Barely surviving the cryptic story-telling of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Steven Hall’s debut novel The Raw Shark Texts struck me in it’s ability to have strong base origins embedded within the story through items of suspect quality. Whereas Pynchon pushes Oedipa through discovery of conspiracies that are through the equally conspiracy-driven estate of Pierce, Hall challenges his main character, Eric Sanderson, by delivering letters from his “former” self on how to survive in a way that he formerly could not. What’s great about this plot device is as a reader we get to see the new Eric suffering from a fugue state gradually allocates information that, while initially guiding him on how to survive the Ludovician, ultimately dives him into a similar Pynchon-esque realm of conspiracy. The book plunges the reader into questioning if the information he follows is ultimately creating his reality, but at the same time – it creates a completely lush narrative that is not particularly difficult to follow. From meeting the psychologist that attempts to push him back into a normal life to traveling into unspace along with a new romantic interest Scout to ultimately fight against the overarching Mycroft Ward; Raw Shark Texts dives head first into obscurity but allows the reader to interpret exactly what is obscure about it rather than obscuring the actual base understanding of each consecutive page. (See: Pynchon) This is what I believe to be the most compelling and rather ground-breaking aspect of the novel – clarity granted in a deep dive into obscurity.
Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 satirizes analysis and skepticism through the use of Oedipa’s seemingly hopeless journey to find meaning behind some conspiracy that may not even exist. Throughout the novel, Oedipa’s journey is marked by distantly relatable clues, including certain keywords or symbols. Oedipa believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that each clue is related to the last, and that they all lead to the answer of some greater mystery or conspiracy. However, when the novel ends, we are left without an answer to several questions. Pynchon’s decision to end the novel in this way satirizes both Oedipa’s character for analyzing everything around her so closely, but also it satirizes the reader. Pynchon leaves the novel without answers to say to the reader that not everything always needs or has answers. Sometimes no matter how hard we look at and analyze a set of random details, clues, and facts, they will still be just as random as when we started. Pynchon’s use of The Crying of Lot 49 and Oedipa in this way greatly satirizes the postmodern mentality of skepticism and interpretation within literature, culture, and art.
As we reach the final installment of Pynchon’s work, we find it constantly deferred of an ending. The texts’ narrative perspective confines us as readers to the minds of our protagonist, Oedipa. Pynchon purposefully prevents us from attaining any verifiable knowledge of the Tristero underground postal/religious/political group. In this sense, the lack of an objective narration results in a feeling of utter uselessness and doubt. One of my biggest obstacles as a first time reader of this novel was the presence, or lack of, between the existent and nonexistent of the “muted post horn”. My suspicions of Oedipa’s progressive insanity, brings up more concerns about the validity of the Tristero knowledge she comes across. This paranoia runs rampant with no apparent reconciliation,
Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth…. Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy of America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only was […]she could continue […] (150)
The book ends anti-climatically, without no definite answer. In this regard, Pynchon’s “hieroglyphic” novel is no more than a representation of life. Like Oedipa, we are just as susceptible to insanity in trying to make sense out of it. However, I think that just because the novel ends open-endedly, does not mean that Pynchon left it with no plausible meaning. I think that just questioning whether there is, or is not meaning to be found, is the message itself. Meaning, existent or nonexistent, exists because we made or thought it.
What seemed like the beginning of a story about a lonely housewife, where her days “seemed more or less identical”, quickly shifted into a detective-like story that follows a scattered pattern with more, less drastic, shifts in direction. Thomas Pychon’s choice in having the narrator flash-forward to instances that happen later on in the story, within a couple sentences, also adds to this jumpy pattern. However, this technique drew me to the quote on page 10, which reads “[a]s 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”. This, specifically the last part, reminds me of a riddle, one that I imagine Pychon won’t give us, the reader, an answer to, given his unpredictable style. Oedipa’s sense of place, like the pattern, or lack thereof, of The Crying of Lot 49, is “out of focus”, and she jumps from role to role. She starts off as a seemingly powerless and inexperienced character, who feels the need to escape, possibly from the restricting security the “tower” mentioned represents or from the “formless magic” she relies on to “keep her where she is”. However, “having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this… to understand how it works, to measure its field strength, count its lines of force”, Oedipa’s drive for personal, philosophic answers aren’t explored—she leaves it up in the air. So, instead, her focus is on her ex-lover’s case, by duty, and she flops between roles: the housewife, the flirt, the inquisitor for the case. Similarly, Metzger and his friend Manny Di Presso switch between being actors and lawyers. The Paranoids also play roles. And, finally, San Narciso sets up the chaos of mixed signals, especially through its secret mailing service. But, I still have half of the book waiting for me; and, the “riddle” concerning Oedipa’s revelations is still unclear…
In The Crying of Lot 49 Thomas Pynchon plays a peculiar narrative game; Pynchon simultaneously mocks and represents postmodern skepticism through the narrative and the reader’s relationship with it. Oedipa’s journey through the book is fueled by seemingly disparate ‘clues’ that are pulled together in a desperate attempt to uncover a coherent narrative or hidden plot. Almost comically, Oedipa scrutinizes every minute detail- whether it be a strange word in a play or a bizarre symbol in a bathroom- that constitutes her everyday reality. Oedipa is unable to ignore these peculiarities and thinly strings them together as an excuse to ameliorate the vapidity of her modern existence. Similarly, I believe Pynchon loads The Crying of Lot 49 with a multitude of red herrings, forcing the reader to sift through and ultimately assign value to a variety of facts and details. For instance, like Oedipa, the reader must decide if parsing each odd name is necessary to understanding the reality presented in the book, or if they are just random details obscuring other important truths. I believe the work satirizes how readers structure their own realities; whether reading a book or constructing one’s personal narrative, individuals are forced to decide what is and is not important and often read too much into things in confusion.
