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The Crying of Lot 49 | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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The Crying of Lot 49 | Themes



In The Crying of Lot 49, methods of communication break down or prove meaningless. With such a setup, Pynchon seems to suggest human attempts at communication are essentially pointless if they remain at a surface level. Mike Fallopian is certainly guilty of such shallow communication. He participates in the Peter Pinguid Society mail system, which requires members to write one letter a week or be fined. This results in letters devoid of any real content. Fallopian also has a buzzword-filled conversation with Metzger at The Scope that represents "typical Southern California dialogue," and as the conversation goes on the dialogue "degenerates further."

Pynchon also explores degeneration as it relates to communication using the metaphor of Maxwell's demon. Maxwell's demon is an imaginary being that can theoretically sort molecules and violate the second law of thermodynamics to avoid expending work. In Chapter 5, John Nefastis compares the entropy of heat-engines to the entropy of communication theory by their one overlapping point: Maxwell's demon. Entropy is a tendency towards disorder and degradation. Characters in the novel communicate so many irrelevant, ambiguous, and superfluous details that their information becomes degraded. Just like how she is unable to sort molecules via Maxwell's demon within Nefastis's machine, Oedipa is unable to sort the important details from unimportant ones in the communications she receives about the Tristero. She cannot discern truth from the "staggering set" of input encoded in the story—and neither can the reader.

Indeed, Pynchon spends so much time encoding information into his story that the reader is led to suppose it must all mean something. But consider Oedipa's experience driving into San Narciso at the beginning of Chapter 2. She recognizes a pattern of "hieroglyphic" buildings in an "ordered swirl" that hides meaning but at the same time holds "intent to communicate." Therein lies the paradox that ultimately stymies both Oedipa and the reader. Oedipa comes close to experiencing a "religious" revelation, but it is just out of her reach and seems to remain so throughout the novel. The reader assumes Pynchon will provide answers to his mysteries by novel's end, but he does not. The surface mystery is a red herring, designed to force Oedipa and the reader to look beneath this surface, to recognize the disenfranchised groups that make up America. Pynchon seems to suggest something quite progressive for the 1960s: that unless society is willing to give everyone a voice, substantial discussions of real depth are simply not possible.

The Search for Meaning

Pynchon depicts an era of cultural chaos in American life. The 1960s was a decade marked by the Vietnam War (1954–75), recreational drug usage, fights for civil rights, and the British Invasion led by bands like the Beatles. Via Oedipa's journey, Pynchon shows how various countercultures exist in the shadows of mainstream culture and how ordinary people can become alienated from their own lives in their struggle for personal meaning and sense of belonging. Pynchon's choice to place a suburban housewife at the center of his chaotic adventure plot would have seemed subversive back in the 1960s. Women often felt trapped in society's strict gender roles, and Oedipa is no exception. She attends Tupperware parties, mixes drinks for her husband Mucho, and recalls "a fat deckful of days which seemed ... more or less identical." Not only is she bored in her limited role, but she also tends to define herself by the men in her life, looking for her lovers and her psychiatrist to be her "knight[s] of deliverance."

Oedipa may not consciously realize it, but by answering the call to adventure and accepting her executorship, she is taking a step toward claiming her independence. However, while her investigations into Pierce's assets and the conspiracy of the Tristero give her a sense of purpose that was previously missing, she continues to seek belonging and meaning. Midway through the novel, while on the university campus in Berkeley, she muses how she longs "to feel relevant" but knows "how much of a search among alternative universes it would take." Part of her struggle is that her quest to unravel the mystery of the Tristero is within a world of men who primarily treat her as a curiosity, a sex object, or both. Toward the end of the novel, Oedipa is despondent because she has lost all her men. Dr. Hilarius and Mucho have lost their minds, Driblette has killed himself, and Metzger, her "one extra-marital fella," has run off with a 15-year-old. But Pynchon seems to suggest it is necessary for Oedipa to lose all these men she has defined herself by so she can begin to redefine herself.

Whether or not she ever uncovers the real story about the Tristero, by the end of the novel, she has found herself at a critical point in her search for meaning. She muses: "Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth." Oedipa would like for things to make sense, because if they do not, perhaps all her efforts have been in vain. But, Pynchon seems to convey that true meaning is not found in the end result but within the journey itself. During her journey she has discovered a multitude of underground groups, full of people who pursue passions that bring them meaning. The Inamorati Anonymous member who helps people burned by love is an example. Pynchon proposes there is hope in alienation—a chance to discover one's true self as well as essential belonging, purpose, and meaning.

The Nature of Reality

Pynchon uses Oedipa's paranoia and tenuous hold on reality to criticize modern society—specifically, that of Southern California in the 1960s. A major part of this culture was drug culture, and Oedipa and the other characters spend much of their time under the influence of alcohol and drugs. There is no lack of opportunity to blur reality by surrendering to mind-altering substances. Oedipa encounters whiskey sours at home, an offer to participate in a psychotropic drug study, an "enormous Thermos of tequila sours" and pot at Lake Inverarity, and beers in Professor Bortz's backyard. Oedipa is used to this constant barrage. She is able to resist Dr. Hilarius's pills because she's afraid the hallucinations she already has will get worse. Metzger is more successful with alcohol, and her excessive drinking with him wears down her defenses. She becomes so lost in a fog that things grow "less and less clear." Mucho eventually surrenders to Dr. Hilarius, taking so much LSD that his sense of self loses its "sharp edges." He acquires delusions of grandeur, believing himself to be able to "listen to anything and take it apart again."

Pynchon uses his hallucinogenic writing style to support his exploration of one's subjective understanding of reality. His long sentences contain clauses building upon each other to produce a sort of ordered chaos, and he packs them full of references that may or may not be real. His plot is so convoluted, one can easily lose one's bearings inside the novel. And the content of the scenes is often so absurd that the reader often questions the plausibility of the scenarios Oedipa finds herself in. In fact, Oedipa often questions it herself. The probability of one of Metzger's Baby Igor movies being on television while he is trying to seduce her makes her think she is being set up. When all Tristero leads improbably seem to point back to Pierce, she decides her best-case scenario is that she is hallucinating everything. And when the children she talks to in Golden Gate Park insist they are merely dreaming their gathering, Oedipa simply decides to stop believing they even exist.

Pynchon is also making the point that everyone has their own version of reality. Because she is so imaginative, Oedipa is more sensitive to suggestion than some. When Dr. Hilarius tries to recruit her for his drug study by declaring, "We want you," she hallucinates the Uncle Sam poster with the same saying "hanging in the air over her bed." That the poster "appears in front of all our post offices" is a sly nod on Pynchon's part to the post office conspiracy plot to come. And when she stares in Driblette's eyes after watching his play in Chapter 3, she has a vision of a "laboratory maze," a foreshadowing of the figurative maze she will soon find herself in while investigating the Tristero. She is skeptical enough to understand the "true sensitive" is one who can share in Nefastis's delusions about his machine's imaginary power to sort molecules, even though it disappoints her that she is not quite crazy enough to do it.

Questions for Themes

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What is the difference between male and female? when it comes down to communication?
It is often said that big differences exist in the way in which men and women communicate. Using the South University Online Library or the Internet, read more about this statement. Based on your rese
Most of us have received a business letter, a memo, or an e-mail before. Although these documents may not seem like traditional forms of technical communication, they actually possess or should posses
This assignment is due on Friday. can somebody analysis this document In this paper, your task is to analyze the peculiar properties of the language used by professionals in your chosen field. You do
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