‘The Secret Integration’ by Thomas Pynchon

In Mingeborough USA, a group of school age boys are hanging out and mobilising a secret society armed with random junk from the abandoned houses on the edge of town and data derived from the statistical observation of traffic. There’s Tim, ‘boy genius’ Grover, Hogan Slothrop, and Carl – who is black, and new to town. There are tantalising glimpses of Gravity’s Rainbow in the story: the name ‘Slothrop’, Grover’s fascination with statistical distributions and curves, an abandoned top-loading washing machine that is their imaginary space capsule. But this is the early 1960s, and Tim and Grover’s parents are making anonymous, racist phone calls. Before the Slow Learner collection of early Pynchon short stories was published, the only way of getting hold of ‘The Secret Integration’ – and his other early shorts – had been in the beautiful chapbook editions that were published by Aloes Books in London during the 1970s and early ’80s. Aloes Books were sold in radical bookshops like the former Compendium in Camden, and they had a totemic value; dispatches from a barely understood pre-punk counterculture. ‘The Secret Integration’ has a great collage on the cover, by the designer Jake Tilson: a man in an overcoat with a Polaroid camera for a head stands against a background texture of random Letraset characters and Expressionist jabs of ink. You might know Jake Tilson’s work now from his large-scale signage projects for the National Theatre, Battersea Arts Centre or the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, and I was lucky enough to work with Jake in 2012, when he designed the ‘melting’ logotype that was used on the cover of my Science Museum climate change novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South. But I love these rough and ready, inky and typographical collages that he made when he was at the Royal College of Art in the late 1970s.

First published in the Saturday Evening Post, 1964. UK chapbook edition published Aloes Books, London, 1977. Collected in Slow Learner, Picador, 1985