Thomas Pynchon on D.C.

“Downstairs, Meatball Mulligan’s lease-breaking party was moving into its 40th hour.” Thus begins Thomas Pynchon’s short story “Entropy,” which I discovered leafing through a collection of his early work that I picked up at a booksale the other day. To me, the best part about this story is not the first line — although I love the idea of a lease-breaking party — but instead the setting: Washington, D.C.

In “Entropy” Pynchon explores his conception of the scientific theory through two apartments in D.C. in 1957: one is the site of a raucous, 3-day party and the other is the home of a eccentric recluse obsessing over the death of a pet bird. For more on the story this Pynchon website has some observations, but what interests me most in the story is the subtle influence of D.C. I might argue his story maps the archeology of youth culture in our fair city: there’s a local band that has only recorded one LP, a group of government girls who “worked for people like the State Department and NSA,” a drunken group of Navy enlisted men, and an “ex-Hungarian freedom fighter, and even “three coeds from George Washington, all of whom were majoring in philosophy,” each carrying a “gallon of Chianti.” (Did GW offer philosophy in 1957? If they did, was it worth taking?).

He’s even got the weather spot on:

Rain splatted against the tar paper on the roof and was fractured into a fine spray off the noses, eyebrows and lips of wooden gargoyles under the eaves, and ran like drool down the windowpanes. The day before, it had snowed and the day before that there had been winds of gale force and before that the sun had made the city glitter bright as April, though the calendar read early February. It is a curious season in Washington, this false spring. Somewhere in it are Lincoln’s Birthday and the Chinese New Year, and a forlornness in the streets because cherry blossoms are weeks away still and, as Sarah Vaughan has put it, spring will be a little late this year. Generally crowds like the one which would gather in the Old Heidelberg […] are inevitably and incorrigibly Romantic. And as every good Romantic knows, the soul (spiritus, ruach, pneuma) is nothing, substantially, but air; it is only natural that warpings in the atmosphere should be recapitulated in those who breathe it. So that over and above the public components – holidays, tourist attractions – there are private meanderings, linked to the climate as if this spell were a stretto passage in the year’s fugue: haphazard weather, aimless loves, unpredicted commitments: months one can easily spend in fugue, because oddly enough, later on, winds, rains, passions of February and March are never remembered in that city, it is as if they had never been.

As someone who left my apartment today in the rain this morning, watched several of inches of snow pile up and melt during the day, and return home under gray, fall-like skies, I found his description striking. Lastly, here’s his description of what can only be described as the prototype for the modern returned-from-abroad-ex-Peacecorps-volunteer-hipster you know you’ve met:

This was in early February of ’57 and back then there were a lot of American expatriates around Washington, D.C., who would talk, every time they met you, about how someday they were going to go over to Europe for real but right now it seemed they were working for the government. Everyone saw a fine irony in this. They would stage, for instance, polyglot parties where the newcomer was sort of ignored if he couldn’t carry on simultaneous conversations in three or four languages. They would haunt Armenian delicatessens for weeks at a stretch and invite you over for bulghour and lamb in tiny kitchens whose walls were covered with bullfight posters. They would have affairs with sultry girls from Andalucía or the Midi who studied economics at Georgetown. Their Dôme was a collegiate Rathskeller out of Wisconsin Avenue called the Old Heidelberg and they had to settle for cherry blossoms instead of lime trees when spring came, but in its lethargic way their life provided, as they said, kicks.

Although the modern versions of Pynchon’s characters certainly exist in the city, I have found few parties where they come together in quite the way he describes. Not only do GW undergrads rarely party with international types, I rarely spot a trio of philosophy majors each carrying a gallon of wine. Then again, perhaps I’m just going to the wrong parties.

Oddly, I can only find the full text of the story in two place on the web: the Google cache of a dead website, and in the Myspace profile of a kid named Tim from Fairfax.

Author: Rob Goodspeed