Reading Signs In Pynchon’s The Crying Of Lot 49: The Entropic Loss Of Meaning And Paranoia

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

Thomas Pynchon’s novella, The Crying of Lot 49, traces the quest of housewife Oedipa Maas who was appointed by her ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity, to execute his will. In her journey, she finds herself unwittingly distracted and bombarded by the multifarious, befuddling and fragmentary signs relating to the muted post horn, Thurn und Taxis, Tristero and WASTE, concomitantly succumbing to paranoia. Lot 49 recurrently plays with the role of signs and their pertinence to an unknown reality.

Hence, underlying this essay is Jean Baudrillard’s theoretical framework in Simulacra and Simulation which conceives of a simulation of reality, transplanted by symbols and signs, and postulates the impossibility of seeking meaning in a hyperreal world (where the representation or sign has no original referent and meaning is non-existent). Thus, Pynchon’s work serves as a dizzying and stimulating read because it, I argue, provides an obfuscating, almost paranoiac, experience for both the protagonist and reader by way of the metaphorical concept of entropy. Ultimately, however, Oedipa begins to doubt in an overarching authority of the significations she encounters, culminating in her indifference of signs which is indicative of the postmodern condition wherein signs are ineluctably meaningless due to the ascendancy of hyperreality.

The economy of information in Lot 49 is characterised by constant referentiality and the excessiveness of unrelated data. The surfeit of information in the text is premised and foreshadowed in the first chapter: “As things developed, she was to have all manner of revelations. Hardly about Pierce Inverarity, or herself; but about what remained yet had somehow, before this, stayed away” (Pynchon 10). The multifarious, embedded narratives in the novella distract from the original, central story of Inverarity and are perhaps of inconsequential worth to the storyline, causing distress and destabilising the reader’s and Oedipa’s expectations of a neat narrative resolution – to attain “the central truth itself” (76).

Indubitably, Pynchon constructs a world where meanings are unceasingly produced in seismic amounts and the increasing widespreadness of signs are managed and saturated by simulations and simulators to the point that the original intent of production perishes. In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard advances many representations of simulacra but of great interest to this discussion is the fourth stage of the sign-order which reflects an irreality

This simulacra is hyperreal since it is a copy “without origin or reality” (1) and “dissimulate[s] that there is nothing” (6). In her attempt to unravel Inverarity’s “true” identity, Oedipa gathers impertinent and unhelpful information on Tristero and the play The Courier’s Tragedy to uncover a historical postal conspiracy that Inverarity may or may not be invested in, but she does not achieve any satisfactory answers. Moreover, signs in a simulation are reduced to nothingness in Lot 49. Consider the following lines: “With her own eyes she had verified a WASTE system: seen two WASTE postmen, a WASTE mailbox, WASTE stamps, WASTE cancellations. And the image of the muted post horn all but saturating the Bay Area” (Pynchon 107). The use of antaclanasis or repetition would ideally engender various semantic negotiations as it signifies in each instance something different from other interpretations. However, the WASTE signs have ultimately lost their original aim and meaning through superfluous and repeated reproductions. Oedipa’s fervent preoccupation with decrypting this elusive (but empty) acronym is ironically a wasted effort which results in her paranoia and later indifference.

Apposite to the hyperreal condition of Lot 49, typified by the overabundance of data, confusion and loss of original purpose, is the law of entropy. Entropy in information communication is analogous to “noise” – the measure of disorganisation in a system. Vine underlines that “informational entropy leads to the multiplication of messages in a system, and to exorbitance… promotes communicational disorder: it generates an excess of output that cannot be reduced to meaning, sense or coherence” (167). Thus, entropy prevents the message from being transmitted to the receiver and accounts for the distribution of unknowing in the lack of resolution at the end of Pynchon’s novels and confusion between the narrator, author and reader. Moreover, the disorderly, topsy-turvy turn of events in the text establishes Oedipa in an entropic condition where the inevitable loss of meaning leads to constant doubts, uncertainty and paranoia.

