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.


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.


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.


Despite what the author would have you believe, I greatly enjoyed this collection of his early stories, despite the few 'flaws' he highlights in his excellent Introduction (absolutely worth reading even if you do not intend to read any other stories). Although I see his points about why you should always start from the characters themselves instead of plot points or academic theoretical considerations, and I do see the 'overwriting' in some places he also abhors, the biggest flaw with this collection in my mind is that it does not include his second published story, 'Mortality and Mercy in Vienna'[0], which is certainly on the level of the others (it was probably left out due to some copyright issue or something). By all means if you haven't read this one, use it to warm up for 'Bleeding Edge' in the fall![0] I read the version available from here ( after 'The Small Rain' to maintain chronological order.


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.

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"

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.

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.


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.


The most interesting aspect of this volume of short stories is the introduction by its author Thomas Pynchon. He's very funny and there is a certain amount of charm in how he looks at his work when he was young... and before he became the icon that he is now. The only book I have read all the way through is his last novel "Inherent Vice" which I loved, because it reminded me of my youth in Southern California and all the references both culturally and actual stores in actual locations are just perfect. The other book I love is "Against the Day" and I stopped reading it half-way through. Not due to the book itself, but I think more due to life at the time. It was such a rich experience to go through that book, and it is one of the few pieces of literature, where I thought this guy is actually a genius. And yes i will finish that book!The short stories here are very so-so, but has touches of his brilliance but not totally formed yet. I think the short story format is too restrictive for Pynchon - he needs the big scale 70mm book print to get his ideas across. And even that its difficult due to his narratives, which are deeply textured and not simple by any means. He's a writer where you really think about the research he has done and the way he conveys or writes his thoughts down on paper - it is not a book about his personal life, but the life that lives in his head.


This is the closest of any Thomas Pynchon work I've come to finishing. It's not that it isn't good; far from it. It's just that if you're like me, and you find brilliant fiction difficult to tackle, you tend to chicken out, quit reading when it starts to get to you, and go read a book about the Normandy invasion or something. I really want to be able to read Gravity's Rainbow, for example; but it terrifies me. Slow Learner was more my speed, and I was at least able to keep up. Largely because it's just a collection of stories. One day, before I die, I'd like to be smart enough to read more Thomas Pynchon and really get him. As is, I've tried two of his books every four years for the last 12 years of my life. Each time, I still don't feel like I'm smart enough to get out of Gravity's Rainbow or V all I should get out of it. Slow Learner is a taste of things to come, and if it pans out, I'll be reading some great fiction if I live to 97. D*mn Jacques Derrida.NC


My first reaction, rereading these stories, was oh my God, accompanied by physical symptoms we shouldn't dwell upon.This, from the opening paragraph of Thomas Pynchon's introduction to his earliest published stories, appears at first to be a self-conscious oversell of false modesty. Even after watching him pick apart the stories for the first 25 pages, one by one and with an assiduous efficiency, you still don't believe they are going to be bad. But then you read the first story, and you start to wonder if this hypothetical scenario of 1980s Pynchon meeting 1950s/60s Pynchon isn't, in fact, too generous: ...if through some as yet undeveloped technology I were to run into him today, how comfortable would I feel about lending him money, or for that matter even stepping down the street to have a beer and talk over old times?Young Pynchon doesn't come off as a dick or even mostly unlikeable, but he doesn't come across as very interesting either. Or, perhaps most surprisingly, as very talented. And here's the silver lining: these stories firmly place the virtuosic talents Pynchon later developed into the realm of possibility for the modestly talented but ambitious would-be writer. Granted, all but one of these stories were written in college, but even so, any previously tempting apotheosis of the man will be permanently erased upon reading these. So that's the good news (I guess). But they aren't much fun to read, and I struggled to remain engaged through each one of them. I'm not going to go into detail about the problems here, mainly because Pynchon does such a damn good job of it in his introduction. It probably goes without saying, however, that any book that peaks with the introduction is in pretty serious trouble.


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.


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.

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