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Critical Essay by William Gleason
SOURCE: "The Postmodern Labyrinths of Lot 49," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Winter, 1993, pp. 83-99.
In the following essay, Gleason examines the postmodern attributes and "labyrinthine" structure of The Crying of Lot 49, particularly as found in the novel's indeterminate language, puns, "symbolic landscape, narrative design, and sexual dynamics."
[M]an now lives in a circle without a center, or in a maze without a way out.
—Edward Said, "Abecedarium Culturae: Structuralism, Absence, Writing"
Said's twinned metaphors concisely, if somewhat sexistly, limn recognizable features of contemporary society and employ terms that appear more and more frequently in our literary, critical, and social discourses. Wendy Faris's recently published Labyrinths of Language, for example, focuses on Said's latter possibility; the book attempts to illustrate "the central place of the labyrinth in the modern western [literary] tradition." Faris traces the labyrinth as both textual symbol and narrative structure through several European and Latin American texts but notes at the end of her introduction that the image seems less central to North American writers, owing perhaps to the "continuing force of the myth of the 'virgin land'" on this continent. This comment seems rather odd; one wonders how familiar she is with the work of Thomas Pynchon, for example—or that of a number of other notable North American authors—for the labyrinth seems as prominent in Pynchon's work as it does in her chosen texts. I will reconsider Faris's thesis, then, by taking issue with her regional corollary: I offer here a "labyrinthine" reading of Pynchon's second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, that focuses on its symbolic landscape, narrative design, and sexual dynamics and that means to throw some light into one corner of that maze-like concept known as postmodernism.
Faris attributes several key tensions and ambiguities to the labyrinth. First, it can be spatially modeled as uni- or multicursal, that is, having one or many possible paths. The multicursal labyrinth adds human choice to the ancient configuration and thus increases the opportunity for confusion, for error, for dead ends, for retracing one's steps. (Faris also considers a third variation offered by Umberto Eco in Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language—the labyrinth as net, or rhizome—which I'll argue later is a more suitable postmodern model.) Second, the labyrinth can be imagined either with or without a center, the center itself representing potential sanctuary, revelation, or confrontation. A third ambiguity concerns the ways in which the labyrinth may be perceived. One may enter the labyrinth as an explorer (a Theseus figure) and experience it through time (diachronically—or, as a reader) or view it from above as a designer (a Daedalus figure) and see it all at once (synchronically—or, as a writer). Thus the labyrinth may appear ordered, even delightful, to the designer and at the same time chaotic, even terrifying, to the explorer. Finally, although the labyrinth's formal structure, its conscious articulation, places it within the traditionally masculine realms of order, language, and intellect, its earliest associations are with traditionally feminine spaces. For according to Fairs the labyrinth's original contours were "designed to duplicate symbolically the form of sacred labyrinthine caves," thereby associating the labyrinth with "the traditionally feminine domain of the earth mother." Faris thus suggests that the labyrinth can be seen as a mediating form between matriarchal and patriarchal systems of power. This notion of meditation or integration will become important in Lot 49.
Literal and symbolic labyrinths lace the novel as Oedipa Maas (whose very name invokes ancient myth and also encodes a labyrinth—maas is Afrikaans for mesh) follows the twisting paths opened for her by Pierce Inverarity's will. Oedipa first encounters San Narciso as a labyrinthine printed circuit: "The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had." She views the city from above (as a designer) and sees it—for the moment—synchronically. But Oedipa will not remain a Daedalian observer; she will enter San Narciso's curving streets as a Thesean explorer, intent to discover meaning: "Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern California, 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." Oedipa senses potential "revelation" and feels herself "at the centre of an odd, religious instant."
Her pursuit of this central space takes her through a number of other labyrinths, in San Narciso and in Northern California, as she tries to trace the "languid, sinister blooming of The Tristero." But even before stumbling onto W.A.S.T.E. and the post horn, she responds to patterned stimuli. The map of Fangoso Lagoons that flashes on the TV at Echo Courts, for example, immediately recalls for Oedipa San Narciso's printed circuit. This new development, "laced by canals," promises equally mysterious elucidation: "printed circuit, gently curving streets, private access to the water, Book of the Dead…." This last reference connects the Lagoons, with their sunken dead men's bones, to Mr. Thoth, the close-to-death senior citizen Oedipa meets in Vesperhaven House, who is named for the Egyptian god of learning and magic, the inventor of letters and numbers. The Book of the Dead is also known as the Book of Thoth, a written guide for the dead to secure eternal life, typically inscribed on or inside sarcophagi. Faris points out that passage through death to another life is one journey symbolized by passage through the labyrinth; and we can, perhaps, read part of Oedipa's journey in the novel as one from her comfortable, suburban, Young Republican life in Kinneret to a new life that includes an awareness of and sensitivity to the vast and convoluted underground of the disinherited that lies beneath the mantle of America.
