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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

16. The Search For Identity

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Activities: Author Activities

Thomas Pynchon - Author Questions

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  1. Comprehension: What is "entropy"? Why is it an apt title for Pynchon's story?

  2. Comprehension: What is a "lease-breaking" party? Why is this detail important? What does this days-long party tell us about Meatball Mulligan and his friends?

  3. Comprehension: The perspective shifts frequently and abruptly between "upstairs" and "downstairs" scenes. Mark the locations of the shifts to determine why Pynchon intersplices the narratives in this way. How does this technique affect your understanding of both stories? What do upstairs and downstairs characters represent?

  4. Context: Why do the soldiers say they're looking for communists? Consider this in relation to [6240] ("Look behind the mask! Communism is death" poster) and [6241] (anti-communist poster).

  5. Context: The story takes place in February 1957, in Washington, D.C., a center for those involved in the civil rights movement as well as for intellectuals, the military, and protesters. Pynchon shows interactions among a wide variety of such characters, from freewheeling musicians to U.S. Navy enlisted personnel. Discuss the importance of Washington, D.C., and other urban areas as gathering places for people with disparate ideas.

  6. Context: Saul talks about how "Miriam has been reading science fiction again. That and Scientific American. It seems she is, as we say, bugged at this idea of computers acting like people." Consider how twentieth-century technological innovations such as space travel have brought the stuff of science fiction to life. How do these innovations and ideas affect our notions of reality and the meaning of life? Consider the 1969 Apollo 11 moonlanding [6899] as an example of reality pushing the boundaries of the imagination.

  7. Context: The musicians downstairs are described as wearing "horn rimmed sunglasses and rapt expressions." They "smoke funny-looking cigarettes which contained not, as you might expect, tobacco, but an adulterated form of cannabis sativa." What is cannabis sativa? Discuss how Pynchon uses this reference to the drug culture to characterize these men. Why do you think the narrator uses the Latin ("scientific") name? What does it say about his relationship to drug culture?

  8. Exploration: Pynchon is famously secretive about his own life, so we have to analyze the story without any information about his biography or cultural or literary influences. Why do you think an author might wish to remain unknown? How does the lack of information about him affect your reading of the story?

  9. Exploration: Pynchon's characters discuss scientists and scientific ideas to make sense of the world. Research one of these scientists or ideas (Gibbs, Boltzmann, entropy, thermodynamics, etc.) to better understand the story.

  10. Exploration: Analyze the conversations that appear throughout the story in relation to Saul and Meatball's discussion of communication theory, including the ideas of "noise" and "leakage." When speaking to each other, how can people differentiate meaning from the surrounding noise and leakage?

  11. Exploration: Aubade (her name means "a morning song") hears in the hothouse "a motif of sap-rising": "That music rose in a tangled tracery: arabesques of order competing fugally with the improvised discords of the party downstairs, which peaked sometimes in cusps and ogees of noise." What is a fugue? How does Pynchon use fugue-like structure in this story? Locate his "melodies" and "countermelodies" and compare them to those in a fugue by a musician such as Bach.

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