An Examination of the Cultural Divide in The Crying of Lot 49
“There are still the poor, the defeated, the criminal, the desperate, all hanging in there with what must seem a terrible vitality.” Thomas Pynchon, “A Journey into the Mind of Watts” The challenge posed to any reader of “serious” literature is ultimately one of observation, understanding, and synthesis. He regards a work as a collection of intricate components, each of which he must examine thoroughly, measuring one against another, alternately holding them up to the focused light of his mind, until finally he is able to say with certainty that he understands the work as a body of unified parts. As a work of near impenetrability, The Crying of Lot 49 is all but immune to this kind of analytical comprehension. It is a work founded entirely on uncertainty, and therefore concerns itself with both everything and nothing; it either sojourns into a deeply rooted conspiracy centuries of years in the making or simply catalogues the mental disarray of a woman attempting to execute a will.
To trace the parabolic arc of its plot is to become fully disoriented by the maniacal whims of Nazi therapists, by names such as Mike Fallopian that resist even the most apt psychoanalysis, and by the ultimate unreliability of a harrowed protagonist. Throughout the novel, reality clashes inexorably with the surreal, providing seemingly infinite points of ingress that by their very abundance contribute to the novel’s hermetic nature. Yet despite these complexities of form and substance, the work has perhaps paradoxically attracted the exact type of literary reading that it appears to resist. Scholarly articles ranging from discussions on the prevalence of metaphorical and literal entropy in The Crying of Lot 49 (Dodge) to detailed cartographies of the labyrinthine progression of the novel (Gleason) continually adorn the firmaments of academia. This is to say, The Crying of Lot 49 has spurred an intellectual devotion to its enigmatic elements, while the tangible and perhaps more immediate issues of the novel remain relatively undisturbed; the plain has become engulfed and diminished by the remarkable.
The problem of race and culture within the novel, particularly the subjugation of a loosely defined underclass, is one such element that has been woefully unrealized. The strict racial and cultural divisions, and the tensions arising therein, found in Pynchon’s novel represent a vital yet often overlooked method of unlocking both the author’s social position and the underlying motivations and intentions that shape The Crying of Lot 49. With the exception of Steven Weisenburger’s brief essay “Reading Race” (which attempts little more than a classroom guide to the text), the treatment of race within the novel, as both a poignant social commentary and a mechanism by which to understand the work, has historically received little attention. Weisenburger suggests that the presence of race within the novel is mostly ignored because “the story’s all about white folks…isn’t it?” (52). While the novel partially desensitizes a racial understanding through its nearly exclusive use of white characters, the true desensitization of race occurs by means of its apparently nonexistent remarkability amidst a sea of plot convolutions and eccentric unconventionalities.
Readers lowering themselves tentatively into the Pynchonian rabbit-hole of Lot 49 will notice immediately the playful puns that beckon and wink from every page, or perhaps the liberal nomenclature that positively begs for Freudian interpretation; the allure of these literary devices coaxes most readers away from the comparatively dull issue of cultural divide. Yet in the same year that his novel was published, Pynchon was composing “A Journey Into the Mind of Watts”, a surprisingly visceral essay that grapples with the racial turmoil festering in the Los Angeles neighborhood. While the accompaniment of Lot 49 by a comparatively solemn work of social commentary does not altogether resolve the immortal question of the novel’s true meaning, it does lend a considerable amount of credibility to a racial understanding of the text. Thus, an alternate reading of the novel, one that relies both on textual and contextual interpretations and the cultural forces exerting pressure on Pynchon at the time of his authorship is required.
This argument ultimately frames Oedipa as the inheritor of the knowledge that a colonized subclass exists, subjugated and dehumanized by the bourgeoisie society that she has, far so long, willingly placed herself. Oedipa’s journey, and ours, begins with Pierce Inverarity, the perfect manifestation of the white upper class, the spectral figure that Jesús Arrabal describes as “another world’s intrusion into this one” (97). Inverarity is the unmoved mover, the tipper of the primordial domino that sets Oedipa in motion. Inverarity as the enterprising capitalist and Arrabal as the suppressed radical syndicalist are indeed representatives of mutually excusive “worlds”, and the collision of these worlds, this “kiss of cosmic pool balls”, precipitates a real and tangible racial, if not cultural, conflict. These worlds are initially defined and separated by Inverarity’s characterization as a colonizing force. As Metzger and Oedipa fall deeper and deeper into a tequila-soaked revelry, she asks the question, “What the hell didn’t he (Inverarity) own?” To which Metzger cryptically responds, “You tell me” (25). The breadth of Inverarity’s monetary influence over his surroundings is indicative of a colonial force not only by its formation of a natural socio-economic hierarchy but also by the nature of those under its subjugating power. The Turkish bath, the Yoyodyne employees bound to various extremist political ideals, the Beaconsfield cigarette filters that may or may not have been wrought from the bones of slain soldiers; each of Inverarity’s financial interests seem to maintain some linkage to the foreign, the ostracized, the dispossessed. Shifting from the fictionalized to the actual world of Pynchon, we see in his essay on Watts a similar notion of colonial oppression contingent on white monetary supremacy: “While the white culture is concerned with various forms of systematized folly–the economy of the area in fact depending on it–the black culture is stuck pretty much with basic realities like disease, like failure, violence and death, which the whites have mostly chosen–and can afford–to ignore.” Inverarity as a fictionalized metaphor for this type of colonial oppression corroborates the Pynchonian class distinction and provides further insight into the author’s social observations and obligations. Commenting on the subversive racial alterity, Pynchon observes, “the two cultures do not understand each other” (Watts). While the cultures Pynchon refers to be those of the white and the black, the sentiment broadened to represent the cultures of privilege and poverty is equally effective (Pynchon refers to this latter culture as “disinherited” in his novel). In either case, Pynchon posits that this cultural disease is merely a symptom of an inability to communicate, to reach a mutual understanding.