Pynchon's 1996 essay, "A Journey Into The Mind of Watts," suggests that very few of Oedipa's suburban neighbors would consider following her through such a maze. A year after its explosive summer riots. Watts remained for Pynchon "country which lies, psychologically, uncounted miles further than most whites seem at present willing to travel." Yet white culture "surrounds Watts—and, in a curious way, besieges it"; the impoverished black community "lies impacted in the heart of [a] white fantasy." Faris notes that labyrinths have in the past served as protective city barriers: convoluted walls at a town's periphery (think of Hissarlik, Homer's Troy, for example) discourage invasion. But these very protections, she points out, can also imprison, for labyrinths trap within just as easily as they keep without. The mid-1960s Watts landscape that Pynchon describes is similarly confining. Alameda Street, the "gray and murderous arterial" at Watts's eastern boundary, for example, is as impassable as "the edge of the world." Inside Watts, little changes: blacks are "stuck pretty much with basic realities like disease, like failure, violence and death, which the whites have mostly chosen—and can afford—to ignore." When the trapped blacks turn to violence (which Pynchon feels "may be an attempt to communicate"), they metamorphose into modern urban minotaurs.
Images of blacks—and blackness—recur throughout Lot 49. Oedipa's husband, Mucho, could not ignore the endless parade of "Negro, Mexican, cracker … bringing the most godawful of trade-ins" to his used car lot on another "pallid, roaring arterial." Here blacks are one part of a multicultural "salad of despair"; at the Yoyodyne Cafeteria they become tray-toting kitchen servants "preparing to feed a noontide invasion of [presumably white] Yoyodyne workers." In "Journey Into The Mind of Watts," Pynchon describes the frustrations of black job-seekers denied meaningful employment, or counseled to "look as much as possible like a white applicant." The blacks with steady jobs Oedipa encounters in Lot 49, other than the Yoyodyne waiters, include Winthrop Tremaine's San Diego "niggers" turning out swastika armbands and "an exhausted busful of Negroes going on to graveyard shifts all over the city," working the jobs no one else wants. The rejected positions blacks are forced to take recall the detrital landscape of Watts itself: "busted glass, busted crockery, nails, tin cans, all kinds of scrap and waste." This junk can be transformed into the Watts Towers, Simon Rodia's fantasy of fountains, boats, tall open-work spires, encrusted with a dazzling mosaic of Watts debris"; or reborn as the apocalyptic post-riot sculpture Pynchon sees at an Easter week arts festival: "In one corner was this old, busted, hollow TV set with a rabbit-ears antenna on top; inside, where its picture tube should have been gazing out with scorched wiring threaded like electronic ivy among its crevices and sockets, was a human skull. The name of the piece was 'The Late, Late, Late Show.'"
How can junk communicate so powerfully? Jonathan Culler, drawing on the work of Mary Douglas and Michael Thompson, points out that "[w]hat is marginal or taboo turns out to be essential to the study of the system that excludes it." The marginal category of rubbish turns out to be the "point of communication between categories of value." Waste, he claims, is thus found at the heart of value—and language—systems. Oedipa herself finds "God knew how many citizens" who deliberately communicate through the WASTE system rather than the U.S. Mail, or who, "even, daring, spent the night up some pole in the lineman's tent like caterpillars, swung among a web of telephone wires, living in the very copper rigging and secular miracle of communication." Unsuspecting, Oedipa searches the margins, searches WASTE, searches language itself, in order to understand the labyrinthine "legacy [of] America" left her by Inverarity.
Oedipa's penetration of his alternate system takes her through many more mazes. To get backstage at the Tank after watching The Courier's Tragedy, for example, she wanders in an "annular corridor," circling twice before settling on a shadowy door, finally walking in on "soft, elegant chaos." After attending the Yoyodyne stockholders meeting, she gets lost on a tour of the plant and experiences the acute anxiety of a solitary labyrinthine journey—although she is not entirely alone:
Somehow Oedipa got lost. One minute she was gazing at a mockup of a space capsule, safely surrounded by old, somnolent men; the next, alone in a great, fluorescent murmur of office activity…. She began to wander aisles among light blue desks, turning a corner now and then. Heads came up at the sound of her heels, engineers stared until she'd passed, but nobody spoke to her. Five or ten minutes went by this way, panic growing inside her head: there seemed no way out of the area.
She finally reaches a potential center—Stanley Koteks doodling the muted post horn on an envelope—but he turns out to be an unwelcome sort of minotaur. His description of the Nefastis Machine makes Oedipa suddenly afraid that, "with a thousand other people to choose from," she walked "uncoerced into the presence of madness." Koteks is not a center—indeed, revelation in the novel is persistently deferred—but another clue, another piece of information.
