About a month before school began I came across this gem in a Half-Price Books store. I knew that I admired Pynchon’s work (Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice, all of which I recommend as well), so I thought I would check out how well he wrote when he was about my age. I did not find great stories in this collection, or early signs of an American literary wunderkind. What I found was an introduction that gave me comfort in the immaturity of my own writing. Often upon revisiting my own work I come down with the grippe from pure embarrassment. My stomach contorts and I immediately consider calling anyone who has seen the story. I consider pulling a Prince, hereafter signing my name as an unintelligible symbol to be referred to as “the paragon of inadequacy that is Caleb Smith.” After telling myself that it isn’t that bad—or that I can learn something from the piece—I calm down and realize that I’m hypercritical of myself, and even if it was that terrible it does not preclude me from continuing to write.
The actual stories will not blow you away with elegant prose or subtle genius; it is, in the author’s own words, “pretentious, goofy, and ill-considered.” But that is exactly what I love about them. In Pynchon’s introduction to the collection he discusses his obsession with seeming literary and being a part of the Beat movement, which ultimately collapse into “some mighty tiresome passages.” Pynchon is ruthless toward his own writing and his younger self, often so rude and sarcastic that I actually laughed out loud. But he berates himself on our behalf, and demolishes the notion that literary genius is innate. When you read the stories, the issues that he outlines in the introduction are glaring. At times I had to put the book down because I was privileged to the knowledge of the older, wiser Pynchon. The poor attempts at phonetic spelling made me cringe every time, and I am certain that it would not have been so bad had he not pointed out his case of “Bad Ear.” The introduction comes with some great, quotable advice for young writers: “get too conceptual, too cute and remote, and your characters die on the page”; “Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person’s mental map. It has contours and coherence”; “It is simply wrong to begin with a theme, symbol or other abstract unifying agent, and then try to force characters and events to conform to it.” Pynchon analyzes his own work in order to come to these conclusions, and along the way displays the effect of the Beat insurrection, JFK, and the Cold War on American writing.
My copy from Half-Price cost $7.50, but I’m sure you could find it on Amazon for cheaper. It is worth the money, even if only for the introduction. If you have ever doubted your ability to write, or if you have written something that made you pray for a time-machine in order to return to your self-proclaimed “moment of inspiration” and slap the folly out of yourself, then you will find solace in this book. I have received the same advice from several different sources—so there must be truth in it—write on, through the good and the bad. Slow Learner makes the bad times more bearable and the good times less sacred.
Written by Caleb Smith ('17)