Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sex, Death, & Confusion: Finding America in Lot 49

Through prescience on Pynchon’s part and a combination of stagnation and cyclical return on that of culture and society, The Crying of Lot 49 barely registers as a text composed some 33 years ago. Save a couple of dates and a few references to items such as typewriters, the work could be set in our present.

Which I suppose is part of the issue. Reading is always done in the present. The text, no matter how new or old, speculative or historical, is read within the context of the reader's present. I've not gone much into reader-response theory and don't much intend to here. I suppose the issue is, a text is intended, so far as intention matters, to be read both in its own time and outside of it. Writers hope to be read and they hope their works to last. That means that they hope their works stand up, at least in some way, to the ravages of time and social change. Perhaps that is what marks a classic and the criteria that the Canonizers seek when composing their Grand Lists.

But humanity still revolves around sex, death, and confusion. There are still bands with Beatles haircuts and fake British accents (or maybe it's that they have come round again). Shrinks, needing shrinks themselves, still break down trying to help us come to grips with life, the universe, and everything (and the meaning and meaninglessness of it all). Staring out into the vastness of humanity, of the universe, it's hard not to believe in or hope for some kind of conspiracy. Because at least with a conspiracy, there is someone in control. Someone behind the scenes pulling the strings means that the strings can be pulled, that there is meaning to this mad scramble. Plus, maybe some day we could be in on it. That our conspiracies are done with electronic signals and strong encryption instead of winos fishing letters out of WASTE bins doesn't do much to discount the import of the individuals search for meaning, for lasting importance.

I suppose much of that comes down to the myth of America. The Myth of America, unlike Old World myth making enterprises, does not seek to trace lineage, to prove purity, to discover origins. (So much of the conflict in America and throughout our history has been over issues of lineage, purity, and origins because they don't fit easily into our myths). The Myth of America is one of self-creation, of the bootstrapping lad that comes from nothing and makes his way in the world not by dint of blood and breeding but by True Grit. It is a story of escape and renewal. That, of course, has led to considerable backsliding, Nativist movements, racial prejudice, &c. After all, it is just the Myth, the stories we tell ourselves to assure our exceptionalism, to rationalize why our ancestors left wherever they left, to re-enfranchise a population that was always disenfranchised.

Oedipa Maas is heir to Inverarity's America. A sprawling landscape of meaningless pleasantries and identity crisis. All her men leave her, broken and full of false hope. Mucho loses the world as he discovers himself on LSD, Metzger runs off with a teenager to get married, Pierce dies, Driblette commits suicide, Hilarius goes insane. They are men without Origins, searching for meaning in a universe that means for them to create their own, set to the backdrop of a drug-addled pop song and a cookie-cutter landscape complete with real bones for your snorkeling pleasure.

We remain her broken children, hoping for some whispered promise of a blissful green, some new as yet unshattered dream of a pleasant if plastic tomorrow. But the crier never gets to 49. There is no answer, no certainty, no proof. We are left to wander. We are simply left. We Await Silent Tritero's Empire. Though most of us stopped believing long ago.

8 out of 10

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