Americans, Slow Learners, Schlemiels: On Thomas Pynchon’s Comical Figurations of Slowness & Sloth

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In his book 24/7, Jonathan Crary suggests that our “24/7” society of endless social networking is taking over our lives.  We are endlessly checking and updating our Facebook pages and, as things speed up, we barely get any sleep.  Strangely enough, for Crary, the only way to resist this negative insomnia is to sleep.   But there is another way to resist a society that calls for constant interaction with this or that interface.

Thomas Pynchon – years before the advent of Facebook or Twitter – suggests that the best way to resist society is through slowness and sloth.  He brings this out in his fiction – through characters, plot, language, and dialogue, – and in his non-fiction.  And in the recent film production of his book, Inherent Vice, Joaquin Phoenix is, appropriately, cast as the lead because he is, throughout the film, slow and slothful.  It takes him a while to wake up or show up to any event.   And, as we see throughout the film, things slowly dawn on him.  Phoenix’s portrayal of Doc suggests that, for Pynchon, it’s better to let things slowly and organically happen than to attack them (as we see with the alter-ego of Doc in the film and book, Bigfoot).   Doc, in effect, is a slow learner.  And in being slow he is able to avoid the speed driven LA culture of the 70s, which links power to speed.  Slow people, as Pynchon suggests, are free.

But this is the latest appearance of slowness.  Slowness and sloth go way back with Pynchon to his first stories and his novels.  I’ll take brief note of a few sites of slowness and sloth.   These reflections will inform a larger study of this trope which is, to be sure, comical and not tragic.

In the introduction to Pynchon’s short story collection, Slow Learner, Pynchon reflects on his first short stories.  Throughout his reflections, he takes note of how slow he is to learn and get things right.  Like a schlemiel of sorts (Pynchon dubs the main character of his first novel, Benny Profane, a “schlemiel detective” who just happens to be half Jewish), Pynchon takes note of how things seem to happen to him as he goes a long and slowly learns how to become writer (but this slowness doesn’t go away, and perhaps that’s the point).

Writing in the 80s and looking back at the short stories he wrote in the 50s, Pynchon humbly admits that he dupes himself with “one of those episodes of middle-aged tranquility, 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”(5, Slow Learner).

When he imagines what it would be like to meet himself, today, he points out how awkward that would make him feel: “If through some as yet undeveloped technology I were to run into him today, how uncomfortable I would feel about lending him money, or for that matter even stepping down the street to have a beer and talk over old times?”(ibid).

After noting this, Pynchon profusely apologizes to his readers for all the flaws in his writing.   When he describes his first short story, “The Small Rain” – which I recently wrote on in terms of Jewishness and fatness, two central motifs in the story – he takes note of the existential issue of facing death in the story.  He says that the characters do not “seriously” face death.  Rather, they come across as comical:

In “The Small Rain” characters are found dealing with death in pre-adult ways. They evade: they sleep late, they seek euphemisms.  When they do mention death they try to make with the jokes.  Worst of all, they hook it up with sex.  You’ll notice that toward the end of the story, some kind of sexual encounter appears to take place, though you’d never know it from the text.  (8)

These comments are telling because the same features of a comical encounter with death remain not only in his later novels but also in his last novel, Immanent Vice.  The comical aspect comes through in the belated and slothful relation to death- in the slow awareness of the characters who are usually overwhelmed by too much information and who happen to stumble upon connections (in the most happenstance manner).    “Lardass Levine,” in this story, is a slow character.  He does things in his own time and not in the time of the other GIs in the story.    And, more importantly, although he is physically a big guy, he is slow to act.  The sexual act, to be sure, doesn’t seem to happen.  He and the woman he runs into lay side-by-side in the “little rain.”  Levine is like a “little boy.”  He can’t be a man like the rest and he doesn’t want to be – although he does come across as masculine.

Later in the introduction, Pynchon notes how many people in the 80s – influenced by entrepreneurism of the Regan Era – may look like mature and powerful upwardly mobile but they are “incredible as it sounds, still small boys inside”(12). His characters, he suggests, are like this too.   Charcters may talk or act big on the outside, but we can all see that they are – through their deeds or failures – really small.   And this comes out in their change of speed.

At the end of the introduction, Pynchon suggests that he “elves must have snuck in” and “had a crack at his writing.”  He sees the small people as speaking through his novels.  He talks about his “small attachment” to his past and waves his hand, to so speak, saying that he – in the 80s – is just like (as Zappa put it), a “bunch of old guys playing rock’n’roll.”    Younger people, he fears, will pity him and even find him nostalgic. But what sticks out in this final description of himself in a different time is that he doesn’t fit in temporally; even so, readers in the 80s (and, of course, today) can humor him as an old guy pretending he is young.  What this amounts to is nothing more nor less than a schlemiel character.  Think for instance of Noah Baumbach’s casting of Ben Stiller in his film, While We’re Young.

Stiller is slow, out of rhythm, and belated, although he acts as if he’s young.  The theme of slowness and belatedness is what we find in Saul Bellow’s Herzog, as well.

