Slow Learner: Early Stories

ISBN: 0316724432
ISBN 13: 9780316724432
By: Thomas Pynchon

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About this book

Thomas Pynchon's literary career was launched not with the release of his widely acclaimed first novel, "V., " but with the publication in literary magazines of the five stories collected here. In his introduction to "Slow Learner" the author reviews his early work with disarming candor and recalls the American cultural landscape of the early post-Beat era in which the stories were written. "Time" magazine described this introductory essay as "Pynchon's first public gesture toward autobiography."

Reader's Thoughts


Lisa gave me this collection of short stories for my birthday a few years ago. I feel badly that it took me so long to get around to reading it, but it just didn't look like it'd be my sort of thing. It kind of wasn't. I've never read any Pynchon before. These were his early stories, all published in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They felt... thicker... than the sorts of stories I usually read. I did like the bit of a flair of fantasy that runs through a few of the otherwise perfectly ordinary stories--the beautiful midget gypsy girl who lives in the tunnels under the garbage dump, the new boy in town who turns out to be a little different. The book includes an introduction by Pynchon where he discusses the stories, his influences, the flaws he sees in the stories, and what he likes about them anyway. I probably shouldn't have read that first but I can never resist. I'm sure that colored my reading a bit--there were places where I thought, oh yes that is clunky just like Mr. Pynchon said, when otherwise I might have just read on through and not noticed it. The dialogue really is a bit clunky in places and I would have caught that, I'm sure. Some of the stories didn't really feel structured in a way--I guess I feel that, when I get to the end of a story, I want to be surprised and not surprised at the same time, because the ending should be natural and in a sense inevitable, but should also have something of the unexpected. These stories didn't seem so much to be building towards their endings as to be some pages about some guys who we start reading about and they go and do some things and then they stop. Not that the stories were uninteresting or unplotted, just not necessarily structured in a way I enjoy.The exception was the last story in the book, "The Secret Integration", which was terrific and was worth reading the whole book to get to. (Mr. Pynchon says in the introduction that he's pretty content with how this story holds up, but that the next thing he wrote after this story was The Crying of Lot 49 "in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I'd learned up till then". This is not an overwhelming argument for me to go pick up The Crying of Lot 49.)Overall: Props to Mr. Pynchon for a really entertaining and candid introduction, and also for one excellent story--one of our five definitely isn't bad. I'll say three stars.

Jack Waters

Worth the read for Pynchon's introduction to the book and the story "Entropy." I think the best introduction to Pynchon is "The Crying of Lot 49" followed by "V." I'd say read this if you are a completionist. As for a starting point, it could work, but I still think his novels outpace any of his stories.I read this because Gravity's Rainbow has claimed me as a victim five times now. I've yet to get past page 250. One day.


Only actually good story the last one ("Secret Integration"). I actually got this because I wanted to see if I got Pynchon early enough whether I could understand him. Have decided it really doesn't matter. His stuff all sounds the same: plodding, pointless and dull. Like so much of that fatuous picaresque '60's crap. Not helped any either by a smirking, posturing intro--wherein he criticizes himself for all sorts of inane trivial egghead reasons. And how can somebody who gets their stuff published in college come off as a slow learner? Unless he's trying to say he's really an even bigger genius than we already give him credit for...what insincerity. And he talks about incorporating the vernacular, but then he turns out to be just another fussy, pedantic stiff.


Thomas Pynchon's short story "Entropy" is what kick started my interest in modern (well, post-modern) literature and it's a little odd to see it again, not quite as good as I remembered it (though still good) and ripped to shreds by the author in the preface.So what is there to say? Some of these stories are just good, some are pretty darned good and some are outright wonderful. It is a collection of short stories that I would recommend for those too tentative to dive right into V. or are not quite sure who this Pynchon fellow is. I mean, it worked for me.


