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

Justin Liew

This collection of short stories is a great look into where Pynchon came from, and how his writing developed from his early published stories to the juggernaut novels he was creating at the time this collection was published. The stories have hints of his complexity, humour and trademark style, but, as he mentions numerous times in the intro, a lot of those elements are underdeveloped or overused. The intro, really is where the gem of this book lies, as it is likely the reclusive author's most open piece of writing, where he really goes into his thoughts on the stories. It is worth reading this for that alone, as a little (albeit curated) window into self reflection. Recommended for those who enjoy his books; not a great intro to his books though.


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.

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.


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.

Thomson Kneeland

Continuing my plan this year of delving into modern writers I haven't explored yet, this was my first foray into Pynchon's writing, though I didn't expect much from short stories written early in his career. The first two stories didn't thrill me though they were ok; but the third,"Entropy", showed a hint of the genius I would expect, weaving elements of mathematics, fugal counterpoint, and color throughout the narrative in a post beatnik/post Henry Miller fashion. I was hooked with that, but not as thrilled with the remaining two stories, dealing with racism and youth. Plots were generally not too riveting (not that a short story has that much time to develop), but nonetheless each story had a certain twist of the fantastic which added a magical quality which challenged the reader's expectations and preconceptions. Putting all those things together into a mammoth novel like "Gravity's Rainbow" gives me high hopes and expectations for a work of genius as his writing skills developed, so 3 stars to this book for my anticipation and introduction to his writing. I'm hoping his later works are every bit as compelling as they have been made out to be; in the meantime, this was a good introduction which fit my expectations for "early works". And my favorite portion of the book was actually Pynchon's introduction, written 25 years after the fact, placing the stories in a personal context and shedding light on his perceptions of his personal growth and writing career.


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.

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.


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.


Pynchon. Pynchon. Pynchon. Dicen que si repites tres veces su nombre delante de un espejo aparece un tipo con la cara borrosa, los hombros caídos hasta formar líneas verticales y unos incisivos como los que tendría un conejo de dos metros, y que te destripa ahí mismo. Intentaré no contribuir con este comentario sobre su libro ‘Un lento aprendizaje’ (editado en castellano por Tusquets) a esa corriente de mitificación hacia su figura que últimamente veo desatada y que creBUENO, MEJOR NO.¿Qué es? ‘Un lento aprendizaje’ reúne sus primeros textos, seis relatos escritos entre 1958 y 1964 mientras estaba en la universidad, que él mismo ya se encargó de mantener en algún cajón lejos de la luz del sol hasta que se decidió a publicarlos en 1984 bajo el título original ‘Slow Learner’. Es un libro completamente desigual, donde diría que lo más importante está en el prólogo, escrito por Pynchon en 1984 con una humildad desarmante. “Mi reacción al leer estos relatos fue exclamar: ¡Dios mío!, al tiempo que experimentaba unos síntomas físicos en los que prefiero no insistir. Mi segundo pensamiento fue el de volver a escribirlos de cabo a rabo. Ambos impulsos cedieron a uno de esos estados de serenidad propios de la mediana edad, y ahora creo que he llegado a ver con claridad cómo era el joven escritor de entonces y a entenderme con él. Por otro lado, si gracias a una tecnología aún por inventar me topara hoy con él, ¿estaría dispuesto sin recelos a prestarle dinero o siquiera a ir calle abajo con él para tomar una cerveza y charlas de los viejos tiempos?”. Esa humildad, decía yo, surge cuando Pynchon ejerce de crítico de si mismo, cuando coge cada uno de sus textos y, sin ningún tipo de nostalgia, analiza para el lector cuándo los escribió, bajo qué influencia y, lo mejor de todo, qué errores muestra su lectura años después, algo que muchos aspirantes a escritor encontrarán muy útil: “Mi mayor esperanza es que, por pretenciosos, bobos e imprudente que resulten de vez en cuando, estos relatos sigan siendo útiles con sus defectos intactos, ilustrativos de los problemas característicos a los que se enfrenta el escritor principiante, a la vez que previene contra ciertas prácticas que probablemente los escritores más jóvenes prefieren evitar”.El prólogo también es útil para conocer de primera mano sus lecturas de la época en busca de una voz propia: “Kerouac y los escritores de la generación beat, la dicción de Saul Bellow en ‘Las aventuras de Augie March’, voces que empezaban a sonar como las de Herbet Gold y Philip Roth”. Explica: “Contra el innegable poder de la tradición, nos atraían los señuelos centrífugos, como el ensayo de Norman Mailer ‘El negro blanco’, el considerable surtido de discos de jazz y un libro que aún sigo considerando una de las grandes novelas norteamericanas: ‘En el camino’, de Jack Kerouac”. Algunos recuerdos de la época son realmente valiosos en este sentido. Según cuenta, en la universidad, “parecía como si la actitud de ciertos literatos hacia la generación beat fuese la misma que la de algunos oficiales de mi barco hacia Elvis Presley, los cuales abordaban a los marineros que parecían capacitados para informar, porque, por ejemplo, se peinaban como Elvis Presley, preguntándoles inquietos: ‘¿Cuál es su mensaje? ¿Qué quiere?’”. Repitan todos, atemorizados: ¿Qué quiere ese pelo de Elvis, qué coño quiere contarnos? Y ahondando en ello: “Estábamos en un punto de transición, un extraño periodo de tiempo cultural posterior a la generación beat, y nuestras lealtades estaban divididas. Lo mismo que el bop y el rock’n’roll eran con respecto al swing y al pop de posguerra, así era esa nueva manera de escribir con respecto a la tradición moderna más establecida a cuya influencia estábamos expuestos en la universidad. Por desgracia, no teníamos otras alternativas de primer orden. Éramos espectadores: el desfile había pasado y ya lo recibíamos todo de segunda mano, éramos consumidores de lo que los medios de comunicación de la época nos suministraban”. Al lío: vamos con el libro. Los dos primeros relatos, ‘Lluvia ligera’ y ‘Tierras bajas’ ni siquiera llegan a ser desarrollados como tal. Son esquemas de personajes, de escenarios donde desarrollar conflictos que no llegan nunca a surgir, donde Pynchon tira de experiencias propias para escribir, y donde se queda corto. Sobre esto: “No sé de dónde había sacado la idea de que la vida personal del escritor no tiene nada que ver con su ficción, cuando lo cierto, como todo el mundo sabe, es casi todo lo contrario. Además, tenía a mi alrededor abundantes pruebas de esa verdad, aunque prefería ignorarlas, pues, de hecho, la ficción tanto publicada como inédita que me conmovía y me satisfacía entonces y ahora era, precisamente, la que resultaba luminosa y sin ninguna duda auténtica porque había sido hallada y elevada, siempre pagando un coste, desde los niveles más profundos y más compartidos de la vida real que todos vivimos”. Al menos aprovecha para para experimentar con su oído para los diferentes acentos del inglés y con la técnica del “robo literario”, que parece llegar más o menos a mejor puerto en ‘Bajo la rosa’, un relato donde Pynchon vuelca su afición por las novelas de espías que leyó en su juventud y donde se ve ya, claro, el miedo a la conspiración y a La Bomba con mayúsculas. Mis favoritos son los dos que quedan. ‘Entropía’ y ‘La integración secreta’. El primero no es del gusto de Pynchon, es posible que incluso le avergüence. A mí me ha gustado por que la acción y sus personajes funcionan como una banda de músicos que se van calentando hasta que el ritmo estalla en un caos de ruido controlado. El narrador va de un punto a otro sin transiciones ni obstáculos de ningún tipo. También disfruto con la manera en que utiliza términos de geometría y termodinámica, aunque con esto el propio Pynchon se muestra especialmente crítico por su osadía de juventud. Sobre sus errores en este texto, escribe: “Con frecuencia desconocemos el alcance y la estructura de nuestra ignorancia, la cual no es sólo un espacio en blanco en el mapa mental de una persona, sino que tiene contornos y coherencia y, por lo que sé, también tiene sus normas. Así pues, como corolario a ese consejo de escribir sobre lo que conocemos, quizá podríamos añadir la necesidad de familiarizarnos con nuestra ignorancia y las probabilidades que tenemos, por falta de esa familiaridad, de echar a perder un buen relato”. Este es en mi opinión el consejo más útil que nos deja a los lectores, y no solo deberían tomar nota los aspirantes a escritor, también los periodistas.Ya termino: ‘La integración secreta’ podemos adorarlo sin problemas, es el favorito de Pynchon y es un gustazo leerlo: 50 páginas protagonizadas por una pandilla de cuatro chavales que parecen sacados de una película de los años ochenta, tipo ‘Los Goonies’, ‘Cuenta conmigo’ o ‘Los exploradores’, en una América que se resiste a dejar atrás el racismo y donde, muy pynchonianamente, la narración se dispara en múltiples direcciones, pudiendo tomar cualquiera de ellas. Todo lo escrito en ese relato, confiesa Pynchon, se fue al garete con su siguiente escrito publicado, ‘La subasta del Lote 49’, donde “parezco haber olvidado la mayor parte de lo que creía haber aprendido hasta entonces”. Entonces empezó la leyenda.[Algo más sobre Pynchon-Pynchon-Pynchon aquí:]

