I guess I should be glad that my favorite author is being forced upon tens of thousands of undergraduates, but I’m worried that a lot of them are getting the wrong impression of Thomas Pynchon from The Crying of Lot 49. I can’t help but feel a fondness for the book, but I’m fond of it mainly insofar as it represents an interesting dead end from which Pynchon had the good sense to retreat.
If he is a postmodernist writer, Pynchon generally stays closer to the early form of postmodernism that emphasized the “ethical turn” against systematization in response to the Holocaust than to their followers who blathered on endlessly about “surfaces.” The Crying of Lot 49 is unique among his novels in that its critique of systems of meaning takes on an air of inevitability. Crying depicts a world in which it is actually impossible to believe in anything without falling into insanity. Absent are fearsome figures like Weissman (from V. and Gravity’s Rainbow), who are threatening beyond anything in Crying because of the extent to which they’ve successfully actualized their murderous belief systems. Instead we are presented with an Umwelt so overloaded with evidence of underlying meanings that the protagonist must be in constant doubt of whether or not her beliefs are the right ones. The only way to believe something without being driven mad by this evidence is to withdraw from the world altogether and live in fantasy; Oedipa ends up alienated not because she’s afraid of the violence that has been committed in the name of grand purposes, but because she can’t get over the idea that there might be a grand purpose for her to be alienated from.
Armchair sociologists have mused that young people can no longer understand the appeal of Crying because the paranoid alienation of Oedipa Maas has become their normal way of looking at the world. To the extent that the present-day person does look at the world in an alienated way, it is only because of the constant repetition of statements like this. For all its supposed rejection of Modernism, postmodernism continues to define alienation in terms of a Modernist concept of the self based on authenticity. Because the epistemic standards of “authenticity” have always been unclear, asking someone whether or not their experience of life is authentic is more likely to start them worrying about whether or not it “really” is than to get you a truthful answer.
The fact is that modern life never was characterized by alienation for more than a small class of highly-educated Westerners who thought themselves into it. The problem with Crying is that it inhabits the alienated state too fully, and with too little counterweight, to be meaningful to someone who hasn’t already bought into that line of thought. As such, it implicates readers in the paranoia that it seems intended to criticize.
One positive thing Crying does do for me, though, is give me the chance to get a thrill of inclusion whenever I see scrawled on a bathroom wall or cut into a park bench a loop, triangle and trapezoid, thus:
The critical consensus is surely right that if we look for meaning in Pynchon’s works by trying to interpret them, all we get is: looking for meaning in texts is madness. But that’s not all there is to the novels. The purpose of art is not to say something about our world; it’s to become part of our world, and for at least the small group of people who constitute Pynchon’s core audience his work serves much the same goal that Bob Dylan sets out for himself in “Tombstone Blues”:
Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you, dear lady, from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge
Rather than looking for meaning in the “text” of Pynchon’s novels, then, why not think about what they do for their fans? It is, I think, quite a lot.
I consider myself a Pynchon fan before a Pynchon scholar. I discovered Pynchon’s work well before I knew about postmodernism or had any thought of studying literature seriously, and, for what it’s worth, though it had an enormous impact on me, the effect of the encounter was not to instill in me an “incredulity towards metanarratives.” I read Pynchon’s greatest novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, over the course of about a month when I was 19, having known nothing about it going in, and the three months that followed were defined by my obsession with what I had just (not always pleasurably) forced my way through. I emerged from this period more assured than I ever had been in my political ideology, and ready to take action from within it in a more structured and positive way than the futile jabs at authority figures that had constituted my political life up to that point. I don’t think my experience was an anomaly, and while I’m not going to claim that Pynchon is not a postmodern writer, I do think that looking at him in those terms ill equips the critic to explain what he did to me, and what I suspect constitutes the appeal of his writing for a lot of his most earnest admirers.