Oedipa eventually heads north, following clues, entering and enacting more labyrinths. In her Berkeley hotel she is guided by a clerk "through corridors gently curving as the streets of San Narciso." She spends the next night wandering through San Francisco, finding the image of the post horn over and over; the following morning she encounters the tattooed sailor. After embracing him, physically touching one of the alienated, the withdrawn, the unloved, she takes him upstairs and enters a "warren of rooms and corridors," finally reaching his room, and his mattress—which she reads as yet another printed circuit, containing coded information about "all [the] men who had slept on it." While staring at the mattress and thinking of the sailor's DTs, Oedipa figures metaphor itself in distinctly labyrinthine terms: "The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost. Oedipa did not know where she was."
This is not the first time that Oedipa has lost herself (at Echo Courts, after the aerosol can woven its "complex web" about the bathroom, reticulating the mirror in the process, she looks for but cannot find her image), nor her first encounter with a metaphorical labyrinth (we recall, for example, Inverarity's "tangled" assets, the convoluted plot of "Cashiered" [and the submarine net within it], plus the "labyrinth of assumed motives" that leads Tony Jaguar to believe "he could surely unload his harvest of bones on some American someplace"). Nor is it the reader's first encounter with Pynchon's somewhat labyrinthine prose. Pynchon frequently duplicates at the level of narrative the indeterminacy, the confusion, the ambiguity that Oedipa experiences in her search. While terse detective-fiction patter drives much of the prose, Pynchon backtracks, interrupts (frequently using parentheses—or dashes), or layers his descriptions. Colons, semi-colons, and commas gently, rhythmically tug the reader through convoluted paragraphs:
Through the rest of the afternoon, through her trip to the market in downtown Kinneret-Among-The-Pines to buy ricotta and listen to the Muzak (today she came through the bead-curtained entrance around bar 4 of the Fort Wayne Settecento Ensemble's variorum recording of the Vivaldi Kazoo Concerto, Boyd Beaver, soloist); then through the sunned gathering of her marjoram and sweet basil from the herb garden, reading of books reviews in the latest Scientific American, into the layering of a lasagna, garlicking of a bread, tearing up of romaine leaves, eventually, oven on, into the mixing of the twilight's whiskey sours against the arrival of her husband, Wendell ("Mucho") Maas from work, she wondered, wondered, shuffling back through a fat deckful of days which seemed (wouldn't she be the first to admit it?) more or less identical, or all pointing the same way subtly like a conjurer's deck, any odd one readily clear to a trained eye.
This sentence meanders toward its main verb and then momentarily pools there ("wondered, wondered"), pausing before the final, not-quite-illuminating comparison. Only the next sentence reveals the goal of Oedipa's mental wandering: her recollection of Inveraity's late-night phone call a year earlier.
A few pages later, Pynchon amasses details until they blur:
Maybe to excess: how could he not, seeing people poorer than him come in, Negro, Mexican, cracker, a parade seven days a week, bringing the most godawful of trade-ins: motorized, metal extension of themselves, of their families and what their whole lives must be like, out there so naked for anybody, a stranger like himself, to look at, frame cockeyed, rusty underneath, fender repainted in a shade just off enough to depress the value, if not Mucho himself, inside smelling hopelessly of children, supermarket booze, two, sometimes three generations of cigarette smokers, or only of dust—and when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residue of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused (when so little he supposed came by that out of fear most of it had to be taken and kept) and what had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost: clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10¢, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the markets, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads. Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a gray dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes—it made him sick to look, but he had to look.
This single sentence (possibly Lot 49's longest) curls always from its initial observation ("Maybe to excess:") into coils of connected, yet sometimes confusing prose (the midpoint parentheses needs at least one rereading to align the "he supposed" and the "that" properly). While elsewhere in the novel repeated "or's" suggest bifurcating possibility—alternate paths in the maze—here they heighten indistinctness; for all the bits and pieces, whatever they might be, are "coated uniformly … in a gray dressing of ash."
