Analysis of Thomas Pynchon’s Entropy

Thomas Pynchon’s early short story “Entropy” heralds many of the thematic concerns and stylistic features that were to make his novels The Crying of Lot 49, V., and Gravity’s Rainbow central to the canon of American Postmodernism. Most notable of these, as the title indicates, is his deployment of self-consciously recondite and comically extravagant metaphors drawn from scientific concepts that threaten to disintegrate and render absurd the established humanistic worldview. Entropy serves as the organizing (and disorganizing) principle of the story inasmuch as many of Pynchon’s metaphors and images derive from his confl ation of two somewhat different, but related, conceptions of the term—one arising out of thermodynamics and the other arising out of cybernetics, the science of information and what the text refers to as “communication theory” (75).

The second law of thermodynamics states that “for the universe as a whole, or an isolated part of it, processes forward in time tend to increase disorder,” the maximal degree of which is entropy (Friedman 84). Within a closed system, energy (in this case, heat) disperses from areas of higher concentration to those of lesser, ultimately producing an equilibrium of evenly distributed energy throughout the system such that no work can be done (physics conceives energy as the capacity to do work) and no change can occur. Entropy, a condition of “form and motion abolished,” is, then, metaphorically comparable to the theological concept of limbo (Pynchon 69). As Pynchon’s story implies, the slow heat death of the universe generally is unnoticed because of daily and seasonal temperature fluctuations, but these are better understood as variations on a developing theme. This is the contextual significance of the unchanging temperature upon which the character Callisto fixates. The entropic state of maximal disorder due to minimal energy is accompanied by disintegration of structures inasmuch as structures, particularly biological structures, constitute sites of consolidated energy. The fact that entropic processes produce chaos in any system authorizes Callisto to reformulate the laws of thermodynamics in more human terms as, “You can’t win, things are going to get worse before they get better, who says they’re going to get better” (72).

Narrative elements of the story are also typical of Pynchon’s operating procedures, notably a predilection for characters with ridiculous, ostentatiously contrived names (Meatball Mulligan, Callisto, Aubade) and abrupt cross-cutting among parallel actions performed by a contingent of eccentrics (the “crew”) converged, seemingly, by contingency but perhaps drawn together by a hypothetical, certainly unknowable, sorting mechanism. This mechanism has been designated “Maxwell’s demon” by theoretical physics after James Clerk Maxwell’s thought experiment challenging the second law of thermodynamics. Traces of a mechanism that sorts highly energized atoms from less energized ones into adjacent spaces might be discerned in the story’s reversal of this process, as the surging incursions and noisy turbulence of Meatball’s downstairs party seep through the floorboards of consciousness into the hermetic confines of Callisto and Aubade’s apartment upstairs. The ambiguity of the relationship between these lower and upper worlds becomes more apparent on considering the fact that, according to thermodynamics, “any particular system can become more ordered and energetic if it does so at the expense of greater disorder and loss of energy in the rest of the universe” (Friedman and Puetz 70). (The impairment of seemingly inviolate structures by entropic incursions is probably the metaphorical import that also dictates Pynchon’s allusion to William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary, which concerns the violation of the aptly named Temple Drake.) In Pynchon’s fictions the figure of Maxwell’s demon can generally be seen in the sudden surprising entry or unexpected disruptive act of a seemingly minor character, whose interruption defl ects and redirects the trajectory of the narrative and causes its constituent elements, such as the behavior of the other characters, to be reordered (Friedman 87). The fact that many physics textbooks used to depict the demon as “opening and closing doors” as it sorts atoms into the compartments “of a divided box” (88) may warrant interpreting the crew of sailors who barge through a door into Meatball Mulligan’s lease-breaking party as a personification of this mechanism. Their incursion necessitates that Meatball expend a great deal of energy to sort things out in the attempt to prevent the party from “deteriorating into total chaos” (Pynchon 84), although even before this he had resorted to tequila as a means of “restoring order to his nervous system” (70).

