Jen’s terrific pecha-kucha on Thomas Pynchon and “Entropy”:
On the surface it would seem that the two apartments, one atop the other, are worlds apart from one another. Below is a loud and rioting party, filled with a rambunctious cast of characters, all who have had their fair share of intoxicants during the span of their 3 day party signifying the end of the lease on the apartment. Above Callisto and Aubade reside in a “hermetically sealed” (1486) sanctuary, seemingly separate from the outside world. As both houses resist impending changes to their environments, there exist parallels between the two seeming different rooms, resulting in the inevitable conclusion of “equilibrium” (1494). This equilibrium is foreshadowed by the presence of music, sound and noise
Similarly, despite the many differing characteristics of the two apartments, the presence of music reveals that they are in no way separate entities. Both settings are defined by music and sound. Downstairs the music pumps wildly and the characters and musicians debate about operas and instruments, resulting in an “ungodly crescendo” (1493) of noise, while above Aubade’s entire existence is dictated by sound, the “howling darkness of discordancy” (1486). The sound from below permeates the Callisto’s quarantined apartment, signifying that his precious isolated fantasy had been broken long before Aubade destroys the window to let the cold air in. In fact, it is the music which first wakes Callisto from sleep, foreshadowing the imminent realization of his obsession with entropy and the fact that no thing is perfectly sustainable. He frets about the weather’s constancy because he knows that it must change eventually. As a result of this mindset, foreshadowed by the overwhelming presence of noise that exists within both apartments thus connecting them, he too knows that the state he has created in his apartment must inevitably be destroyed by the chaos of the world, resulting in a horrifying equilibrium of that which he cannot control.
“Suddenly then, as if seeing the single and unavoidable conclusion… curious dominant of their separate lives should resolve into a tonic of darkness and the final absence of all motion.”
In Entropy, Pynchon mixes culture with science, specifically much like themes in other works he alludes to human control and how to achieve it and how long it can last.
As Callisto and Aubade continually keep the kitchen at 37 degrees Fahrenheit, they are creating a separate world, and science is what is allowing them to control it. Entropy and thermodynamics are the tools they are using to better this miniature world they have created in the kitchen. This world is much like the actual society they live in. The goal of the world they have created is improvement. In this case, Callisto and Aubade hope to improve the condition of the bird. By using their own heat and keeping the room at a consistent temperature they hope to do this.
The arc of story of the their bird, represents the two big themes of Entropy. Pynchon was a big believer in technology and its ability to improve the world. So he describes science as the tool to save a life in this story. But he also alludes to the increasingly monotonous world of the 1950s. Technology, while improving the world, is also making it much more streamlined and predictable.
The last sentence of Entropy addresses in both its structure and content both these themes, but also the fact that no matter how monotonous society may seem, nothing can completely eliminate uncertainty and poor circumstances. The sentence is a run-on. The constant continuation of it mirrors the concept of monotony, with the ides that something can go on without an interruption. However, when Aubade breaks the window both science and society fail here. No matter the intensive thought that went into transferring heat to the bird and controlling the world in which it was in, it has all literally gone out the window. And just as the bird’s environment, the sentence eventually ends, showing that no matter now long something continues, it will inevitably be interrupted.
Born May 8, 1937 in Glen Cove, New York of Long Island, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. is an a contemporary American novelist and writer of short stories. He is sometimes considered a “high modernist” as opposed to a postmodernist, characterized by his unwavering confidence in science and technology as means to reorder the modern world, socially and naturally, during the Cold War era. Along with his emphasis on sociopolitical themes like racial discrimination and imperialism, Pynchon blurs the line between “high” and “low” culture, focusing on both the philosophies and theologies of the upper class and the cartoons, cookery, conspiracies, and pulp fiction of those less affluent.
Pynchon was named “student of the year” by his high school newspaper for his early use of oddball names, sophomoric or wise-fool humor, odes to illicit drug use, and paranoia throughout his early writings. He went on to study engineering physics at Cornell University before serving a term of two years in the Navy. However, upon returning to Cornell, he changed his degree to English and published his first story in the Cornell Writer drawing on a friend’s experience in the Army. Pynchon graduated in 1959 and from 1960 to 1962 was employed as a technical writer at Boeing in Seattle, where he compiled safety articles for a newsletter in support of the BOMARC surface-to-air missile deployed by the U.S. Air Force. This experience in technical journalism and his knowledge of physics later combined with his love for popular culture, obscure historical tales, and contemporary comic books and led to the mix of history, science, and mathematics that appears in his novels.
After resigning from Boeing, Pynchon spent time in both New York and Mexico, where he reportedly worked from the 1960s to the early 1970s in his Manhattan Beach apartment writing Gravity’s Rainbow, his most renowned novel. He won the National Book Award for Fiction for the book and a unanimous nomination for the Pulitzer Prize fiction award, but was turned down for being “unreadable and obscene.” Warner Berthoff claimed that Pynchon’s vast knowledge and encyclopedic effort was as “encyclopedically monotonous and static” with so many ideas presented at the same time in the same way or with “exactitude in imagination” (Norton 1483). However, the artistic value of Gravity’s Rainbow is often compared to that of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Despite the disagreement as to Pynchon’s, endurance as an American writer, his wit, daring, and exuberance were thought to exceed those of all his contemporaries. Pynchon flirted with the lifestyle and some of the habits of the Beat and Hippie countercultures rejecting traditional standards, but found later that beat culture “placed too much emphasis on youth, including the eternal variety” as he stated in his introduction to “Slow Learner.” While “Slow Learner” was published in 1984, many of the stories found within it were published sometime earlier, including “Entropy” of 1960, in which Pynchon’s inclinations towards freedom contrast with the institutions of technological society. “Entropy” introduces the concept with which Pynchon’s name has come to be associated as it is the law of nature in which everything slowly goes to disorder. As the world endures more irreversible processes of science, more free energy is lost. Thus, Pynchon compares this loss to the losses incurred through modernization and the increasing disorder of the society. “Entropy” preceded Pynchon’s first novel, V. of 1963, a book that is as hard to read as a labyrinth is to navigate. However, while a maze is complicated and irregular, requiring a choice between passages, a labyrinth has only a single path leading to the center. Similarly, each of the characters exuberant “individual paranoias,” in Pynchon’s stories, while absurd, return the reader right back to the central idea Pynchon is parodying, questioning and exploring. “In Pynchon’s world everything serious has its silly aspects, while bits of trivia and foolery are suddenly elevated, through the style, into objects of sublime contemplation…” (Norton 1483).
Pynchon received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1988 and is frequently cited by Americans as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Influenced by such an eclectic group, it’s not worth naming any specific names that influenced Pynchon’s style that is wholly his own in the fiction of his time period. However, James Wood sometimes associates him with the genre of “hysterical realism” along with Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Salman Rushdie, writing the “big, ambitious novel” that “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being” and attempt to tell us “how the world works rather than how somebody felt about something.”
It is true that little else is known about Pynchon’s private life other than his time at Cornell University. Very little photos of him are in circulation; he is often called a recluse by the media. An article published in the Soho Weekly News actually claimed that Pynchon was in fact J. D. Salinger, to which Pynchon’s written response was “Not bad. Keep trying.” It is said that he moved to California after living in New York and married his literary agent, Melanie Jackson, descendant of Theodore Roosevelt and granddaughter of a Supreme Court Justice, where he fathered his son, Jackson, in 1991. Pynchon’s remaining novels, the last one dating 2013, are almost as dense, complex, and esoteric as the first couple, despite reaching towards the more conventional subjects of family drama and crime. I’ll leave you with his identifying words: “every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength.”