Pynchon's mazy prose is not confined to the beginning of the book. The plot of The Courier's Tragedy, for example, is also endlessly convoluted—the narrated version no less confusing than the unloosing description provided Oedipa by the Paranoids and their girl friends, "as strange to map as their rising coils and clouds of pot smoke." And mazy, for Pynchon, is not always hazy: he also frequently constellates related, yet distinct details to suggest a network of interlacing observations. Faris, quoting Michael Butor, claims that we can call an author's prose labyrinthine if in it "narration is no longer a line, but a surface in which we isolate a certain number of lines, points, or noteworthy groupings." Furthermore, labyrinthine writing branches; it expands. As Oedipas crisscrosses the San Francisco night, for example, she tries to group her own observations into clusters that signify. In the following sentence, semicolons connect one individual to the next, while each succeeding description—until the last, when Oedipa sees an image of herself—unfolds a title further into the narrative space:
Among her other encounters were a facially-deformed welder who cherished his ugliness, a child roaming the night who missed the death before birth as certain outcasts do the dear lulling blankness of the community; a Negro woman with an intricately-marbled scar along the baby-fat of one cheek who kept going through rituals of miscarriage each for a different reason, deliberately as others might the ritual of birth, dedicated not to continuity but to some kind of interregnum; an aging night-watchman, nibbling at a bar of Ivory Soap, who had trained his virtuoso stomach to accept also lotions, air-fresheners, fabrics, tobaccoes and waxes in a hopeless attempt to assimilate it all, all the promise, productivity, betrayal, ulcers before it was too late; and even another voyeur, who hung outside one of the city's still lighted windows, searching for who know what specific image.
And yet can we, with confidence, call these Oedipa's own observation? So intimate a knowledge of the Negro woman's "rituals of miscarriage," or the night-watchman's "virtuoso stomach" seems beyond even a searching, hypothesizing Oedipa. Although the narrative has never been truly first person, these insights must belong to the narrator, speaking over, or more precisely, through Oedipa. As a result of this narrative ventriloquy, Oedipa's own sensitivity is sharpened; she retains an awareness, however subconscious (even subvocal?), of these details. The self-awareness, and indeterminacy of the last encounter—with "another voyeur … searching for who know what specific image"—returns us more firmly to Oedipa's point of view.
Such narrator/character distinctions blur elsewhere in the novel as well. In the used car lot section, for example, point of view shifts among Oedipa, Mucho, and narrator, "You're too sensitive," Oedipa tells Mucho a paragraph earlier. And then, in her mind: Yeah, there was so much else she ought to be saying also, but this was what came out. It was true, anyway." The remainder of this paragraph can also be read as Oedipa's, even up to "Yet at least he had believed in the cars" at the beginning of the next. But soon in this paragraph (quoted above) the details become too fine, the layering too thick, to be Oedipa's—we must be hearing "hyperaware" Mucho. That is, until the narrator's voice gradually takes over, suggesting probabilities and propositions of which Mucho would have been less and less aware:
If it had been an outright junkyard, probably he could have struck things out, made a career: the violence that had caused each wreck being infrequent enough, far enough away from him, to be miraculous … But the endless rituals of trade-in, week after week … were too plausible for the impressionable Mucho to take for long.
We can read the first conditional clause a one Mucho himself might have considered; but at "far enough away from him" we edge further away from Mucho himself, and by "impressionable" we've left him. Are we back to Oedipa, because "impressionable" recalls "but there was your Mucho: thin-skinned" at the end of the previous paragraph? Possibly. But the next sentence's proposition—and tricky tense sequence—seem beyond either character; we're hearing the narrator's voice: "Even if enough exposure to the unvarying gray sickness had somehow managed to immunize him, he could still never accept the way each owner, each shadow, filed in only to exchange a dented, malfunctioning version of himself for another…."
This voice returns in Lot 49 to comment on Oedipa's quest ("If she'd thought to check a couple lines back in the Wharfinger play, Oedipa might have made the next connection by herself") or express her thoughts in decidedly un-Oedipan fashion ("Cammed each night out of that safe furrow the bulk of this city's waking each sunrise again set virtuously to plowing, what rich soils had he turned, what concentric planets uncovered? What voices overheard, finders of luminescent gods glimpsed among the wallpaper's stained foliage …?"). Oedipa may not be incapable of such reflections, but the diction is a stretch ("cammed," "flinders") for an exhausted, immobilized, "beat up on" detective. The labyrinthine sentence structure (particularly in the first clause) also suggests the controlling hand of the narrator—or of Pynchon. Oedipa makes connections, while this voice plays incessantly with language. She holds the sailor and feels his DTs, then remembers time differential dts from calculus—but the etymological gloss on delirium tremens ("a trembling unfurrowing of the mind's plowshare," for instance, isn't convincingly Oedipa's. The narrative voice, moreover, is here as mazy as Oedipa's own adventures.
Perhaps critics who argue that Oedipa is too insubstantial a character have moments like this in mind. They mistakenly assume that she has to—or even intended to—carry the "weight" of the narrative. But the constant disruption of boundaries in Lot 49 calls into question our ability to define Oedipa precisely. Just as narrator and Oedipa merge, so too reader and Oedipa—we co-experience her anxieties, her confusion, the ambiguities forced upon her by the narrative. We follow Oedipa, Theseus-like, as she reads clues, gets lost, explores the mazy underpinnings of The Tristero. At the level of narrative, we work our way through Pynchon's convoluted prose. But we also attempt to interpret the labyrinthine design in the text itself; we thus try to read both diachronically and synchronically. Near the end of the novel Oedipa tries to read this way, too:
Meaning what? That Bortz, along with Metzger, Cohen, Driblette, Koteks, the tattooed sailor in San Francisco, the W.A.S.T.E. carriers she'd seen—that all of them were Pierce Inverarity's men? Bought? Or loyal, for free, for fun, to some grandiose practical joke he'd cooked up, all for her embarrassment, or terrorizing, or moral improvement?
