A Couple-Three Bonzos: "Introduction," Slow Learner and 1984 (Critical Essay)
Pynchon Notes 1999, Spring-Fall, 44-45
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In 1984, teachers, critics and other Pynchon enthusiasts, myself included, greeted Little, Brown's publication of Slow Learner with unbridled joy. No longer would we have to scrounge for these hard-to-find stories in back issues of Cornell Writer and New World Writing, and then burn up copy machines making enough bootleg copies for students and ourselves. Further, Slow Learner included a wonderful introduction in which the enigmatic Mr. Pynchon finally came forth to comment on his own life and work, as we had all hoped he would someday. The first reading of the introduction provided a sense of comfort and gemutlichkeit rarely experienced by critics or professors. Pynchon had surfaced, and we were there. With the publication of Slow Learner, we had the stories (excluding, as many have noted, "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna"); moreover, the introduction provided answers to many vexing questions about them: To what extent did Pynchon's stint in the navy influence his writing? How much of "Under the Rose" (or V., for that matter) was derived from Baedeker? And, perhaps most important of all, how much did Pynchon really know about entropy? Many reviewers warmly greeted the "disarming and candid Introduction" (as the jacket flap of the Little, Brown edition describes it). Jonathan Raban, for example, observed that Pynchon "breaks cover for the first time with a remarkably openhanded portrait of the writer as a young man.... [T]here is the sustained pleasure of watching a clever and talented young man struggling to find a style of his own.... From such a reticent man [Slow Learner] is a weirdly generous book." Richard Poirier, however, wrote that Pynchon's "jaunty complaints in the Introduction that the stories in Slow Learner fail to provide full, lifelike characters are ... so curious and irrelevant as to suggest either that he is kidding--and I'm afraid he isn't--or that he is tired" (18). These comments all call attention to what was arguably the most powerful effect of the introduction on an initial reading. The weirdly generous tone and mood, at once confessional, contrite, apologetic and nostalgic, combined with the simple, halting style, evoked (and for many confirmed) images of a tired, burned-out Pynchon, a victim of excesses both imagined and reconstructed from the lives of his characters and contemporaries. Such a narrative voice accounted for his silence since the publication of Gravity's Rainbow in 1973. This was the Timothy Leary, Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor Pynchon; Pig Bodine, Dennis Flange, or Tyrone Slothrop in his declining years; aging, Parkinsonian, perhaps a touch Alzheimerish.