Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49
“Shall I project a world?”
Indeed, this is what is all comes down to, projecting a world.
There comes a time in every reader’s life when they are told about Thomas Pynchon. Fewer (and luckier) are the ones who receive a beautiful Vintage version of The Crying of Lot 49 (TCL49) as a gift.This is Pynchon’s shortest (and probably the most linear) novel, which does not make it any easier. A mind-blowing amalgam of metaphors, symbols and intricacies that will only make you eager to understand the big picture hiding behind all of it. Oedipa Maas receives a letter designating her as the co-executrix of the estate of her late ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity, who was quite the tycoon, as she would later find out. Thus our protagonist sets off on a journey to sort out her former boyfriend’s legacy, unaware that by doing so, she would willingly enter a secret world of a long-standing rivalry between the traditional post system and an underground mail service called the Trystero using a muted post horn as its symbol. As Oedipa seems to be seeing signs and symbols pertaining to the Tristero system everywhere, she starts wondering if she is slowly but gradually weaving together the threads of a big mystery or if she has just fallen into a trap (or a sick joke) set by her ex-boyfriend. At the same time, you cannot help but feel that you too are unable to dissociate illusion from reality, that Pynchon is playing games with your mind, that you are seeing too little or too much. But let us be fair, Pynchon does not leave you clueless. Behind this huge bulk of information, lies a defining word: Entropy.
Entropy is broken down into two fields:
- Thermodynamics: where entropy is a concept applied to the study of how energy changes in various systems. In a closed system, individual particles tend to move towards a thermodynamic equilibrium, the entropy, which never decreases over time. In other words, thermodynamic entropy is the measure of the movement of individual particles within a closed system towards disordered motion, where the collision between the particles causes exchange of heat.
- Information theory: entropy in this field refers to a mathematical theory used to calculate the speed and quantity of information transmission. This concept was developed by Claude Shannon who defines entropy as “the measure of the rate of transfer of information in a message”, meaning that information can be quantified by the exercise of choosing one message out of different possible ones.
In the same line of thought, the thread uniting these two fields is Maxwell’s Demon. Maxwell argues that his Demon is a device that can contradict the second law of thermodynamics stating that all particles in a closed system move towards disorder, by saying that a closed system can lessen entropy over time. How does the Demon do that? By separating the hot molecules from the cold ones, thus lessening the entropy. However, while gaining information about the molecules in order to select them, the Demon wastes energy. Thus, the gain of information is also a loss of energy. Ring a bell? This is quite the defining metaphor that explains Oedipa’s numerous attempts at sorting out all the signals she gathers along the way to tame, or just understand the chaos. But Oedipa is saturated with information and does not seem to be able to sort out what is relevant from what is irrelevant. She is drawn to the chaos like a mosquito to the light, and the nearer she gets, the more it consumes her.
“She could, at this stage of things, recognize signals like that, as the epileptic is said to—an odor, color, pure piercing grace note announcing his seizure. Afterward it is only this signal, really dross, this secular announcement, and never what is revealed during the attack, that he remembers. 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, destroying its own message irreversibly, leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world came back.”
Just like Oedipa, we are also bombarded with information all the time and we spend a lot of energy filtering what is useful from what is unimportant. At some point, we might feel that we have grasped the message, only for it to escape our mind shortly after.
What Pynchon also succeeds at creating is a confined reality where we only see what our mind wants to see, where each one is equipped with different shades to see the world out there. The message might be the same, but the filter differs. So, is there a way to get out of this self-made fantasy?
“I came,” she said, “hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy.”
Cherish it!” cried Hilarious, fiercely. “What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by its little tentacle, don’t let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be.”
The beauty of TCL49 is the way it is open for many interpretations, leaving the reader with a wide array of messages they are free to pick from. Just as Oedipa is asked “to leave her mind open, receptive to the Demon’s message”, we are summoned to extricate information we deem useful, thinking it might help us in our quest for the truth. But the truth is that the truth destroys the significance of its own message. Vicious circle?
When you finally decide to take on Pynchon, you have to put aside all what you have heard, all your prejudices, all your traditional literary filters. Any pre-acquired logical understanding of what a book should be will be of no help. The ones who will impatiently be waiting for the message to come across them through a moment of clarity will be disappointed.
There is a magic to Oedipa’s captivity in her own mind that is found in each one of us.
“There’d been no escape. What did she so desire to 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: and what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited upon 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 disc jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?”
Indeed, what else?