When Oedipa finally confronts her alternatives—that The Tristero is real or a complicated joke/plot or that she's nuts—she sinks almost irretrievably into solitary despair: "For this, oh God, was the void. There was nobody who could help her. Nobody in the world." Unable to resolve ambiguity, she attempts suicide.
But after her frustrating phone call to the Inamorato Anonymous at The Greek Way, feeling entirely alone in a "desolate, unfamiliar, unlit district of San Narciso," Oedipa paradoxically reconnects with the surrounding landscape by becoming lost within it:
She stood between the public [phone] booth and the rented car, in the night, her isolation complete, and tried to face toward the sea. But she's lost her bearings. She turned, pivoting on one stacked heel, could find no mountains either. As if there could be no barriers between herself and the rest of the land.
Pynchon lets "desolate," "isolation," and "lost" resonate together here, emphasizing the dissolution of boundaries taking place for Oedipa. Lost is etymologically related to Old English los—a loosening, or breaking up—and though Oedipa has just nearly dissolved herself (blind with bourbon, driving a sightless car down a midnight L.A. freeway), what really begin to loosen are the barriers that have isolated her from her surroundings. Isolated's Latin root is insula ("island"), and Oedipa has felt strangely isolated, buffered since the beginning of the novel. Just as a labyrinth may both protect and imprison, so too does insulation work doubly: one may feel protected (as insulating Tupperware protects food), or detached, cut off (as an island from the shore). For Oedipa, San Narciso, too, has seemed separated from the rest of the land. But San Narciso's boundaries dissolve simultaneously with her own; redeeming, even magical: "San Narciso at that moment lost (the loss pure, instant, spherical, the sound of a stainless orchestral chime held among the stars and struck lightly), gave up its residue of uniqueness for her; became a name again, was assumed back into the American continuity of crust and mantle." This accomplished, Oedipa can look beyond San Narciso to what the narrator calls "The higher, more continental solemnities—storm-systems of group suffering and need, prevailing winds of affluence." No longer buffered, she recognizes "the true continuity."
In several ways, particularly in these last few pages, Lot 49 makes us aware of its own continuity with another American novel, namely The Great Gatsby. That text, too, is arguably "about" America (Fitzgerald himself considered changing the title to Under the Red, White and Blue), and one is tempted to read Pierce Inverarity as the embodiment of American capitalism that Jay Gatsby's father hoped his son would be. But Gatsby's illegitimate "gonnegtions" make him less like James J. Hill and more like Jay Gould—the unscrupulous financier whose bust Inveraity kept over the bed, and who, like Gatsby, died virtually friendless. Other odd details connect the two narratives. These include swastikas (compare Meyer Wolfsheim's "Swastika Holding Company" and Winthrop Tremaine's "swastika armbands"), bouncing (juxtapose the "gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover" in Fitzgerald's epigraph with Inverarity's exhortation to "Keep it bouncing"—which Oedipa recalls in a passage concerned with her love for that wealthy man), and also ash (match Gatsby's "valley of ashes" to the "gray dressing of ash" inside Mucho's used cars). The connections are more than superficial. Waste and entropy, for example, are example, are key tropes in both novels. And Pynchon's "stainless orchestral chime held among the stars and struck lightly" carefully echoes Fitzgerald's "tuning-fork … struck upon a star." In the earlier novel these words mark Gatsby's magical starting point—the first time he kissed Daisy—and also designate his initial entry into a world previously closed to him. Pynchon's chime, too, invokes boundaries; but at the same time marks a loss—and an ending.
Wordplay in the novel—particularly the pun—helps activate this notion of boundary, of inclusion and exclusion. Puns, writes Culler, "present the disquieting spectacle of a functioning of language where boundaries—between sounds, between sound and letter, between meanings—count for less than one might imagine." Puns have, argues R. A. Shoaf, "no 'inside' or 'outside.'" Lot 49 is riddled with puns. A quick sampler might feature the blunt, anagrammatical "KCUF," the covert, translingual "K. da Chingado and Company" (Chicano slang, roughly, for the "What a Fuckup" Company); the satiric, suburban "[w]e still need a hundred-and-fourth for the bridge," and the cryptic, Jacobean plays on "encre," "anchor," and "tryst or odious awry." Many early reviewers derided the novel, it seems, for this very activity, denouncing Lot 49 as "formless gush," "glossolaliac gibberish," and an "intellectual parlor trick." One critic, unable to resist a pun of his own, claimed the book revealed "a waste of considerable talent." Puns themselves have traditionally been thought an "excrescence of literature," consigned to language's wastebasket. Yet Mary Douglas reminds us that "there is energy in the margins" of any system; and what seems marginal, Culler argues, may actually be at the heart of the system itself.
