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.
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.
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