In his book Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon introduces his main character “Slothrop” in the midst of things that require time to deal with.  His “desk is messy” and so is the prose that surrounds it. The eye of the narrator slowly wanders over everything she sees:

There must be cubicles like this all over the ETO: only the three dingy scuffed-cream fiberboard walls and no ceiling of its own. Tantivy shares it when an American colleague, Lt. Tyrone Slothrop.  Their desks are at right angles, so there’s no eye contact but by squeaking around some 90 degrees.   Tantivy’s desk is neat, Slothrop’s is a godawful mess. It hasn’t been cleaned own to the original wood surface since 1942. Things have fallen roughly through the layers, over a base of bureaucratic smegma that sifts steadily to the bottom, mad up of millions of tiny read and brown curls of rubber eraser, pencil shavings, dried tea or coffee stains, traces of sugar and household milk, much cigarette ash, very fine black debris picked and flung form typewriter ribbons, decomposing library paste, broken aspirins ground to  powder. (18)

The attention to small detail slows the reader down.  It’s so overwhelming that the character and the reader get stuck in the mess.     Sloth and slowness, it seems, are built into the novel.  One is belated because one can sense that, through all the detail, there is simply too much to catch up with and we are, like the narrator and Slothrop, slow learners.  To be sure, he’s always catching up with this leads in the book – much like Doc in Inherent Vice or Benny Profane in V.  The schlemiel detective will always be slow collecting the leads and this may have to do with smallness on a temporal and spatial sense.

I’ll end my brief reflection on slowness in Pynchon, by taking note of a comical article he wrote for the New York Times in 1993 entitled, “The Deadly Sins/Sloth; Nearer, my Couch, to Thee.”    Pynchon starts off the article by citing the Christian Theologian Thomas Aquinas who sees sloth as a “capital sin.”  This is the sin the Pynchon, to be sure, celebrates.  All writers are guilty of sloth:

Writers of course are considered the mavens of Sloth. They are approached all the time on the subject, not only for free advice, but also to speak at Sloth Symposia, head up Sloth Task Forces, testify as expert witnesses at Sloth Hearings. The stereotype arises in part from our conspicuous presence in jobs where pay is by the word, and deadlines are tight and final — we are presumed to know from piecework and the convertibility of time and money. In addition, there is all the glamorous folklore surrounding writer’s block, an affliction known sometimes to resolve itself dramatically and without warning, much like constipation, and (hence?) finding wide sympathy among readers.

Pynchon tells us that, today, Sloth has lost its “religious reverberations” since it has become a part of our culture.  Who doesn’t waste time, he reflects, watching TV, sitting on one’s couch, flipping channels, eating food?  Pynchon ups that ante- back in the 90s by comically suggesting putting up a few more TV sets. But, he asks, is this really Sloth?

“There’s nothing I like more than sitting around with a six-pack of beer, some chips and a remote control. . . . The TV station even featured me in a town parade. They went into my house, got my couch and put it on a float. I sat on the couch in my bathrobe and rode in the parade!’ “

Sure, but is it Sloth? The fourth television set at work, the fact that twice, the Tuber in question mentions sitting and not reclining, suggest something different here. Channel-surfing and VCR-jockeying may require a more nonlinear awareness than may be entirely compatible with the venerable sin of Sloth — some inner alertness or tension, as of someone sitting in a yoga posture, or in Zen meditation. Is Sloth once more about to be, somehow, transcended? Another possibility of course is that we have not passed beyond acedia at all, but that it has only retreated from its long-familiar venue, television, and is seeking other, more shadowy environments — who knows? computer games, cult religions, obscure trading floors in faraway cities — ready to pop up again in some new form to offer us cosmic despair on the cheap.

 Unless the state of our souls becomes once more a subject of serious concern, there is little question that Sloth will continue to evolve away from its origins in the long-ago age of faith and miracle, when daily life really was the Holy Ghost visibly at work and time was a story, with a beginning, middle and end. Belief was intense, engagement deep and fatal. The Christian God was near. Felt. Sloth — defiant sorrow in the face of God’s good intentions — was a deadly sin.

Perhaps the future of Sloth will lie in sinning against what now seems increasingly to define us — technology. Persisting in Luddite sorrow, despite technology’s good intentions, there we’ll sit with our heads in virtual reality, glumly refusing to be absorbed in its idle, disposable fantasies, even those about superheroes of Sloth back in Sloth’s good old days, full of leisurely but lethal misadventures with the ruthless villains of the Acedia Squad.

In other words, Sloth is our condition and is more of a comical concern than a serious one.  It is evolving.  And the more things there are the slower we will be and the more apt we will be at wasting time.  Pynchon seems to have noticed that sloth overtakes everyone, not only the writer.  Perhaps the difference is that the writer cultivates slowness and dwells in it while the average “couch potato” and pot smoker with munchies doesn’t cultivate anything.  Sloth is sloth, Pynchon seems to be the bottom line.  And if that is the case, what is the difference?

Pynchon didn’t foresee Facebook or the burgeoning of the internet in 1993, but he does seem to think – despite the visions of his 93’ prose piece of the NYT – that the cultivation of slowness may be a hedge against the 24/7 culture.

Although the old person trying to rock out may seem comical, perhaps Pynchon is suggesting that we are all becoming schlemiels.  In the midst of all these changes, aren’t we all belated and out of joint (just like the time that Hamlet found in the wake of trauma)?   To answer the question, Pynchon would suggest finding a schlemiel detective (wink, wink).   She may be a slow learner but, who knows, maybe she can figure out what’s going on?   And who knows, maybe that detective – like Slothrop, Benny Profane, or Lardass Levine – is an American version of the schlemiel?  All of Pynchon’s arrows seem to be slowly pointing in that direction even if it is….too late.

2 thoughts on “Americans, Slow Learners, Schlemiels: On Thomas Pynchon’s Comical Figurations of Slowness & Sloth

  1. “86 this guy form” slack is a term, like sloth, or acedia? Media acedia. Slack is like a cool way to say sloth, in 1959? Cut me some sloth?

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