling after the fact to affirm his humanity to Meatball while still guilty of stifling it through his overbearing logic (and, lest we forget, beating Miriam). By leaving, Miriam confirms Saul’s shortcomings. The decisiveness of the action belays the inevitability of the systematic spread of energy, heat, chaos, or what have you. While the metaphor carries on significantly further, I would suggest that the short term isn’t focused on the inevitability of sameness and lack of progress, but rather of the breakdown of systems of control: a hermeneutically sealed apartment, desperate management of a party, and abusive relationship shot through with cold calculation. The first and the last moment in this list point to two opposite conclusions about this story: one, the pessimistic ending that haunted me while preparing this post. The other points to escape, opportunity, and movement forward that contradicts the story’s central theme in the short term. Quite simply, not all systems are worth preserving.

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One response to “Errant Reader: “Entropy” – Thomas Pynchon (1960)

  1. lpmmaimu@gmail.com November 25, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    amazing post you got here, thank you for making it available!

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