The Crying of Lot 49
The Sound of a Lot of Furious Crying: Moving Past the Present in The Sound and the Fury and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49
It is fitting to discuss the recollection of the past in an age advancing to an unknown futurity and whose memories are increasingly banished to the realm of the nostalgic or, even worse, obsolete. Thomas Pynchon and William Faulkner, in wildly contrasting ways, explore the means by which we, as individuals and communities, remember, recycle, and renovate the past. Retrospection is an inevitability in their works, for the past is inescapable and defines, if not dominates, the present.Pynchon maintains an optimistic, Ovidian view of the past – we recycle our cultural memories into another, perhaps better, form. The resulting disordered array of culture, one as much filled in by the glut of contemporary television channels as by 17th-century revenge dramas, is organized by some supervisory principle. Much as the postal system orders geography into specific postal codes and zones, Maxwell’s Demon in The Crying of Lot 49 “connects the world of thermodynamics to the world of information flow” (106); it applies a controlled, scientific objective to the sprawling, aesthetic subjective.But Pynchon’s culture is not one haunted by the ghosts, except for the ghosts in Hamlet and Scooby-Doo. Faulkner’s landscape is tortured by the tragedy of the South. In his view, the land is cursed because of two of the white man’s presumptions: that he could own other men, and that he could own the land. Focusing on the microcosm of the fallen Compson family, Faulkner details the extent to which various family members are saddled by past loss and how they confront their searing memories. In what has canonized The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner recreates the temporal confusion of the Compsons in the narrative, as well, through a non-sequential chronology and through sentences that combine past, present, and future tenses. Despite the occupational differences between the two authors, they share a surprising wealth of concerns, namely in the ordering of chaos. Pynchon’s order, however, remains a fruitful one of universality and coherence, while Faulkner contends that there is no real possible way to order memory, that each event is singular (indeed, he wanted the different times of the novel printed in corresponding colors), and that loss permeates the present despite attempts at reassessment or separation of the past.The first sentence of The Crying of Lot 49 introduces “Mrs Oedipa Maas” (9). Her name immediately and forcefully conjures up for the reader all the cultural baggage associated with the name Oedipa. It is, of course, the Latinate feminine of Oedipus, the tragic Greek hero who was fated to murder his father and sleep with his mother. Yet the female version of Oedipus is not Oedipa, but Electra. The obvious Freudian associations dare the reader into a (most likely pointless) psychoanalytic reading. Her name is not so much about psychological complexes as about language, and how language can act for the character. Oedipa also has “pa” within the name, but that is directly followed by the “Ma” in Maas. Furthermore, the initials of “Mrs Oedipa Mass” spell out “MOM.” Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, her husband’s nickname for her is “Oed,” or the abbreviations of the Oxford English Dictionary. This is what Oedipa is, a dictionary of various etymologies whose roots we uncover. Postmodernism often does away with traditional characterization at the expense of names because of all the name can offer us through its etymological past. There is nothing sinister about this recycling; it is simply a mode of cultural awareness, a way to recycle the chaotic past into some sort of organized present.Names in Faulkner carry with them the literal and figurative pronunciations of their forebears. Consider the following exchange in Benjy’s memory:Your name is Benjy, Caddy said. Do you hear. Benjy. Benjy.Dont tell him that, Mother said. Bring him here.Caddy lifted me up under the arms.Get up, Mau – I mean Benjy, she said. (39)Benjy was named Maury, after his uncle but, as Faulkner tells us in the index, “when at last even his mother realised what he was and insisted weeping that his name must be changed, was rechristened Benjamin” (213). Rechristening is a euphemistic term for what many of the Compsons try for in vain, the purging of their dark past in hopes for a second chance at baptism. But he is no longer even Benjamin; that seems too adult a name for his childlike status. This is not the only instance of a disastrous choice of names. Caddy names her daughter after her brother, Quentin. Jason, tormented by both his sister, for her escape and promiscuity, and by his brother, for his escape to Harvard and the ensuing financial detriment to the family (and preventing Jason from attending college), treats the female Caddy as her mother’s daughter, with cruelty and barbarity. Making up for the losses extracted from him by her mother and by Quentin, he creates a loss for her by bilking her of the money her mother sends her (a tangible inheritance) and forbidding any contact between the two (a more emotional inheritance). Unlike in Pynchon, the name in Faulkner is burdened, not burnished, by memorial associations.Nevertheless, these associations are ubiquitous in TCL49, with high and low cultural artifacts meshing together in a grand equation of cultural consciousness. For Pynchon, the collective cultural memory recognizes little difference between a museum of abstract, intellectual art and the stored experience of a concrete, dirty mattress. All gets conflated to one, as with one of the many catalogs of seemingly disparate items in the book:…clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10 cents, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the markets, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that were period costumes…all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a gray dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes… (14)What a clipped coupon and a deteriorating piece of underwear have in common is that they are both refuse, that they are both “coated uniformly” with the markers of decay, that their shared heritage is one of waste. In fact, the acronym W.A.S.T.E. courses through the novel, and not only for the effect of mystery. The acronym gives new meaning to a word (in this case, it stands for “We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire”), infusing its letters with rich language while simultaneously obscuring its past incarnations as a single word. Similar meanings are grafted onto Mucho’s radio station, KCUF (a curse reversed), and to the C.I.A. (not for Central Intelligence Agency, but for Conjuración de los Insurgents Anarquistas). Indeed, the term “anarchist miracle” refers to a chaotic dance does not burst into collisions but that “some unthinkable order” pervades “of music, many rhythms, all keys at once, a choreography in which each couple meshed easy, predetermined” (131). Maxwell’s Demon assigns order to the seemingly untamable, giving random pieces of information spatial organization, just as the postal system supervises the geographic sprawl of society. This organization, culling from the past to produce a new, ordered present, lends an optimistic air to cultural recycling, as exemplified by the tasty dandelion wine and its graver roots: “‘…You see, in spring, when the dandelions begin to bloom again, the wine goes through a fermentation. As if they remembered'” (98). Oedipa denies this meaning, but Pynchon implies that the world does function in this way, taking the scraps of refuse and reformulating them as something utile, even consumable.The cultural residue in Faulkner is of a far more pessimistic nature. Taken in conjunction with T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” The Sound and the Fury critiques the sterility of a non-ritualized modern society. Eliot’s poem demonstrates a fear of rain, of a fertile land in which “April is the cruellest month” and “Winter kept us warm.” The desiccated landscape provides a retreat for the individual against the march of time (since fertility and seasonal rituals are abolished) and has settled over the South:The day dawned bleak and chill, a moving wall of gray light out of the northeast which, instead of dissolving into moisture, seemed to disintegrate into minute and venomous particles, like dust that, when Dilsey opened the door of the cabin and emerged, needled laterally into her flesh, precipitating not so much a moisture as a substance partaking of the quality of thin, not quite congealed oil. (165)Only Dilsey’s outsider status (from the Compson family, at least), the quality that will make her and the other blacks “endure,” as Faulkner writes in the Appendix, turns the dust of death into a somewhat liquid state. The novel’s many losses – of family members, of innocence, of money, of land, of manhood (Benjy’s castration) – turn into one overpowering symptom of sterility, of a land stuck in the past and unwilling to engage the future. Even the title comes from a line in “Macbeth,” pointing not only to the novel’s tragic structure but to its associations with the high culture of the past (ironically, ambition, that most future-oriented of drives, is the major theme of Shakespeare’s play).With this harmful past to work from, it is no wonder that the Compson family has such trouble mining any good from its memory banks. Each of the three brothers’ narratives negotiates in a different, and equally destructive, manner with the past. Benjy’s narrative blends all times together in a disordered, fragmented style. Unable to distinguish between times, Benjy is reduced to, as much as his retarded development limits him to, a child-like state of perception. What is the cause and what is the effect is negligible – seeing the world in a temporal blur is akin to seeing it as an infant. Quentin, on the other hand, more logically perceives the past – but to an extreme. He is mired in the past, consumed with Caddy’s loss of virginity, with the pasture that was sold to send him to Harvard, with his uncaring father, and with the minute clicking away of his watch’s hands. This Hamlet-like absorption in the past sends him to his suicide, through which he continually steps in his own deathly shadow. The losses of the past negate any sort of future for him, and prove as unsuccessful a strategy as Benjy’s time warp. Finally, Jason proceeds through life as if the past were nonexistent. However, he, too, cannot escape memory, and must face the legacies of both Quentin and Caddy in the 17-year-old Caddy. That he tries to shackle her promiscuity also suggests his aversion to a fertile future, and squeezes Jason into the condensed middle of the present, an unbearable one which cannot help but notice the fading past and deteriorating future. The Compson family ultimately stands as a microcosm of ante-bellum South, showcasing the various approaches Southerners used for their own tragic, enduring history.The individual in TCL49 also sifts through his cultural stock, but for better use. Characters act in way they “doubtless learned from watching the TV” (108). Similarly, they react emotionally to popular culture as they would to other humans:But Roseman had also spent a sleepless night, brooding over the Perry Mason television program the evening before, which his wife was fond of but toward which Roseman cherished a fierce ambivalence, wanting at once to be a successful trial lawyer like Perry Mason and, since this was impossible, to destroy Perry Mason by undermining him. (18)As with star-struck fans who confuse actors with their screen personae, Roseman, and the rest of media-saturated America, receives its reality from culture, and not only from the contemporary culture of “Perry Mason,” but from the cultural pastiche behind the show: previous lawyer shows, previous legal plays and movies (the “quality of mercy” scene from “Merchant of Venice,” for instance, as much as “12 Angry Men”) and the legal system itself, from our society to the Greeks. Perry Mason is not simply Perry Mason; he is a mongrel blend of Portia, Henry Fonda, and Hammurabi. The individual is swallowed up in the whole, as with the group therapy sessions to which Oedipa travels in a car pool. Encountering collective pain in a collective transport, the element becomes the whole, just as Benjy, Quentin, and Jason become the Compson family, which, in turn, becomes the South.The structure of each book mirrors its approach to the past. A typical Faulknerian word is “undishonored,” used in the phrase “as yet undishonored.” He also writes sentences such as “She did not yet know she was a woman.” In both cases, there is negation (“undis”/”did not…know”) that precludes knowledge in the present and only allows it in future retrospection. It is the same principle behind having Benjy sparely relate in the opening scene “They were hitting,” having the word “caddie” spiral him off into thoughts of Caddy, and then understanding later in the book that the company was playing golf. In the same way that the hectic present can only be understood through the steadier lens of the future, the scattered past can only be understood through the (somewhat) more stable perception of the present. The Sound and the Fury must be read several times until the disorder of narrative coheres as an intelligible story. TCL49, too, is a mystery whose willful obfuscation and numerous red herrings add up only after a few readings, and whose “solution” never really appears, except for the mystery of the title in the final sentence. Some critics read the title of Faulkner’s novel as a challenge to the reader, in that, as “a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing,” the book defies traditional literary understanding. Faulkner ends the novel with Benjy howling, fulfilling the line from “Macbeth,” but after that has an image of order. The form of narrative, and not the content of life, is the only chance for order in the world. A new framing device of literary technique replaces the conventional teleological frame. The novel moves from Good Friday to Easter, from the innocence of Benjy’s opening section to the omniscience of Faulkner’s (or Dilsey’s) concluding section. While Perry Mason and Benjy’s howl seemingly signify nothing, the precision of authorial control reveals the deep material of the past in each novel from which we can attribute meaning.
