When we find ourselves surrounded by strange things and associations, we can sometimes feel that we are torn from the reality. In his work The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon has executed a scientific method of writing, in which fantasy is closely mixed with reality. This paper is aimed at researching the first section of the novel through the prism of realistic fantasies.
An Analysis of “The Crying of Lot 49”
The Crying of Lot 49 has become one of the brightest works of fiction written by Thomas Pynchon. Its strength and power is in making the reader familiar with his fears, problems, sick associations and thoughts. Even though we find numerous examples of fantasies in the story, it is more realistic than fantastic. The first section of the novel is the key to the major motifs, themes and associations, connected with protagonists. It seems that the reader finds himself surrounded by the reality of his own fantasies.
When I started reading The Crying of Lot 49, it seemed to me I would plunge into the whirl of fantastic and sometimes unclear events, which are characteristic of scientific fantasies in literature. The first section of the novel though has proven completely the opposite. What I had to face could rather be called real than fantastic, with only the names of places and characters being the product of Pynchon’s imagination. It would be more correct to call Pynchon’s writing the revelation of human associations and thoughts, than their fantastic depiction. As a result, the task of separating fantasies from realities has appeared easier than I had thought before.
The first section of the novel begins with the event, which will create the logical line of consequences and various circumstances through the whole story. The protagonist of the novel, Oedipa Maas receives the letter, in which she is notified of the death of her ex-boyfriend and his desire to make her the executor of her will. There is nothing fantastic in the scene, when Oedipa was trying to realize the seriousness of the letter, as well as trying to determine how she should have reacted to it. In fact, Pynchon has depicted a natural human reaction to such events. As any other woman, Oedipa had mixed feelings, and having spent several years in marriage with the other man she had enough time to forget her relations with Pierce Inverarity. The letter put her into the wave of confused memories and feelings, which she initially wanted to escape: “Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible. But this did not work” (Pynchon1997, p. 10). Trying to feel as drunk as possible served a kind of mechanism for psychological protection and was actually opening the eyes of the reader onto the essence of Oedipa and Pierce’s relations. However the real understanding of what they had together would come only with further reading the novel. What the reader has in the first section is only a partial understanding of Oedipa’s inner world and her vision of reality, and when we try to separate fantasies from something real, it is rather separating Oedipa’s fantasies from the realities of the world in which she lived.
Pynchon was not using any fantastic methods of describing the events in his novel. Of course, his complicated metaphors and sudden interruption of real world with Oedipa’s reminiscences or association creates mixed impressions. Sometimes it seems that we need to read the text more than once in order to avoid ambiguity and to arrive to the one single conclusion as for what is real and what is fantastic in this story. However, there cannot be any single conclusion; any of the described events may have numerous interpretations; this is characteristic of talented fiction. Simultaneously, it is difficult to argue that scene in which Oedipa appears immediately after receiving the letter is nothing more than her own fantasies. Those fantasies, reminiscences of Pierce, and her associations with him were so painful to her that she had to ask for help: “Mucho, baby,’ she cried, in an access of helplessness” (Pynchon 1997, p. 11). This is where we meet Mucho Maas for the first time. Is he Oedipa’s fantasy? Certainly, he is not, and he is nothing more than a usual man in his strange small habits which are no more fantastic than our habits to wake up in the morning and to think of something stupid while in bed. Pynchon has described Mucho’s habits in the smallest details; the initial impression of Mucho being unrealistically weird is replaced by the feeling that he is very similar to the reader. We never share our small sick associations or our little habits, which could alter our positive “normal” image among other people.
“The sight of sawdust made him wince, his own kind being known to use it for hushing sick transmissions, and though he dieted he could still not as Oedipa did use honey to sweeten his coffee for like all things viscous it distressed him, recalling too poignantly what is often mixed with motor oil to ooze into gaps between piston and cylinder wall” (Pynchon 1997, p. 14).
Pynchon has contributed much fantasy into his description of Mucho’s past and his pain for what he had not accomplished when being a used car dealer. Currently being a disk jockey and working at the station named KCUF (just read the word backward), he was still finding himself surrounded by the cars, associations with them, and the lot constantly remained an indispensable image in front of his eyes. The KCUF fantasy gives the reader enough space to elaborate on the painful lost of something valuable and trying to vainly compensate this loss during the five-year-marriage with Oedipa. “He had believed much in the lot, he believed not at all in the station” (Pynchon 1997, p. 14). Of course, the lot was real, but for the reader it is nothing more than Mucho’s reminiscence, and thus cannot expand beyond the limits of being a fantasy.
