Uncertainty in The Crying of Lot 49

In this essay CV discusses the use of uncertainty in the Crying of Lot 49. (2009)

Uncertainty is prevalent throughout
The Crying of Lot 49. It plagues the main character, Oedipa Maas, who throughout life has relied on others for order. She loses these crutches as adventure developed, and ultimately must rely on herself for order in a world which is portrayed as being inherently opposed.

One major source of uncertainty is the use of contradictory foreshadowing. There are two events in the novel that offer opposing outcomes: The The Courier’s Tragedy and Dr. Hilarius’ exit due to insanity. The Courier’s Tragedy proves to be effective as it implied that it is using the Shakespearean techinique of a ‘play within in a play.’ This results in the reader viewing the play as a means to determining the ending of The Crying of Lot 49. However, one could argue that many of Shakespeare’s plays using ‘a play within a play’ actually were done comically and had little bearing on the ending, but at one point in the novel a comment referring to the author of The Courier’s Tragedy is made: “He was no Shakespeare,” meaning the foreshadowing is straightforward. This is contradicted by an episode involving Oedipa’s pseudo-Freudian psychologist Dr. Hilarius who has succumb to the paranoia of being a Nazi ‘doctor’ at Buchenwald during the war. In the scene Oedipa arrives to find the doctor locked in his office with his rifle shooting randomly from the window. When Oedipa convinces him to open the office door and let her in, he tells her of his paranoia. He believes that the Israelis are coming to execute him as they did with Adolf Eichman. His false belief in a conspiracy is a parallel Oedipa’s story.

Another reoccurring symbol is that of Maxwell’s Demon. The point of this Demon, in technical terms, is to break the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the universe is heading towards chaos and that the path is irreversible, known as entropy. In addition Maxwell’s Demon also helped give rise to information theory which deals with the organization of data. In the novel, Oedipa attempts to use the Demon to defeat the second law and organize hot and cold air to work a piston. When Oedipa fails she makes the remark her world was sliding it into chaos with the only common element holding it together being ‘Trystero.’ This failure to achieve order is a major cause of uncertainty in the novel and results in much of Oedipa’s inner turmoil. It his how she copes with this turmoil and uncertainty that is the correct gauge of Oedipa's journey.


In the opening scene of the novel, Oedipa is describing, with some dread, the task of sorting out Pierce Inverarity’s estate. She is interrupted by a flashback to the last conversation with her ex. The conversation was marked notably by Pierce speaking in a variety of different voices, ending in the famous Lamont Cranston voice which grew popular in the 1930s radio culture. This use of the radio continued on and in the end became a major source of uncertainty just as Pierce is to both the reader (he is only introduced through Oedipa) and Oedipa (she often wonders why she was made executor of Pierce’s estate). In addition, the Freudian theme of 'crutches' or who Oedipa is 'leaning on' for order is first introduced here.

One of the earliest scenes in the novel involves Oedipa’s first view of San Narciso and the taking apart of a transistor radio. From where she stands, she views San Narciso and immediately jumps in her mind to the childhood memory of dissecting this transistor radio:

“Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.” (p. 14)

In this passage Oedipa becomes interested in what the radio could ‘tell’ her. This is a key point in the novel as one of Oedipa’s key traits, determination, comes to the front. This trait eventually leads her across Southern California in search of some clue being handed down through the centuries that will tell her the mysteries of Trystero.


However, the passage also notes that there is no limit to what the radio could ‘tell’ her. All she has to do to hear more is tune in. This is embodied later in the novel when Oedipa begins to realize that perhaps her whole quest is an elaborate set up done by her ex. Another even more realistic possibility is that there is nothing. No conspiracy, no secret postal route, just the result of approximately 500 years worth of distortion due to history. This realization is embodied in two words from the passage: Could and Tell. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that what is 'heard' has been distorted, while the word could implies more direct uncertainty.

There is an interesting passage in which Mucho discusses distortion. Oedipa has just concluded her final session with Dr. Hilarius and is being interviewed by Mucho live on the radio due to the interest the shootout has drawn. When she enters his mobile radio van, Mucho introduces her as ‘Edna Mosh,’ claiming that he is accounting for the ‘distortion’ of the van. Mucho is accounting for all the variables that he is aware of, however, most do not have the luxury of knowing what variables are about to strike them. This of course pertains to Oedipa who is beginning to question the valildity of the 'conspiracy' by this point in the novel.

Throughout the novel communication is a source of uncertainty. The main subject of the ‘conspiracy’ is a mail route, which is essentially a communication route. Later in the novel, radio becomes the major source of distortion. This is due to ‘interference,’ perhaps it is man made or just the interference caused by the routes the information traveled. This is called entropy, this time in information theory rather than thermodynamics, and it is alluded to throughout the novel. The fact that two things can be used interchangeably again adds to the uncertainty. In a sense entropy leads to entropy or chaos leads to distortion which creates uncertainty. Throughout the novel, the plot is undergoing entropy; it only becomes cloudier and the characters’ actions more chaotic.

For example the play A Courier’s Tragedy, the title of which suggests both violence, chaos and communication; is only a play. The violence and chaos is merely an act, and so is the ‘conspiracy’ that it ‘hides.’ However, Dr. Hilarius’ actions are not contained within a play, and his scene occurs in the last chapter. This creates the effect that what Oedipa has learned is false, but the only definitive answer is what is about to occur when the novel concludes. This uncertainty the reader is left with is meant to conclude the theme of uncertainty and cement it by leaving both the reader and Oedipa with no solution within the confines of the novel.