Fragmentation in The Crying of Lot 49
In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, standard hierarchical structures are abandoned in a setting of postmodern cultural chaos. The use of fragmented pop culture contributes to many aspects of the book, namely the sense of combined freedom in the search for meaning. Moreover, this strange mess of references and images comments on the novel’s setting. California itself is famous for its overt and excess modernity, often a step ahead in popular culture. But with this advantage comes a tendency towards meaninglessness, a lack of depth. Fragmentation illustrates this shallow sensibility by developing countless, even entertaining details with no central force or purpose. Without a unifying meaning, these fragments overwhelm, something identifiable in any aspect of contemporary life, in any region. They distract both protagonist and reader from any point. But this ambiguity is the point itself.Pynchon maintains a distinctly modern preoccupation in his chaotic embellishments. In the tradition of Eliot and Joyce, he rebels against any one imposed structure. (Fisher, in lecture, 4/24/00) Without any hierarchy to govern the direction of the narrative, there is a renewed sense of freedom. This is highlighted by Oedipa’s lack of ties or responsibilities. She is able to simply leave her husband, wander all over California, and return when she pleases. But freedom can also create a lack of order that goes too far, a negative state of chaos with no justification. Oedipa wants to believe, as she does early on, that “…it fitted, logically, together. As if…there were revelation in progress all around her.” (30) The flaw in this seemingly innocent freedom is in its sacrifice of reason. This becomes clear as Oedipa begins searching for order as much as fun and liberation. It no longer simply arrives as a revelation, but drives her action. She becomes an agent searching for meaning when she goes to The Scope, a local bar “because it seemed that a pattern was beginning to emerge….” (71) Perhaps Oedipa cannot help her “growing obsession with bringing something of herself’…to the scatter of business interests that had survived Inverarity. She would give them order, she would create constellations.” (72) Surrounded by chaos, she recognizes the necessity of this force, and assumes she can restore logic, and thus meaning.The desire to create a link among scattered information is foreign to the world in which Oedipa is operating, and therefore quite difficult. The first sign of trouble could be that “Much of the revelation was to come through [a] stamp collection…thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time: savannahs teeming with elands and gazelles, galleons sailing west into the void, Hitler heads, sunsets, cedars of Lebanon, allegorical faces that never were…” (30) This conglomeration of useless, antiquated images is a perfect metaphor for the fragmentation of pop culture in California’s strange post-modernity. It is a fitting illustration of the stage upon which our protagonist attempts to find conspiracy. With image upon detailed image piling into a strangely poetic list, this imagery overwhelms the reader. But after the rapture of its possible significance is passed, one cannot help wondering, as Oedipa does “…whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold.” (76) This is essentially the question asked by the ambush of pop culture. The story moves forward only because of Oedipa’s deep desire to find something unifying in the great amount of information she absorbs every day.The concept of sensory overload, of too much information, is a distinctly modern idea. Industry and technology move too fast, inspiring transitory culture without any anchor. This idea is alluded to often, as with “radios playing songs in the lower stretches of the Top 200, that would never become popular, whose melodies and lyrics would perish as if they had never been sung.” (99) In such a state of constant bombardment, one must project their own desires onto the cultural landscape, creating a link that makes their world seem less intimidating and temporary. Oedipa does this with her conspiracy notion. One night, she wanders into the city, the ultimate modern landscape, with the hope that “Each clue that comes is supposed to have its own clarity, its fine chances for permanence.” (95) Separately, the range of “clues” she comes across are lush vignettes of modern life. There is “a drifting, dreamy cloud of delinquents in summer-weight gang jackets with the post horn stitched on in thread that looked pure silver,” (98) and “an exhausted busful of Negroes going on to graveyard shifts all over the city,…scratched on the back of a seat, shining for her in the brilliant smoky interior, the post horn.” (98) The language in these passages makes very clear distinctions. The fragments of reality the delinquents, the sad state of the Negroes are bleak in comparison to the symbol that stands out so brilliantly within them. In the face of so much frustration, Pynchon creates an actual visual connection for Oedipa to cling to.The deep, subliminal need to link familiar fragments together betrays a great deal about the effect of constant fragmentation on the human soul. Oedipa begins looking for a human connection in all her desire for order. Her loneliness is a result of her environment, as is her constant need to dull it. The postmodern state creates lives like the ones Oedipa sees that night. The similarity between these observations is the absolute loneliness and sadness in the language. This is hardly a unifying connection. How can she help but search for control, moreover security, in a world that creates the “aging night-watchman, nibbling at a bar of Ivory Soap, who had trained his virtuoso stomach to accept also lotions, air-fresheners, fabrics, tobaccoes and waxes in a hopeless attempt to assimilate it all, all the promise, productivity, betrayal, ulcers, before it was too late?” (100) The sacrifices in “democratizing language” (Fisher, in lecture, 4/24/00) through fragmentation are not worth this barrage. Oedipa becomes more lonely than liberated by her freedom of association.Oedipa’s need for deep human connection is a symptom of her increasing isolation. She turns to men time and time again in her search. In her first meeting with Metzger, she has a confidence and even playfulness in her sexuality. But even her agreement to sleep with him comes in a moment of distraction, fragmentation: “‘What do you want to bet, then’ She knew. Stubborn, they watched each other’s eyes for what seemed five minutes. She heard commercials chasing one another into and out of the speaker of the TV. She grew more and more angry, perhaps juiced, perhaps only impatient for the movie to come back on. Fine then…it’s a bet. Whatever you’d like.” (23) She clearly cares about this decision, as one of her few moments of emotion comes when she asks what Inverarity has told Metzger about her. Metzger responds “That you wouldn’t be easy,” and Oedipa “[begins] to cry.” (30) Her dependence on men is not simply about physical desire. This becomes more clear as she goes deeper into her quest. And as her independence continues, her self-awareness expands, making her able to comment on her own growing emptiness. When she learns of Driblette’s suicide, an interesting distinction in her character development is made.The problem is that the men she is looking for are themselves fragments of pop culture, and caught up in the California surroundings that continue to send her to them.
