4 June 2013
Chapters 1-2, and Chapter 3 as far as The Courier’s Tragedy
This short novel was published in 1966, and it feels completely a product of its time. There are frequent, usually satirical, references to California’s drugs culture – housewives on tranquillisers as well as an LSD-prescribing psychiatrist and freely available marijuana – plus an English-accented boy band and a boom in the construction industry that has led to sprawling new developments and road systems. At one point these freeways and their tributaries, appropriately enough, are described as being like the veins conveying pain-killers or whatever it is that feeds its habit to the only real city, LA.
Unexpectedly – they creep up and catch the reader unawares at first – there are frequent references to the tragedies and stupidities of war. Early on, the main character muses about whether her husband would have been better off if he hadn’t missed World War 2 and the Korean War. (Quaintly, this is pre-Vietnam, just.) She thinks of the awful experience of his first job as a used-car salesman, which Pynchon presents as black comedy, as being his version of post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s like an episode of The Monkees – a television series from exactly this period – scripted by Joseph Heller.
Catching the reader unawares is something that Pynchon does all the time. The drolleries of the opening chapter – that husband I mentioned works as a disc-jockey at the KCUF radio station, ho-ho – and the broad comedy of most of the situations that our main character finds herself in might make us think we’re in for an easy ride. Ridiculous things happen to people with absurd names, and we can feel smug about how far comedy has moved on in the intervening 40-odd years. But often stories warp from the farcical into the deepest black.
There’s that reference to the wars of the previous 25 years, or to the impoverished lives of the people who used to bring in their beat-up old cars in part exchange for something better: you can smell the desperation. A preposterous and sentimental wartime musical film morphs by degrees into one of horrifying deaths by drowning (the St Bernard dog) and electrocution (the cute kid). And by the second or third chapter we’re deep into story of the loss of a whole company of GIs in Italy. It’s their skeletal remains, shipped over in a Mafia-inspired scam, that are to form part of an underwater grotto for the increasingly popular holiday attraction of scuba-diving. It’s a part of another of Pynchon’s targets: the never-ending American dream of making money.
What I’m really saying is that if you think you know where you are in this novel, you’re probably wrong. And I haven’t even begun on the plot which, only a third of the way through, already seems labyrinthine. Maybe I should start at the beginning. Gulp.
It turns out that Oedipa Maas, now the wife of Wendell ‘Mucho’ Maas – he’s the perpetually insecure DJ with a taste for girls on the wrong side of the legal age for sex – was previously the lover of one Pierce Inverarity. He has died and named her as executor of his will, a job that is going to be very tricky because he was a serial entrepreneur, apparently with fingers in every pie in the new settlement of San Narciso. (Even the towns have comedy names in this universe. My spell-checker is working overtime.) Inverarity is a kind of non-character. Not only is he dead before the novel begins; during Oedipa’s final, absurd phone conversation with him a year ago he never spoke in his own voice, instead using a succession of comic voices speaking lines from pastiched scripts…. I won’t make any comment about that just now.
The letter she receives points Oedipa, eventually, in the direction of a law firm with a certain Metzger as a partner. Her meeting with him in a cheap motel room is a long set piece that continues the psychedelic screwball tone we’ve had from the start. He’s a former child actor – a fact that lets him riff, more than once, on the similarities between acting and the performances of lawyers in court – and on the tv is that movie I mentioned, in which he plays the child lead. It isn’t the first time that Oedipa wonders what she is being sold: did Metzger pay the local tv company to show the movie specifically in order to impress her? During every commercial break Metzger tells her that the companies being advertised are owned, or part-owned, by Inverarity…
…and one thing leads to another. The Paranoids, the boy band with the comedy English accents and Beatle haircuts, waft in and out – Miles, one of the guitarists, works at the motel – as Oedipa gives into Metzger’s alcohol-fuelled seduction. She notices that time seems to become stretched and episode follows episode. They go to one of Inverarity’s schemes, a holiday resort based around an artificial lake, and to The Scope, a bar for electronics workers in his Yoyodyne company. And what we get is the beginning of a mystery. I’m not sure I recognised it as that at first, because it gets lost in the novel’s restless staccato of satirical barbs. Everything is absurd in this universe, and something as conventional as a mystery to be solved comes as a surprise.
The lake is where Oedipa meets – comedy name alert – Manny di Presso. He is a lawyer turned actor who has played Metzger in a pilot for a tv series based on the life of the actor turned lawyer. (And yes, it is all as busy as this.) He tells the story of the GIs’ bones, salvaged from an Italian lake, and how one of Inverarity’s companies is tangentially involved. But Metzger’s default position is seeking the legal technicality – he closes his eyes to avoid seeing the Paranoids smoking dope in case he is called on to defend them in court – and he points out… oh, never mind.