Thomas Pynchon/Vulture

The fact that entropy is only tendentially true authorizes the presence of a thematic element in the story derived from the convergence of physics and mathematics, another source of metaphor prevalent in Pynchon’s novels. Statistical mechanics, “a branch of physics that was recognized at the end of the nineteenth century as the mathematical base to the entropy concept” (Friedman 78), attempts to establish the principle of likelihood—a hypothetical average or mean, a convenient indication of typicality—after first calculating predictable deviations. Callisto speaks from this perspective when he articulates the principle “that the isolated system—galaxy, engine, human being, culture, whatever—must evolve spontaneously toward the Condition of the More Probable” (Pynchon 73). This principle has compelled him “in the sad dying fall of middle age, to a radical reevaluation of everything he had learned up to then” (73). One of his recognitions is that cosmological entropy has a social analog: conformity, the institutionalization of sameness, and the growing unlikelihood of deviation and uniqueness. This is especially evident in the area of consumerism, where he “discovered a similar tendency from the least to the most probable, from differentiation to sameness, from ordered individuality to a kind of chaos” (74). The end result of social conformity will be a cultural manifestation of heat death “in which ideas, like heat-energy, would no longer be transferred, since each point in it would ultimately have the same quantity of energy; and intellectual motion would, accordingly, cease” (74). Despite Callisto’s proclaimed awareness of “the dangers of the reductive fallacy,” despite his desire to remain “strong enough not to drift into the graceful decadence of an enervated fatalism,” and despite his former conviction that “the forces of virtù [the manly capacity to intervene and control] and fortuna [fortune or chance]” have always been equal (73), Callisto begins to believe that “a random factor [had] pushed the odds to some unutterable and indeterminate ratio which he found himself afraid to calculate” (73).

It should be noted at this point that Callisto shares Pynchon’s penchant for reading prevailing cultural practices as signs to be connected into revelatory patterns, although it is also the case that the author satirizes the search for symptomatic indices as itself symptomatic of a culturally pervasive apocalyptic paranoia. He also tends to overwhelm the reader’s semiotic and diagnostic attempt to ascertain or construct patterns with a plethora of allusions amalgamating elite and mass cultures (ranging, in this instance, from Roman and medieval philosophical concepts to jazz saxophonists and popular songs from the 1920s–40s). That said, on the evidence of “Entropy” no less than the novels, Pynchon is as prone as Callisto is to scrutinizing fin de siecle decadence and the period of the two world wars for prophetic signs of the jejune condition that will typify postmodernity. Thus, pondering the popularity of the tango and Igor Stravinsky’s incorporation of that “sad, sick dance” into classical music, Callisto wonders, “What had tango music been for them after the war, what meanings had he missed in all the stately coupled automatons in the cafés-dansants, or in the metronomes which had ticked behind the eyes of his own partners?” (79). It is highly significant that Stravinsky’s tango is said to have “managed to communicate . . . the same exhaustion, the same airlessness one saw” in the indifferent, conformist, and imitative youth of the 1920s: Music, for both Callisto and Pynchon, is “information” (80).

The second conception of entropy deployed by Pynchon is derived from cybernetics’s understanding that information is constituted as a patterned organization of recognizable, coherent signals and that the entropic process is discernible in the degree of randomness, unpredictability, and lack of formal coherence or disorganization in such signals. Information being transferred in messages is subject to signal breakup, while noise constitutes an extreme degree of signal dissipation and randomness. By figurative extension, entropy, or noise, is also present in misunderstanding, which constitutes an inefficient reception of the signals. Whatever seems garbled or meaningless is entropic. However, signals organized into unfamiliar and therefore unrecognizable, unpredictable patterns—such as AVANT-GARDE jazz improvisation—may also seem to be noise because of the intricacy of their coherence. Jazz improvisation exemplifies how some information systems, notably biological systems, are self-monitoring and self-adjusting; they resist information entropy by utilizing feedback loops that allow information output to be introduced back into the system as input. From the perspective of cybernetics, the human mind and culture are patterned continuities of information feedback taking the form of memory. (Note in this regard Callisto’s preoccupation with his past.) Feedback is central to the reversal of information entropy (signal breakup and communication breakdown) by the ongoing correction (compensatory reordering) of noise into meaningful signals. Examples of the compensatory reordering of signals can be heard in the conversation Meatball has with Duke di Angelis, an avant-garde musician, which in part entails the correction of memory lapses regarding the names of songs and the venue where a song was played in the wrong key (itself an example of signal distortion).

Music is a major source of Pynchon’s metaphoric exploration of communication breakdown and noise as a ramification of entropic processes, and a music vocabulary figures significantly throughout the story. As a two-part invention that counterpoints entropic processes occurring in two apartments, the story is organized along the lines of a simplified fugue, a form in which a theme and tonic key is announced by an initial instrumental voice and then harmoniously developed, through contrapuntal variation, by succeeding instrumental voices. The sentence linking “a stretto passage in the year’s fugue” with “months one can easily spend in fugue” (67) indicates that Pynchon also has in mind what psychology designates a fugue state, a state of mental disorganization characterized by the disintegration of memory regarding an environmental situation that has been unconsciously rejected and physically evaded. Metaphorically speaking, the fantastical closed refuge of Callisto and Aubade—an artificial “hothouse” in both the thermodynamic and ecological senses of the term—might be said to represent just such a state. Counterpointing Meatball’s open house, the outside rarely enters the couple’s “[h]ermetically sealed . . . enclave of regularity in the city’s chaos,” and therefore it is “alien to the vagaries of the weather [and to] any civil disorder” (68).