The Crying of Lot 49 is a mixture of conspiracy and puzzle-like intrigue without much foundation beyond vague suspicion—it’s paranoia. Oedipa is on a quest for meaning and we, the reader, tag along. We witness her “growing obsession, with ‘bringing something of herself’—even if that something was just her presence” (84). And we don’t quite know if there is much meaning to it all. Perhaps it’s one big joke. Or perhaps she has truly stumbled onto something and all her world now crumbles as a consequence. Oedipa follows every breadcrumb left before her, taking bits and assuming a greater whole. We are subject to the same dense assortment of crumbs: Thomas Pynchon leaves various intriguing trails before us, names that imply deeper meaning or merely humorous asides, and sidetrack stories and characters who seemingly do not matter in the end—in reading The Crying of Lot 49 we either follow the mystery, finding meaning in the text, or move on and assume Pynchon’s just toying with us (which may be the case). All the while leading to the big finish, the actual crying of lot 49, where neither Oedipa nor the reader receive concrete resolution. “Either Trystero did exist, in its own right, or it was being presumed, perhaps fantasied by Oedipa, so hung up on and interpenetrated with the dead man’s estate” (104). Who knows.
What is most important, I think, about Lot 49 are the words that aren’t being said. The language is rich and layered, and yet you get a sense that you’re looking at the scenes of the book through a filmy window – seeing the gist of the action, but missing the more subtle parts. It is in the language Pynchon uses to guide the book and the feelings that is inspires that become most important – why he chooses certain words, why does Oedipa hear a certain sound, etc. Everything is rich with meaning. I really loved the first half of The Crying of Lot 49. It instantly draws you in and demands you keep your focus, otherwise you can quickly become lost in the words and tangental pages, having to skip back a bit because everything is so important to the story, and even the little things, easily missed, become plot points.
As I was reading The Crying of Lot 49, I felt very distant from the protagonist Oedipa Mass and the story as a whole. Throughout the novel, there is an element of detachment from reality and truth. This distance from reality and between characters seems to be due to the lack of communication. Characters Oedipa continuously acts upon impulse and communicates little with those around her. When she begins her affair with Metzger there is no communication between them about their feelings. They are very intoxicated and act simply on impulse. Oedipa appears to start this affair out of boredom with her marriage yet she never even communicates with her husband. It’s difficult to understand Oedipa’s motives and feelings because the reader is only really exposed to her actions. She sometimes describes her feelings, yet they are often random and undeveloped. As the novel progresses she delves deeper and deeper into this conspiracy while she becomes more and more distant from reality and those around her. When she begins running through the streets, she is confused and disoriented. She becomes so detached from reality she begins seeing the Tristero symbol everywhere, unable to perceive reality and truth from her own hallucinations. Those around her become distant, especially her husband who in the end she give up trying to communicate with him completely, because he is on LSD and on a completely different level. Yet, it really didn’t even seem like she tried very hard to communicate with him. I thought the fact it was hard to discern many of Oedipa’s motives and inner thoughts, made her actions seem much more random or impulse driven. It seemed her actions were either driven by desire and impulse or, like when she stop trying to communicate with her husband, out of indifference and boredom.
Named executrix of her deceased ex-boyfriend’s estate, Oedipa Maas seeks out to settle the arduous legalities that are thrust upon her in Thomas Pynchon’s novel, The Crying of Lot 49. During her quest, Oedipa is slowly driven mad as she encounters a myriad of seemingly symbolic logos that haunt and entrap her in a state of paranoia. From the start of the novel, the theme of communication is immediately called into question as novel opens with the delivery of a letter that names Oedipa the executrix of the estate. Instantly, communication failure is introduced, as Oedipa cannot understand why a man with whom she has not been in contact in years asks her to carry out such important duties. Why Oedipa? Is it a joke? Is her ex-boyfriend trying to tell her something? Yet, this act of communication or lack of it remains important, as it is what drives the labyrinth of a plot into motion. In the second chapter, the plot is further foreshadowed with Oedipa’s participation in Strip Botticelli. At the start of this scene, reality is blurred as she slowly slips further into inebriation and begins to invoke God. Reality remains questionable as film fragments on TV are paired with the Strip Botticelli game. “So it went: the succession of film fragments on the tube, the progressive removal of clothing that seemed to bring her no nearer nudity, the boozing…” (28). No matter how many items of clothing Oedipa strips off, she is never fully exposed. Similarly, Oedipa’s constant search and attempts at uncovering meanings of symbols are never fully actualized. Without revealing definite answers, Pynchon demonstrates the limitations of communication and poses larger questions about humanity and the universe. Do we read too far into things? Is anything actually connected? Is everything meaningless? Are we, as readers, just like Oedipa as we try to analyze a novel filled with ambiguities?