The most controversial scene of the novel’s first section is Oedipa’s conversation with her personal psychiatrist, Dr. Hilarius. It is yet unclear whether the conversation took place in reality or has only been the result of Oedipa’s sick imagination. When we refer to Oedipa’s imagination as sick, this word should not be taken as negative. Having mixed human fantasies with objective reality, Pynchon was actually trying to show that all of us are partially and secretly sick (Grant 1994, p. 29). None of the novel’s characters is depicted by Pynchon without being drowned in one’s inner revelations. What we clearly see in Oedipa’s talk to Dr. Hilarius (no matter whether it was fantastic or real) is the desire to separate her from the pressures of the multifaceted society. “One of this novel’s central interests is language itself. Oedipa’s long reflection on her husband’s former job in a used-car lot reminds us of the title and may even lead the reader to think that the title will in some way relate to this car lot” (Grant 1994, p. 44). In the same manner, the conversation of Oedipa with Dr. Hilarius is another language device, which risks creating false connections between her inner world, her fears, and the plot of the story. Yet, it appears that while Mucho Maas fights against his reminiscences of the past, Oedipa has to face the challenges of both the past and the present: in her past fantasies she is escaping the reality with Pierce, while in her present she has to fight Dr. Hilarius’ desires to involve her into human LSD experiments.
“As things developed, she was to have all manner of revelations. Hardly about Pierce Inverarity, or herself; but about what remained yet had somehow, before this, stayed away. There had hung the sense of buffering, insulation, she had noticed the absence of an intensity, as if watching a movie, just perceptibly out of focus, that the projectionist refused to fix.” (Pynchon 1997, p. 16)
The first section of the book is the high concentration of special psychological moments (Grant 1994, p. 23). The most prominent of them were described in this paper. It is even more curious to point out that the mixture of realities and fantasies chosen by Pynchon is the means of showing the meaning of some separate literary aspects. First, it is not once that Pynchon mentions God in the first section of the novel. Second, the meaning of drunkenness at the beginning of the first section is later continued by the meaning of drugs, LSD and painful associations. Simultaneously, these moments are surprisingly connected to the moments when Oedipa found herself unable to speak out her inner concerns. Of course she was open to Dr. Hilarius, but where do we find any guarantee that her talk took place in the objective reality, and not within the labyrinths of her mind? “Drunkenness and other drugs lead one to mental states that seem expanded and yet render communication impossible” (Grant 1994, p. 49).
This is how we, the readers, find ourselves being surrounded by the paradox of the truth: these are not fantasies mixed, but rather the reality depicted in its true colors. The variety of the smaller details which we don’t usually notice in our lives pushes us into the environment of sick habits and obsessive thoughts. When the final passage of the first section brings us into the depth of Oedipa’s past with Pierce, we become aware of the state in which she was at that time. The direct association of her relation with Pierce to being “within the confinement of the tower” (Pynchon 1997, p. 19) is similar to the closed systems in which energy exists and constantly changes its character. “In a closed isolated system the total quantity of energy remains the same, but irreversible transformations or chemical reactions within this system cause a loss in the grade or quality of the energy. In this sense, in relations with Pierce Oedipa was striving towards escaping that closed system in order to keep her energy (or her essence) unchanged. It is more than evident however that in her marriage with Mucho she does not feel much better and probably becoming Pierce’s will executor will allow her discovering the secrets which were surrounding her and which did not let her fully exercise her potential. Yet, this is the matter of the coming sections of the novel.
In order to properly analyze the hidden motifs, themes, and thoughts Thomas Pynchon expressed in the first section of his The Crying of Lot 49, the reader has to exercise the fullest potential of his mind. The task of separating fantasies from realities becomes irrelevant as soon as we face the reality of small details and sick associations, in which we constantly live. Pynchon has used complicated connections between the ability of his characters to speak and the states of drunkenness, addressing God or being under the influence of drugs. Even the controversial moments when we find ourselves unable to separate reality from fantasies, the events seem to be as real as it is possible. The major truth of the novel is the permanent human fight against our reminiscences and associations which we can rarely escape. In his novel Pynchon has depicted the characters so similar to readers that the mixture of reality and fantasy turns into fantastic truth with which we have to reconcile daily.
Grant, J.K. (1994). A Companion to The Crying of Lot 49. University of Georgia Press.
Pynchon, T. (1997). The Crying of Lot 49. Buccaneer Books, pp. 9-20.