View of Scene From pp. 101-105 in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49
Just before the morning rush hour, she got out of a jitney whose ancient driver ended each day in the red, downtown on Howard Street, began to walk toward the Embarcadero. She knew she looked terrible – knuckles black with eye-liner and mascara from where she’d rubbed, mouth tasting of old booze and coffee. Through an open doorway, on the stair leading up into the disinfectant-smelling twilight of a rooming house she saw an old man huddled, shaking with grief she couldn’t hear. Both hands, smoke-white, covered his face. On the back of the left hand she made out the post horn, tattooed in old ink now beginning to blur and spread. Fascinated, she came into the shadows and ascended creaking steps, hesitating on each one. When she was three steps from him the hands flew apart and his wrecked face, and the terror of eyes gloried in burst veins, stopped her.”Can I help?” She was shaking, tired.”My wife’s in Fresno,” he said. He wore an old double-breasted suit, frayed gray shirt, wide tie, no hat. “I left her. So long ago, I don’t remember. Now this is for her.” He gave Oedipa a letter that looked like he’d been carrying it around for years. “Drop it in the,” and he held up the tattoo and stared into her eyes, “you know. I can’t go out there. It’s too far now, I had a bad night.””I know,” she said. “But I’m new in town. I don’t know where it is.””Under the freeway.” He waved her on in the direction she’d been going. “Always one. You’ll see it.” The eyes closed. Cammed each night out of that safe furrow the bulk of this city’s waking each sunrise again set virtuously to plowing, what rich soils had he turned, what concentric planets uncovered? What voices overheard, flinders of luminescent gods glimpsed among the wallpaper’s stained foliage, candlestubs lit to rotate in the air over him, prefiguring the cigarette he or a friend must fall asleep someday smoking, 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 could not believe in him, or would not remember him, without it. Exhausted, hardly knowing what she was doing, she came the last three steps and sat, took the man in her arms, actually held him, gazing out of her smudged eyes down the stairs, back into the morning. She felt wetness against her breast and saw that he was crying again. He hardly breathed but tears came as if being pumped. “I can’t help,” she whispered, rocking him, “I can’t help.” It was already too many miles to Fresno.”Is that him?” a voice asked behind her, up the stairs. “The sailor?””He has a tattoo on his hand.””Can you bring him up OK? That’s him.” She turned and saw an even older man, shorter, wearing a tall Hamburg hat and smiling at them. “I’d help you but I got a little arthritis.” “Does he have to come up?” she said. “Up there?””Where else, lady?”She didn’t know. She let go of him for a moment, reluctant as if he were her own child, and he looked up at her. “Come on,” she said. He reached out the tattooed hand and she took that, and that was how they went the rest of the way up that flight, and then the two more: hand in hand, very slowly for the man with arthritis.”He disappeared last night,” he told her. “Said he was going looking for his old lady. It’s a thing he does, off and on.” They entered a warren of rooms and corridors, lit by 10-watt bulbs, separated by beaverboard partitions. The old man followed them stiffly. At last he said, “Here.”In the little room were another suit, a couple of religious tracts, a rug, a chair. A picture of a saint, changing well-water to oil for Jerusalem’s Easter lamps. Another bulb, dead. The bed. The mattress, waiting. She ran through then a scene she might play. She might find the landlord of this place, and bring him to court, and buy the sailor a new suit at Roos/Atkins, and shirt, and shoes, and give him the bus fare to Fresno after all. But with a sigh he had released her hand, while she was so lost in the fantasy that she hadn’t felt it go away, as if he’d known the best moment to let go.”Just mail the letter,” he said, “the stamp is on it.” She looked and saw the familiar carmine 8¢ airmail, with a jet flying by the Capitol dome. But at the top of the dome stood a tiny figure in deep black, with its arms outstretched. Oedipa wasn’t sure what exactly was supposed to be on top of the Capitol, but knew it wasn’t anything like that…[dialogue] “He’s going to die,” she said. “Who isn’t?”She remembered John Nefastis, talking about his Machine, and massive destructions of information. So when this mattress flared up around the sailor, in his Viking’s funeral: the stored, coded years of uselessness, early death, self-harrowing, the sure decay of hope, the set of all men who had slept on it, whatever their lives had been , would truly cease to be, forever, when the mattress burned. She stared at it in wonder. It was as if she had just discovered the irreversible process. It astonished her to think that so much could be lost, even the quantity of hallucination belonging just to the sailor that the world would bear no further trace of. She knew, because she had held him, that he suffered DT’s. Behind the initials was a metaphor, a delirium tremens, a trembling unfurrowing of the mind’s plowshare. The saint whose water can light lamps, the clairvoyant whose lapse in recall is the breath of God, the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself, the dreamer whose puns probe ancient fetid shafts and tunnels of truth all act in the same special relevance to the word, or whatever it is the word is there, buffering, to protect us from. The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were” inside, safe, or outside, lost. Oedipa did not know where she was. For the reader, deciphering the difference between Oedipa’s subconscious and the actual voice of the narrator in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, may bode a difficult task. Often, the prose surrounding Oedipa’s dialogue and internal monologue appears to transcend the mere understanding of a woman to a sense of omnipotence – the narrator, from his extreme grasp of detail to his highfalutin description of existential situations, dreamlike behavior or otherworldly circumstance, demonstrates a particular grasp of the human experience that reaches far beyond a singular Pynchon character. In this particular scene of old age and despair, the narrator, rather than bringing a slew of mundane details to the character at hand, creates his own conception of life and death under the guise of description. While he does track the observations of Oedipa, the narrator takes her character beyond the sphere of simple, human interpretation to a heightened realization of experience. Oedipa, by no means, is devoid of agency as she approaches the elderly, drunken sailor. She feels emotionally mauled and physically ill as she staggers down the street, searching for the clue to the underground postal system, and eventually comes upon the man with the “post horn, tattooed in old ink now beginning to blur and spread.” The initial paragraph of this scene, appears to be rife with detail and physical description. The reader does not glean much from either the narrator or the character of Oedipa besides her clear despair and exhaustion. Pynchon sets the scene for the reader by basing the description in the realm of mundane, sordid reality. As the scene progresses, the narrator’s personality emerges; however, at the moment of encounter, the narrator clarifies the story line by offering the reader succinct bits of information regarding smell, feeling, taste, color and movement. The reader would immediately trust a narrator so steeped in detail; his observations seem sharp and incredibly poignant. For the reader, the description of “smoke-white hands,” a mouth “tasting of old booze and coffee,” the “disinfectant-smelling twilight of a rooming house” and “the terror of his eyes gloried in burst veins” rings with an inherent truth. With the gory, realistic detail of life at its dirtiest, saddest point, the reader cannot help but trust the narrator. At this initial paragraph, the scene maintains an incredible feeling of truth and life – no reader can debate the realism of detail or the narrator’s motives in describing the most base sights, tastes and sounds.As the reader watched Oedipa move up the creaking stairs, slowly approaching the drunken old man, the narrator has already influenced the reader to a point of extreme trust. The readers observes and comprehends the very emotions and visions that Oedipa undergoes. The reader can see her very knuckles as they’re smudged by makeup; who could possibly dispute the legitimacy of a narrator that so thoroughly and accurately develops the character’s independent physical and emotional details? Moreover, the narrator uses a hook in the plot to pull the reader into the Oedipa’s observations at an even more extreme rate. As she sees the post horn on the hand of the man “shaking with grief she couldn’t hear,” the reliability of the narrator becomes more acute due to her lucky sighting of a clue. This paragraph does not attempt to trick the reader by a narrative style; rather, it attempts to lure the reader into a depth of trusted detail that will evolve into a point of heightened, experienced narration as the scene moves on to a more personal, philosophical level. The reader does not receive the impression of a strong-willed narrator at this point; the written word simply appears to have an implicit honesty of detail that affects the reader in a positive sense to better understand the ensuing human interaction. The climactic image of the drunken man’s hands suddenly flying apart from in front of his face, draws the reader into the narrator’s acceleration of the plot. Still, Pynchon’s existential narrative style has not reared its head; the reader still has the impression of simplicity of theme surrounded by a detailed style. The constant reminders of the physical situation are textual markers for the reader to establish an intimacy with the narrator that stems from observational trust rather than from philosophical agreement. However, after Pynchon draws the reader into the scene with the detail of surrounding, he begins to describe the drunken sailor himself, a man with “an old, double-breasted suit, frayed gray shirt, wide tie, no hat.” As the man starts his own dialogue, the reader suddenly receives an inkling of mystery – the character that Oedipa approaches on the stair has a history without an explanation. His wife is in Fresno; he needs a letter sent through the one method that Oedipa is attempting to decipher – as he looks into her eyes, the man asks Oedipa to “drop it in the” and gestures to his tattoo with the ubiquitous horn symbol. Through these simple interactions, devoid of much detail besides the dialogue referring to a past woman that the reader has no prior experience with, the narrator draws the reader past the detail to some sort of mystery, another clue in the foggy plot, about to be solved by both Oedipa and the readers themselves. Pynchon’s flair for bringing the reader into the text by the trusted method of realistic description, appropriates a perfect opportunity for the narrator to address some more complicated themes resulting from the singular interaction between Oedipa and the sailor.The narrator’s tone shifts to a more experienced pitch after Oedipa tricks the sailor into telling her where the drop box for the underground letters awaits. After the textual marker of “the eyes closed” occurs, suddenly the narrator acquires a new sense of omnipotence that was lacking at the beginning of the scene. No longer is the reader dwelling on the intricacies of detail in a physical reality; with the closed eyes, Pynchon marks a change into a dream state – the relationship between the narrator and the character becomes less important. Here, the narrator assumes the role of overseer – a force that Oedipa may or may not understand, as her character is almost subverted by this effusive narrator, saturated with concepts and ideas pertaining to life and longing. “Cammed each night out of that safe furrow the bulk of this city’s waking each sunrise again set virtuously to plowing, what rich soils had he turned, what concentric planets uncovered?,” seems to be a sentence more full of meaning than Oedipa could grasp in one observation of a man. With his eyes shut, the narrator takes on his own agency – he has the power and ability to dissect the very soul of this man as he lays back on the steps, his eyes shut in pain and sadness. A certain amount of wonderment and hope surrounds the narrator’s statement; even though the sailor connotes a sad state, the narrator asks larger questions of his worth to the point where he maintains the capability to uncover concentric planets. Clearly, Oedipa could not speculate quite so thoroughly if she were simply observing the sailor in a bad state of mind. The narrator, therefore, is assuming some sort of unstated power of observation that he either attributes to Oedipa indirectly, or maintains himself, as an unnamed force in the narrative.The dreamlike state of mind that Pynchon so gloriously describes in this paragraph, does not necessarily imply Oedipa’s own conception of the situation. As the narrator describes the strange transition from reality to surrealism, “flinders of luminescent gods glimpsed among the wallpaper’s stained foliage, candlestubs lit to rotate in the air over him,” the reader understands that Oedipa cannot possibly see the sailor’s own dreams unless she is crafting all of the images of light from her own conception. Pynchon expertly links Oedipa’s subconscious being with the omnipotent aspect of the narrator, so the reader maintains a sense of trust with both the character and her narrator. Intimate with his characters, the narrator appears to overwhelm them here, drawing a picture of gods among the wallpaper, candles dangling freely above the head of the man as he dreams. The reader can observe a dramatic shift from the mundane detail of life to the outrageous happenings of a dream – a dream that almost coincides with reality, due to its narration and association with the “real” character of Oedipa. Moreover, Oedipa is immediately brought back into the picture by her link to the real world, here described as the mattress. As the candle light “prefigures” the cigarette that would one day light the mattress on fire, Oedipa sees death and dreaming combine themselves into a fateful display of the future. Her vision of the man, one day dying on his mattress after lighting himself on fire with Pynchon’s disturbing description of a sort of funeral pyre or burning effigy, is wrought with a dirty reality again, bringing the reader down from the existential pedestal into the realm of “a mattress that could keep vestiges of every nightmare sweat, helpless overflowing bladder, viciously, tearfully consummated wet dream.” Pynchon’s technique of switching the reader’s sentiments from the surreal to the utterly realistic, cause the narrator to maintain a sense of legitimacy. If he was always flying high among the “concentric planets” and broader concepts of life, then the readers would potentially lose their feeling of narrator reliability. After the “insatiable suffering of a mattress” strikes both the reader and Oedipa as a larger concept that immediately graspable, the narrative returns again to a basic emotional stance: Oedipa sits on the steps of the apartment and takes the weeping, hopeless man in her arms. Pynchon, wrenching the heart strings of his readers by the simple narration of this scene, places them back into a realistic situation – one where empathy is the currency rather than high, philosophical ideas. A dialogue ensues with another member of the apartment, and Oedipa aids her weeping charge upstairs with the narrator prompting the concept that she views him as a child. Once in the sailor’s room, the reader receives the usual barrage of material detail (“a picture of a saint, a couple of religious tracts, a rug, a chair”) and then a second tier of thought – Oedipa’s fantasy that she could bring the landlord of the proverbial tenement to court, buy the sailor a new suit of clothes and send him to Fresno in search of his wife. The narrator creates an interesting combination of Oedipa’s fantasy and the blatant reality for the reader to interpret in much the same way as the previous scene where the reader doesn’t have as much of a grasp on whether the narrator created prolific thoughts in the name of Oedipa’s character or under the auspices of his own agenda. The reader received an initial clue from the tattoo of the man and then again at this point with the tiny man-symbol in the corner of the sailor’s stamp. The narrator continues the twists and progressions of the plot with these tiny textual pieces of evidence; however, after another stint with dialogue, the reader falls unsuspectingly into the midst of an incredible twist in narration that goes far beyond the simple agency of Oedipa.The narrator’s views of the mattress somewhat overwhelm Oedipa’s own views of an image of a “Viking’s funeral,” as she imagines the mattress going up in flames with all the memories attached. Within, she sees: “the stored, coded years of uselessness, early death, self-harrowing, the sure decay of hope, the set of all men who had slept on it, whatever their lives had been, would truly cease to be, forever, when the mattress burned.” The reader does not know whether to decipher these philosophical terms at Oedipa’s level or another tier of meaning – the narrator’s. The narrator uses the pronouns “she” and “her” continuously throughout this paragraph, but once again, the narrator bears the responsibility of his overpowering intellectuality. As Oedipa ponders the case of the old man, a certain heightened sense of the narrator appears as the “metaphor” for delirium tremens is discussed. The narrator calls it the “trembling unfurrowing of the mind’s plowshare,” a hearkening back to the earlier paragraph where plowing was initially referred to in a metaphysical sense. As the narrator in lieu of Oedipa attempts to explain his conception of DT’s – a disorder that goes far beyond its simple medical definition under his terms – he sees “the act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost.” As the scene continues, the reader is caught between the high-minded idea of a metaphor for life, death, truth and lying and Oedipa’s own consternation at watching the situation magnify in her own mind. Here lies the crux of Pynchon’s narrative style: Oedipa maintains a sense of agency in the eyes of the reader but also tends to take a step back as the narrator unleashes his own, unnamed sentiments and beliefs on the reader. Though Oedipa may feel and understand the poignant metaphor of the mattress and the DT’s, the narrator truly maps the meaning for the reader in a harrowing, yet enlightening, manner. At this point, the reader needs to chose whether the narrator or Oedipa or himself is “inside, safe, or outside, lost.” Pynchon, rather than simply telling the story, offers up a challenge, through the character of Oedipa, for the defenseless reader.
