- New Essays on Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49"
Thomas Pynchon claims his long story, marketed as a novel, shows him forgetting "most of what I thought I'd learned up till then." His readers have disagreed. The Crying of Lot 49 has been broadly studied and taught, not only as the most accessible book from our most enigmatic novelist, but as a contemporary masterwork. That reception is compellingly advanced by five distinctive essays Patrick O'Donnell has pulled together for this edition. Each essay begins from familiar critical standpoints, where the novel may be regarded as: a modern drama of epistemological uncertainty, or metaphysical detection; and a book self-reflexively concerned with the metaphoric construal of reality, as well as the postmodern deferral of closure. In recent Pynchon criticism these views of Lot 49 have been (too) frequently repeated. O'Donnell's contributors move beyond such common-places.
The volume begins and ends with contrasting influence studies. Debra Castillo argues that reading Lot 49 in light of three Borgesian pretexts for "the literary game" (symmetry, arbitrary rules, tedium) reveals in Pynchon's writing a deliberately flat style. Its metaphoricity functions like a "self-replicating virus" that always displaces meaning into waste and silence. Still, we play as if it promised meaningful resolution, and this antinomy suggests Pynchon's uneasy alliance with an emerging literary postmodernism of the Sixties. A concluding essay by Pierre-Yves Petillon" broadens that argument considerably. Though he sometimes plays fast and loose with historical detail, Petillon reveals affinities with fictions like Harry Matthew's 1962 novel, The Conversions. Yet Pynchon's book transforms the felt transitions of its time—aspects only thematized in other fictions—into its very structure. Thus while its story unfolds across a horizontal axis of contemporary time-space, its discourse suspends reading under a vertical axis of metaphor, the novel's overdetermined signs of an historical Trystero that promise, or mock, a millennial "static moment"—the hallmark of American fiction, from Hawthorne to Faulkner.
The other three essays pursue relations between Lot 49 and traditions of science. An essay by Bernard Duyfhuizen examines instances of disrupted transmission, showing how the signs of Trystero that Oedipa Maas detects cannot be transmitted as a conventional "story." Though ostensibly about inheritances and [End Page 951] probated wills, the narrative instead reveals a radical cultural disinheritance driven by scientific discourses of indeterminacy, themselves deployed hegemonically, as instruments of power. John Johnston's foray into semiotics complements this reading. First he shows how Pynchon's plot develops along two lines: the sequence of signs Oedipa detects is apposite to the sequence of men she meets, each embodying a different model of interpretation. Then he uses this structural conceit to argue that the novel is governed, not by Oedipa's modernist paranoia (so valorized in prior scholarship), but by the schizophrenic, postmodern "regime" defined by that series of male readings.
To my mind, the gem in O'Donnell's volume is N. Katherine Hayles's essay, an elegant analysis of Pynchon's figurative discourse using the model of a two-cycle engine, as well as key concepts from thermodynamics and information theory. In her view, the force of Lot 49 derives from its cycles of expansive and contractive motions. Signs expand metaphorically from the concrete to the abstract until those overwritten figures contract on literalized meditations over figuration itself—cases of "meta-metaphor" like the Nefastis Machine. These point up a concrete "escape hatch" amidst the novel's double-binds, chiefly located in our acceptance of a "necessary equivocation" in language. It is tantalizing to consider what would result from a melding of the narrative rhythm Hayles defines with the discursive structure Johnston outlines; or, for that matter, with analyses by Castillo and Duyfhuizen. The whole volume is that well coordinated. For teachers and critics alike, these essays thus point us into and beyond the story Pynchon once dismissed, and suggest how very much remains to be learned about the narrative poetics of his complex and highly nuanced...