The 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 clos ed 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 i n 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 chao tic 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
metaphor s 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 Therefo re, 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 plot s here and there in history; they
see a conspiracy as the driving force behind all historical
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 P ierce'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 possibilities leads to
Oedipa becoming increasing more paranoid as the novel
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 rela tion 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
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 p ostal 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 sha ded 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
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 l east. 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 r eader 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 give
s 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 Inverarity, 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 with in 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 vo cabulary 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 r eader'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 ele ment 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. 4.
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.

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