May 1, 1966
By RICHARD POIRIER
The Crying of Lot 49 By Thomas Pynchon
Thomas Pynchon's second novel, "The Crying of Lot 49," reads like an episode withheld from his first, the much-acclaimed "V.," published three years ago. Pynchon's technical virtuosity, his adaptations of the apocalyptic-satiric modes of Melville, Conrad, and Joyce, of Faulkner, Nathanael West, and Nabokov, the saturnalian inventiveness he shares with contemporaries like John Barth and Joseph Heller, his security with philosophical and psychological concepts, his anthropological intimacy with the off-beat--these evidences of extraordinary talent in the first novel continue to display themselves in the second. And the uses to which he puts them are very much the same.
The first novel, "V." was a designed indictment of its own comic elaborateness. The various quests for "V." all of them substitutes for the pursuit of love, are interwoven fantastically, and the coherence thus achieved is willfully fabricated and factitious. Pynchon's intricacies are meant to testify to the waste--a key word in "The Crying of Lot 49"--of imagination that first creates and is then enslaved by its own plottings, its machines, the products of its technology.
Except for the heroin of "V.," Rachel Owlglass (she who can see wisely without being a voyeur), and the heroine of this novel, Oedipa Maas--lovable, hapless, decent, eager girls--both novels are populated by self-mystified people running from the responsibilities of love and compelled by phantoms, puzzles, the power of Things. No plot, political, novelistic, or personal, can issue from the circumstances of love, from the simple human needs, say, of a Rachel or an Oedipa, and Pynchon implicitly mocks this situation by the Byzantine complications of plots which do evolve from circumstances devoid of love.
Gestures of warmth are the more touching in his novels for being terrifyingly intermittent, shy, and worried. The coda of the first novel, enunciated by the jazz player, McClintic Sphere, also serves the second: "Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it; keep cool but care." This is the stoical resolve of an embattled underground in a world increasingly governed by Ionesco's rhinoceri, to mention a vision markedly similar to Pynchon's. Efforts at human communication are lost among Pynchon's characters, nearly all of whom are obsessed with the presumed cryptography in the chance juxtaposition of Things, in the music and idiom of bars like the V-Note or The Scope, or merely in the "vast sprawl of houses" that Oedipa sees outside Los Angeles, reminding her of the printed circuit of a transistor radio, with its "intent to communicate."
Even the title of "V." was cryptographic. It was available to all interpretations and answerable to none. Though "V." probably did not have Vietnam as one of its meanings in 1963, the novel so hauntingly evokes the preconditions of international disaster that Vietnam belongs in the long list of other V's. Roughly half the novel is an international melodrama of spying in the years since the Fashoda incident of 1898. It shows how international, like personal, complications accumulate from an interplay of fantasies constructed by opposing sides, each sustaining the other's dream of omnipotence, each justifying its excesses by evoking the cleverness of its opposition, each creating that opposition and, in some mysterious and crazy way, the moves and the successes of the other side as a provocation of its own further actions.
"Plots" are an expression in Pynchon of the mad belief that some plot can ultimately take over the world, can ultimately control life to the point where it is manageably inanimate. And the ascription of "plots" to an opposition is a way of explaining why one's own have not achieved this ultimate control. Nearly from the outset, the people of Pynchon's novels are the instruments of the "plots" they help create.
Their consequent dehumanization makes the prospect of an apocalypse and the destruction of self not a horror so much as the finally ecstasy of power. In international relations the ecstasy is war; in human relationships it can be sado-masochism, where skin itself is leather, leather a substitute for skin. The process is a party of daily news, and no other novelist predicts and records it with Pynchon's imaginative and stylist grasp of contemporary materials.
In "V." private life (the story of Benny Profane, his girl Rachel, and the Whole Sick Crew) and international politics (involving the various European and African manifestations of "V." from the 1890's to 1939) are related only metaphorically. The characters in one plot take no direct part in the other. Of much shorter length and narrower focus, "The Crying of Lot 49" is located between Berkeley and Los Angeles, and its events, historical as well as private, are filtered through the career of one person, Oedipa Maas. Oedipa is introduced as a good suburban housewife in Kinneret-Among-The-Pines, making "the twilight's whiskey sours" against the arrival of her husband Wendell ("Mucho") Maas.
