Thomas Pynchon’s ”The Crying of Lot 49”
- Pages: 6
- Word count: 1367
- Category: Novel
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Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is a novel and not a novel. It is a problem and a dream, and it does not reveal a consistent reading to standard literary criticism. And yet, that is exactly what Pynchon is trying to do. His themes of paranoia, conspiracies and indecipherable signs all suggest a contrived riddle. This design reflects the author’s statement on the contemporary world. By making a story that basically avoids all the outward signposts of a traditional story, Pynchon is commenting on storytelling itself. He undoes the comforting ideas of plot, character and setting and replaces it with a dream world that takes on a highly subjective perspective. The story itself is always slipping a definitive reading. Is it Oedipa’s dream? Is it a stable reality where the symbols can ever be pinned down?
Diana York Blaine comments on the elusive nature of the text when she says, “This lack of stable metanarratives that would grant meaning to human existence, and the resulting obsession with death, helps explain the zany, paranoid, decentered, desperate, uncanny, ambiguous, hilarious world of The Crying of Lot 49” (51). For Blaine the self-reflective elements do not meet the goals they are supposed to. This is the heart of the destabilization. Things don’t work out according to reader expectations. Everything falls apart. An example of this can be seen when Oedipa watches the submarine movie with Metzger in her motel room.
The cheesy plot of Baby Igor, his dog and his on-screen father show the reader exactly the kind of story we might be used to watching on the television. There is a frightening antagonist, a daring mission, even the promise of a happy ending with a love interest. Oedipa is so convinced that the story is predictable that she makes a half-hearted bet with Metzger with the pay-off being that she will sleep with him. The bet itself is intended to me more of a sexual titillation rather than an interested wager because she has already made her sexual attraction obvious to him. It is so secondary, in fact, that she sleeps with him before the movie is over. When she watches the end of the film and realizes that Baby Igor and his father actually die in the film she is left with an empty feeling, a sense of nonmeaning. This sense reflects exactly the kind of emotional response Pynchon is trying to induce in his reader.
Another element of the story that attempts to trick the reader into believe he or she might be able to decode the symbols of the story in any kind of definitive way is in the author’s use of absurd names. With names like Oedipa Maas, Mucho Maas, Mike Fallopian and Mani Di Presso, it is impossible not to detect an attempt at outlandishness. The most obvious response of the reader is to wonder if we are reading a postmodern allegory. What are these words supposed to mean? How are we to know if we have figured them out properly? The answer is that we cannot. While it might be interesting to speculate on the possibilities of Oedipa’s relation to the classic Oedipus myth, there really is not that much textual evidence to support that theory. It is the same with Mike Fallopian. Is he supposed to be somehow indicative of a feminized male? If so, what relevance does that have to the larger questions posed by the possible Tristero conspiracy? Pynchon encapsulates this kind of frustration in determining the real truth beneath the surface when Oedipa is introduced to the labyrinthine complexity of the Tristero conspiracy:
So began, for Oedipa, the languid, sinister blooming of The Tristero. Or rather, her attendance at some unique performance, prolonged as if it were the last of the night, something a little extra for whoever’d stayed this late. As if the breakaway gowns, net bras, jeweled garters and G-strings of historical figuration that would fall away were layered dense as Oedipa’s own streetclothes in that game with Metzger in front of the Baby Igor movie. (36)
Here Pynchon turns history into a burlesque, envisioning a tawdry discarding of outward appearances in an effort to reach the authenticated truth. This process of stripping away to the naked reality is not something that promises a welcomed revelation, however, as when we learn of Oedipa’s fear of what she might see once all the outward signifiers have been sacrificed:
Would it smile, then, be coy, and would it flirt away harmlessly backstage, say good night with a Burbon Street bow and leave her in peace? Or would it instead, the dance ended, come back down the runway, its luminous stare locked to Oedipa’s, smile gone malign and pitiless; bend to her alone among the desolate rows of seats ad begin to speak words she never wanted to hear? (36).
Oedipa’s fear that she will be faced with some unnamable and terrible reality is emblematic of exactly the kind of fear the reader experiences in being unable to determine the meaning of the text. It is also a fear that is fundamentally existential, provoking the obvious anxiety all people experience at some time or another about the meaning of life. Because there are no obvious answers to the “big” questions we are constantly inventing meaning to justify our existence. This is also Oedipa’s anxiey, that there is nothing but the void and that all the conspiratorial sings around her are actually manifestations of her own willingness to see patterns where they actually do not exist.
Pynchon’s desire to constantly shift different readings of the text suggest that he distrusts any kind of authoritative reading of any text. There is a sense in The Crying of Lot 49 that there are missing details, and Oedipa’s insufficient powers of detection reflect our own desire to interpret and decode. It does, in fact, lead to a kind of paranoia, a sense that we are missing the essential facts that will unlock the mystery. No better sign of this can be seen than that of the Tristero muted postal horn. Its various appearances in different contexts seems to suggest that it is a pervading symbol of great meaning, somewhat like Melville’s Moby-Dick. However, the different contexts are never really riddled out. This leads to frustration on the part of Oedipa. How much of this can she take? Her own sanity seems to be in question given the surrealistic happenings associated with the Tristero group.
The Tristero symbol itself is an interesting part of the book. Appearing as a hieroglyphic, it immediately arrests the reader’s attention. It is mysterious and abstract and we are trained as readers to perceive undefined abstractions as inherently containing meaning. It is a hieroglyphic that demands investigation. However, because of the changing contexts, we know that it is not a single thing. But we can appreciate the face that it is a muted horn, a horn that hides its sound. The subversive quality of this feature of the symbol suggests the very mystery it is designed to inspire. Paradoxically, the secretiveness represented by the symbol actually serves to arouse greater suspicion. This contradictory aspect of what is supposed to be a secret symbol is a fitting emblem for the entire text. Though Pynchon argues for indeterminacy, the fact of his argument suggests some meaning, even apocryphal, might be found within the novel.
The Crying of Lot 49 is an amazingly rich and complex novel. It is a detective novel like any other. The twists and turns do not lead to any sustainable meaning. In fact, the ending leaves the reader with a deliberate state of suspense. This is precisely what we are supposed to feel. The open ending inspires the reader to reflect on the peculiar state of human mortality. It is as necessary and provocative question today as it was forty years ago.
Blaine, Diane York. Thomas Pynchon: Reading from the Margins. Ed. Niram
Abbas. London: Farleigh Dickinson U. Press. 52-69.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Bantam, 1980.