(CV 2009)


Satire in Vineland

In this essay, CV discusses the effect of Thomas Pynchon's satire on the themes of Vineland.

Thomas Pynchon is famous for his version of satire which uses highly developed situational humor as much as simplistic puns.In Vineland Pynchon relentlessly satirizes the Nixon and Reagan administrations, frequently characterizing them as totalitarian, blaming the American people as much as the administrations themselves. He does this frequently through his characterization of television or “the Tube” as he refers to it throughout the novel.

The capitalization of ‘Tube’ and referencing it in this way results in TV taking a larger and more symbolic role. The plot of the novel is often describe as ‘cinematic’ or ‘soap opera,’ much like an episode of 24 where certain aspects of the plot never fully come together, or something is never fully explained. This is first and foremost a satire of the television industry, but they also are important to the novels core themes.

One of the most glaring short comings in the novel is the failure to describe Frenesi’s motives. Frenesi was a member of the radical student film group named 24fps, but switched sides for Brock Vond, an embodiment of the Reagan and Nixon administrations. The best motive Pynchon arrives at is that Frenesi had a genetic obsession with men in uniform and that she was ‘following her pussy.’ In context, these two comments were intended to be somewhat humorous and derogatory. Pynchon uses this to voice his anger with the state of America's morals and the effect he believes the mass media had on these morals. This usage is also meant to suggest that the ‘Revolution’ in the sixties ‘sold out.’ This statement is reiterated again in the closing scenes of the novel, in a conversation between Zoyd and Isaiah Two Four:


“’Whole problem ‘th you folk’s generations,’ Isaiah opined, ‘nothing personal, is you believed in your Revolution, put your lives right out there for it—but you sure didn’t understand much about the Tube. Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, that whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like th’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970s dollars—it was way too cheap.’” (p. 373)

The contrast between the phrase ‘el deado meato’ and the other elements of the passage is meant to bring out the seriousness of the message and comment on the effects of television on the ‘Revolution.’ This is one of Pynchon’s favorite techniques to bring out a message he attempting to deliver.

Another instance of the plot failing to resolve in a satisfactory way is Brock Vond’s final scene. In it Brock attempts to abduct Prairie. In it Brock’s pursuit of Prairie ends due to a Reagan budget cut. This budget cut is meant to satirize the cuts Reagan and Nixon made, but carries a deeper meaning. Because Brock is ended because of lack of funding the argument can be made that Brock is another Federal Program, and if this is true, this is a highly effective attack due to the reputation that Brock manages to build during the course of the novel. In the scene being discussed, Brock arrives in a Huey, discussing what would be considered stereotypical of a child molester. The situation soon becomes ironic when the first thing he says to Prairie, the subject of his previoius conversation, is: “But Prairie, I’m your real father.” This could be viewed merely as an attempt to finally capture Prairie or a characterization of ‘sleaze;’ an accusation which the Reagan administration was familiar.

Prairie retorts to this insult saying that Brock’s blood type is ‘Preparation H,’ therefore he could not possibly be his father. Pynchon then writes that “By the time Brock figured out this complex insult…” which if the reader associates Brock with the government has the effect of the government being unable comprehend complexity. This theme of satirizing government programs is also represented by the program ‘NEVER’ or ‘National Endowment for Video Education and Rehabilitation. It is mainly used in the context of ‘Tubaldetox’ or the attempt to wean Hector, a TV addict, off television. Iit is clear that due to something, perhaps a government conspiracy, that Hector will ‘NEVER’ be weaned off of television. In fact while in the ‘Tubaldetox’ his addiction worsens and spirals out of control, and he becomes, literally, a running joke.

The criticism of the Reagan administration is perhaps best characterized by an incident that occurred later in the novel. Vineland had been for many years a hippy paradise, a place to grow marijuana. However, due to the budget cuts, certain federal programs needed results, so they invaded Vineland. To search for marijuana, they hired pilots to spot possible sites from the sky, one of them happened to be an ex-Luftwaffe pilot. The hiring of a Nazi by the U.S. government is meant to characterize their crack down of drugs, which is only being done out of self-preservation or self-interest, another common theme, though somewhat less significant when compared to the previously mentioned three.

The ‘Revolution’ that is frequently spoken of is characterized by an incident at the College of Surf and the PR^3 (People’s Republic of Rock and Roll) movement that erupts there. The leader of it is named Weed Atman. Names, though sometimes used just for comedy, can carry a more significant meaning. In this case the name ‘Atman’ is both satirizing the Buddhist aspect of hippy culture and characterizing Weed as self-centered. This is because atman means ‘self,’ and in Buddhism one is attempting to deny self. The fact that he is named ‘self’ is important to the plot as well because as the novel progresses it becomes clear that he is a government plant. The plant, however, is nothing more than a ruse to capture Frenesi.

The themes of Vineland are achieved in a variety of ways, whether through plot or language or allusion, but the one ever present aspect in Pynchon’s works is satire. Even when attempting serious conversation concerning his views on television, he slips in something to contrast and highlight the seriousness of the issue even more. Nearly every scene in the novel involves somesort of satire. The very first scene does and involves Zoyd 'proving' his insanity. To do this he transfenestrates in a dress with a chainsaw while under the influence of marijuana for the television crews and is put on the news due to a bargain with Brock Vond. This is an early example of the sixties generation selling out to television, but in the complex plot of the novel, it also represents the repression of the government and the values of Americans.