This would appear to be the case in Lot 49. Oedipa herself is aware of "that high magic to low puns," which allows her to know "that the sailor had seen worlds no other man had seen." Puns, we are told in a passage linking saints, clairvoyants, paranoids, and dreamers, "probe ancient fetid shafts and tunnels of truth." Pynchon, I suspect, would agree with Culler's formulation: "puns are not a marginal form of wit but an exemplary product of language or mind…. The pun is the foundation of letters, in that the exploitation of formal resemblance to establish connections of meaning seems the basic activity of literature." Oedipa's quest to make connections, to see what she "might find out," propels the novel, and certainly her own synecdochic nick-name—Oed, suggesting the OED—highlights the book's reliance on words and wordplay. Maureen Quilligan even argues that Lot 49 is an allegorical novel generated by wordplay; for her the narrative unfolds from an initial pun on "will" (Inverarity's, Oedipa's, even God's).
Quilligan may overstate the case somewhat, but she is right to observe that punning for Pynchon "ground[s] the book's structure in polysemy." On its surface, Lot 49 offers a series of either/or possibilities: either Cashiered will end happily, for example, or it won't; either Oedipa is sensitive and can work the Nefastis Machine, or she isn't and can't; either The Tristero exists, or it doesn't. But this matrix of twinned "zeroes and ones … hanging like balanced mobiles right and left," scarcely conceals what Thomas Schaub calls the novel's "essential ambiguity." The irresolvability of Lot 49's polar oppositions enforces un-certainty; multiple possibility displaces binary order. Molly Hite's study of "ideas of order" in Pynchon reformulates Schaub slightly: "[Pynchon's] own fictional worlds … are pluralistic—governed not by a rigid, absolute, and universal Idea of Order but by multiple, partial, overlapping, and often conflicting ideas of order." Both critics thus rightly emphasize a both/and multiplicity operating in Lot 49, noting that the work, in the words of its narrator, opens up "excluded middles" and implicitly allows "the symmetry of choices to break down, to go skew." This even works on the narrative level; Pynchon's frequent use of the conditional mode, Schaub argues, causes the text to oscillate "like a standing wave between nodes of meaning."
Pynchon's puns impact the text this way as well, undermining binary oppositions by multiplying meanings. According to Frederick Ahl, puns "confuse binary though because they add the complexities of 'both/and' to 'either/or', thereby blurring the lines we like to draw between truth and falsehood, fact and non fact." Like metaphor, which "incites us to think and hear on more than one level concurrently," the act of punning, too, is "a thrust at truth and a lie." Lot 49, despite Oedipa's efforts (and those of some subsequent critics), refuses to rest at any pole of meaning, preferring to dance, ever-changing, like the neon Lissajous figures outside The Scope. The role of puns in reinforcing such ambiguity is further clarified by Derek Attridge, in terms strikingly applicable to the experience of reading Pynchon's novel: "In place of a context designed to suppress latent ambiguity, the pun is the product of a context deliberately constructed to enforce an ambiguity, to render impossible the choice between meanings, to leave the reader or hearer endlessly oscillating in semantic space."
Oedipa also wonders whether she is meant to discover signs of The Tristero at all—that is, is the evidence "encrypted" by Inverarity into the will? Or does Oedipa merely come upon it by "accident"? Perhaps, instead, both accident and design contribute to Oedipa's acquisition of knowledge—and given that Lot 49 is often seen as a novel of "education," these comments of Culler's on the pun seem especially appropriate:
What, then, does the pun teach? I have suggested that it foregrounds an opposition that we find difficult to evade or overcome: between accident or meaningless convergence and substance or meaningful relation. We treat this opposition as a given, presuming that any instance must be the one or the other. But puns, or punning, may help us to displace the opposition by experiencing something like "meaningful coincidence" or "convergence that affects meaning" convergence that adumbrates an order to be comprehended or explored.
The novel's suspended ending certainly suggests that whatever order inheres in The Tristero remains, for Oedipa, to be comprehended. And Oedipa seems more willing at the end to accept a theory like "convergence that affects meaning" regarding her discoveries. For within her own either/or dialectic rests both/and possibility; even if there is no Tristero, she can only live on as though there were, and she were a part of it; "For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia."