Entropy, Maxwell’s Demon and the Crying of Lot 49
When reading Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” one is flooded with a deluge of historical references (dates, places, events) and, unless a historical genius, probably feels confused as to the historical accuracy of such references. As critics have shown, Pynchon blends factual history with fiction and manages, as David Seed writes in “The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon,” to “juxtapose(s) historical references with reminders of the novel’s status as artefact so that the reader’s sense of history and of fiction are brought into maximum confrontation” (128). Pynchon, for example, in “Lot 49” speaks at length about Maxwell’s Demon, a machine proposed in 1871 by physicist James Clerk Maxwell which, theoretically, could defy the Second Law of Thermodynamics by producing energy in a system without putting any energy into that system. Although the basic idea of the machine provides a neat metaphor for Oedipa’s own project, ironically it is the historical event that Pynchon chooses not to reference that truly illuminates Oedipa’s quest. This “unnamed historical reference” is the fact that Maxwell’s Demon, and the way it operated, was eventually shown to be a fraud. The scientific explanation for why Maxwell’s Demon doesn’t work parallels and adumbrates Oedipa’s own inability to sort through and make sense of the information she is given.On a surface level, Maxwell’s Demon and Oedipa share, metaphorically, similar projects. As Pynchon explains, “The Demon could sit in a box among air molecules that were moving at all different random speeds, and sort out the fast molecules from the slow ones” (68). Oedipa, similarly, is forced to “sort” the various clues she’s given concerning Iverarity’s estate, Trystero and W.A.S.T.E. Pynchon repeatedly uses the image of “sorting” or “shuffling” to describe Oedipa’s project. At the beginning of the novel we learn that she has been given the job of “sorting it (Pierce’s estate) all out” (1) which she attempts to accomplish by “shuffling back through a fat deckful of days” (2). The Demon sorts molecules and thus gains information about them, which in turns allows it to create order among chaos. Oedipa, similarly, seeks to act as a “dark machine in the center of the planetarium, to bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning” (64) (Mangel 90: 1971). The comparison couldn’t be more obvious; Oedipa as “machine,” “sorting” clues, gaining information, discovering patterns and order and, ultimately, a “Meaning.” This metaphoric parallel becomes weak, however, when we realize that as Oedipa probes deeper into the issues, “other revelations…seemed to come crowding in exponentially, as if the more she collected the more would come to her,”(64). Oedipa becomes unable to accurately mimic Maxwell’s Demon; she simply cannot sort through all of the clues, nor can she place the “truthful” ones on one side and the “false” ones on the other. This inability stems not only from the copious amount of information she receives but the ultimately unknowable (and, as we shall see, distorted) nature of such “clues;” Oedipa can never truly know if a clue is “true” or “false.” Nonetheless, the other side of Maxwell’s Demon, the side Pynchon chooses not to explicitly elaborate, is the fact that, like Oedipa, Maxwell’s Demon was also never able to accomplish it’s task of “sorting”. Two physicists, Leo Szilarad and Leon Brillouin, have shown that Maxwell’s Demon was pure fiction. Szilarad wrote that, “any action resulting in a decrease in the entropy of a system must be preceded by an operation of acquiring information, which in turn is coupled with the production of an equal or greater amount of entropy” (Mangel 91: 1971). Brillouin echoed such thoughts, writing that “an intelligent being…has to cause an increase of entropy before it can effect a reduction by a smaller amount,” an increase which is caused by the “process of perception” which determines which molecules are faster or slower than others (Mangel 91: 1971). Entropy, in short, is the amount of disorder in a given system. Thus in layman’s terms, Maxwell’s Demon can never work because the amount of entropy which you need to accurately “perceive” and “sort” the molecules will always be greater than the amount of entropy you reduce in sorting such molecules. Thus the way in which Maxwell’s Demon is dysfunctional is metaphorically akin to the manner in which Oedipa comes to be dysfunctional, in two primary ways. First, as was mentioned earlier, Oedipa, as the novel progresses, is bombarded with information, clues and signals. One clue leads to another that leads to a hundred more; the amount always building “exponentially” in a variety of different directions. Pynchon tells us, “This night’s profusion of post horns, this malignant, deliberate replication, was their way of beating up. They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her” (101). The image of “immobilization” reinforces the idea that the more information you gain about a system (i.e. the Trystero) and the way in which it can be ordered and systematized, the more disorder you actually produce, and hence, the more immobilized and helpless you feel. In “gaining information” about the Trystero/estate/ W.A.S.T.E., Oedipa ostensibly effects a “decrease in entropy” (or, an increase in order), but in the end, such information only causes Oedipa, like Maxwell’s Demon would, to produce “an equal or greater amount of entropy” (or, an increase in Oedipa’s own confusion). Oedipa’s own worries and concerns also reflect her metaphorical relation to the dysfunctional nature of Maxwell’s Demon. She begins, for example, to believe that “she might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold; which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly” (76). She senses the impossibility of her task, the paradox of it, the fact that the more she knows, the more she becomes confused, the more she tries to order, the more disorder there is, the more the “message” destroy itself “irreversibly.” Note moreover that entropy, or disorder, increases not only for Oedipa the “investigator” but for Oedipa the “sane human being” as well. She begins to lose the ability not merely to “sort” clues, but to “sort the…real and dreamed” (95). Again, as information mounts which should lead to order (i.e. Oedipa figuring out the meaning of the Trystero and returning home), it results instead in increased disorder (Oedipa going mildly insane).The second way in which Oedipa’s experience mimics the dysfunctional nature of Maxwell’s Demon is seen in the fact that as the novel progresses, and the information which Oedipa receives builds, the words and symbols used to convey such information often become distorted and lose their ability to effectively transmit meaning. For example, consider the word “Trystero.” Oedipa first hears it during the performance of “The Courier’s Tragedy,” “No hallowed skein of stars can word, I trow/Who’s once been set his tryst with Trystero” (58). But when she seeks out the textual version (s) of the play she finds a variety of different words that have taken “Trystero’s” place. In one version it becomes, “No hallowed skein of stars can ward, I trow/Who once has crossed the lusts of Angelo” (81) while in another, “No hallowed skein of stars can ward, I trow/This tryst or odious awry, O Niccolo” (116). Even later she comes up a group of girls skipping rope and singing “Tristoe, Tristoe, one, two, three, Turning taxi from across the sea” (96). Thus Trystero exists simultaneous as “tristoe,” “Angelo” and “O Niccolo.” As Oedipa gets more clues as to what the “Trystero” is, or where that word should appear, as more “information” enters her “system,” we find that such information is often distorted. So, instead of decreasing entropy, this distorted information only increases disorder, and, in turn, creates that much more work for Oedipa in following up on each “distortion.”In the same way, the muted horn symbol comes to be associated with a variety of different peoples and meanings. It originally appears next to the letters W.A.S.T.E., but is later seen with the acronym “D.E.A.T.H.” (98) as well as with Alameda County Death Cult (ACDC) (99). The image is everywhere, “saturating the Bay Area” (107). As the critic Anne Mangel put it, “Such symbols continually seduce by suggesting information and meaning, yet they never reveal it. As codes and signals actually work to destroy information, they begin to emerge as something sinister” (97). That which is sinister, of course, is an increase in disorder, in entropy. The muted horn symbol, like the word “Trystero,” functions as a form of “distorted information.” Put simply, as Oedipa receives more and more clues, such clues often become slightly distorted or changed. Such changes, in turn, prevent Oedipa from being able to accurately “sort” them. That is, she is unable to gain the information, because of the distortion, that she needs in order to accurately sort them. The energy she expends on trying to “perceive” these various distorted clues outweighs the potential order or knowledge she can gain, which in turn, leads only to more disorder.In conclusion, “Lot 49” is a book, as was pointed out in section, filled with “red herrings” and must be thought of as a giant “red herring” itself. I wouldn’t dispute such an argument, but would seek to point out that the way in which Maxwell’s Demon is dysfunctional parallels the way in which Oedipa is unable to “work.” More importantly, however, the metaphor of the dysfunctional Demon applies to us as readers when we fail to realize, as was said, that “Lot 49” is one big “red herring.” That is, when we as readers choose one “red herring” as the ultimate meaning for “Lot 49” we begin to become dysfunctional in relation to the text, just as Maxwell’s Demon does, and instead of finding order and meaning in the text serve only to increase our own disorder and misunderstanding. Additional resources: Mangel, Anne “Maxwell’s Demon, Entropy, Information: The Crying of Lot 49” in Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, 1976: Boston. Seed, David The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon 1988: Iowa City.
