Zeroes and ones

I have to admit The Crying of Lot 49 is an overwhelming read. Aside from the fact that it's not the book you can read aloud (or you might just run out of breath), it's also not the type which you can read during commutes; you have to book a room and absorb every thick paragraph the book hurls against you. I had to read the first few chapters of the book five, six times before proceeding to the more complicated chapters, just to calibrate the voice inside my head. It's clearly not the register I was used to read.

There are clever names like Mike Fallopian, and puns like Wendell "Mucho" Maas (Spanish for much more) and then the big word, postmodernism, looming somewhere in the book. The first time I encountered Pynchon was during a long wait at a Powerbooks outlet, not remembering who I was waiting for. There it was, Gravity's Rainbow, one of the thick, cryptic books you skim and think, how many months can an average person finish this book? Can I even finish it? But I wasn't chiefly curious about him or his works until I read and was enthused about Donald Barthelme's fiction, and read about the author, and the names included in the postmodern thread, Pynchon included, the author whom I assumed had been dead for a little more than twenty years.

Some six years later after the scene at Powerbooks (when I still had that discount card--a pre-Ondoy memorabilia) I found, at long last, a copy of The Crying of Lot 49 at Booksale. It was one of the most awful covers I've ever seen, with the stenciled lettering giving it an air of anarchist rage, or at least related to the military. (Google the covers and see how this ranks up with the rest: it clearly is the worst cover to date, bar none.)

I had to prioritize this over Etgar Keret's The Nimrod Flipout since back then, when I started reading it, I was in-between jobs, a bum reading while drumming my fingers on our dining table for a good job. Keret's is something you can read virtually anywhere: light, funny and yet thought-provoking. Pynchon's is the kind of book you read while holed up in an attic for a couple of days.

Pynchon's tone reminds me of Salinger's tone in Seymour: An Introduction, the only short story in my Salingeriana I still haven't finished simply because it had a lot of commas, and it felt like a crash course on Buddhism. Though I was thankful for the latter, with its pieces of Buddhism wisdom, to the point that I revere the religion and tried to incorporate its philosophy in my life, but the real issue for me is about the voice. voice of his narratives had been so successful since Holden Caulfield that I couldn't imagine reading something different from the author.

But Pynchon's is far more complex: bearing a lot of symbols (the muted post horn in the cover, for example) which I didn't dare to delve deeper in; thriving in puns, misspellings (REPORT ALL OBSCENE MAIL TO YOUR POTSMASTER), errors and discrepancies (mostly historical accounts), wonderful theatrics (punk-rock songs from a band Oedipa met at a motel called Echo Courts), tricks (say, the breaking of the fourth wall by Metzger: while watching a TV show Cashiered, which he starred in as a child, as Baby Igor, he was chiming in and singing the songs and even dared Oedipa to guess what's next).

I think there's nothing pretentious in the language, or in the project as a whole, not because it is written by Pynchon, but because his complex language is nothing short of promising, and that it seemed inherent, as if it's really the way his mind works: a markedly long attention span; a knack for using words out of their usual context; a keen observation of human behavior[1]. Take this:
As 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. There had hung the sense of buffering, insulation, she had noticed the absence of an intensity, as if watching a movie, just perceptibly out of focus, that the projectionist refused to fix. And had also gently conned herself into the curious, Rapunzel-like role of a pensive girl somehow, magically, prisoner among the pines and salt fogs of Kinneret, looking for somebody to say hey, let down your hair. When it turned out to be Pierce she'd happily pulled out the pins and curlers and down it tumbled in its whispering dainty avalanche, only when Pierce had got maybe halfway up, her lovely hair turned, through some sinister sorcery, into a great unanchored wig, and down he fall, on his ass. But dauntless, perhaps using one of his many credit cards for a shim, he'd slipped the lock on her tower door and come up the conchlike stairs, which, had true guile come more naturally to him, he'd have done to begin with. But all that had then gone on between them had really never escaped the confinement of that tower. In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central painting of a triptych, titled "Bordando el Manto Terrestre," were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she'd wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry. She had looked down at her feed and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there'd been no escape. What did she so desire escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? [pp. 10-12]
The sentence construction is something Pynchon has already honed from the very start: it allows him to pile sentence after sentence of detail, until it becomes a monstrous heap capable of imploding itself lest you remember the single thread that binds it. (Sometimes, and as expected, there is a very thin thread.) His language, potent for experimentation, wants to stretch language itself, and fiction in general, to accept such forms, such ways, narratives different from the tradition Hemingway, for example, has pioneered.

If there's one thing the novel had in mind, it's to stretch the foundation of narratives, of fiction itself. It wants to reinvent the language of fiction, in the ways Barthelme and the rest of them wants it to be: playful, inventive, and at some point, surreal. I am amused by the novel's description of California, which seemed surreal and spot-on at the same time, and I find it eerie that my fondness of California's well-curated cityscape/landscape has made it through the short novel.[2]

One of the major themes of the short novel is paranoia, whether drug-induced, societal, or personal. Its onset, I believe, can be felt in the first few pages, when Oedipa was remembering this instance of taking a call in the middle of the night.[3] Pynchon, having mastered numerous voices and registers, used it to his advantage and made it as a symptom of paranoia. Oedipa's transformation from being the typical housewife (or is she?) started when she was plagued by her psychologist, Dr. Hilarius, and then by being named as co-executor of Pierce Inverarity, her ex-lover, and his gigantic estate, and then, later on, by her own husband on LSD prescriptions subscribed by her very own psychologist. There are hundreds of details: the play; Metzger, the other executor; and then her delusional thoughts which are unbecoming of her character, had it occurred years before. As the plot unfolds, and the mystery of the Trystero deepens, one by one Oedipa finds herself being stripped of her men. Only when the director of The Courier's Tragedy, her only lead with the Trystero plot, took "a Brody" did she realize this. And then, that rhetorical question at the end of it all: "Where am I?"

Which leads me to conclude with a guess, with the backing of the narrator, or Oedipa's consciousness that the novel didn't want--or even hesitant--to arrive at a certain truth. It resorted to binaries instead, and leaves the reader with choices, a yes or a no:
"...For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth..." (p. 150)
It can be implied here that the novel insists on the duality of meaning: that a single occurrence might mean something, or nothing at all. After reading the book's last few pages--the auctioning of Pierce's estate and yes, the very last sentence: "Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of Lot 49."--I suddenly grew sick about meaning. Clearly, had Oedipa left it all behind--from the Trystero, the underground mailing systems, the coincidences--she would have probably kept her wits intact. But without it, the novel disintegrates.


1 "That's me, that's me," cried Metzger, staring, "good God." 
"Which one?" asked Oedipa. 
"That movie was called," Metzger snapped his fingers, "Cashiered." (p. 19)

2 "Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts--census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway." (p. 13)

3 "It took her in the middle of Huntley and Brikley to remember that last year, at three or so one morning there had come this long-distance call, from where she would never know (unless now he'd left a diary) by a voice beginning in heavy Slavic tones as second secretary at the Transylvanian Consulate, looking for an escaped bat; modulated to comic-Negro, then on into hostile Pachuco dialect, full of chingas and maricones; then a Gestapo officer asking her in shrieks did she have relatives in Germany and finally his Lamont Cranston voice, the one he'd talked in all the way down to Mazatlan. "Pierce, please," she'd managed to get in, "I thought we had---"(p. 2)