Crying of Lot 49 The philosophy behind all Pynchon novels lies in the synthesis of philosophers and modern physicists. Ludwig Wittgenstein viewed the world as a “totality of facts, not of things.”1 This idea can be combined with a physicist’s view of the world as a closed system that tends towards chaos. Pynchon asserts that the measure of the world is its entropy.
2 He extends this metaphor to his fictional world. He envelops the reader, through various means, within the system of The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon designed The Crying of Lot 49 so that there would be two levels of observation: that of the characters such as our own Oedipa Maas, whose world is limited to the text, and that of the reader, who looks at the world from outside it but who is also affected by his relationship to that world.3 Both the reader and the characters have the same problems observing the chaos around them.
The protagonist in The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Mass, like Pynchon’s audience, is forced to either involve herself in the deciphering of clues or not participate at all.4 Oedipa’s purpose, besides executing a will, is finding meaning in a life dominated by assaults on people’s perceptions through drugs, sex and television. She is forced out of her complacent housewife lifestyle of tupperware parties and Muzak into a chaotic system beyond her capabilities to understand.
Images and facts are constantly spit forth. Oedipa’s role is that of Maxwell’s Demon: to sort useful facts from useless ones. The reader’s role is also one of interpreting countless symbols and metaphors to arrive at a meaning.
Each reader unravels a different meaning. Unfortunately, Maxwell’s Demon can only apply to a closed system. Pynchon’s fictional system is constantly expanding to include more and more aspects of contemporary America.5 Therefore, the reader and Oedipa are inefficient sorters. Both are left at a panicky state of confusion, or paranoia. Paranoia unites the reader and Oedipa.If we define “paranoia” not as a mental aberration but as a tendency to find meaning in symbols whether the meanings exist or not, we can clearly see the similarity between Oedipa and us.
Paranoids do not see plots here and there in history; they see a conspiracy as the driving force behind all historical events. At the climax of the novel, Oedipa sees the muted post horn everywhere she goes. Could she simply be delusional, as most witnesses to her think, or is there actually a conspiracy involving the Trystero? As Oedipa delves into the Trystero’s history and Pierce’s estate, one of four possibilities arises: “..either she has indeed stumbled onto a secret organization having objective, historical existence ..; or she is hallucinating it by projecting a pattern onto various signs only randomly associated; or she is the victim of a hoax.
.; or she is hallucinating such a hoax..”6 The tension among all four ossibilities leads to Oedipa becoming increasing more paranoid as the novel progresses. One of the most effective literary techniques Pynchon uses to involve the reader in his fictional world is his use of details.7 The explicit history of Thurn and Taxis serves to overburden the reader with names and places that on the surface have no relation to the story at hand.The purpose of these details is to overlap the reader’s world with the fictional one. Pynchon flirts with the reader.
He allows the reader to see more of his world than any of his other characters can. Pynchon wants to lure the reader into the character’s search for meaning. Furthermore, the alternations of fact with fiction, such as the description of the historical basis of the Peter Pinguid Society8, confuse the reader to such an extent that he is forced to rely upon Oedipa to decipher reality from illusion. Pynchon even denies the reader and Oedipa time to sort out the information by moving rapidly to the next event. The blending of authenticity with fiction introduces an epistemological aspect to Pynchon’s work.
Much of The Crying of Lot 49 tackles the historical evidence for the Trystero. Scholars have found that the actual history of the Trystero, a Renaissance postal system, was shrouded in mystery. It is also entirely possible that GIs were buried underneath a lake after W.W.II. Why is it not possible that their bones were used for cigarette filter? Pynchon wants the reader to recognize and plunge into the shaded area between fiction and reality. Pierce and Pynchon tell Oedipa and the reader, respectively, that we don’t know much for certain. In Pynchon’s comical world, our senses deceive us, ruling out an Empirical solution to the epistemological question.
What seems rational really is not, making a Rationalist solution unacceptable. By ruling out a basis for an epistemological interpretation outside the text, Pynchon commands the audience to accept Oedipa as its interpreter.9 The mystery-story plot used in Lot 49 is the most obvious reader- involvement technique. What is the Trystero? Who was Pierce Inverarity? These basic questions are placed close to the novel’s surface to drive the reader to explore further, at the very least. In fact, a mystery novel is a very basic meta-novel. The reader construes a suspect before the author reveals it to him.In our case, we think that events, places and names connect, but we are never sure until Pynchon confirms it for us, if at all. There are many metaphors that describe the relationship between the author and reader in Lot 49.