If You Mean It, Sing It
Despite the fact that The Crying of Lot 49 is chock-full of the use of methods of communication, the only time when anything is actually communicated is when a few songs are sung by The Paranoids. Any letters mentioned in the novel are void of meaning; relationships tend to be self-indulgent and superficial; even radio broadcasts are phony. Moreover, of the few songs that are not sung by the Paranoids, none have any substantial meaning either. Overall, unless stated or utilized by a member of the band, no form of communication possesses the slightest trace of an actual desire to communicate.The first time one sees meaning in communication is immediately before Oedipa and Metzger have sex – yet another form of exchange void of substance – when the Paranoids are singing outside their bedroom window. The song immediately has some sort of meaning because it tells a story: A man longs for the woman he loves, but knows he cannot go to her – “As I lie…and you lie alone tonight…how can I come to you” (Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999. 27). It may sound like a rather blas, overdone theme for a song; yet, compared to anything that has appeared in the novel before it, it is monumental in honesty and emotion. So far, the only other forms of communication have been shellacked with grandiose, Time Warner effects. For example, the entire book begins with Oedipa Maas being named executrix of an eccentric multi-millionaire’s will. Then, she visits his lawyer who studies nothing else but Perry Mason television episodes, the father of the concocted, kitschy detective drama. Finally, she drives to San Narciso, a city paved with prefabricated, Vegas-esque buildings and billboards, to find the coexecutor, Metzger. Something this fantastic could only occur in a Hollywood B-movie! Therefore, is not this song the first “true” thing she encounters, the first expression of substance?The next major song by The Paranoids does not occur till the end of the novel; yet, prior to that, a few other forms of empty communication show up. First, while slumming around a bar called The Scope, Oedipa encounters Mike Fallopian who receives a letter via the underground postal service. He tells the reader (and Oedipa) in advance that the note will be garbage by explaining how “each member has to send at least one letter a week through the Yoyodyne system” (39); if they don’t, they’re fined. Therefore, one cannot expect a mandatory letter, like the one Fallopian opens, to have any sort of value. In fact, all it says is, “Dear Mike, … how are you? Just thought I’d drop you a note. How’s your book coming? Guess that’s all for now. See you at The Scope” (39). No one could possibly argue that the letter is of any consequence or that it presents any sort of meaning to its reader. Even the implication that the author of the letter wants to know how Mike’s book is doing is purely empty, for one has no doubt that he, in reality, doesn’t give a damn about it. Therefore, here is a perfect example of using a common form of communication to communicate nothing.The next time there is a reasonably relative exchange of ideas between people is during Oedipa’s visit to the Yoyodyne stockholders’ meeting. While she’s there, the corporate stockholders sing two songs in praise of their beloved Yoyodyne. Normally, one would think that such a jubilant expression of loyalty would be expressed through meaningful, heart-felt words. Even my thesis would imply that, as they are singing songs, there should be honesty and emotion present. However, these little ditties were written by the corporate world. They, like the required Yoyodyne mailing system, are mandatory expressions churned out robotically no matter how many Vaseline-slick smiles one has singing them. The lyrics themselves seem to aureate hollow and capitalistic California ideals “Pink pavilions bravely shining,/ Palm trees tall and true” (65) and “Yoyodyne… Contracts flee thee yet./ DOD has shafted thee,/ Out of spite, I’ll bet” (66). Not only do the words lack worthwhile meaning, but they also show how jaded and corrupt the people singing them must be. Of course, if these people are like every first grader pledging allegiance to the flag, by now the words have become so heavily etched into their minds that they don’t even think about them when they’re reciting them, making even the act of singing insincere and rehearsed. Therefore, the only thing these two songs communicate is a lack of emotion.Finally, after Oedipa has brushed with death thanks to Dr. Hilarious, she reunites with her husband, Mucho, in the back of his radio truck. One would presume that, as a couple, they would have the most honest forms of communication in the entire novel; yet, somehow, at this moment they manage to present one of the coldest and obscure relationships. She enters the truck greeted by a soundless smile from him, being told to “be herself” before having a microphone thrust in front of her. A couple of weeks, maybe closer to a month, without seeing her husband, and all Oedipa gets is a mic thrown in her face. Moreover, after receiving her comments on the rather mind-boggling events that just occurred in Dr. Hilarious’s office, Mucho bastardizes her name into Edna Mosh, saying that he “was allowing for the distortion on these rigs, and then when they put it on tape” (114), so it will come out clear in the final broadcast. In essence, he asks her to be herself only to document her as someone entirely different before sending it off to be regarded as fact by the rest of the world. If that’s not screwing with the veracity of communication, I don’t know what is.The last major form of honest interaction between people occurs when Oedipa returns to Echo Courts and sees The Paranoids again. At this point, one of the band members, Serge, sings a song about how his girlfriend left him for an older man, and how he is now patrolling the schoolyards for a new female companion “For me, my baby was a woman/ For him she’s just another nymphet/ Why did they run around … As long as she’s gone away … I’ve had to find somebody new … I had a date last night with an eight-year-old” (120-121). Out of all the moments in the novel, this one seems to be the most painfully real and true. Here is Serge, obviously broken by the fact that someone whom he believed he loved has ditched him for a smooth-talking Humbert Humbert wannabe, singing his heart out in hope that his lyrics will consol him; for, in fact, there is no eight-year-old “groovy” replacement in his life. He is the only character, therefore, to really feel regret and loss, believe he experienced the emotion of love, and have the gusto to communicate it to the rest of the world. Overall, it is simply the one time, save possibly the first Paranoids song, where a form of communication actually communicates anything.In essence, the entire novel displays how communication does not function. Perhaps the only reason Pynchon even gives The Paranoids a few moments of honest, expressible emotion is that he wants to show that the future generations have the hope of not being as jaded as the present one, allowing for the possibility for communication to reestablish itself truly in a society. Overall, though, regardless of Pynchon’s reasons for having The Paranoids be the tool, The Crying of Lot 49 only has people expressing meaning to each other when the band is singing.
