The Crying of Lot 49, a Comparison With White Noise, and Pynchon's Relation to Cultural Trends

Pynchon's short second novel The Crying of Lot 49 has much in common with Don DeLillo's book White Noise, particularly in terms of characters, plot and themes. Both novels uncannily share certain types of characters, parts of plot structure and themes. The similarities I note in these two works does not mean that I am sitting in judgement and accusing DeLillo of plaigerising Pynchon's work (necessarily DeLillo since Pynchon's work came first), but that I am pointing to a cultural conception shared by two influential and respected contemporary authors.

Character similarities in the two novels are found in both the main characters and in some that are tangential to the plots. The two protagonists of the works, Oedipa Maas of Lot 49 and Jack Gladney of White Noise, are characters struggling to make sense of their worlds, and yet, both are afraid to face pure, filtered truth. Oedipa is inadvertently sent on a quest, which she embraces as a possible mechanism of bringing new meaning into world of tupperware parties. On her journey Oedipa is innundated with new and baffling information which she is either a series of clues to a counter culture or Pierce Inverarity's attempt to extend himself beyond his death. This dichotomy sets up the theme of binary opposites in novel. Oedipa's journey does not end in a final choice of one realm or the other, confirming one of the novel's other assertions, that excluded middles are "bad shit" ( J. Kerry Grant eloquently discusses Oedipa's journey in terms of binary opposites and a search for meaning in the introduction to his A Companion to "The Crying of Lot 49" (pp. xv-xvi)).

Jack Gladney also involves himself and his family in a series of journeys, which are searches for safety and understanding, yet share Oedipa's focus on finding a new reason for existence. Jack and his wife Babbette are afraid of dying. Their worries, conversations, and the majority of the life actions revolve around the avoidance of dying, and the topic of death. Their attempts to escape death are more accurately an attempt to regain their own lives, i.e. to find meaning to make their lives their own.

The Gladney's first attempts/voyages are escapist in nature. In White Noise Jack, when discussing the life of Attila the Hun, presents his view of mankind's life and death.

	"[Attila had] No weakening of the spirit.  No 

	sense of the irony of human existence, that we are 

	the highest form of life on earth and yet ineffably 

	sad because we know what no other animal knows, 

	that we must die" (p.20). 

It is this looming sense of death that entraps Jack, Babette and even their kids. The family's most basic form of death avoidance manifests itself in their obsession with things and their physical presences. Jack maintains himself as a rather large man and he is reassured by Babette's physical bulk: "I suggested there was an honesty inherent in bulkiness if it is just the right amount. People trust a certain amount of bulk in others" (p.7). This idea is furthered when Jack comments on the tendency of people to overeat when they are upset. His description (p.14) suggests that in eating and making themselves fat people are attempting to extend themselves, to make their physical presence more substantial and therefore real and lasting.

In his book In the Loop Tom LeClair presents a similar explanation for Jack's obsession with material goods.

		"...finding in the seeming rubbish of popular 

	culture a kind of knowledge that would provide a 

	more liveable set of systemic expectations about 

	life and death" (p.214).

The rubbish which he goes on to refer to includes the wealth of goods presented in one of the novel's many supermarket scenes (p.20). Yet as LeClair also goes on to note, this belief in physical goods does not solve the Gladneys' problems and eventually betrays them. Jack begins to feel weighted down by his posessions, and consequently his fear of death is heightened: "I bore a personal grudge against these things. Somehow they'd put me in this fix. They'd dragged me down, made escape impossible" (p.294).

Babette's escapist techniques are more drastic; she begins to take an unlicensed drug-Dylar-, sold by a man with multiple aliases, with whom she begins to have an affair. This episode is parallel to Oedipa's spouse Mucho Maas taking the LSD provided by Hilarius in Lot 49(pp.142-145). The two drugs cause Babette and Mucho to drift at random, to lose their individual identities, which ultimately means they don't have to face their deaths or modern culture. Both Jack and Oedipa move into action when they are faced with the gradual disappearance of their spouses. Oedipa is more firmly entrenched in her quest, yet seeing Mucho on the LSD tablets pushes her more firmly away from him and on her quest. Jack's response to Babette's habit is more directly related to the problem itself. He decides to search out her supplier/lover and kill him.

It is this quest in particular that allows Jack to come closest to a new understanding, a new mode of living. After shooting Willie Mink, and being shot by him, Jack arrives at the clinic in Germantown and begins his discourse with the nun nursing him. Jack feels safe in her presence, and in the religious hospital. His feeling of safety is provided by his action and the nuns.

Deciding first to kill and then to save Mink, to "merge their fortunes" gives Jack a renewed faith in his life and in living. The actions have given him such pleasure that he equates it with actually liking Mink as a person. Then the nuns, whose simple faith seems to afford the possibility of religious truth adds to his contentment.

