23 pages 46 minutes read

Thomas Pynchon


Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1960

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Entropy”

“Entropy” is a short story by Thomas Pynchon. It is a part of his collection Slow Learner, and was originally published in the Kenyon Review in 1960, while Pynchon was still an undergraduate. In his introduction to the collection, Pynchon refers to “Entropy” as the work of a “beginning writer” (12).

“Entropy” takes place in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1957. The first of the two settings is the apartment of a young man named Meatball Mulligan, at which a large, raucous party is taking place. The second occurs at the apartment directly above Mulligan’s, belonging to Callisto, a middle-aged Italian intellectual, and Aubade, his waifish young French-Annamese girlfriend. Callisto’s apartment has been transformed into a greenhouse and aviary, a self-contained, self-regulating space that Callisto and Aubade almost never leave: “Hermetically sealed, it was a tiny enclave of regularity within the city’s chaos, alien to the vagaries of the weather, of national politics, of any civil disorder” (83-84).

At the story’s opening, Mulligan’s party has been underway for almost two days and “seem[s] to be gathering its second wind” (82). Guests at Mulligan’s party include Sandor Rojas, a libidinous Hungarian who is described as having a “chronic case of […] Don Giovannism” (86), and a jazz quartet who call themselves the Duke di Angelis quartet. As the party continues, late guests continue to arrive, both invited and uninvited. A group of US Navy men show up, under the impression that Mulligan’s apartment is a bordello. Three female undergraduates from nearby George Washington University arrive and are immediately taken up by Sandor Rojas. Mulligan’s friend Saul also appears, by climbing up on to the fire escape outside of the kitchen. Saul has recently had a fight with his wife Miriam, and he believes that they are now on the verge of divorcing. He describes the fight to Mulligan as concerning “communication theory” (89).

Meanwhile, Aubade and Callisto strive to maintain their equilibrium in their upstairs apartment, from where they can hear the distracting noises of Mulligan’s party. They lie together on Callisto’s bed, Callisto alternately nursing a wounded bird and dictating his memoirs to Aubade. These memoirs concern his discovery of the concept of entropy—a state of simultaneous chaos and stasis—and its application to modern life:

He was forced, in the sad dying fall of middle age, to a radical reevaluation of everything he had learned up to then; all of the cities and seasons and casual passions of his days had now to be looked at in a new and elusive light. He did not know if he was equal to the task (87).

Callisto also periodically sends Aubade to the apartment window, to check on the outside temperature, which has remained at 37 degrees Fahrenheit for the past three days. Callisto finds this sameness ominous, an “ome[n] of apocalypse” (85). 

Mulligan’s party gradually winds down, while Callisto and Aubade’s vigil culminates suddenly and violently. After observing the Duke di Angeles quartet mime playing music—even while his other guests grow louder and more disorderly—Mulligan decides to “try and keep his lease-breaking party from deteriorating into total chaos” (97). He placates Saul, breaks up fights, and calls a repairman to fix his broken refrigerator. Callisto and Aubade, meanwhile, discover that the wounded bird that Callisto has been nursing has died. Callisto is despondent that the heat of his body has failed to restore the bird, and he sees it as a further sign of imminent breakdown. Aubade goes again to the apartment window, and upon seeing that the temperature outside is still 37 degrees Fahrenheit, smashes her hands through the window:

[She] turned to face the man on the bed and wait with him until the moment of equilibrium was reached, when 37 degrees Fahrenheit should prevail both inside and outside […] and the hovering, curious dominant of their separate lives should resolve into a tonic and darkness and the absence of all motion (98).