At the outset her troubles are all manageable within the terms of ordinary daily living. She has a not always potent husband who suffers crises of conscience about his professions--formerly a used car salesman, he is now a disk jockey--and about his teen-age tastes and his taste for teen- agers. Also, she has a neurotic psychiatrist named Hilarius, who wants her to take LSD as an experiment, and a former lover, the tycoon Pierce Inverarity, who would sometimes call her, before his recent death, at one in the morning, using Slavic, comic Negro, or hostile Pachuco dialects.
As the novel opens, Oedipa learns, on her return from a party whose "hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue," that she is an executor, along with a man named Metzger, formerly the child movie star known as Baby Igor, of Inverarity's will. The will was discovered some months after his death, a period during which it was perhaps tampered with in order to hide from Oedipa the revelations which his network of holdings, her "inheritance," seem to communicate: an America coded in Inverarity's testament. Before the novel closes, Oedipa loses her husband to LSD, her psychiatrist to madness, her one extra-marital lover, Metzger, to a depraved 15-year-old, and her one guide through the mazes of her inheritance, a Ralph Driblette, to suicide. In the final scene, accompanied by the famed philatelist, Genghis Cohen, she enters the "crying” of Lot 49, a collection of Inverarity's stamps.
The "crying of Lot 49" refers to an auction, but the phrase evokes the recurrent suspicion on Oedipa's part that there is "revelation in progress all around her," that the stamps, "thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time," are themselves "crying" a message-- not above Pierce Inverarity necessarily, or even about Oedipa, but about "their Republic," about America, its inheritances and what we inherit from it, including things like used lots of stamps and used car lots. The "stamps" were often Inverarity's substitute for Oedipa, just as Mucho sought communication less with her than with his used cars or in the dancing of his teen-agers.
Oedipa's fascination with the possibilities of "revelation," in inanimate things, and the curious patterns of connection among them, is induced, at least in party, by the fact that "things" have stolen from her the attention and love of both men. It is therefore possible that Inverarity became connected with the famous Tristero System, the central cryptograph of this novel as "V" was of the first, out of the impulse not to communicate with her, or to communicate with her only under cover of various disguises. It is also possible that the System, participation in which allows a "calculated withdrawal from the life of the Republic, from its machinery," from its forms of public communication, is an elaborate hoax, a teaser arranged by Inverarity to tantalize her away from home, love, and the open community, to seduce her into such subsidiary organizations as the "Inamorati Anonymous," an outfit she encounters in a queer bar in San Francisco.
Alternatively, the hints about a Tristero System could have been planted in the will by interests anxious to prevent Oedipa from discovering the whole network of Inverarity's holdings, including those in Yoyodyne, an electronics and missile corporation, one executive of which, retired by automation, founded the Inamorati Anonymous. (Yo-yoing in "V." was the pointless, repetitive passage and return on any convenient ferry or subway, usually the Times Square-Grand Central run, for Benny Profane and his friends, and it is characteristic of Pynchon's metaphoric translations of personal into international idiosyncrasies that yo-yoing can also describe the horror of nuclear exchange.)
Finally, Tristero may only be Oedipa's fantasy, an expression of her need to believe that there must be something to explain the drift of everyone she knows toward inhumanity. Otherwise she is either a paranoid or America is Tristero and she an alien.
Between the opening scenes of domesticity and the closing scenes of the "crying" of Lot 49, Oedipa is like the hero in a book of "The Faerie Queene," tempted from her human virtues while on a quest that takes her through all manner of seemingly prearranged weirdness and monstrosity, all kinds of foreign "systems" thriving within an America which is itself "a grand and so intricate enigma." Only the Tristero, imagined as an intricate network of underground organizations, can encapsulate what she would otherwise have to see as the drift of the Republic itself toward "the glamorous prospect of annihilation."
This novel is a patriotic lamentation, an elaborate effort not to believe the worst about the Republic. Patriotism for an ideal of America explains the otherwise yawning gap in Pynchon's comic shaping of his material. The Tristero System--it began in 1577 in Holland in opposition to the Thurn and Taxis Postal System and is active now in America trying to subvert the American postal system through an organization called W.A.S.T.E.--is a masterpiece of comic invention. It involves, among other things, one of the best parodies ever written of Jacobean drama, "The Courier's Tragedy," and a perhaps final parody of California right-wing organizations, Peter Pequid Society, named for the commanding officer of the Confederate man-of-war "Disgruntled" and opposed to industrial capitalism on the grounds that it has led inevitably to Marxism. Its leader, Mike Fallopian, speculates in California real estate.