The quasi-autistic Aubade lives “on her own curious and lonely planet,” where all physical sensations “came to her reduced inevitably to the terms of sound: of music which emerged at intervals from a howling darkness of discordancy” (69). Thus, she can hear “a motif” of tree sap rising in an “unresolved anticipatory theme of . . . blossoms, which, it is said, insure fertility” (79). But she feels under unremitting threat of the noisy “hints of anarchy . . . to which she had continually to readjust lest the whole structure shiver into disarray of discrete and meaningless signals” (73). Reiterating the signal of his cybernetic theme, Pynchon writes that Callisto has designated “the process . . . a kind of ‘feedback’ ” (73). Aubade’s acute sensitivity makes it hard for her to modulate the world, and her desperate, exhaustive “vigilance” requires an expenditure of energy that is in diminishing supply. She is subliminally disturbed by the sounds generated by Meatball’s lease-breaking party, hearing the music rise “in a tangled tracery: arabesques of order competing fugally with the improvised discords [that] peaked sometimes in cusps and ogees of noise . . . [a] signal-to-noise ratio whose delicate balance required every calorie of her strength” (79). Aubade breaks a window to allow the apartment heat to disperse toward “equilibrium” with the outside so that she and Callisto will eventually be “resolve[d] into a tonic of darkness and the final absence of all motion” (85–86). Given that “the soul (spiritus, ruach, pneuma) is nothing, substantially, but air” and that, therefore, “it is only natural that warpings in the atmosphere should be recapitulated in those who breathe it” (67), Aubade’s suicidal act is also a liberating counterentropic improvisation in which the noisy act of breaking barriers introduces “disorganization” into the “airless void,” the closed circuit, the set piece, she and Callisto have made their lives.

Loud noises and instances of breaking—beginning with the party-crashing sailors and culminating in Aubade’s window—take some of their meaning from intervening conversations that Meatball has with his friends Saul and Duke. Saul reports that his wife threw a Handbook of Chemistry and Physics through a window during an argument about, absurdly, “communication theory.” The point of Saul’s commentary on this conversation is that often the information in the intended message breaks up in reception because the denotative sign has different connotative significations. Saul introduces another aspect of entropic communication, “leakage,” illustrating this phenomenon through reference to communiqués of love, “that nasty four-letter word” that destructively intervenes between an erotically closed circuit of an “I” and a “you,” thereby producing “Ambiguity. Redundance. Irrelevance” (76). Saul continues, “All this is noise” that “screws up your signal, makes for disorganization in the circuit” (77). Meatball protests, but the repetitive, inelegant form of his protest demonstrates a degrading signal-to-noise ratio: “What it is is, most of the things we say, I guess, are mostly noise” (77). Referring to the difficulty of discussing the esoteric impenetrability of communication theory, Saul also introduces conspiracy theory, a Pynchon staple: “You get where you’re watching all the time for security cops . . . MUFFET [Multi-unit factorial field electronic tabulator] is top secret” (75). A subsequent conversation between Meatball and Duke constitutes a more oblique reference to the breakdown of communication by extrapolating to absurdity the logic of 1950s artistic experimentation. Just as the jazz avantgarde’s abandonment of “root chords” has compelled the deprived listener to think them back into the music (82), Duke’s group now plays its tunes with imaginary instruments—a groovy variant on “the reductive fallacy” (73).

Pynchon’s convergence of the thermodynamic and the cybernetic conceptions of entropy is most explicitly signified when he describes Callisto’s failure to “transfer” his body heat to the dying bird as a failure to “communicat[e] life” to it (85). As the sky proceeds toward an entropic “uniform darkening,” a disruptive noise from below shatters the torpor upstairs, causing the awakened Callisto’s pulse “to pound more fiercely, as if trying to compensate” for the pulse of the dying bird. But bird and story settle toward “a graceful diminuendo down at last into stillness” (85). Considering that an aubade is a poem or song that either celebrates daybreak or laments the parting of lovers at daybreak, the story ends on an ambiguous note. Callisto thinks he has discovered that love and power are “identical” inasmuch as love really does “make the world [and “the nebula precess”] go round,” as the pop song claims (69). That being the case, the ensuing entropic equilibrium might be thought to entail not the death of love, but the inability of anything to love any longer.

Analysis of Thomas Pynchon’s Novels

Barth, John. “The Literature of Exhaustion.” In The Friday Book. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.
Friedman, Alan J. “Science and Technology.” In Approaches to ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ edited by Charles Clerc. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983.
Pynchon, Thomas. “Entropy.” In Slow Learner. New York: Bantam Books, 1985.
Tanner, Tony. Thomas Pynchon. London/New York: Methuen, 1982.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Postmodernism, Short Story

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