Thomas Pynchon has a reputation as a difficult novelist. If we come to his fictions fresh from the tradition of American Naturalism, we may be lulled by their humorous, jokey tone into a belief that all is most conventional. The writer is obviously just poking a little fun, engaging in a bit of satire. We may follow his characters’ adventures as we might those of Huck Finn or the bums on Cannery Row.
But while social critique lies at the heart of many of his texts, Pynchon subverts our realistic assumptions at every turn. The deceptively simple narrative surfaces melt into winding halls of shifting mirrors. We glimpse distant vistas of meaning, but the interpretation of these signs remains unresolved. The exit from the labyrinth is everywhere and nowhere at all.
This complexity might not be to everyone’s taste, but for those willing to dare the bracing shock of ambiguity, Pynchon’s works present a source of ever-unfolding delight. His 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49 is one of his most accessible books and offers readers an excellent starting point.
One day suburban housewife Oedipa Maas discovers that she has been named as an executor of her dead lover’s will. So she travels down the California coast to San Narciso. But as she sorts out the details of the estate, she uncovers tantalizing clues about a sinister organization known as the Tristero. This group may be involved in a conspiracy to subvert the U.S. mail and uses a muted post-horn as its symbol.
Oedipa also finds herself exposed to the ruthlessness of capitalism embodied in her late beau Pierce Inverarity. The bones of lost G.I.s are used to make cigarettes, the dead are dug up to build freeways, and the military-industrial complex looms over all. In a long, heartbreaking adagio at the center of the novel, a bewildered Oedipa wanders around San Francisco, seeing everywhere the poor and dispossessed. Her compassion for an alcoholic sailor contrasts sharply with Pierce’s callous opportunism. Later she reflects, “She had dedicated herself, weeks ago, to making sense of what Inverarity had left behind, never suspecting that the legacy was America.”1
A number of names in the novel are evidently simply intended as funny jokes. We encounter a defense contractor called Yoyodyne and a philatelist named Ghengis Cohen. But some of the names reveal the book’s thematic preoccupations. Oedipa, like a female Oedipus, must confront the riddle of this modern Sphinx. The legend of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection, offers a wry comment on the typical psychological profiles of capitalist moguls. The dead man, Pierce Inverarity, may represent a lack of verity or truth. And the name ‘Tristero’ seems to imply a kind of sadness that echoes the “crying” of the title.2 These allusions overwrite the contemporary reality of the 1960s with mythic signs and symbols so that the novel resembles a palimpsest with multiple layers of meaning.
If this were a conventional novel like Henry James’ work about anarchists, The Princess Casamassima, the reality and aims of the conspirators would be made clear. For example, Oedipa might become involved in the Tristero’s activities or their betrayal into the hands of the authorities. But Pynchon’s approach to his material is more subtle. At the novel’s end, it remains unclear whether the Tristero even exists or whether it has all been a paranoid delusion or elaborate practical joke.
The only objective evidence for the group lies in a few forged stamps found in Pierce Inverarity’s collection. The forgeries are to be auctioned off in a separate lot, lot 49. There has been some special interest paid to this sale by a secretive buyer. The novel ends with our suspense intact, waiting for the auctioneer to cry the sale of lot 49.
And if it is real, is the Tristero as sinister as we might at first suspect? The text continually highlights the deadliness of contemporary America with its consumerism, militarism, and oppressive authority. By contrast, Tristero seems to have adopted the outcasts of our society. Might not a subversive organization like Tristero be the antidote Pynchon desires us to embrace? Should we not await Tristero’s silent empire?3
The novel, then, leaves us with a number of unanswered questions. Is Tristero real? Is it evil? Is it good? The more we try to answer these enigmas, the more we find ourselves picking at the fibers of a deftly woven Gordion knot. And we may ask ourselves if there is no way to interpret, to understand, and gain from our experience of Oedipa and her adventures.
One approach that suggests itself is through an artwork mentioned early on in the novel. “In Mexico City, they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central panel of a triptych titled ‘Bordando el Manto Terrestre,’ were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world.”4
Many critics view this as a solipsistic image, and given the novel’s preoccupation with narcissism, such an interpretation may be correct. Oedipa’s response to the painting reinforces this reading. She weeps, believing that the artwork means she has not grown or encountered the world and is only living out a fantasy life that she has imagined.
However, for my part, I see this passage in a positive light. The girls in the painting are creating the world itself through their art and filling the void.
This idea of “the void” recurs several times and later emerges in a different form when Oedipa’s husband recounts a terrifying nightmare that used to awaken him. “It was only that sign in the lot, that’s what scared me. In the dream, I’d be going about a normal day’s business, and suddenly with no warning, there’d be the sign. We were a member of the National Automobile Dealer’s Association. N.A.D.A. Just this creaking metal sign that said nada, nada against the blue sky.”5
If the emptiness and nothingness of the void are to be feared, then the act of filling it, however, hopelessly seems to be a positive act. And this appears to be the case, especially in light of later passages.
Oedipa first encounters the name of the Tristero in a Rennaissance play she attends. When she goes backstage to talk with the director, Driblette, she asks him about the play’s text. In an angry outburst, he asserts his primacy over the printed word. “That’s what I’m here for. To give the spirit flesh. The reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also.”6
Like the girls in the Varo painting, Driblette creates a world. His actions as a dramaturg fill the void, and later Oedipa herself adopts his metaphor writing in her notebook, “Shall I project a world?” She goes on to associate this with a different kind of projection, the way in which the human mind projects patterns and meaning onto random phenomena like the stars. “If not project, then at least flash some arrow on the dome to skitter among the constellations and trace out your Dragon, Whale, Southern Cross.”7
The Crying of Lot 49 presents readers with a closed system in which we may embrace a number of opposed positions. Either Tristero exists, or it doesn’t. Either Oedipa is crazy, or she is sane. Tristero is either a positive or negative force in America. But against each interpretive choice we make, a massed counterweight of evidence seems poised, ready to swing in and batter our assumptions to the ground.
What seems opposed to this rigid schema is the paradoxical activity of the girls in the painting who weave the very landscape, which contains their tower. Driblette, Oedipa, and ultimately Pynchon himself all seem to be engaged in similar creative world-building. These acts of projection evade the inflexible logic of either-or.
And this seems to be at least a viable way to read the novel. Pynchon reminds us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we are reading a text. In the world of the story, a kind of quantum indeterminacy prevails. The Tristero can both exist and be merely a figment of Oedipa’s imagination. It may assert both a positive and a sinister influence over our Republic at the same time.
Finally, this attitude of ambiguity may be the book’s central message. For when we look up from its pages, we confront most often, not a world of rigid categories, but something more fluid, complex, and mysterious. If it is true that light may be at once a particle and a wave, how much more true must it be that our social reality contains indeterminacies and enigmas? Like Oedipa, we must all sit back in our seats and await the crying of lot 49.
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- Pynchon, Thomas, The Crying of Lot 49, Penguin Press, p.172
2. Grant, J.Kerry, A Companion to The Crying of Lot 49, University of Georgia Press, p.35
3. Tristero is associated with the acronym WASTE. Toward the end of the novel it is revealed to stand for “We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire. Pynchon, p.163
4. Pynchon, p.12
5. Pynchon, p.139
6. Pynchon, p.72
7. Pynchon, p.75
Shall I Project a World? Copyright 2022 Jonathan Golding. All Rights Reserved.
Artwork: Bordando el Manto Terrestre, copyright Remedios Varo