There's something about a writer ripping apart his own work that holds an irresistible appeal. The reaction usually goes one of two ways. Either one feels goaded into disagreeing with him and finding hidden merit throughout and generally enjoying hunting through the work in search of the germs of future talent, or one admits that the work is rubbish and gains a (sometimes grudging) respect for the writer who can call it what it is. In this case, it all feels a bit staged. I can't help but think of George Orwell who denounced some of his own outrageously terrible long fiction and even requested that the manuscripts be burnt following his demise. (This was thoroughly ignored, oh well.) There is a man who recognizes awful writing and felt embarrassed enough about his own to want his name removed and even more, to simply spare his readers the misery of wading through it. He did not write the introduction to its collected publication. Pynchon, however, did. I think that action alone speaks volumes, but I also don't think the stories are really all that bad. The introduction is a truly delightful and darkly humorous look at the writing process and is filled with Pynchon-esque tips for good creative writing. Using the bad to influence the good in literature. Bravo. Though I probably could have just taken his word for it and skipped the stories themselves. To be fair, I really enjoyed reading "The Secret Integration" which, combined with the manipulative introduction, completely made up for the rest. A three star read.


This book is totally cool because it's a collection of Pynchon's early writings, which are neat. What's really great though is that the introduction to the book was written by Pynchon years and years later, and it's just him saying how shitty of a writer he used to be. Yes yes, Thomas Pynchon, one of the literary geniuses of our time, discussing how he used to suck. Incredible.


I was always afraid to start this collection. Thomas Pynchon, himself, doesn't make it sound like a good time. I've had the book on my library shelf for a few years now, from where I'd occasionally take it down, start reading the intro, that first page where he partly disowns the writing therein, and I'd get scared off.But I did it. I must have been drinking heavily, that old Dutch courage (sorry, Dutch folks reading this, no offense intended). Maybe I was reaching for another book and grabbed this one by mistake, sat down, started reading and was whistling (literally, I suppose this was the type of stupor through which you whistle) through the introduction. It's interesting to watch a literary giant, an invisible literary giant like Thomas Pynchon dissect his earlier self's work, going into a critique of each and every story in the collection. If I had a time machine and memory-eraser, I would probably read the introduction last, as I'm sure it colored my impression of the stories.My favorite story of the bunch was probably "Under the Rose." I enjoyed the spy vs. spy rush about Egypt and the old, weary spies who have been enemies for so long it's not clear which side they really back. I had a blast with the characters in "Low-lands" and I loved the secret history of a Long Island dump he's created for the story."Entropy" I enjoyed, though it may be because I'd recently been reading up on entropy, and I loved the idea of this "lease-breaking party… moving into its 40th hour." The others were fine, as well, certain moments and situations, like the kid in AA in "The Secret Integration" or the practical joke planning and the intricacies thereof in the same story were excellent.So in the end, dear Reader, the lesson is that you shouldn't be afraid to start (and continue reading) this book. It's not as good as his later stuff, but, paired with his own analysis in the intro, it's a fun peek into his development as a writer.

Barry Cunningham

An infuriating book in some ways.A collection of early, mostly not-so-good short stories, as Pynchon makes clear in his Introduction.A Small Rain just kind of lies there. I found it hard to give a damn about the characters.Low-lands is really a kind of fantasy: sort of like a Behind-the-Looking-Glass view of a favorite Leonard Cohen song.I just didn't get Entropy.As Pynchon mentions in his Introduction, Under the Rose was lifted largely from an 1899 Baedeker's guide to Egypt for a writing seminar he was taking at Cornell. It reads like an Baedeker-obfuscated parody of John Buchan, who Pynchon also mentions in his Introduction. Anyway, it inspired me to start The Thirty-Nine Steps, which is infinitely better written, better paced, clearer, and engrossing.But, finally, at the end, The Secret Integration was a sort of gem, a redeeming feature of this book for me. A surprise ending in more ways than one.