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.

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"


The last short story in this collection -- "The Secret Integration" -- saved this book from being a total let down for me. Hearing such rave reviews of Thomas Pynchon, I figured I'd start with his earliest work which he mostly wrote while still in college. That was a mistake. I should have started with his celebrated novel "Gravity's Rainbow" (which he wrote about 10 years later) but it was too bulky to take on my trip. While I thoroughly enjoyed the last story in this book about adolescents dealing with racial integration in the early 60s in the Berkshires (one of my favorite places) I hated intensely the story that came before it -- "Under the Rose." No clue what the hell was going on in this seeming spy tale in Egypt and absolutely no interest in figuring it out. Oddly, I loved Pynchon's Introduction most of all with his self-deprecating humor about how bad his early writing was. Some of my favorite lines were: "You may already know what a blow to the ego it can be to have to read over anything you wrote 20 years ago, even cancelled checks. My first reaction, rereading these stories, was 'oh my God,' accompanied by physical symptoms we shouldn't dwell on."


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.


I love Pynchon. However, I think the greatest satisfaction I got from this story collection was two-fold:1) the introduction, by the man himself! In a way, he lost a little of the glamorous sheen of anonymity he heretofore possessed, but otherwise, it was kind of thrilling to catch a glimpse of the man behind the curtain. It hasn't ruined the magic of any of his previous works, though being able to hold tenable the hypothesis that he is just as human as any other meatbag with a keyboard is exciting. It turns out he is neither demigod nor assemblage of monkeys at typewriters, so huzzah for that.2) the quality of the stories. They're good, but I think that's where I want to leave it. I could call them "nice" or "pleasant." They aren't suffering from a significant shortage of wit or craft, but they fall well short of the standard to which I normally hold Pynchon. They are, in short, his early works. He was once a beginner.Ha ha ha! Pynchon was once a novice!If my downstairs neighbors start banging on the ceiling, it will be because they were disturbed by the buoyancy of my gleeful dancing about the fact that Pynchon did not spring fully-formed from a bust of the literary canon.The man had a learning curve. Who knew? Neato.

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