The Importance of Communication
Before the telephone was invented, people wrote letters to each other to stay in touch. Soldiers would write letters to their wives and families conveying their love and, even today, people write letters to better communicate. Writing is a way of expressing yourself, a way to think about what you are feeling and communicate that to other people. In The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon has his characters write letters in order for them to better understand each other and also to communicate to the reader what is happening in the novel. Indirectly, Pynchon is also satirizing the importance of letters and written communication because, in the novel, the letters confuse the plot instead of clarifying it. As the novel begins, Oedipa receives a letter that is seemingly clear, yet it is the beginning of a mystery that complicates the story and complicated Oedipaís ability to think clearly. As she finds out more about the mystery of the Tristero, she comes across the W.A.S.T.E. system of mail. This system forces people to write letters even when they have nothing to say and mocks the United States Postal Service. Although this novel seems like an ordinary mystery, its underlying tones of satire, through malfunctioning communication, are prevalent within Oedipa and in the letters that are written between characters and the W.A.S.T.E postal system.Oedipa Maas receives a letter that states that she is the legal executor of her ex-boyfriends estate. It contains pertinent information about what happened and what her duties are. To the reader, this is a point of clarification. Although the letters seems to be concise and to the point, it is the beginning of a big conspiracy that Oedipa will eventually uncover. After she receives the letter, she starts to see weird images that do not seem to be related. She talks about Rapunzel, magic, and Pierce. Its hard to understand why she would have such mysterious images from one letter, but what seems like a clear letter to the reader, is confusing to Oedipa. She reminisces about Pierce in her mind and then goes off on a tangent, not acknowledging the fact that she is confused over nothing. Pynchon is satirizing communication through letters and causes Oedipa to react unconventionally because ìÖshe was to have all manner of revelations. Hardly about Pierce Inverarity, or herself; but about what remained, yet had somehow, before this, stayed awayî (p10). It seems normal to think about the good times she had with Pierce, but she takes it a step further.What follows her reminiscing thoughts is stories about her days with Pierce that turn into a revelation about herself. She is deluding herself into believing that Pierce had no effect on her, yet she thinks about him a great deal and does not even realize how much she thinks about him. She is having communication problems within herself because she is not being true to herself and her feelings. As the imagines Rapunzel in the tower she thinks, ìSuch a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at allî (p12). If she believes that she is the captive maiden, then she feels that she is somehow trapped and cannot get out, not because of her physical surroundings, but because something beyond her control is trapping her there. The only thing she could be trapped into at this point is going to sort out Pierceís affairs. For some reason she feels that she is bind into doing this by magic. Obviously, she cannot understand why Pierce has chosen her as executor, which is why she thinks the magic visited her for ìno reason at all.îThe reader is also struggling with communication because Pynchon is not clearly communicating his thoughts. The story, at first, seems simple, but Oedipaís reaction to the letter complicates what the reader originally thought about the letter. In this way, Pynchon may be making a statement about how hard it is to communicate or that communicating effectively is impossible because we can never really know what someone else is thinking. He may be satirizing the way people communicate through literature and/or letters. Detective stories usually have the same ending where the detective solves the crime and clues are given all along. With this mystery, the clues are inconclusive and do not lead to the solution to the crime. Oedipaís understanding of every situation is just beyond her reach, just like Pynchon keeps the readers understanding out of reach. Whenever we think we know what is happened, the book takes a turn in a different direction.As the plot progresses and the mystery unfolds, Oedipa and the reader know less and less about what is going on. When Oedipa goes to San Francisco to find out more about the Tristero and W.A.S.T.E., she meets with John Nefastis to find out if she is ìsensitive,î but they end up discussing entropy and communication. To be a ìsensitiveî she must communicate with the Demon so he tells her, ìCommunication is the key. The Demon passes his data on to the sensitive, and the sensitive must reply in kindî (p84). To the reader, the whole idea of the machine and the theory of a ìsensitiveî seems a little ludicrous, yet the novel suggests that it is a serious concept to be considered. The idea that ìcommunication is the keyî is the ìkeyî but not to entropy. This statement can be taken more broadly to mean the Pynchon stresses the importance of communication in every aspect of life. If communication is not handled properly, mistakes and miscommunications happen just like with the machine. If a person cannot communicate properly, the machine will not work. Oedipa is not sure if Nefastis is serious or if he is putting her on. Oedipa is, again, confused about what to believe because what is going on is not clear to her. She is dealing with the idea of entropy, which is new to her, and talking to people she has never met, which would put a doubt in her mind on what to believe because Nefastis has no credibility with her. Communication is something that takes hard work, yet even with hard work, it may not be attained. It is very hard to get your point across, especially with something like entropy. Oedipa tries to communicate with the Demon while Pynchon is trying to communicate with us.Letters are the old fashion way of communicating, yet it is the only way to communicate according to the novel. People can listen to telephone conversations and even open US mail, but they can communicate safely through W.A.S.T.E. Oedipa overhears a mother telling her son, ìWrite by W.A.S.T.E., remember, the government will open it if you use the otherî (p100). Communication through this new system seems to be the only way to go. Pynchon is stressing the importance written communication and is mocking everything else. Using W.A.S.T.E. instead of the US postal system is a satire of the way he believes the postal system is run and since writing is so important, we should not leave it up to the government.When everything is almost figured out, Oedipa begins to doubt herself and her findings, like in the beginning of the book. The Tristero is still a mystery but Pynchon leads us to believe that everything will eventually be sorted out. We believe like Oedipa, that the clues all point to the answer, but with further analysis of the clues, they may point to nothing. He confuses us and says, ìDid she know why Driblette had put in those two extra lines that night? Had he even known why? No one could begin to trace itî (p133). The more Oedipa communicates and learns about the Tristero, the less she is in tune with reality. Communication, in general, clarifies things, yet Oedipa is more confused, along with the reader. Pynchon is making another statement about communication or over-communication. If clues are over-analyzed, it can lead to more confusion, rather than clarification.At the end of the novel things are so confused that, in a way, there is no closure. Oedipa and the reader start to doubt every clue that has been fed to them by Pynchon. His point of clarity through communication is a satire of communication. He tells us every little detail about the mystery, yet there is never a solution and we never find out who the bidder is. Of course this is not really relevant because he has already made his point by the end of the novel. Oedipa may be trapped in her imaginative tower, but it is not magic that is keeping her there. In a way, if communication worked functionally, she would be able to solve the mystery be communicating properly and asking the right questions. It is her ego that keeps her in that tower because if she surrenders and stops pursuing the mystery of the Tristero, her life would be given back to her and she would not be so isolated from the world.Pynchon has brilliantly written a novel that delves deep into the depths of the inner soul. Is it possible to really communicate with people or are people doomed to never really be understood? Are letters and writing the key to clear communication? He is trying to communicate to his audience that letters are a beginning, but without them, there is nothing. It is books and literature that keep legends alive and his novel will be read for many years to come. The first step of communication is to be able to communicate with yourself. Oedipa has problems understanding her own thoughts, so it is impossible for her to understand and analyze what is going on around her. It is important to know what you are trying to communicate before you can communicate anything. Pynchon satirizes the way people communicate in his novel in order to show the effects of miscommunication. The ending is the epitome of communication because Pynchon proves that the facts of the letter or idea are more important than the outcome. The fact that Oedipa was able to work through her inner problems and work with other people, is more important than if she solves the mystery or not. If we had been told the ending, it may have put too much emphasis on the end result and his point may not have been made.
Symbols and Meaning in The Crying of Lot 49
Although the postmodern classic The Crying of Lot 49 is known for its obscurity and lack of a single interpretation, it should not be seen as an experiment in a tortured narrative of curve-balls that destroys the reader’s assumptions without leaving anything in place. Rather, its very indefinite structure is part of the novel’s meaning, the writing medium carrying the message more than the book’s content or plot. We can gain insight into what Pynchon is trying to accomplish by considering the “sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faces west” (p.1). Here the old epistemological problem, the zen koan of a tree falling out of earshot, cues us into a discussion of our relation to reality. Rather than arguing extreme objectivity (the sun rises regardless of an observer) or subjectivity (there is no sunrise for the student stuck in the library), the novel will argue a middle path: sunrise is a process of an observer watching the sun. When Oedipa watches the circuit of houses from a San Narcisco slope, she sees the limitless possibilities of what she can see – “There’s seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she tried to find out)” (p. 14). Both the sun and the city are covered by clouds and haze, breaking her “religious instant”, suggesting that the towers of isolation suburban life brings prevent the process of communication. This tells us that Oedipa’s calling in the novel is toward communication, in the larger meaning of the word as information interchange, between human beings and the world at large. Communication is accomplished through symbols (information), but the symbols themselves are ambiguous and the act of interpreting them is more important than deriving their source, meaning, or purpose. The symbols of “concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate” that Oedipa tries to divine in maps, circuits, and later books, are mysterious, holding infinite promise in their very secrecy.1
It is limited to see the novel as a ridicule of suburban life; rather the suburban towers enclosing Oedipa point to the larger problem of isolation that all human beings face. The danger of retreating into solipsism can only be balanced by listening and believing in other human beings and the world itself. Oedipa’s men struggle with the same issues, but often get bogged down by drug use, media, and hallucinations. Still most of them have less trouble interpreting symbols than Oedipa, who keeps retreating to limited logic and insistence on objectivity. Paranoia – seeing connections that are not there – is familiar to most characters who have no trouble making infinite connections in the symbolic world. Even predestined events like the plot of a film are appreciated each time anew. Oedipa sees no point in betting on the outcome of a film with Metzger, but he remids her that she hasn’t seen it yet – it’s new to her. This again underscores the emphasis on interpretation – Metzger’s film sits uselessly in a Hollywood vault until someone tries to watch it. Oedipa is stuck in her binary logic: either the film has a happy ending or a bad one, either the plot is predestined or waiting to unfurl, either she is mad or Tristero is real. Her salvation must lie in not ignoring the excluded middle – the only way to interpret the world to full capacity.
The issue of symbolic communication naturally affects the text itself: how can the author effectively communicate his intention to the reader? A linear plot would not work; neither is an ending necessary when the theme relies on process rather than tautology. The names of characters are natural signifiers, giving us two choices of interpretation: the metaphorical or literal. Literal implies the name is real or common; metaphorical implies one symbol pointing to another – a one-to-one mapping. The Duke kisses the image of Saint Narcissus and Mucho “enigmatically” sings “I Want to Kiss Your Feet”. Do we solve the enigma by saying Mucho is the Duke in The Courier’s Tragedy (after all, the play has a “bizarre resemblance” to what happens in the novel)? The text warns us of this danger: “Heretofore the naming of names has gone on either literally or as metaphor. But now… a new mode of expression takes over. It can only be called a kind of ritual reluctance” (p. 55). Just as Oedipa must transgress either/or choices, so must the novel replace the literal/metaphorical interpretation of names (and symbols) by something in between. The text has no choice but to give names to characters (ritual reluctance), but nothing more will be implied than the reader chooses to imply (new mode of expression). The novel doesn’t allow easy substitutions; its allusive qualities are only meant to tantalize the reader into trying to solve the mystery, as if by calling Oedipa Oedipus or reversing the letters of KCUF, we can get what the plot is really trying to tell us. But no such solutions are available to us. If we try to look up the etymology of Tristero we only get bogged deeper into the mystery, and that is part of the point – not solutions, but the process of solving the detective mystery; seeing connections that may not be there but hold the book together. Pynchon has said that in writing Crying he forgot most of what he learned up to that time.2 This may suggest he was breaking away both from linear plots and allusions/metaphors; this is as much his journey of words and symbols as Oedipa’s. This interpretation is supported by Driblette’s comments on the play, “It isn’t literature, it doesn’t mean anything” (p. 60). Of course the play is literature – it’s part of the novel – but does it mean anything in the novel? We are warned not to take words seriously: “You guys, you’re like Puritans are about the Bible. So hung up with words, words. You know where the play exists, not in that file cabinet, not in any paperback you’re looking for, but [the head]” (p. 62). Some pages back, the play alluded to the Puritans, but we are told it was “a useless gesture since none of them ever went to plays” (p. 53). The novel is asking us to consider the good of metaphors or words themselves without an audience. Placing too much emphasis on choices of words and intended meanings leaves the reader and his interpretation behind, forgetting that he/she gives the “spirit flesh”.
