Meaningless Fragments Symbolizing Meaninglessness in ‘The Crying of Lot 49’
In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, standard hierarchical structures are abandoned in a setting of postmodern cultural chaos. The use of fragmented pop culture contributes to many aspects of the book, namely the sense of combined freedom in the search for meaning. Moreover, this strange mess of references and images comments on the novel’s setting. California itself is famous for its overt and excess modernity, often a step ahead in popular culture. But with this advantage comes a tendency towards meaninglessness, a lack of depth. Fragmentation illustrates this shallow sensibility by developing countless, even entertaining details with no central force or purpose. Without a unifying meaning, these fragments overwhelm, something identifiable in any aspect of contemporary life, in any region. They distract both protagonist and reader from any point. But this ambiguity is the point itself.
Pynchon maintains a distinctly modern preoccupation in his chaotic embellishments. In the tradition of Eliot and Joyce, he rebels against any one imposed structure. (Fisher, in lecture, 4/24/00) Without any hierarchy to govern the direction of the narrative, there is a renewed sense of freedom. This is highlighted by Oedipa’s lack of ties or responsibilities. She is able to simply leave her husband, wander all over California, and return when she pleases. But freedom can also create a lack of order that goes too far, a negative state of chaos with no justification. Oedipa wants to believe, as she does early on, that “…it fitted, logically, together. As if…there were revelation in progress all around her.” (30) The flaw in this seemingly innocent freedom is in its sacrifice of reason. This becomes clear as Oedipa begins searching for order as much as fun and liberation. It no longer simply arrives as a revelation, but drives her action. She becomes an agent searching for meaning when she goes to The Scope, a local bar “because it seemed that a pattern was beginning to emerge….” (71) Perhaps Oedipa cannot help her “growing obsession with ‘bringing something of herself’…to the scatter of business interests that had survived Inverarity. She would give them order, she would create constellations.” (72) Surrounded by chaos, she recognizes the necessity of this force, and assumes she can restore logic, and thus meaning.
The desire to create a link among scattered information is foreign to the world in which Oedipa is operating, and therefore quite difficult. The first sign of trouble could be that “Much of the revelation was to come through [a] stamp collection…thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time: savannahs teeming with elands and gazelles, galleons sailing west into the void, Hitler heads, sunsets, cedars of Lebanon, allegorical faces that never were…” (30) This conglomeration of useless, antiquated images is a perfect metaphor for the fragmentation of pop culture in California’s strange post-modernity. It is a fitting illustration of the stage upon which our protagonist attempts to find conspiracy. With image upon detailed image piling into a strangely poetic list, this imagery overwhelms the reader. But after the rapture of its possible significance is passed, one cannot help wondering, as Oedipa does “…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.” (76) This is essentially the question asked by the ambush of pop culture. The story moves forward only because of Oedipa’s deep desire to find something unifying in the great amount of information she absorbs every day.
The concept of sensory overload, of too much information, is a distinctly modern idea. Industry and technology move too fast, inspiring transitory culture without any anchor. This idea is alluded to often, as with “radios playing songs in the lower stretches of the Top 200, that would never become popular, whose melodies and lyrics would perish as if they had never been sung.” (99) In such a state of constant bombardment, one must project their own desires onto the cultural landscape, creating a link that makes their world seem less intimidating and temporary. Oedipa does this with her conspiracy notion. One night, she wanders into the city, the ultimate modern landscape, with the hope that “Each clue that comes is supposed to have its own clarity, its fine chances for permanence.” (95) Separately, the range of “clues” she comes across are lush vignettes of modern life. There is “a drifting, dreamy cloud of delinquents in summer-weight gang jackets with the post horn stitched on in thread that looked pure silver,” (98) and “an exhausted busful of Negroes going on to graveyard shifts all over the city,…scratched on the back of a seat, shining for her in the brilliant smoky interior, the post horn.” (98) The language in these passages makes very clear distinctions. The fragments of reality the delinquents, the sad state of the Negroes are bleak in comparison to the symbol that stands out so brilliantly within them. In the face of so much frustration, Pynchon creates an actual visual connection for Oedipa to cling to.
The deep, subliminal need to link familiar fragments together betrays a great deal about the effect of constant fragmentation on the human soul. Oedipa begins looking for a human connection in all her desire for order. Her loneliness is a result of her environment, as is her constant need to dull it. The postmodern state creates lives like the ones Oedipa sees that night. The similarity between these observations is the absolute loneliness and sadness in the language. This is hardly a unifying connection. How can she help but search for control, moreover security, in a world that creates the “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?” (100) The sacrifices in “democratizing language” (Fisher, in lecture, 4/24/00) through fragmentation are not worth this barrage. Oedipa becomes more lonely than liberated by her freedom of association.
Oedipa’s need for deep human connection is a symptom of her increasing isolation. She turns to men time and time again in her search. In her first meeting with Metzger, she has a confidence and even playfulness in her sexuality. But even her agreement to sleep with him comes in a moment of distraction, fragmentation: “‘What do you want to bet, then’ She knew. Stubborn, they watched each other’s eyes for what seemed five minutes. She heard commercials chasing one another into and out of the speaker of the TV. She grew more and more angry, perhaps juiced, perhaps only impatient for the movie to come back on. ?Fine then…it’s a bet. Whatever you’d like.” (23) She clearly cares about this decision, as one of her few moments of emotion comes when she asks what Inverarity has told Metzger about her. Metzger responds “That you wouldn’t be easy,” and Oedipa “[begins] to cry.” (30) Her dependence on men is not simply about physical desire. This becomes more clear as she goes deeper into her quest. And as her independence continues, her self-awareness expands, making her able to comment on her own growing emptiness. When she learns of Driblette’s suicide, an interesting distinction in her character development is made.
The problem is that the men she is looking for are themselves fragments of pop culture, and caught up in the California surroundings that continue to send her to them.
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