Furthermore, Pynchon’s diagnosis appears to fault the upper class citizens for a sort of failed reticence, or a refusal to acknowledge the widening gap between the two cultures: “Somehow it occurs to very few of them (the elite) to leave at the Imperial Highway exit for a change, go east instead of west only a few blocks, and take a look at Watts. A quick look. The simplest kind of beginning. But Watts is a country which lies, psychologically, uncounted miles further than most whites seem at present willing to travel (Watts)”. The problem outlined here by Pynchon is not one of practical or social inability, but rather one of cultural apathy: the privileged class is simply not interested in recognizing the plight of the disenfranchised. The resultant impossibility of communication is mirrored perfectly in various sequences of the novel. The constant stream of information required to enable Maxwell’s Demon is nonexistent (77); the letter given to Oedipa by the drug-addicted sailor will never reach his distant wife (98); the symbol of the subjugated class’s reclusion itself, the post-horn, is interminably muted. Yet the impossibility of cultural transversal that Pynchon laments in his essay is realized in his literature in the form of Oedipa; her frenzied migration from Tupperware-toting housewife to subculture journeywoman is the author’s fictionalized attempt to diagram the consequences of a cultural overlap. Probably the most pertinent section of The Crying of Lot 49 in regards to Oedipa’s realization of the disinherited class is her foray into the San Francisco slums. Weisenburger is bold enough to read this passage as the novel’s ultimate climax, saying, “For there is where she witnesses the crime of disinheritance, of alienating oppression” (55). Her devolution into the Californian underworld is especially telling because it reveals Pynchon’s expectations of the results of a privileged class member (drawing once again this passage from his essay) going a few miles outside of her comfort zone to take a quick look at the lot of the disinherited. Oedipa’s “quick look” at the colonized members of Californian society produces in her a startling realization, the type of “cataclysmic shock” (97) that Jesús Arrabal describes for her in his Mexican restaurant. Her realization of her favorable position in the newly discovered social hierarchy is inherently racial; she notes her relation to Chinatown, to the “greasy Mexican spoons”, to the Negro-filled bus rides. All of this coincides with her reluctant discovery that “the city was hers, as, made up and sleeked so with the customary words and images (cosmopolitan, culture, cable cars) it had not been before” (96). Pealing back the usual décor of the city’s cosmopolitan glamor to reveal a shriveled underclass, Oedipa realizes her apparent ownership of her surroundings due to her place of upper-middle class prestige in the American class system. If her distress during these few frantic pages is one of conscience, of realizing her role in the subjugation of millions of American misfits, then the emphasis of her discovery is not on the possible existence of an underground postal system, but rather on those marginalized souls whose social position requires them to utilize it.
Pynchon’s portrayal of Oedipa is not an apathetic one. In fact, her desire for cultural reconciliation is explicitly detailed, in particular, by her interaction with the elderly sailor: “What voices overhear, flinders of luminescent gods glimpsed among the wallpaper’s stained foliage, candlestubs lit to rotate in the air over him…thus to end among the flaming, secret salts held all those years by the insatiable stuffing of a mattress that could keep vestiges of every nightmare sweat, helpless overflowing bladder, viciously, tearfully consummated wet dream, like the memory bank to a computer of the lost? She was overcome all at once by a need to touch him…as if she would not remember him without it” (125). The poeticized form of this passage, overladen with overtly sensitive rather than the usual technical language, conveys the depth of Oedipa’s human connection with the disinherited class. Furthermore, her longing for physical contact demonstrates her psychological need to remember what she has discovered. The brief connection forged between the opposing classes, between the colonizers and the colonized, is held aloft by Oedipa in this moment. Yet the intense emotional connection felt by Oedipa is ultimately incapable of producing true social progress, as Pynchon renders his heroine helpless to revert the established social structure. The passivity of Oedipa in the scenes following her San Francisco sojourn suggest the impossibility of class reformation in the eyes of Pynchon. In the course of her investigatory duties, she comes in contact with Winthrop Tremaine, a devout racist who profits from the sale of swastika armbands manufactured by underpaid black laborers. Upon learning of the business practices of Tremaine, Oedipa retrospectively decides, “she should’ve called him something, or tried to hit him with any dozen heavy blunt objects in easy reach…You’re a chicken. This is America, you live in it, you let it happen” (149). The resultant tension between the inertia of Oedipa’s empathic desires and the gravity of the established order seems to preclude all forms of social progress and suggests an inherent complicity with the opposed, hierarchal nature of the two classes. Much like Watts, the subjugated lower class that Oedipa is desperate to aid exists both as a neglected physical entity and as a psychological state of permanence, one with which the privileged are unable to connect. Placing matters back into the context of racial forms, Pynchon’s statement about the immobility of Watts is particularly relevant: “Watts lies impacted in the heart of this white fantasy. It is, by contrast, a pocket of bitter reality. The only illusion Watts ever allowed itself was to believe for a long time in the white version of what a Negro was supposed to be” (Watts).