We may wonder why “communication is key” if intended meanings are ignored and certainty is hard to come by. Part of the answer lies in entropy: communication is the loophole in the Maxwell’s Demon thought experiment that allows for order and coherence to emerge in a disintegrating system. The demon absorbs information while sorting molecules, which offsets the loss in entropy he is trying to accomplish. The “sensitives” feed back energy by communicating information. Sharing information is therefore equivalent to reestablishing order. Mucho is described as “sensitive”, as are other characters, while Oedipa is desperately trying to communicate. The more one is willing to share, receive/transmit, and interpret information, the bigger the network of connections can be established. This network is the “tapestry was the world” that holds everything together; indeed there is nothing outside of this tapestry because consciousness is equivalent to processing information. The link between world/word is evident enough when we consider that the process of reading is much like experience; Oedipa’s world and personality is communicated to us through the text. Oedipa’s duty (and the reader’s as well) is to unfurl her hair, weave the tapestry far beyond the ivory tower of her isolation. Simply observing is already a start; Oedipa tries to “‘bring something of herself’—even if that something was just her presence” (p. 72). Before she wonders throughout the Bay Area, searching for meaning, she begins to realize that the “repetition of symbols was to be enough… she was meant to remember”. As she gropes through the mysterious world around her, she allows the symbols to pass through her, but she must also act and get tangled in the mystery, forming her own connections. Her mind can not be a “pool table”; she must leave her binary logic in order to see the forgotten stories and memories of the street people in the Bay. The memories of everyone who has passed away still hangs in the whirlwind, just as the bones of American troops killed in an isolated part of the world are breathed by the living world through a filter. Oedipa must remember their story even if it is unheard. Like Whafinger’s play, the lives of the past keep affecting us and our duty is only to recognize the excluded middle. That is not only Oedipa’s journey but the reader’s as well as we project Oedipa’s world in our own planaterium.
1) Pynchon links the obscure word “hierophany” (p. 20) with the secrecy of symbols. It was originally coined in Micea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane:
“Man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifest itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane. To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany. It is a fitting term because it does not imply anything further; it expresses no more than is implicit in its etymological content, i.e., that something sacred shows itself to us… From the most elementary hierophany… to the supreme hierophany… there is no solution of continuity. In each case we are confronted by the same mysterious act—the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world.” [emphasis added].
The term is fitting because it implies the experience of something other-worldly without regard to reality or meaning. The experience comes from some odd connection in the objects of our ‘profane’, day-to-day world and that connection solely implies an alternative reality that Oedipa is meant to experience. The religious origin of the word suggests a reason for the religious imagery in the novel – interpreting symbols of the unknown realm in our world or beyond is revelatory.
[Source: Grant, J. Kerry. A Companion to The Crying of Lot 49. Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1994.]
2) See Introduction in Slow Learner. [Source: Pynchon, Thomas. Slow Learner. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.]
A Woven Conspiracy
Near the end of Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 novel The Crying of Lot 49, the protagonist Oedipa finds herself at a crossroads after trying to unravel the mystery of W.A.S.T.E., a conspiratorial underground postal system, without finding many tangible results. “It was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer,” Pynchon writes, “the zeroes and ones twinned above… Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would be either a transcendent meaning, or only the earth” (Pynchon 181). Earlier in the novel, however, this discrepancy is not represented as a simple binary. Just pages before, when considering the validity of her suspicions, Oedipa thinks to herself “Either you have stumbled… onto a secret richness and concealed destiny of a dream… Or you are hallucinating it. Or a plot has been mounted against you… Or you are fantasying some such plot” (170-171). Oedipa equates the existence of W.A.S.T.E. with “transcendent meaning” and “secret richness,” but given the later binary description, does this mean she considers the other three options as simply other mundane parts of “only the earth”? Even next to the possibilities of hallucination or an incredibly elaborate practical joke, is the only thing that can make the world more meaningful to Oedipa the existence of something so seemingly unimpressive as a secret mail system? Pynchon combines the arcane imagery of computers and the mundane imagery of much older and more transparent forms of technology to demonstrate the futility of searching for meaning in an increasingly technologized world, especially through technology itself.
Oedipa evokes the imagery of arcane modern technology much earlier in the novel as well, while driving toward San Narciso. Lost in thought, she thinks of the time she had “opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit,” and finds that the “ordered swirl of houses and streets… sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had… there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate” (24). Here again appears the word “hieroglyphic,” representing this “intent to communicate” which she is unable to decipher. But while in this section she is comparing the layout of circuits to the layout of a neighborhood, by the end of the novel this comparison shifts, and the imagery of complex technology comes to be applied to a conspiracy centering around the postal system, an ancient and seemingly mundane form of technology whose functioning should pose little mystery to anyone. Even in the 17th century play The Courier’s Tragedy which appears in the novel, a character “masquerades as a special courier of the Thurn and Taxis family who… held a postal monopoly throughout most of the Holy Roman Empire” so he can appear less suspicious, showing that if the postal system was thought of as such a normal part of life in the 1600s, it should be thought of as even more mundane in the novel’s time, when electronic computers were relatively new inventions (66). However, Oedipa still hinges the existence of “transcendent meaning” on, and even equates it to, the existence of a hidden system of mail couriers, even in the face of newer and more secretive technologies.
It is also important to note that the postal service is not the first old technology to which Oedipa applies some form of “transcendent meaning” in the novel. The first, quite early in the novel, is an even older one, the weaving loom. Before going to San Narciso, Oedipa remembers a painting she had seen in Mexico City, “Bordando el Manto Terrestre” by Remedios Varo, in which there “were a number of frail girls… prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled… into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void” (21). This makes Oedipa realize “that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower… and so Pierce,” her ex-lover, “had taken her away from nothing, there’d been no escape.” Here, Pynchon sets a precedent for Oedipa’s later obsession with mail, relating the ancient and relatively simple technology of weaving to not only the idea of some hidden arcane meaning, but also to the idea of purposelessness, represented by the “void.” As the weavers in the painting attempt to fill it with their embroidery, Oedipa attempts to fill a void of meaning in her life with unraveling a postal conspiracy, perhaps something she too has woven for herself without knowing, but like the weavers’ attempts, Oedipa’s goals may be just as “hopeless.” The imagery of weaving, in fact, comes back later in the novel. When considering new information that she believes is evidence for the truth of the conspiracy she is chasing, Pynchon writes that “everything she saw, smelled, dreamed, remembered, would somehow come to be woven into The Tristero.” The choice to bring back the imagery of weaving strengthens the idea that Oedipa is “weaving” this conspiracy herself, to parallel the women in the painting and fill the void in her own life (81). To say that these things “came to be woven into” the conspiracy implies that they were not part of it before Oedipa made the connection herself, that Oedipa created this conspiracy herself rather than unravelling one that already existed independent of her weaving.
Despite the comparison of the mysterious nature of modern technology to the perceived transcendent nature of ancient technology at the end of the novel, Pynchon more often describes ways in which modern technology makes life more meaningless instead of ascribing to it some “secret richness.” This further explains Oedipa’s constant attempts to find the same manner of transcendent mystery present in modern technology in older and less mysterious technologies. It also allows Pynchon to show that Oedipa is not the only person negatively affected by the progression of modern technology. For instance, a man Oedipa meets in a club tells her an anecdote about a man who was “automated out of a job,” eventually leading to a suicide attempt (113). When his wife and her lover discover him about to burn himself alive, the lover says “Nearly three weeks it takes him… You know how long it would’ve taken the IBM 7094? Twelve microseconds. No wonder you were replaced” (115). Clearly the machine that replaced the worker removed meaning from his life by taking away his job and his wife, but the lover’s implications are more sinister than just that. The machine was superior to the man, according to him, because the machine would have more quickly arrived at the conclusion that life is meaningless and not worth living, implying that voiding meaning is not simply a consequence of modern technology. Rather, voiding meaning is one of its purposes.
It is also important to note that, early on, on top of persistent references to “weaving,” Pynchon diminishes the possibility that Oedipa’s conspiracy is anything more than the delusion she is afraid it is by establishing her as having issues with mental health, specifically the hallucinations she mentions as one of the possibilities. While on the phone with her psychiatrist, he tells her “We want you,” in reference to an experimental drug trial (17). These words evoke an image of a grotesque looking Uncle Sam hanging above her on the ceiling. “I am having a hallucination now,” she explicitly tells her doctor, noting that she does not want drugs for it. This may similarly stem from the general negativity surrounding modern technologies throughout the novel. Her conversation reminds her of a time when the doctor made a face at her, believing it would have some medical effect, and this replaces the Uncle Sam hallucination with one of her doctor making the same face. The casual way in which Oedipa handles this situation on the phone implies that this is a relatively normal occurrence for her. Furthermore, the way the hallucinations shift shows that they can be influenced by what Oedipa experiences or thinks about, making everything she sees and gathers as “evidence” for her conspiracy less trustworthy.
For Oedipa, the weaving loom, and the postal conspiracy she weaves for herself, at least offer the possibility of filling the void with meaning, even if that possibility is hopeless. She attempts to give her life meaning by turning herself into a form of weaving loom, whereas the man in the anecdote lost the meaning of his life by being an inferior form of the IBM 7094. Clearly then, to Oedipa, while older forms of technology may not necessarily help give life a meaning, they can at very least help provide an illusion that there is meaning, whereas the brutal efficiency of newer technologies eliminates that possibility. Oedipa, then, attempts to take the mysterious transcendent elements of these newer technologies and apply them to older, less apparently harmful technologies to negate the harmful nature of modern innovations and make them more meaningful. In the end, though, as Pynchon implies through Oedipa’s hallucinations, behind any delusion or projection of meaning one might experience or create, there is “only the earth,” no secret meaning. As hallucination is offered as a negation to the possibility of having “stumbled… onto a secret richness and concealed destiny of a dream,” if all Oedipa has found is simply part of a hallucination or fantasy, which is likely, then there is no real escape from the effects of modern technology, just as “there’d been no escape” from the tower in which Oedipa weaves all her delusions. Since modern technology is simply a natural progression from older technologies, no real meaning can be found there aside from distraction and delusion, which is precisely what Oedipa loses herself in throughout The Crying of Lot 49.
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.