Zach Smith

I was warned prior to reading this book on a wikihow explanation of How to read Thomas Pynchon, that this book along with Mason & Dickson should only be read by the diehard Thomas Pynchon Fans. At this time I can say I am both diehard and not, I like what I have read by him so far, but so far I have only read 2 other works by him. Mason & Dickson is given the warning (I assume) because it is so dense (773 pages) and complicated. Slow Learner on the other hand is warned against because it is not nearly as Pynchonian as his other works. I ignored the recommendation because I am a devout fan of the short story, and this is currently Pynchon’s only short story collection. In my opinion it is Okay at best, neither a great Pynchonian work nor anything spectacular with regards to the short story collection, and yes I would agree that it would not be the best place to start reading his works. But it’s okay to have this opinion, no one was more critical on the book then Pynchon himself in the introduction. Although the book was published in 1984, the stories were written and published between 1955 and 1964, the last story being published a year after his first novel. Of the five stories “The Secret Integration” was the best, a turning point from the rather juvenile writing at Pynchon’s beginnings transitioning to what Pynchon would become. “Low-Lands” is also quite good, humorous and interesting, it comes in a close second. “Entropy” is okay; “A Small Rain” and “Under the Rose” were not very good. If anything this collection is proof that not all great novelists make great short story writers, the two genres are meritoriously different.

Eric Cartier

The seeds of Pynchon's greatness sprout in these fives stories, four of which were published in magazines before his stunning first novel V. It didn't surprise me to learn I liked the fifth one ("The Secret Integration," published in The Saturday Evening Post in December 1964) the most, as he was in control of his peculiar language by then, but the others are entertaining. Wild parties, surreal lists, suspenseful chase scenes, paranoid political plots, musings on sex, death and the heat-death of the universe: they're all here. Pig Bodine and Slothrop, two of Pynchon's coolest characters, make their first appearances, too. This collection (1984) was assembled, I assume, as a stopgap between Gravity's Rainbow (1973) and Vineland (1990), but it's a quick summer read for any Pynchon fan, and his introduction is self-critical, funny and vaguely autobiographical. I don't agree that he was a slow learner of his trade."No," Cindy said. "Out is what I said and out is where you're going. Of my life, is what I mean. Booze all day with the garbage man is pretty bad but Pig Bodine is enough and enough is too much." - from "Low-lands""The architectonic purity of her world was constantly threatened by such hints of anarchy: gaps and excrescences and skew lines, and a shifting or tilting of planes to which she had continually to readjust lest the whole structure shiver into a disarray of discrete and meaningless signals." - from "Entropy""For Tim it was a little like staying over at Grovie's house and hearing all those cops and merchant captains and barge tenders over the radio, all those voices bouncing off the invisible dome in the sky and down to Grover's antenna and into Tim's dreams." - from "The Secret Integration"

Mariano Hortal

En "Slow Learner" de Thomas Pynchon tenemos los relatos de un universitario aprendiendo, lentamente, a escribir, con todos sus defectos y virtudes, empezando con un prólogo maravilloso escrito por el propio escritor en el que desvela todo lo que no le gusta de la forma en que escribía al principio, y lo poco que le gusta también, desde luego. Aún así cada relato es una muestra embrionaria del talento monstruoso de un escritor sin igual tratando temas de todo tipo, desde la muerte y sus modos de afrontarla al racismo y pasando por la entropía ("He found in entropy or the measure of disorganization for a closed system an adequate metaphor to apply to certain plenomena in his own world") y una fabulosa historia de espías a lo John Le Carré. Todos los cuentos son buenos y algunos son simplemente magistrales como. Aquí tenemos lo primero que escribió el maestro y sus temas, su estilo, su forma de escribir están aquí para que empecemos a disfrutarlos desde ya.


Any book that starts out in the preface saying that what you are about to read sucks and then makes a series of apologies about how bad it is and how much he learned and how smart he actually is and on and on with the pretentious 'I really am one of the greatest writers in the 20th century, you just won't be able to tell from the shit you are about to read' litany. That is just self indulgent and embarassing. But, he was right, it all pretty much didn't do a lot except bore. I bought an Elvis Costello re-issue album once that did the same thing. I thought, well, no one ever says anything about this album, I'll give it a shot. Then the first line of the liner notes read: 'Congratulations, you just purchased my worst album ever'I mean really, couldn't you put that on the cover? And for that, I am a little upset at EC as well.