Mary Allen sees Oedipa fighting madness throughout Lot 49. Besides any Tristero-induced paranoia, beneath Oedipa's "frustrating life"—particularly the incapacity of the men around her for "real human love"—lurks an "underlying hysteria." Indeed, an exploration of the novel's sexual dynamics may bring together certain elements of the labyrinth and language play already limned. Oedipa is decidedly a woman among men in this text. Only two other women are specifically named, and Oedipa's own identity blurs at times. She is alternately "Margo" (Inverarity's Lamont Cranston sidekick), "Oed" (a de-, or perhaps resexed Oedipus), "Rapunzel" (a captive maiden), a "heroin(e)" (at one point imagining herself as "some single melted crystal of urban horse"), a "nymph" (at Echo Courts), "Arnold Snarb" (at The Greek Way), "Mrs. Edna Mosh" (Mucho's pre-rendering of her name for the airwaves), and "Grace Bortz" (when she feels pregnant). Men provide the clues during her investigation of an alternate mail (male?) system, and the first man's name in the book (Pierce) points toward potential male sexual domination. Yet several other men—Fallopian, Koteks, Emory Bortz—bear named that link them to distinctly female systems.
Lot 49 thus compels us to ask whether the alternate mail system is in fact a female one (an "other" system) or just another (male) system. Faris points out that the labyrinth, built by Minos to conceal the product of the illicit love between his wife Pasiphae and the sea-bull sent to Crete by Poseidon, is on one level a male design that represses female desire. Oedipa uncovers a Tristero darkly mysterious, itself described as the magical "Other," representing a system of the marginalized, the repressed. The Tristero is first figured as a "malign and pitiless" striptease dancer, and in Driblette's staging of The Courier's Tragedy, the dark assassins appear in "lithe and terrible silence, with dancers' grace,… long-limbed, effeminate." These figurations thus connect The Tristero to the earliest—and most explicitly feminine—labyrinths, the "ritual floor designs upon which the priestess danced the myths of the mother Goddess." Driblette's own face is a furrowed labyrinth: Oedipa "couldn't stop watching his eyes. They were bright black, surrounded by an incredible network of lines, like a laboratory maze." He chastises Oedipa for her logocentric concerns ("The words, who cares?") and inspires her to consider being a world-projector, a refiguration of herself as maiden, trapped in the tower, weaving the tapestry of the world—but also a recognition of herself as heroine, outside the tower. Oedipa later tries to reconnect with Driblette, only to discover that he has walked into the Pacific and drowned. Sitting on his grave the night of his funeral. Oedipa reaches out to whatever "transient, winged shape" of his spirit might remain, trying "some last scramble" through the imprisoning maze of the earth. She feels "briefly penetrated, as if the bright winged thing had actually made it to the sanctuary of her heart," but the "winged brightness" never escapes the earth's labyrinthine space.
Winged escape from a labyrinth suggests Daedalus, the cunning designer imprisoned in his own design (as Driblette drowns, dressed/trapped in his own Gennaro costume), and also Icarus—particularly his failed escape and subsequent watery death (too close to the sum—too much "winged brightness"?). Oedipa too is frequently bothered by excessive sunlight. Oedipa believes in the sea as a principle of redemption, inviolate, representing "some more general truth." For her the "lonely sea" of the Paranoids' "Serenade" is "the hole left by the moon's tearing-free" and "that vast sink of the primal blood the Pacific," and thus distinctly connects redemption—and truth?—with the feminine. Unpatterned, unordered, the sea also opposes the labyrinth. Faris suggests that where labyrinths require the postponed desire of a journey, nonlabyrinthine spaces like the sea may offer the satisfaction of place of rest. Yet the sea, too, can host a quest, even claim a life. Ariadne herself was trapped at sea, abandoned by Theseus on the island of Dia. Oedipa's men have been stripped away as well, although, Ariadne-like, she was counting on them to lead her, the Thesean explorer, out of the maze.
Thus, Oedipa drifts, "reluctant about following up anything," in a space that has become more like Eco's third labyrinth, the net. Eco borrows the organic model of the rhizome suggested by Gilles Deleuza and Felix Guattari to describe this net, nothing that unlike the classical, linear design and the Mannerist multicursal mazes, the rhizomatic labyrinth has no center, no periphery, and no exit. Oedipa wonders if the Tristero's communication network is an alternative to the "exitlessness … that harrows the head of everybody American," and comes to believe that this system has "no boundaries." The novel certainly makes the question of "center" problematic. The six-chapter structure denies any one chapter such status, although several individual episodes offer themselves as central to the text. Oedipa's encounter with Mr. Thoth at Vesperhaven, which occurs practically at the novel's center, is a leading candidate. Here several narrative images converge: the play of bright day and dark night, the post horn symbol on the signet ring, the yarn, needles, and patterns in the knitting bag, the invocation of God. Oedipa herself feels "as if she had been trapped at the centre of some intricate crystal." And yet she quickly admits how tenuous, "like a long white hair, over a century long." the correlations may be. All that Mr. Thoth's recollections provide her, or, for that matter, her brief meeting with Driblette, her talk with Koteks, her attempt at rousing Maxwell's Demon, her voyeuristic San Francisco night, her embrace of the tattooed sailor—all potentially central episodes—are clues. Oedipa, at the literal center of the Bantam paperback (the middle of page 69) even suspects that revelation will always, in this novel, be deferred:
Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold: which must always blaze out,… leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world came back.
