Thumbing through Thomas Pynchon’s Slow Learner, an anthology of his early short stories, in Shakespeare and Co. this weekend, I was struck by the first paragraphs of his funny and instructive introduction:
As nearly as I can remember, these stories were written between 1958 and 1964. Four of them I wrote when I was in college — the fifth, “The Secret Integration (1964), is more of a journeyman than an apprentice effort. 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 upon. My second thought was about some kind of a wall-to-wall rewrite. These two impulses have given way to one of those episodes of middle-aged tranquillity, in which I now pretend to have reached a level of clarity about the young writer I was back then. I mean I can’t very well just 86 this guy from my life. On the other hand, if through some as yet undeveloped techology 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?
It is only fair to warn even the most kindly disposed of readers that there are some mighty tiresome passages here, juvenile and delinquent too. At the same time, my best hope is that, pretentious, goofy, and ill-considered as they get now and then, these stories will still be of use with all their flaws intact, as illustrative of typical problems in entry-level fiction, and cautionary about some practices which younger writers might prefer to avoid.
As Pynchon launches into a critique of each of the stories collected in Slow Learner, the usually reclusive writer reveals a fair amount about the experiences that shaped them.
My responses to Pynchon’s fiction are mixed (i.e., I dislike every longer work I’ve attempted but admire The Crying of Lot 49). But this engaging introduction makes me hope he’ll write an autobiography one day.