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University in Rijeka Faculty of Philosophy English department Course: American Literature Mentor: dr.sc.

Lovorka Grui-Grmua Student: Sara Markovi


In Rijeka, May 16th 2013

In order to understand how Thomas Pynchon structured his short story Entropy and how he created systems within this story for the reader to observe the nature of entropy we must first give the definition of the scientific term. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy is a measure of the number of specific ways in which a system may be arranged, often taken to be a measure of disorder, this means that the higher the entropy, the higher the disorder. The entropy of an isolated system never decreases, because isolated systems spontaneously evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium the state of maximum entropy. Entropy is also a mathematically-defined thermodynamic quantity that helps to account for the flow of energy through a thermodynamic process. 1 Though this may seem complex it is something we unwittingly experience on a daily basis, through experience we know that a cup of hot coffee left on the kitchen counter will in time assume room-temperature. The notion of entropy was first introduced by Ludwig Boltzmann in 1872 but was introduced in its current form by Max Planck in 1900. The revolutions in physics forefronted by Albert Einstein and Max Planck at the turn of the century resonated strongly with modernist writers and remained influential in literature ever since. Since then, the idea of entropy has been generalized and applied to any one system and even to the universe as a whole. In Entropy we will see how Pynchon presented these variations of entropy and ultimately presented them as smaller systems within a general entropic system. First and foremost, we must analyze the structure of the short story for, as we shall demonstrate, it is key to the assertion of the main theme of breakdown through as systems move towards maximum entropy. As Robert Redfield and Peter L. Hays suggested in 1977, the entire structure of Entropy takes the form of a musical fugue and indeed many references to music and music theory may be found throughout the story. Aubades name is a musical form of troubadours song and even the unpredictable weather is described as there were private meanderings, linked to the climate as if this spell were a stretto passage in the years fugue. The structure of the fugue provides a framework for this story as counterpointing, which is the very essence of this musical form, is the prevailing form in Entropy and the stretto, the overlapping of themes for the purpose of concentrated restating, is very much so the form of the ending of Pynchons work.2

1 2

http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/law-thermodynamics-d_94.html, last accessed May 15 ROBERT REDFIELF, PETER L. HAYS, Pacific Coast Philology: Fugue as a structure in Pynchons Entropy, vol. 12, Oct 1977, 50


The two thematic threads are introduced as we find ourselves observing two radically different settings which Pynchon presents as two observable systems, one being Meatball Mulligans apartment, a place of decadence and vulgarity and the other the diametrically opposite apartment of Callisto which is a perfect, self-sufficient and at first glance a harmonious system. Meatballs lease-breaking party is well into its second day and what we are seeing is a system representing disorder, there are people passed out from alcohol all around, the Duke di Angelis quartet is experimenting with music form, cannabis is being consumed and there are constant intrusions into the apartment. This intrusion is a key element for the theory of entropy and crucial for stating a very strong contrast between Callisto and Meatballs systems. The gradation of the number of intruders, beginning with Saul followed by three coeds and concluded with five drunken marines, emphasizes the property of entropy to grow, it always increases moving to heat equilibrium, a standstill. Callistos apartment represents order, a system of harmony, it is hermetically sealed, Aubade and Callisto do not go outside and have in time become integral parts of their isolated structure. While Meatball is relatively unaware of entropy, Callisto is painfully conscious of the fact that even though the weather had been rapidly changing and going from one extreme to the other, the temperature had been at 37 degrees Fahrenheit for three consecutive days. Callisto tried to fight the impending doom of entropy by carefully orchestrating the eco balance of his apartment and his desperation to ward off heat-death is most imminently felt through his struggle to keep an injured bird alive and nurse it to health. The way he does this is through the transference of energy, he holds the tiny creature close to his chest at all times hoping that the transfer of heat will have a positive effect. The exchange of heat is another integral part of entropy as we have already mentioned and Pynchon places subtle echoes of entropy theory throughout the story alongside the more obvious references. It is also important to note that Pynchon places Callistos apartment directly above Meatball Mulligans, super-positioning order to disorder thus drawing on the common conception that one is more stable than the other and consequently safer from maximum entropy. However, this is a misconception which Pynchon illustrates very clearly. The fact that both systems share the same fate shows how inevitable equilibrium is. While Callisto is involved in science and intellectual attempts to preserve his delicate system, Meatball is occupied by carnal needs and the earthiness of the atmosphere in his apartment is in contrast to Callistos strides towards the ideal. Pynchon expands the systems which entropy affects by leading us in

