Meatball Mulligan throws a lease-breaking party at his apartment in Washington, D.C. in early February of 1957. His guests are a colorful bunch, including Sandor Rojas, an "ex-Hungarian Freedom fighter," and the avant-garde Duke di Angelis quartet comprised of Duke, Vincent, Krinkles and Paco who together perform an original piece in complete silence. Saul, a neighbor of Mulligan's, comes in through the window after an argument with his wife concerning communication theory and the tendency for noise to "screw up your signal," making for "disorganization in the circuit." The party degenerates during the course of the story into a chaotic mess: more guests arrive with more booze, drunken Navymen barge in mistaking the place for a 'hoorhouse,' a woman almost drowns herself in the shower, the fridge needs repair. Meatball, however, decides to take action rather than hide silently in the closet, and through the energy he exerts succeeds in minimizing the chaos of the party through the establishment of order, however temporary and fleeting.
Meanwhile, upstairs in the apartment above Mulligan's lives a man named Callisto in a hermetically sealed hothouse with a half-alien woman named Aubade who perceives all sensory input as sound. Callisto clutches a dying bird to his chest while expounding on the nature of Thermodynamics and its theoretical extension beyond the limits of physics into the realms of society and culture as well: just as all closed systems lose energy over time until a 'heat-death' occurs wherein motion ceases, so too does culture have a tendency to lose differentiation and slide toward what Callisto terms 'the Condition of the More Probable.' Entropy, then, which Callisto defines as 'the measure of disorganization for a closed system,' is valuable in that it is "an adequate metaphor to apply to certain phenomena in [the] world" such as the consumerist trend away from difference and toward sameness. Often Aubade checks the temperature outside, which has remained at a constant 37 deg. Fahrenheit for a number of days despite the drastic change in weather. The story ends with the death of the bird Callisto has attempted to sustain through the transfer of heat from his own body to that of the sick animal. Aubade, finally comprehending Callisto's thoughts, punches out the windows of their apartment/self-contained ecosystem and sits with Callisto to await "the moment of equilibrium" between their world and the world outside.
On a stylistic level, Pynchon expresses dislike for this story in his Introduction to Slow Learner. He criticizes himself quite harshly, asserting that the work seems to have stemmed from the desire to "commit on paper a variety of abuses, such as overwriting." He claims that the work is an example of a young writer's mistake of forcing a theme onto the characters rather than having the former develop through the latter, that his concentration on the concept led him to "shortchange the humans in the story." He offers budding writers the following words of wisdom: "Get too conceptual, too cute and remote, and your characters die on the page."
In fact, much of what Pynchon has to say in his Introduction concerning this particular story is in the form of advice to those of us who plan on writing short stories in the future. As though the publication of "Entropy" were a sort of public service to those in danger of writing similar-grade fiction, Pynchon tells us what he does about this story "only on the chance that others may. . . profit from my error." Specifically, he offers us 'lessons' to learn from his past mistakes, like: "corroborate one's data, in particular those acquired casually, such as through hearsay or the back of record albums." He goes on by citing specific mistakes of this nature present in the text of the story as examples of what not to do. Pynchon also takes the old adage "Write what you know" and posits an addition to the advice: "So as a corollary to writing about what we know, maybe we should add getting familiar with our ignorance and the possibilities therein for ruining a good story."
In his discussion of this work, Pynchon takes much care in attempting to explain the significance of the notion of entropy as he chose to portray it in his story as well as his general take on the concept. [For more information on the concept of entropy, click on Entropy.] Pynchon is the first to admit, however, that entropy is a difficult concept to get one's head around: he writes, "Since I wrote this story I have kept trying to understand entropy, but my grasp becomes less sure the more I read." He beckons us to research the subject and come up with an understanding of it on our own, for, like Callisto, Pynchon seems to feel quite strongly that entropy is a concept metaphorically applicable to many aspects of life.
Pynchon credits his major influences in the formulation of "Entropy" as Henry Adams and Norbert Wiener, author of Cybernetics and the Human Use of Human Beings. He explains "that the `theme' of the story is mostly derivative of what these two men had to say."
"Entropy" is extremely significant for students of Pynchon in that it
provides us with an early peak into the development of the author's
thought in terms of ideas which carry as themes in later works. Many
concepts which play a key role throughout the bulk of Pynchon's fiction
can be found here in various stages of infancy. For example, the notion
of entropy itself is reexamined and more deeply probed in both V. and the
Crying of Lot 49. Another example: Saul's wife is "bugged by the idea
of computers acting like people:" Pynchon years later probes the
boundaries of `acting like' and `being' through the development of his
theme concerning the Animate vs. the Inanimate in V. In fact, in V. we
find robots acting like people and vice versa: Miriam would be "bugged"
to no end had she been included in this novel as well. Pynchon's
discussion of Noise vs. Signal in terms of communication theory and
information transfer strongly carries through to a number of his later
works, most importantly The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow.
Sandor Rojas' conditioned behavior when a woman walks into the room is
set in motion by certain cues "like a contralto voice or a whiff of
Arpege." He is described as salivating like Pavlov's dog: later, in
Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon intimately works with Pavlovian notions and
theories concerning conditioned behavior with regard to the major
character of Tyrone Slothrop. Music, too, utilized as the general
metaphor throughout "Entropy," constantly asserts itself as a recurring
motif all the way across the spectrum of Pynchon's work, as does the
setting used here in "Entropy:" ridiculously intense parties lasting not
hours but days if not weeks and months, as is the case with, among
others, Mondaugen's story in V.