In The Scope we get an odd little scene in which mail is distributed to most of the customers. And this seems to be connected to where the story is going next. Oedipa sees a copy of a symbol, apparently based on the standard post-horn logo of European postal services, and is told that she wasn’t supposed to know about it. The mail distribution service is Pynchon’s satirical take on ineffectual political protest: Mike Fallopian – how we laughed – tells her, at length, how it goes back to a 19th Century political movement founded when the US government made the mail service a federal monopoly. This is their way of undermining it – but their letters consist of inconsequential little ‘How’s it going?’ messages. How we laughed, again.
And reader, The Courier’s Revenge, supposedly a 17th Century English play, contains references both to the bones of soldiers in a lake and to a dispute over the delivery of letters. Pynchon describes the plot in all its convoluted detail, and I began to wonder whether this novel is really worth the effort of reading it. Is there a serious purpose behind the drolleries? Are the names, which sometimes seem to offer a serious satirical comment on an over-indulged society – the Paranoids, San Narciso – merely smart-ass? And is the mystery plot just another joke, a way to fool the reader into believing that there’s more to this novel than there really is?
Perhaps we’ll see.
To the night wanderings in Chapter 5
Is this working for me? The fantastical humour keeps reminding me of other things, like John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, another product of the 60s (although published later), or almost anything by Hunter S Thompson, or some of Woody Allen’s early standup routines, or the Beatles’ Help! But the world-wide conspiracy angle we start to understand in these middle chapters is a parody of the make-believe investigative fiction that reached its apotheosis decades later in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Now why would he want to do that?
Some of the jokes are rather good – there’s a scene in a gay bar in San Francisco in which Oedipa, wearing the name badge of a man on a (literally) whistle-stop tour of the city’s notorious clubs, is addressed as Arnold during a whole evening by a well-meaning and non-judgmental stranger. To him – and he has his own take on sex – it’s as though it’s the most natural thing in the world. And there are some memorable flights of existential fantasy, like the time she meets a group of children who are sharing a dream of being in the place where she meets them – eventually becoming so discouraged by what they tell her she decides not to believe in them any more.
These, and other episodes, are enjoyable, but they aren’t typical of the hectic middle chapters of the book. Oedipa is on a mission to get to the bottom of a mystery. The search, involving meetings with a succession of men – tell you later – and a series of ever more bizarre clues leave her in a whirl of confusion. Only a rush-hour drive on the freeway gives her the chance to get some sort of perspective on it, and it’s at this point that Pynchon decides to have her take stock. It offers the reader a helpful summary:
‘Now here was Oedipa, faced with a metaphor of God knew how many parts – more than two, anyway – with coincidences blossoming these days wherever she looked. She had nothing but a sound, a word, ‘Trystero’, to hold them together. She knew a few things about it. It had opposed the Thurn und Taxis postal system in Europe. Its symbol was a muted post-horn. Sometime before 1853 it had appeared in America and fought the Pony Express and Wells Fargo, either as outlaws in black or disguised as Indians. And it survived today in California, serving as a channel of communication for those of unorthodox sexual persuasion, inventors who believed in the reality of Maxwell’s Demon, possibly her own husband, ‘Mucho’ Maas. But she’d thrown Mucho’s letter long away, there was no way for Genghis Cohen to check the stamp, so if she wanted to find out for sure she’d have to ask Mucho himself. Either Trystero did exist in its own right, or it was being presumed, perhaps fantasied by Oedipa, so hung up on, and inter-penetrated with, the dead man’s estate.’
Pynchon’s clearest signal to the reader as to how this novel might be approached – and I’m sure he’s being as ambitious as this makes him sound, despite its comic surface – comes at the beginning of this passage. Oedipa’s quest isn’t in pursuit of the literal truth but of a ‘metaphor’. Things have become so bizarre that it comes almost as a relief to be told that we don’t have to believe a word of the succession of preposterous situations and the ‘blossoming’ coincidences. In the universe of this novel – a fictional universe, as he is reminding us – the truth, if such a thing exists, is highly elusive. When a character wanders into the shared dream of other characters, it’s no surprise at all that she decides not to believe in their existence. If it’s a postmodern metafictional game – and I think it probably is – I’m ok with that for now. And maybe things will become clearer. Maybe.
But I said I’d come back to Oedipa’s encounters. It’s like the quest for the Holy Grail or a Greek myth – it’s no wonder that Pynchon gives her a female version of a Greek name – except it’s all a bit absurd, even ludicrous. But that’s possibly the whole point…. The process begins with her decision to actively seek answers by going to see The Courier’s Tragedy. A big theme in it is the rivalry between messenger services whose reliability can’t be taken for granted, and with the play’s constant references to disguise, coded information and spin we’ve already got the novel’s central metaphor staring us in the face: reality as we perceive it – as it is conveyed to us, as it were – is something that nobody should take for granted. She seeks out the director, Driblette, and as he speaks to her during a backstage shower he phases in and out of sight into the steam. And if that isn’t enough of a clue, he tells her about variants of the play’s text – he mentions editions, and where she can find one – but that the true meaning of the play can only be found ‘here’ – and he points at his head. Ok.
