- Ironic Distance in Thomas Pynchon's "Entropy"
Verstand ist mechanischer, Witz ist chemischer, Genie ist organischer Geist.Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische und theoretische Schriften
Thomas Pynchon's early short story "Entropy" (1960) seems to be captured in a hermeneutic predicament. There exist two customary ways of misreading it. The first reads the concept of entropy into "Entropy," the story, leading thereby to thematic mystification. The second sees in "Entropy" the textual seed of Pynchon's mature achievements, invoking thus a noxious teleological organicism, for the specificity of this small piece is obliterated in the interests of its author's monumental novels. One way or another, the resulting interpretation begs the question by proclaiming that entropy has always been the question. It is not all that easy to dodge biographical causality, what the narrator in V. calls "the fiction of continuity, the fiction of cause and effect, the fiction of a humanized history endowed with 'reason'" (306). But the excesses of thematic criticism seem hardly excusable. 1 Its dangers are substantially aggravated in this case, since the very concept of entropy is often used [End Page 298] as the intellectual key to the postmodernist Zeitgeist. In general, Pynchon critics seem little satisfied with Judith Chambers's description of entropy as Pynchon's "most dominant metaphor" (40). For them, entropy is Pynchon's theme, and it is the theme of our time.
The critical fate of "Entropy" is shaped by Tony Tanner's apostolic assertion, "Thomas Pynchon made his intentions clear from the outset," and by his construing these intentions as writing "about a world succumbing to entropy" (153). This goal was seen, moreover, as informing his two first novels. Tanner's City of Words appeared in 1971, the same year in which Rudolf Arnheim's influential Entropy and Art was published. The application of scientific paradigms about order and entropy to the exegesis of culture was regarded, in spite of watchful reminders, as a legitimate activity, yet there was no clear sense of how literature could profit from it. In fact, there is a case for stating that "Entropy" preemptively dramatizes such epistemological uncertainty. Thus while Tanner conceded that Pynchon warns readers about "the potential perils of pattern-making" (156), he readily yielded to the temptation of making entropy a hermeneutic pattern. The notion of entropy was rapidly put into critical circulation and exegetic service. Joseph W. Slade commented that "the concept of entropy will structure Pynchon's novels" (40), while William M. Plater saw in "Entropy" "an aesthetic source and a preface for the novels that follow" (34). While in agreement about the revelatory nature of the story, John Stark replaced entropy with "the norm of the improbable" (57). More specifically, Anne Mangel and Mark Richard Siegel reported a thematic continuity—based on "the state of heat-death" (Mangel 94) and "the dead-end vision of entropy" (Siegel 5)—from the early story to, respectively, The Crying of Lot 49 and V. Some years later, Heinz Ickstadt and Molly Hite devoted books to the theme of order and entropy in Pynchon's work without making a single reference to the story "Entropy." Thus by the 1980s, the tendency to absorb "Entropy" into entropy was well under way. As Stephen P. Schuber pointed out in 1983, "entropy and related issues are so thoroughly embedded in Pynchon criticism that an exhaustive index of 'entropic' readings might closely approximate [End Page 299] a list of some of the most frequently cited responses to his fiction" (47).
Simultaneously, in the late 1970s, the story began to receive autonomous critical attention. Yet the tide did not turn. Peter Bischoff, for instance, still saw in the title of Pynchon's "programmatic story" the "key for the interpretation of his whole work" (226; my translation). "Entropy" was also scrutinized for intertextual clues other than the explicit, and an exotic wealth of sources was provided. In these readings, the referential validity of entropy, whether cosmic or social, chemical or communicative, was largely taken for granted. 2 For new critics who retained the category, assuming its heuristic value, critical innovation seemed improbable. The risk of repetition was high after Tanner's impressive diagnosis. Only...