The name Oedipa Maas evokes the famous Greek riddle-solver Oedipus, whose quest to interpret the Delphic prophecies leads to his downfall. Maas elicits the reader to think of Newton’s laws, where Oedipa is acted upon by the gravity of her surroundings. An object, once put in motion, as Oedipa is when she is named executrix of a will, tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.Pynchon gives us two options when presenting metaphors like the Oedipus or Newtonian allusion: either they are patterns for interpreting the meaning of Lot 49, or they are unclear, deceptive invitations for interpretations, purposely made up by the author.
10 The character that unites the respective quests of the reader and Oedipa is Pierce verarity, Oedipa’s dead ex-boyfriend. The objects that Inverarity leaves behind at his death are clues to his identity. It is the job of Oedipa to “bestow life on what had persisted, to try to be what Driblette was, the dark machine in the center of the planetarium, to bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning, all in a soaring dome around here.”11 To Oedipa, Pierce is a thought that could impose an order on the chaos of clues around her. Pierce could make complicated networks out of nothing. He alone created the chaos around Oedipa.
Pynchon succeeds in embodying Pierce Inverarity as a force within the novel. Pierce was a “knight of deliverance”12 who had “failed to free Oedipa Maas from the tower of her own consciousness of the world.”13 To put it in terms of paranoia, Inverarity is the conspirator behind all events in the novel. The author, Pynchon, parallels Pierce. Pynchon creates a web of events that the reader must interpret. The reader is blanketed beneath a “semiotic regime,” a place where signs and symbols can be decoded in an infinite number of ways.
14 The most ingenious method of involving the reader in the novel in Lot 49 is the mock-Jacobean drama ‘The Courier’s Tragedy’. Pynchon compares Oedipa witnessing the play to the reader apprehending the novel.For example, Pynchon switches from Jacobean vocabulary to modern phrases (“While a battle rages in the streets outside the palace, Pasquale is locked up in his patrician hothouse, holding an orgy.”15). This distances the reader from the play, similar to Oedipa’s role as a confused onlooker, thereby giving Oedipa and us a false sense of security. We soon find elements of ‘The Courier’s Tragedy’ almost in all subsequent events of the novel. Pynchon, via Driblette, speaks to the reader: “You guys, you’re like the Puritans about the Bible.
So hung up with words, words.”16 This is not a warning to the reader and Oedipa against interpretation. Instead, it is a warning to the reader and Oedipa of the addictive nature of their respective searches.
Oedipa’s search for the original version of ‘The Courier’s Tragedy’, which is obstructed by her inability to separate her play from its author, editor or producer, is an exaggerated metaphor of the reader’s troubles in making sense of the novel.17 The above-mentioned metaphors and literary techniques are vehicles for many other of Pynchon’s themes.For our purposes, they serve to wed the reader’s quest for a literary meaning with Oedipa’s quest for self-discovery. As mentioned before, a major element within the reader and Oedipa’s quest is paranoia. Paranoia pushes the reader through the text. We are constantly led towards a conclusion, but then deceived. Our inability to decipher symbols relates to our inability to increase the communicative entropy of our world.Nevertheless, The Crying of Lot 49 succeeds in actively involving the reader within the text, a hallmark of postmodern literature.
Duyfhuizen, Bernard. “Disrupting Story in The Crying of Lot 49,” Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon. Boston: Little,Brown, 1976. Hipkiss, Robert M. The American Absurd.
New York: University of Chicago Press, 1985.Johnston, John. “Paranoia as a Semiotic Regime in The Crying of Lot 49,” New Essays on the Crying of Lot 49.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Plater, William M. The Grim Phoenix.Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. St. Louis: Harper & Row, 1966. Seed, David.
The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988. Wittgenstein, Ludwig.
Tractus Logico-Philosophicus. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractus Logico- Philosophicus, p.
7. 2 William M. Plater, The Grim Phoenix (Indiana University Press, 1978), p. 2.3 The Grim Phoenix, p. 12.
4 Bernard Duyfhuizen, “Disrupting Story in The Crying of Lot 49,” Mindful Pleasures (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976), p. 3. 5 John Johnston.”Paranoia as a Semiotic Regime in The Crying of Lot 49,”New Essays on the Crying of Lot 49 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 6 “Paranoia”, p.
4. 7 The Grim Phoenix, p. 15.8 Crying of Lot 49, p. 49. 9 Robert Hipkiss, The American Absurd, (University of Chicago: New York), p. 90 10 Paranoia as a Semiotic Regime, p. 6.
11 Crying of Lot 49, p. 58. 12 Crying of Lot 49, p. 22 . 13 The Grim Phoenix, p.
26 .14 Paranoia as a Semiotic Regime, p. 1 .
15 Crying of Lot 49, p. 69. 16 Crying of Lot 49, p. 79 .17 David Seed, Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon (University of Iowa Press: Iowa City), p. 124.