Consequently, Oedipa’s susceptibility to paranoia is symptomatic of her milieu where late-capitalist, postmodern hegemony reduces signs to a sense of hyperreality. John Johnston maintains that in Lot 49, “paranoia and the official discourse of the dominant cultural order belong to the same ‘semiotic regime’… one that, in structural terms, allows no escape from interpretation, either for Oedipa or the reader” (71). Indeed, paranoia, rather than a mental disorder, is the process of working through the gargantuan web of information to make perceivable coherence – I suggest then that paranoia serves as a coping mechanism in response to the meaninglessness and absurdity of signs to preserve the self from an existential void because “when the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning” (Baudrillard 6).

This nostalgia echoes the self’s desire to not be alienated from a perceived sense of external reality to circumvent the fear of the loss of self – that “some version of herself hadn’t vanished” (Pynchon 133). Hence, Oedipa enters a simulation of her own making. Oedipa seeks for absolute meaning behind arbitrary signs: “then it was part of her duty, wasn’t it, to bestow life on what had persisted, to try to be what Driblette was, the dark machine in the centre of the planetarium, to bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning, all in a soaring dome around her?” (64) Furthermore, Oedipa attempts to give narrative order to chaos by making her own “constellations” (65) – making connections and finding a “linking feature in a coincidence” (98).

She locates the night of her affair with Metzger as the originating point of her revelation of the Tristero conspiracy: it would “logically be the starting point for it; logically. That’s what would come to haunt her most, perhaps: the way it fitted, logically, together” (31). The ostensibly neurotic repetition of “logic” intimates the anxiety to make rational sense of paranoia by adding coherence to the sequence of events and assigning a kind of narrative causality. Oedipa finally insinuates “how far it might be possible to get lost in this” (76) tumultuous world of unrelated data – her delirious fixation with finding the real causes her to experience adriftness, disorientation and alienation from the real or what “they’ll call… paranoia” (140). Towards the end of Lot 49, Oedipa is inundated with various possibilities of her situation that evoke great anxiety: Tristero really exists, she is a victim of Inverarity’s elaborate ruse, she is having hallucinations or she is utterly immersed in a fantasy.

In addition, Pynchon provokes reflection on the act of reading. The novella acts as an information system where entropy, and the inexorable transferable loss of meaning, is manifested as the text’s structural condition that readers have to grapple with. Like Oedipa, readers endeavour to make sense and rationality in a simulation (the text) but the mercurial and digressive nature of Lot 49 thwarts linear comprehension, causing the reader to lose sight of the original story. Ultimately, the novella cheekily and meta-textually deters from being “hung up with words, words” (62) and condemns the act of reading too deeply and suspiciously into signs and texts or risk “wast[ing] your life that way and never touch[ing] the truth” (63).

Driblette informs Oedipa that “the reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also’ (62). Driblette represents Pynchon: as wielders of narrative authority, they both remain reticent and indifferent towards communicating a “singular truth” or meaning. Oedipa even begins to doubt the authority in signs towards the end of the novella, hence affirming the emptiness of signs in the aftermath of hyperreality.

In conclusion, Lot 49 jarringly and intriguingly thrusts the reader into a simulated reality where the reader, like Oedipa, is subject to the entropic task of sifting through the huge network of information to make sense of the story. More importantly, the text playfully highlights the unreliability of communication and perhaps places value in the lack of information. Hence, the text is worthwhile as it uniquely subverts the conventions of a detective novel by celebrating irresolution. The chaotic meaninglessness that haunts the story and is culpable for textual psychosis is valuable and exciting. If readers find themselves disoriented and in a state of neurosis after devouring the novella, Lot 49 has then successfully allowed them to imagine living in a certain hyperreality. The text even ratifies living in paranoia or “fantasy”:

“Cherish it!” cried Hilarius, fiercely. “What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by its little tentacle, don’t let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be.’ (113)

Thus, the text suggests that it is preferable to have paranoid beliefs than to have no beliefs at all – only then can we affirm our sense of individuality and importance in a purposeless, postmodern world which coerces uniformity, sameness and equilibrium.


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