concentric circles from the figure of Meatball, to the very small systems of Callistos and Mulligans apartments, to the system of the city and the nation finally leading us to the largest system, the weather which encompasses all. Another application of entropy theory which Pynchon introduces is in information theory or communication theory. In information theory, entropy is the measure of the amount of information that is missing before reception and is sometimes referred to as Shannon entropy. The entropy of the message system was a measure of the average amount of information in a message. For the case of equal probabilities where each message is equally probable, the Shannon entropy is just the number of yes/no questions needed to determine the content of the message.3 This sort of entropy is not only approached through the conversation of Saul and Meatball about Sauls argument with his wife but also it is gradually developed though the increasing break-down of communication in Meatballs apartment which is restated with Aubade who is constantly trying to maintain an appropriate signal to noise ratio. Even as Saul and Meatball discuss the argument Saul and his wife Miriam have had Meatballs own speech reflects the increasing amount of noise in communication, his messages are cluttered with useless words. Krinkle retells the story of Daves accident to one of the coeds b ut misconstrues parts of the story, gives her misinformation to which she sympathetically answers signaling that she believes the false story. The Duke di Angelis quarter tries to play music without instruments, Paco plays in G sharp while the rest are in E flat, these details alert us to the ever-increasing decline of interpersonal communication and reinforcing the theme of communication entropy. The entropy of culture and ideas is the most powerful conclusion Pynchon draws. Just like in thermodynamics or in any other system, American culture and culture in general is rapidly approaching a point of heat-death, a standstill where all information signals are equated and the exchange of ideas is no longer possible. Towards the end, just like the stretto of a fugue, the various entropies overlap and collide into one panoptic structure which reaffirms the central theme. As Callisto revisits his past in search for knowledge to corroborate his current fears, he is shocked to find evidence in his old college lectures and experiences which, through his current perspective, confirm his fears. The past serves as authentication for the present. The breakdown of communication, the

ROGER BALIAN, Entropy: A Protean Concept, Poincare Seminar, vol.2, 2003, 10

consistency of temperature and the seemingly dual nature of the two systems are all tied in their unified and identical end. Both Meatball and Aubade chose action over inertion, his is a half-hearted attempt at restoring a bit of order to the apartment and hers is a dramatic and selfdestructive act of breaking the windows, the barriers that kept their system isolated. Neither isolation nor being open to the elements of the larger system made a difference in the ultimate order of things. The final scenes of the story show how neither system was excused from entropy. Millers epitaph at the beginning saying: Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is a weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhereWe must get into step, a lockstep toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change. is confirmed with the dying of the bird Callisto had been nursing. Pynchon showed that entropy occurs on all levels, in each system individually and generally in the entire universe which is the main point of modern entropy theory. Application in social terms warns us of a possible decline of culture we face if the noise in our communication continues to grow.

LITERATURE: ROGER BALIAN, Entropy: A Protean Concept, Poincare Seminar, vol.2, 2003, 10 ROBERT REDFIELF, PETER L. HAYS, Pacific Coast Philology: Fugue as a structure in Pynchons Entropy, vol. 12, Oct 1977, 50-55 THOMAS PYNCHON, Entropy, http://imgoingtofail.com/english/shortstory/Pynchon,%20Thomas%20%20Entropy.pdf, http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/law-thermodynamics-d_94.html, last accessed May 15th