So as not to reiterate what many reviewers said already, I will just give some very brief notes on Slow Learner.Most critical is that one read the introduction after (it should absolutely be an afterword). Beyond that, most of the stories feel like test runs with ideas and genres and characters that Pynchon later brought to captivating life later in his career. My favorite, by a long shot, has to be "The Secret Integration," in which we discover that Thomas Pynchon has feelings. Other fun facts: he hates hegemony, racism, and hypocrites. He loves jazz, math, and all-purpose silliness. He also loves to do his homework. If you're not ready for some serious in-depth education about almost any topic (the Tarot, sea shanties, and European politics come to mind as good examples), then maybe Pynchon is not the guy for you. This shouldn't be your introduction to Pynchon. I'd recommend Against the Day for the more patient reader or The Crying of Lot 49 for a quicker reading experience. Slow Learner is best read after having read and enjoyed most of his other work.


Borderline juvenilia. Introduction by author dismisses the collection ab initio as “illustrative of typical problems in entry-level fiction” (4). Explains that “when we speak of ‘seriousness’ in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death” (5) which I regard as probably philistine. Nevertheless, author suggests “one of the reasons that fantasy and science fiction appeal so much to younger readers is that, when the space and time have been altered to allow characters to travel easily anywhere through the continuum and thus escape physical dangers and timepiece inevitabilities, mortality is so seldom an issue” (id.), which is definitely philistine. Introduction otherwise has thoughtful comments on entropy, author’s influences, and the nifty comment that his reading allowed “World War I in my imagination to assume the shape of that attractive nuisance so dear to adolescent minds, the apocalyptic showdown” (18).Principal text is five short fictions, all generally haunted by the spectre of the Korean civil war (expressly at 44, 61, 172, and implicitly in the others, it seems)First short is a military man down on the bayou. Second involves a dude whose wife kicks him out of the house. Third, “Entropy,” seems to be well-regarded, presents a soiree that host-protagonist wants to stop “from deteriorating into total chaos” (97). Fourth is fin de siecle espionage thriller of orientalist interest, but we should read it in the context of the cold war. It’s presented as asymptotic to World War I: “Britain wanted no part of France in the Nile Valley. M. Declasse, Foreign Minister of a newly formed French cabinet, would as soon go to war as not if there were any trouble when the two detachments met. As meet, everyone realized by now, they would. Kitchener had been instructed not to take any offensive and to avoid all provocation. Russia would support France in case of war, while England had a temporary rapprochement with Germany, which of course meant Italy and Austria as well” (106). But: “All he asked was that eventually there be a war. Not just a small incidental skirmish in the race to carve up Africa, but one pip-pip, jolly ho, up-goes-the-balloon Armageddon for Europe” (107). Finale of volume is the longest bit, involves a pack of rotters and race politics.Recommended for readers in varying stages of abomination, persons in so much rapture over the mongrel gods of Egypt, and those who’d fled the eclipse then falling over Europe and their own hardly real shadow-states sometime back in the middle Thirties.


Very interesting stuff. I'm a bit surprised Pynchon even published this; one would think that if he were really as embarrassed as he professes to be in the preface, that he wouldn't collect them--perhaps (perhaps!) this modesty is false?As for the stories, they are very rough and I found myself getting distracted and falling asleep while reading them. They required a real force of will to finish them, something I didn't have on most attempts. There are, however, flashes of brilliance scattered throughout, and Pynchon's bizarre personality is in every word. I was really blown away by the ending to the first story (p. 47-51), written while Pynchon was in college and published in the Cornell undergraduate journal. It's the best part of the collection, I think, other than the preface. I can't imagine having written this well in college--I most certainly did not."Lowlands" also is hilarious and highly enjoyable. Imagine getting tossed out by your wife and meeting the perfect woman...except she's a midget gypsy at the trash dump. She's perfect, albeit to scale. Lots of laughs."Entropy" is very good, and contains in it two spots where genius shines through--p.83 and p.90-91. "Under the Rose" is almost unreadable. I felt a little embarrassed too, reading it, as it reminded me of some of my own tough-guy type stories from the past. Ick.Only pick this up if you are hardcore--that is, have no life. It's not an enjoyable read you can take to the beach. It's frustrating, rough, and requires some love and work. But it does show how far ahead Pynchon was of every other young scribbler despite it all; I can only envy him.

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