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  • Reading America Reading in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49
  • Kristin L. Matthews (bio)

Relations between modes of reading and a cold War construction of “America” animate Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). When Oedipa Maas, a suburban housewife, is named executrix of the estate of a former lover, her conception of reality is unhinged and she learns how to read. In the process of making sense of the estate’s apparent link to a renegade mail carrier organization called the Trystero, Oedipa uncovers what could be either an international conspiracy or an elaborate hoax created by her erstwhile lover, Pierce Inverarity. Interpreting the Trystero mystery leads Oedipa to become increasingly estranged from the world of suburban conformity and increasingly aware of an alternate world made up of those excluded from the dominant culture. Oedipa never learns for certain what Trystero means or even if it exists; what she does learn is that there is more than one mode of interpretation and that the act of interpretation bears significant political consequences.

Oedipa’s move from social, cultural, and interpretive security to a wholly new and other uncertainty is thematized in scholarship that reads Lot 49 as a brave, new, paranoid world with its own rules of meaning making. This reading functions not unlike the Remedios Varo painting Oedipa views in Mexico City, “Bordando el manto Terrestre” (1961) (“Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle”). In this painting, several “frail girls with heart-shaped faces . . . prisoners in the top room of a circular tower” are weaving a tapestry that not only “spilled out the slit windows and into a void” trying to fill that void, but also “was the world” (Pynchon, [End Page 89] Lot 49 21). Indeed, the painting depicts the whole of the world as constructed and contained by this tapestry. At the center of the painting is a guard of sorts who watches the weaving women while reading a book. Similarly, much scholarship sees Lot 49 as a creation not unlike the tapestry—a world woven by Pynchon that leaves open no space. It is a total and complete world and a world apart. In the fifth chapter of Beyond and Beneath the Mantle: On Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1988), Georgiana Colvile reads the novel through the lens of the Varo painting, underscoring her larger contention (suggested in the title’s geological bent) that Pynchon’s work illustrates the dilemma of the postmodern author forced into either describing the world as it is or projecting another world (100). Colvile seems to settle on the latter, and she is not alone. John Farrell too asserts that Pynchon employs strategies like metaphor as prostheses or “extensions” that allow him “to create a new form of life” (147). Frank Palmeri takes this a step further, suggesting that Pynchon’s text rejects both the literal and metaphoric in its signification, thereby “point[ing] in each case to another mode of meaning outside these shaping paradigms” (980). As these scholars and many others argue, Lot 49’s matter and methods strive to construct a world distinct from conventional forms, genres, and contexts. In so arguing, these readings designate Pynchon as both a weaver and the taskmaster—a master whose engineering and erudition enables him to manage this world apart.

Scholarship in this vein argues that because Oedipa’s California is an incestuous world where information cycles and reality is a feedback loop of sorts, it demands of readers new interpretive practices.1 George Levine translates this demand as Pynchon’s aim “to make present to us what our language will not let us see” (76), not unlike Bernard Duyfhuizen who speaks of Pynchon as training readers “to look for texts beyond those sanctioned and visible” (81). In this light, Lot 49’s readers function like Oedipa herself who is attempting to discover “that magical Other who would reveal herself” (180)—that which is beyond conventional modes of knowing and seeing. Many have demonstrated the link between Oedipa, the reader, and Pynchon’s world. Frank Kermode famously asserted that the novel asks the reader “to read a text, to reread it, to produce it if that is...


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pp. 89-122
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