I randomly stumbled on a .pdf link with a short story titled Entropy written by Thomas Pynchon, one of his early works. I usually avoid reading on a screen but it was just about 20 pages and I was curious since entropy is something that surfaces often lately (see the recent blog themes on cosmology and such).

Well, it’s an amazing, lovely short story. Something of its style makes me think of David Foster Wallace more than other stuff I read by Pynchon. Looking up the publishing date it seems that he was merely 23 at latest when he wrote it. See, this is the kind of talent that doesn’t require to be nourished or care to develop. It’s all right there in plain sight. An infuriating (because of envy) ease with words. The complex, measured and rich style, but it all comes off as… effortless.

Then, looking for other info about that story I found out this other page. It seems Pynchon doesn’t like at all this story and decided to use it to show aspiring writers what NOT to do:

He criticizes himself quite harshly, asserting that the work seems to have stemmed from the desire to “commit on paper a variety of abuses, such as overwriting.” He claims that the work is an example of a young writer’s mistake of forcing a theme onto the characters rather than having the former develop through the latter, that his concentration on the concept led him to “shortchange the humans in the story.” He offers budding writers the following words of wisdom: “Get too conceptual, too cute and remote, and your characters die on the page.”

In fact, much of what Pynchon has to say in his Introduction concerning this particular story is in the form of advice to those of us who plan on writing short stories in the future. As though the publication of “Entropy” were a sort of public service to those in danger of writing similar-grade fiction, Pynchon tells us what he does about this story “only on the chance that others may. . . profit from my error.”

Yes, Pynchon is SO pretentious that he can ridicule a wonderful short story he himself wrote. Because, obviously, his worst thing is still better than every other writer (one assumes).

I’m bringing all this up because it’s related to my recent review of Gene Wolfe’s work. I consider Pynchon another blatant example of “esoteric” writing. His skill manipulating and articulating words is unbelievable, but what he writes is very hard to follow, dense, convoluted. More often than not you read, but you can’t understand what it is about. Pynchon’s writing is like a warp tunnel in the fabric of reality, or in that “artificial” reality that we represent (the subjective), and live. Everything is always set in an inextricable tangle of obscure cultural references. I always wonder what kind of magical device Pynchon uses to pack so much subtext. One thing is to weave together things you know, another is to appear omniscient. You open the door a crack and a whirlpool invests you, leaving you dizzy.

The interesting part in this is in the idealistic idea of literature: a thing living on its own. Literature as a golem. An artificial creation that contains its own, autonomous world. Pynchon idealizes all this because his writing is so skillful to appear more than real. A thing on its own, with its own rules. And then the obvious risk that Pynchon explained in that quote, and that I mentioned in Wolfe’s case. The risk that the story becomes completely detached and cold: “too conceptual, too cute and remote, and your characters die on the page.” I was reminded of a discussion on Bakker’s blog about the “spandrel” (in that case in the context of biology). And these worlds made of words, like impossible bridges spanning the sky, seemingly without a support, if not the strength of their own spandrels. They don’t crumble merely because you believe. At the very least they provoke a sense of awe.

In this short story Pynchon does something with the structure that is typical of DF Wallace style too, the literary world contained in two rooms and whoever enters them. Then in dialogue and context he develops a theme (entropy, here) that starts as the object of attention, and then becomes the whole frame of the story. Pynchon calls this “forcing a theme onto the characters”, but the construction is so perfect that I can only watch in awe.

The thing is that this kind of very pretentious intent works great in a short story of 20 pages. Aimed and delivered. Its “esoteric” aspect is not as irritating as in Wolfe’s case (or other books by Pynchon) because the thing is “contained”. You read it in one go, and can grasp it. As if you can hold this, still very complex and dense, story on your palm. So you can observe it attentively, turn it around. You can wholly contain it and consider it. While instead with sky-spanning literary bridges you can’t do this, because you have to stay suspended like that for far too long and the signal is so strong that it becomes just noise. But in this short story it is a thing of beauty.

This kind of pretentiousness can definitely be tolerated in a miniature work where everything is gracefully placed in a perfect system. I really don’t care if the characters succumb to plot, as long they give even the illusion to extend off the page, suggesting more. It’s a brilliant, masterfully written short story, whatever Pynchon may say. I don’t think he could write it any better today.


  1. Hi, I came across your blog while searching for ‘Entropy’. Cool post! I am curious to read the story in original. Any chance you may still have the .pdf with you? I tried accessing the link you have given but to no avail. If you could send it to me (mandargadre@gmail.com) that would be great!

    Thank you.

  2. I only found this:

    Not exactly the best reading experience, though.

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  1. […] one hand for example this book brings heavily back the theme of “Entropy” used in that short story I randomly stumbled on. And Pynchon implicitly reinforces this connection, not just as a theme in […]

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