The decentered quality of the rhizome connects it, according to Faris, with feminist critiques of patriarchy. She sees a link, for example, between the rhizomatic labyrinth and Julia Kristeva's "semiotic," or chora. Both are connected to the maternal (the rhizome is an earth-root, the chora is "anterior to naming, to the One, to the father, and consequently, maternally connoted"); both also disrupt traditional symbolic boundaries. In the decentered rhizomatic maze, every point connects with every other point, and every path with every other path; to its unlimited territory, therefore, there is no real "outside." The rhizome, then, like feminist discourse, can be said to replace either/or poles with a both/and continuum, with non-hierarchical plurality, with unlimited, heterogeneous connectivity. We have already seen that puns work largely this way; Gregory Ulmer notes that for Derrida, punning also "challenges the logocentric structure of concept formation." Oedipa, although she continues with varying degrees of effort to locate the "central truth," seems to recognize that this, too, "the direct, epileptic Word"—the logocentric, patriarchal, symbolic order—may ultimately be lost, leaving only clues. We could assemble certain "clues" in the novel to support Faris's tentative suggestion that the presence of labyrinths (particularly rhizomatic ones) in postmodern texts indicates the return of the repressed: the discovery of and emphasis on a marginalized, somehow feminine system representing the disinherited; the opening up of a both/and continuum (corresponding to the "both/and vision" Rachel Blau DuPlessis sees as a defining feature of a feminist aesthetic); the de- or multi-centered narrative itself; even the miraculous, feminine multiplicity of the deaf-mutes dancing to "some unthinkable order of music, many rhythms, all keys at once." For DuPlessis, artwork produced by a feminist poetics will further "incorporate contradiction and nonlinear movement into the heart of the text." Lot 49 seems motivated by similar concerns.
Multiple though these concerns are, and multiple the very subjects I've been considering in this easy—labyrinths, prose mazes, puns, feminist discourse—I will argue that they may together converge in a more particular concept: the postmodern. The term itself, of course, has supported several definitions. An eclectic, "grab bag" multiplicity may in fact be one of the postmodern's determining markers. I invoke the term, moreover, not to attempt my own restrictive definition, nor to champion one already offered—I'm more interested in noting in this conclusion how the various convolutions in Lot 49 help make the text a postmodern one. By using the word "text," for instance, I deliberately call up the writing of Roland Barthes; many of his propositions regarding the "Text" seem to me not only reasonable descriptions of Lot 49, but also fair enunciations of the postmodern. The Text, for example, "practices the infinite deferral of the signified" (as in Lot 49) revelation is continually postponed); it is "structured but decentered" (as the novel follows several parallel structures—including a structure by constant deferral—but resists a definite central space); and it is governed by a logic of "associations, contiguities, and cross-references" (as Pynchon's mazy prose constellates detail into interlacing networks). Indeed, Barthes's metaphor for the postmodern text is the network. This metaphor recalls Eco's rhizomatic net—and I think both mode adequately describe the postmodern labyrinths of Lot 49, particularly its labyrinths of language.
Language seems to be at the root of my several topics here (symbolic landscape, narrative design, and sexual dynamics). We might suggest, then, that language serves to negotiate between particular text (Lot 49) and the world. But it is primarily the play of (and in) language, I believe, that gives the novel's networks their special charge—as well as makes them postmodern. Pierce Inverarity, in fact, gives us a perfect (and playful) dictum for postmodernism: "Keep it bouncing." The imperative exhorts us to keep things in play—and precisely captures the ludic quality of the postmodern. Some critics, including Frederic Jameson, dismiss this play element as an endless superficially that self-consciously exalts pastiche while effacing both affect and history. These critics themselves, unfortunately, efface the pleasures of this play—and overgeneralize. Lot 49's playful pastiche does not entirely obliterate economic and social concerns, (consider the interaction with Pynchon's "Watts" essay described above, plus Oedipa's late-found "new compassion"), nor does the novel become mere disclosure or textual play. Lot 49 is certainly more trenchant than the detractors of the postmodern seem ready to admit. I maintain that its carefully crafted labyrinths help make this the case.
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