Oedipa finds other people. She doesn’t need to search very hard, because encounters constantly fall into her lap. There’s Stanley Koteks, a Yoyodyne worker she finds herself magically drawn to out of all those she could have spoken to. She tries out a few oblique questions, and he obviously knows what she’s talking about and explains that ‘W.A.S.T.E.’ – which she’d seen along with the post-horn – is an acronym. He points her in the direction of a hero of his, John Nefastis. He’s the originator of an obscure pseudo-science based on a thought experiment of the physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s, in which mental energy can be harnessed to create a perpetual motion machine. However… when she visits Nefastis he seems to be a charlatan although, like Koteks, he seems to know about Trystero. But he seems mainly interested in Oedipa as a sexual partner. Sex is never very far away in this book.
Other clues come at her. An old man tells of his grandfather, a Pony Express rider, who remembers an attack by black-clad outlaws and who told of supposed ‘Indians’ wearing back feathers dyed, like the ink used by the villain in the play, using charcoal from human bones. He also seems to enjoy telling of a black-cloaked anarchist in a certain Porky Pig cartoon. She meets Genghis Cohen, a philatelist examining Inverarity’s valuable stamp collection. He has discovered obscure watermark – guess what it is – and black feathers or other additions to the designs that mark them out as forgeries. And an apparently deliberate mis-spelling – ‘pots’ for ‘post’ – reminds her that a letter she received from Mucho when she was in San Narciso had a postmark containing the same mistake. Does Mucho know about Trystero and W.A.S.T.E.?
I can’t think why I’m trying to find a way through the absurdist maze of Pynchon’s mystery plot. Let’s just say that Oedipa, now in San Francisco, begins to notice the post-horn sign almost everywhere. Night falls, and she finds herself wandering the street and having encounters whose significance, if there is any significance, she can’t quite get to grips with. The stranger in the bar has a lapel-pin based on the symbol – but he is a member of another obscure group, ‘Inamorati Anonymous’, pledged to give therapy to those damaged by love. What they need to do is renounce it, like the group’s founder. The dreaming children play a game based on the symbol chalked on the ground, and a version of the names of Trystero and Thurm und Taxis. Go figure.
But I’ve had enough for now.
To the meeting with Emery Bortz in Chapter 6
The quest carries on, and there are more encounters. There are also dark hints, both that Oedipa’s strange experiences are a psychotic fantasy – she visits Dr Hilarius for his opinion, a meeting that doesn’t go at all as she expected – and that some dark force is on to her and is out to stop her getting any further. ‘They are stripping away my men,’ she thinks, as several of them become, in different ways, unavailable to her. It’s in the comic nature of the narrative that we don’t have to take any of it seriously: it seems to be Pynchon’s take on the paranoid tone of novels based on this kind of investigation.
Encounters. First she meets Jesus, a Mexican anarchist she once met on holiday with Inverarity. The coincidence is miraculous but, as he says, ‘a miracle is another world’s intrusion into this one.’ Deep. In Mexico he had identified Inverarity as an archetype, someone to stand for the kind of capitalism his anarchism sees as the enemy. Oedipa remembers that at the time Inverarity behaved exactly according to this type, as though it became his raison d’être to be a anarchist’s focus for opposition. Ok….
And she notices more people who dedicate their lives to some obscure purpose or other. (There are a lot of obscure purposes in this book.) There’s the gambler who has calculated that his winnings over 23 years amount, to three decimal places, to just over 99% of his outgoings. There’s the boy on his way to Miami to meet the dolphins who will eventually take over from mankind – and whose mother warns him to send his letters via WASTE. She meets an old sailor who wants her to post a letter via the system, speaking in such a visionary way that she finds herself becoming unhooked from reality. All her life she’s known nothing about it, and yet the question she should be asking isn’t who uses WASTE, but who doesn’t? Throughout society there appear to be networks of people who don’t trust anything about the government, and who use this small gesture of protest to withdraw. ‘Oedipa did not know where she was.’ I recognise that feeling after pages of this stuff.
She finally sees the postal system in action. It’s almost disappointing: people post letters in receptacles labelled WASTE (you can see the periods, or full stops, if you look closely), which are collected and fed into a distribution network. She follows one ‘carrier’ who swaps these unsorted letters for mail for a run-down and mainly Black district of the city, which she watches him deliver. If Pynchon is making a political point about the poor and disenfranchised, well, it’s his novel. As to whether there’s any kind of serious purpose to all this… I have my doubts.