Relating this concept to the text, the “white fantasy” may be seen as the continued colonization of the disinherited underclass: the drug-addicted sailors, the members of Inamorati Anonymous, the night watchman nibbling at a bar of Ivory Soap. These men and women are eternally connected by their shared inhabitance of the “pocket of bitter reality” and, of course, by the Tristero. In his essay, Pynchon comments on the total lack of communication between the two socially opposed classes, ascribing the widening gap between them as a symptom of this communicative void. The Crying of Lot 49, by contrast, is permeated by the recurring theme of communication. Among the swirl of radio disc jockeys and entropic mediums, the myth of the Tristero emerges as the most thematically dominant form of communication within the text, as well as the main symbolic emblem of the underclass. A cursory reading of the novel might reveal the Tristero mail system as the last refuge of the disinherited, their sole source of empowerment against the colonizing force of the upper class. A support of such an argument may be found in Oedipa’s internal observation of the post-horn’s clandestine universality: “For here were God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by U.S. Mail…it was a calculated withdrawl, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote…the withdrawal was their own…Since they could not have withdrawn into a vacuum (could they?), there had to exist the separate, silent, unsuspected world” (123). This sort of classification appears to lend these forgotten citizens at least a degree of autonomy; that they have consciously withdrawn from the “Republic” is at the very least commendable as an act of coordinated and deliberate noncompliance.
Yet further inspection negates the apparent sovereignty of such an act. Pynchon, in his essay, clearly states that the causal force of social paralysis is the two classes’ ongoing existence within mutually exclusive spheres of communication; the whites (privileged) communicate with the whites, the blacks (disinherited) with the blacks. How then, if class unity is the ultimate objective, is the Tristero system beneficial to the plight of the dispossessed? Weisenburger’s contention is something similar, stating that, “the message system works concertedly with oppression, because any minority population’s withdrawal from the life of the Republic would be tailor-made for a segregationist and colonialist regime of power” (57). The Tristero, then, is not a vehicle of empowerment for these citizens, but rather it functions as a vital cog in the colonialist machine. It is a weapon wielded by the colonizing upper class, of which the colonized are well aware; on the Negro bus, a terrified messenger has scribbled, under the anagram D.E.A.T.H., “Don’t Ever Antagonize The Horn” (122). The realization that the true benefactors of the Tristero are those who wish to preserve the status quo is crucial to a racial reading of the text, as well as a fuller understanding of Pynchon’s societal discourse.
We read fiction, in the narrowest sense, with the hope of comprehending and interpreting it. Yet perhaps our broader hope is that our understanding of a specific text will facilitate, at least in part, our understanding of the society in which we live. A cultural and potentially racial reading of The Crying of Lot 49 accomplishes both of these purported objectives. If Pynchon, like his fictional director Randolph Driblette, is indeed the prism through which a kaleidoscopic world is ultimately projected, then our understanding of both the text and the culture for which it was produced collides with his. Our specialized racial vantage point allows us to view Oedipa as a rope stretched between two culturally polarized classes, a transversal figure that ultimately is incapable of producing real change. Stepping outside the text, we see this incapacity as a metaphor of the psychological permanence of colonization. The reader is united with Oedipa in the grim realization that little could be done for those beneath the cultural divide. Our racial understanding of The Crying of Lot 49 reveals the Tristero organization as a force of subjugation rather than emancipation, yet this understanding carries with it broader implications outside of the novel, as we see the poor and disenfranchised reduced to inferior methods of communication. This reduction is, in Pynchon’s mind (as evidenced by “Watts”), the primary obstacle in the path of racial and cultural progress. The Crying of Lot 49 is in many ways a tremendous piece of fiction; yet perhaps even more impressive is its ability to convey racial and cultural truths through its metaphoric language.
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