The exuberance of such comedy softens the portents of national calamity, but at the same time it makes it nearly impossible for Pynchon to persuade the reader, as he anxiously wants to do, that the whole System and the whole book have more meaning than a practical joke. The same difficulty was apparent in "V.", where the author's style at points of sincerity about love and youth was, by contrast to the vitality of his comic writing, platitudinously limp and sloganeering.
In this second novel, the difficulty is if anything more acute. Pynchon chooses to have all the significance pass through the experience of only one comically named character, Oedipa Maas, as if he had chosen to have all of "V." assembled and assimilated by Benny Profane or by Rachel Owlglass. In "V." a structure of metaphor and cross-reference existed beyond the inquiry of many of the characters. The result was a dimension secured from comedy and within which the comedy could function as a form of what might be called local ignorance of the issues on which it was commenting. In "The Crying of Lot 49," however, the role given Oedipa makes it impossible to divorce from her limitations the large rhetoric about America at the end of the novel. This is unfortunately simply because Oedipa has not been given character enough to bear the weight of this rhetoric:
"If San Narciso and the estate were really no different from any other town, any other estate, then by that continuity she might have found The Tristero anywhere in her Republic, through any of a hundred lightly-concealed entranceways, a hundred alienations, if only she'd looked. She stopped a minute between the steel rails, raised her head as if to sniff the air. She became conscious of the hard, strung presence she stood on--knew as if maps had been flashed on her on the sky how these tracks ran on into others, and others, and others, knew they laced, deepened, authenticated the great American night, so wide and now so suddenly intense for her."
What I think is happening at the end is that Pynchon desperately needs to magnify the consciousness of his heroine, if he is to validate her encounter with The Tristero System. Only by doing so can he maintain the possibility that the System is distinguishable from the mystery and enigma of America itself. To say that no distinction exists would be to sacrifice the very rationale of his comic reportage: that he is reporting not evidence about American so much as pockets of eccentricity in it, fragments dangerously close to forming a design but fragments nonetheless. Pynchon is reluctant to make all his people submit to the pervasive grotesqueness of American life, though he comes close to that, and he therefore exalts a character altogether too small for the large job given Oedipa at the end.
In fact, Pynchon's best writing is often in his descriptions of American scenery, of objects rather than persons. He shows at such points a tenderness, largely missing from our literature since Dreiser, for the very physical waste of our yearnings, for the anonymous scrap heap of Things wherein our lives are finally joined. The Pynchon who can write with dashing metaphoric skill about the way humans have become Things, can also reveal a beautiful and heartbreaking reverence for the human penetration of the Thingness of this country, the signatures we make on the grossest evidences of our existence. Indeed we do leave codes and messages, seen by the likes of Mucho even in used cars:
"Yet at least he had believed in the cars, maybe to excess: how could he not, seeing people poorer than him come in, Negro, Mexican, cracker, a parade seven days a week, bring with them the most godawful of trade-ins: motorized, metal extensions of themselves, of their families and what their whole lives must be like, out there so naked for anybody, a stranger like himself, to look at, frame cockeyed, rusty underneath, fender repainted in a shade just off enough to depress the value, if not Mucho himself, inside smelling hopeless of children, of supermarket booze, or two, sometimes three generations of cigarette smokers, or only of dust--and when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residue of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused (when so little he supposed came by that out of fear most of it had to be taken and kept) and what had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost: clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10¢, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the market, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a grey dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes--it nauseated him to look, but he had to look."
Within this description is a haunting sequence of imagined human situations, typical and pathetic ones, fused with the particularized power that shows Pynchon's own obsession with the encoded messages of the American landscape. What is also noticeable here, and throughout the novel, is that the major character is really Pynchon himself, Pynchon's voice with its capacity to move from the elegy to the epic catalogue. The narrator sounds like a survivor looking through the massed wreckage of his civilization, "a salad of despair." That image, to suggest but one of the puns in the word Tristero, is typically full of sadness, terror, love, and flamboyance. But then, how else should one imagine a tryst with America? And that is what this novel is.
Mr. Poirier is chairman of the English Department of Rutgers University and an editor of Partisan Review. His next book, "A World Elsewhere," will be published in the fall.