Uncertainty: Poe’s Means, Pynchon’s End
A statement becomes intelligible when its component elements integrate into a unified structure. Stories, then, would convey meaning insofar as they fufill the conventions and boundaries of their genre. Jacques Derrida, however, deconstructs this law of genre, explaining that inherent within it is the “law of overflowing, of excess, the law of participation without membership” (228 Law). As Derrida exposes the intrinsic contamination, blurring, and disintegration of the boundaries of genre—which could only have been echoes of traces of distinction from their origin—he posits différance at the heart of postmodern discourse. It is this sentiment of essential uncertainty which Thomas Pynchon perpetually explores in his pulsing novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Edgar Allen Poe is credited with the emergence of the detective fiction genre, which runs counter to the genre of the marvelous. In the marvelous, the reader’s perception is unwittingly filtered through a narrative frame until appearances to the narrator are accepted as reality. In detective fiction, magic and mysteries are exposed as subjective illusions. The detective’s deciphering function enables the reader to observe through the other side of the lens apparatus, demystifying the unexplainable. One genre exploits and celebrates the human observer’s sublime subjectivity while another hails the unshakable truth of objectivity. With Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the uncertainty of the narrative function is explicitly foregrounded to establish a threshold of possibility between these fundamentally distinct realms. Eventually the boundary miraculously collapses altogether, forming the trans-genre known to readers as the Fantastic, and known to Tzevan Todorov as the prototype of literature’s quintessential feature: to free language from its referents.The Crying of Lot 49 not only establishes and approaches this liminal horizon of the Fantastic; it enters and explores this zone, this lot, as an uncertain mesh of proliferating signs. If uncertainty was Poe’s means, it is Pynchon’s end. As Oedipa Maas navigates and constellates her labyrinthine world in a quest to execute the will “one Pierce Inverarity,” (1 Crying) she begins to falter: a mysterious plot appears at the margins of her awareness and refuses to be either realized or forgotten. She believes to have encountered a worldwide conspiracy— which may be either an alternative communications system to the monolithic U.S. postal system, or an elaborate, equally incredible hoax. After chasing the horizon for a geographically, historically and politically indeterminate plot, Oedipa falls into despair, and attempts suicide. Soon afterwards, recovering, Oedipa finds a semblance of serenity in contemplation of weather patterns by first losing her bearings in the following key passage:But she’d lost her bearings. She turned, pivoting on one stacked heel, could find no mountains either. As if there could be no barriers between herself and the rest of the land. San Narciso at that moment lost (the loss pure, instant, spherical, the sound of a stainless orchestral chime held among the stars and struck lightly), gave up its residue of uniqueness for her; became a name again, was assumed back into the American continuity of crust and mantle. Pierce Inverarity was really dead.She walked down a stretch of railroad track next to the highway. Spurs ran off here and there into factory property. Pierce may have owned these factories too. But did it matter now if he’d owned all of San Narciso? San Narciso was a name; an incident among our climatic records of dreams and what dreams become among our accumulated daylight, a moment’s squall-line or tornado’s touchdown among the higher, more continental solemnities – storm-systems of group suffering and need, prevailing winds of affluence. There was the true continuity, San Narciso had no boundaries, (147). Both a magician and a detective’s continuous narration are curt, compared to Pynchon’s prose. His convoluted, digressive paragraphs fold inwards like the grey, murky wrinkles of a human brain. Folds are marked by the interrupting dashes or parentheses— “at that moment lost (the loss pure, instant, spherical…” as thresholds to a deeper (but sometimes paradoxical) level of description. In this case, the fold hinges on the stressed concept of loss. Later, when Pynchon discusses anomalous features among “continental solemnities—storm-systems of group suffering and need,” the dash is used as a continuer, and the hinge rests on connective punctuation: commas, semi-colons and colons. Tracks of brief, dependent-clause observations which relate—but never actually touch—form clusters of correlations, systems of signification with each other. These non-lists, such as the cluster of San Narciso, dreams, climatic considerations and social patterns, seem to be composed only of spurs from a railroad track of thought. Yet the spurs are all there is for the reader to follow; a unified track of thought may exist only in the links formed between these spurs.As Oidipa experiences a loss of bearings, barriers and boundaries, the reader must maintain, or obtain, unified meaning from the maze of associated yet fragmented clusters of thought. The loss of San Narciso’s distinction for Oidipa then becomes a fertile ground for the cultivation of meaningful, unifying connections; it returns to the “continuity of crust and mantle.” As Maxwell’s Demon may sort information but require a sensitive to complete transmission, so does Oedipa require a sensitive in the reader to find a sensible continuity in the metonymic structures she constellates. The passage begins with Oidipa’s loss of bearings. Yet it ends with a realization of “true continuity”. In this way, Oedipa and the reader concurrently navigate and map The Crying of Lot 49 through correlations and associations, coincidence and metaphor, and cross-references and puns.Certainly the most common, and perhaps the prototypical cross-reference in Lot 49 is the humble pun. Puns exploit the homophonic, homonymic or even metaphorical ambiguity of words by activating multiple meanings in one context. The following self-admonishing pun sequence graces this essay from the current Wikipedia entry on puns: “I moss say I’m taking a lichen to that fun-gi, even though his jokes are in spore taste. Algae the first to say that they mushroom out of control.” Puns are well-known as the detritus of literature, emerging from witless humourists as the inevitable waste that arrives with so much other, more worthwhile material—at least to those who did not think of them first. As Poe eloquently stated in Marginalia, 1849, “The goodness of the true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability.” Plays such as lot fitting into plot, San Narciso doubling as narcissism, Dr. Hilarious, Mike Fallopian or my personal favorite Genghis Cohen highlight the communications gap, and twist in perspective between the laughing reader and puzzled, if not frantic narrator. Ancient rival postal company to the Trystero Thurn and Taxis doubling as the triumphantly certain death and taxes is not a witty insight to Oidipa; it is simply an understood part of her literary world. As in the genre of the fantastic, Pynchon foregrounds the narrative frame or apparatus. Puns undermine the normal suspension of disbelief that fiction normally presupposes. Paradox and ambiguity are cultivated by the notion that a word can mean not one thing or another, but somehow both. Todorov strikingly exclaims while nearing his conclusion, “Literature is how language commits suicide,” (167 Fantastic). In Lot 49 puns tend to mushroom out of control; not only in the multiple interpretations of specific words, but also the proliferating associations a reader may draw between them. Thus the maddening binary, unsolvable from Oedipa’s perspective, is penetrated by the reader—not ones or zeroes, a hoax or a conspiracy— but “ones and zeroes” (150): somehow, miraculously, both. The moment of miracle, a convergence of worlds in Pynchon’s words, recurs in several key passages wherein Oedipa loses herself, but chiefly in the passage above. As multiple modes of narration are entertained by Oedipa—who reads the world, thereby assuming the role of both Todorov’s reader of the Fantastic genre, hesitating, and Maxwell’s Demon, sorting— Pynchon’s reader finds that the contesting values assigned to each symbol undermine and contaminate each other. Without disambiguous reference points or steady boundaries it would seem impossible to chart the narrative world even as one navigates through it.When, as Anne Mangel delineates in “Maxwell’s Dream, Entropy, Information,” symbols “point in a thousand different directions and never lead to a solid conclusion” (90 Maxwell) (because of the tendency of entropy to multiply faster in the act of perception than it can be reduced with sorting), Oedipa is forced “into a closed system of perception,” (92). All that Oedipa sees is thus filtered through the invisible lens of paranoia about the W.A.S.T.E. (We Await Silent Trystero’s Empire) conspiracy. In such an enclosed system, the ultimate entropic state seems inevitable. David Seed selects a standard, modern definition of entropy to explain this state: “inert uniformity of component elements; absence of form, pattern, hierarchy, or differentiation,” (158 Order) which conspicuously reflects Oedipa’s loss of bearings as she stands in the night, “her isolation complete,” (146 Crying).Consider, however: even in the process of disintegrating the invisible Tupperware boundary which insulates and separates Oedipa from the rest of the land, new boundaries proliferate. Even while demarking the distinctions between Pierce’s factories and San Narciso; San Narcisiso and America; and Pierce and the “crust and mantle” in which he lays; new distinctions are drawn. Even while miraculously blurring the binary between hoax and conspiracy, Pynchon establishes the division between a world of perfect, continuous unity, and a nihilistic world devoid of values. Just as the first page’s hotel door being permanently slammed wakes “two hundred birds down in the lobby,” the “stainless orchestral chime” signal of loss entails an echo among the stars, a proliferation of signals which continues to divide across the universe.The muted post-horn announces its presence as a symbol to Oedipa and nothing more: no sound emerges. When music, for example, is synthesized only as a copy of a simulation of a sound, it would seem some authenticity is lost in the process, perhaps meaning distorted entropically. Recurrently, Oedipa may “recognize signals like that, as the epileptic is said to—an odor, color, pure piercing grace note announcing his seizure” (76), yet “never the central truth itself,” which has been deferred once again, displaced by its own trace.Or, perhaps, traces are all that remain and have remained since some original orchestral chime among the stars. Perhaps in the very course of its birth, language has committed suicide; as Derrida outlines in his groundbreaking metaphysical treatise, “The monument and the mirage of the trace, the trace simultaneously traced and erased, simultaneously living and dead, and as always, living in its simulation of life’s preserved inscription,” (24 Différance). That is, the essence, or original transcendental signified from which the symbols and signifiers perpetually defer, also divides and displaces itself. The essence of any metaphysical consideration of essence is thus contaminated, differed and deferred.As in Mucho’s recurring nightmare of the post reading N.A.D.A. against the blue sky, only signposts and symbols seem to remain in this world – at least the contemplated post-modern world posited in Lot 49. Perhaps Pynchon foresaw the monolithic hegemony of symbolic representation in this age: Wikipedia, Facebook, Google and so on. Physical processes in this information age, such as love, birth, death, and even digestion are rendered incomplete. As Pynchon tolls the bell to signify this loss, he relinquishes the potency of the symbolic chime—highlighting the symbol’s essential différance. By charting the fantastic’s liminal p[lot] on the horizon, where plural modes of meaning overlap and undermine each other’s certainty, Pynchon produces both a quintessential postmodern text and a playful satire of the postmodern world.Works Cited:Veale, Tony (2003): “Metaphor and Metonymy: The Cognitive Trump-Cards of Linguistic Humor”