		"More nuns walked by, heavy rosaries 

	swinging from their belts.  I found them a merry 

	sight, the kind of homogeneous presence that makes 

	people smile in airports" (p.316).  
	"'But you're a nun.  Nuns believe these things.  

	When we see a nun, it cheers us up, it's cute and 

	amusing, being reminded that someone still believes 

	in angles, in saints, in all the traditional things'" (p.317).

Jack's perceived "new take" on life is symbolically shown in his naming game with the nuns in German. He says, "Is there something so innocent in the recitation of names that God is pleased" (p.317). This naming is analagous to Adam's naming of the plants and animals in the Garden of Eden. Jack, like Adam, has entered upon a new world and has his security bound up in religious faith; a faith which can allay his fear of death by presenting an afterlife as shown by the picture of the Pope and President Kennedy meeting in Heaven(pp.316,317). Yet, his security is short lived, and the nun treating him shatters his conception of nuns and religion by denouncing him and claiming not to believe herself. Thus Jack is sent back into his world, his family, without settling his fear of death or his quest for meaning.

It is after returning to his family that Jack too discovers the "excluded middle." He has experienced living life paralyzed by the fear of death and rejected it, and he has also rejected religious faith as an answer to his problems. Jack lives out the rest of the life readers are shown in a state somewhere between believing in everything and believing in nothing. He hides from his doctor, who may have news of his imminent death, and the supermarket shelves have been rearranged and consequently consumerism only provides confusion; but in the last lines of the book Jack professes a sort of transparent faith in the tabloid promises of super-cures. A faith that isn't all consuming, or even really believed, but gives him just enough to get through life.

Pynchon and DeLillo also both explore systems theory, and the influences of technology on American culture in these two books. Both authors create the possibility of extensive systems, sub-systems, and sub-plots in their work. However, the characters in the novel are only allowed to grasp the possibility of the systems, and never discern whether what they are perceiving is actual existence, or simply their own paranoia. In Lot 49, the systems are more tangible and more compex. Oedipa is presented with the Tristero problem, the muted horn, and must decide whether there is an international and ancient worldwide conspiracy, or whether there is simply a conspiracy against her, created by her ex-and now dead boyfriend. The Gladney's encounter with systems is more day to day ordinary. DeLillo presents the systems that his readers come into contact with on an everyday basis, in such a way that they have the possibility of belonging to some greater plot against the common man, in the novel represented by the Gladneys. These range automated teller machines, to the information put on t.v. DeLillo also works with systems theory in terms of the systems that man creates around himself to protect himself from knowledge and the truth. The Gladneys are afraid of death, and immerse themselves in ritual and protection. Jack finds comfort in bulk, Babette runs the stairs of a football stadium, and both become involved with the intensely neurotic Dylar conspiracy.

The concept of enframing, the reducing of something to a representation which man produces and consumes, is prevalent in both these novels as well. In White Noise the most obvious examples are "The Most Photographed Barn in America" (pp.12-13) and Nature T.V., and in Lot 49 it can be seen in the man made lake, Lake Inverarity. Enframing is an example of both the possibility of a meta-conspiracy, and of mankind's attempt to shield himself from reality. The mass produced and readily consumable objects and ideas that appear in both novels are presented as being the possible result of a conspiracy to homogenize and control people, or an attempt by people to distance themselves from the real world and truth.

Pynchon is one of the most influential authors in modern fiction, and his works resonate with those of other authors and our own world. Who is to say whether Pynchon influences our world and other authors, or whether they influence him? It is the old question of life imitating art or art imitating life. What we can be sure of are certain cultural trends, and that Pynchon is definately at the forefront. Among modern themes attributed to Pynchon, along with other authors, are Paranoia, Excess and Systems Theory.

Paranoia: Pynchon, Emerson, DeLillo, Anne Hutchinson, Orwell, and Mailer are recognized as leaders in the contemporary sensibility of Paranoia.

Excess: A genre in which a surplus of information become the chief threat of modern life. Authors recognized in this genre are William Gaddis, DeLillo and Pynchon.

Systems Theory: "For Hofstadter, conciousness, like the hierarchy of systems, is 'based on a kind of Strange Loop, and interaction between levels in shich the top level reaches back down toward the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level.' Manifested for Horstadter in Escher prints, Godel's 'Incompleteness Theorem,' and Bach's fugues, this 'Strange Loop' is also central to the fiction of Gaddis, Pynchon, Coover, and DeLillo, one of the many loops to which my title refers" (p.5 In The Loop by Tom LeClair).

"Pynchon's Prophecies of Cyberspace": Brian Stonehill, Ph.D. wrote an interesting and in-depth work on the prophecies of cyberspace in Pynchon. The work deals primarly with Gravity's Rainbow, but gives and in-depth look at cybernetics in Pynchon's work.

[ To Pynchon Biography Page ]

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