Time for another metaphorical interlude. Oedipa is staying at a hotel where there’s a convention of ‘deaf-mutes’. She finds herself being partnered in a silent dance they are holding, at which every couple seems to be dancing to a tune and rhythm of their own choosing. She waits for it to collapse in chaos – but it doesn’t. Instead, the movements of all these people seem to mesh in a way that is completely obscure to her – and when an interval arrives it seems to come by way of a group decision that her ‘atrophied’ senses can’t perceive. Ok? Got that?
None of this is helping her equilibrium, and she decides on that visit to Dr Hilarius. Unfortunately he’s gone mad, and holds her hostage. He thinks the police are Israeli agents, there to arrest him for his role – it’s that War again – in Buchenwald. There, at the bidding of ‘liberal’ SS officers, he had experimented on inducing catatonic insanity in the Jews in preference to extermination. (His attempted ‘atonement’ has been to embrace the Jewish teachings of Freud for two decades, but he suspects this won’t be enough for the Israelis.)
So, as he’s taken away, that’s one of her men out of the frame. Next up is Mucho, on duty reporting the hostage-taking for KCUF. In his radio report he calls her ‘Edna Mash’, explaining that by the time it’s been transmitted and put on tape it will come out right. (You getting this?) He seems not to be the husband she knows, and his boss says that he’s lost his individual identity. It’s like taking to a crowd of people, he says, and Oedipa knows what he means. Some crucial doors of perception seem to have been opened for Mucho, so that he can hear not only every individual string in the orchestra playing the muzak, he knows that every word in a song is everybody in the world singing to everybody else. It’s universal love, Jim, and it’s because he’s signed himself up for Hilarius’s LSD experiments. Oh dear.
Next. Next is Metzger. She drives to the motel, where one of the Paranoids has written a song about Metzger’s ‘Humbert Humbert’ tendencies. He’s run off with the singer’s 15-year-old girlfriend. (There are several direct references to the culture of the time in these chapters, including the Beatles. As for Nabokov, Pynchon was taught by him at Berkeley – and, now I think of it, there’s a reference to someone who obsesses over the death-like period before birth, which I remember Nabokov calling ‘chronophobia’ in his autobiography, Speak Memory.) Metzger’s disappearance brings the total to three, and soon there’s a fourth: when she goes to see Emery Bortz – surely the worst punning name in the whole novel – he confirms what she should have realised from an earlier conversation: Driblette is dead. This is when she has the dark thought that ‘they’ are after her men.
For me, the plodding investigative format and the hectic foreground noise of the comedy are both getting in the way. However… I’m mostly enjoying the genuinely dark humour – the Hilarius episode almost lives up to his name – and Pynchon’s flights of philosophical fancy. I’m not far from the end now, and I’m hoping a few questions might be answered. (I was going to list them, but you know what I’m talking about.)
To the end
I know why I’m not convinced by this novel. It’s to do with the elements that I was finding engaging at the beginning, particularly Pynchon’s habit of wrong-footing us, taking us into dark or mysterious areas that come as a surprise in a novel written in an-your-face comic style. The problem is that he doesn’t really go anywhere with the themes he raises. Wars are often mentioned, and at first this seems clever, subversive. But as the novel goes on, any point he might be making isn’t at all clear, beyond the well-worn suggestion that war is an absurd activity that ends up killing a lot of people. Then there’s sex, treated farcically in the scene between Oedipa and Metzger, but then more problematically. Is it a coincidence that both Mucho and Metzger have a taste for under-age sex (a taste on which Pynchon appears not to have any view)? What’s with Nefastis, and his expectation that Oedipa will be willing to have sex with him on no acquaintance whatsoever? What’s with Inamorati Anonymous? What’s with the incestuous mother/son relationship in the play? What’s with Oedipa’s name?
I was beginning to think that there’s no point to all this, but maybe the point is that there isn’t any point. Pynchon has strewn the text with apparent echoes and connections like these that don’t in any way go towards building a bigger picture. There is no bigger picture, and this novel is about what can happen to us if we keep searching anyway. It almost sends Oedipa mad.
If anything, this is confirmed by the novel’s ending. All the important questions, as we’ve realised for some time, are going to remain unanswered, and Pynchon seems to be expecting the reader to take it more seriously than I think he deserves. Early on I was asking whether his motive was ‘to fool the reader into believing that there’s more to this novel than there really is’. He’s taken us for a mildly engaging stroll through some not very startling philosophical ideas about the nature of perception and existence, but by about the half-way point we’ve got it. Some things just aren’t knowable, however you might frame the questions, because… because what? Because life’s like that. Get over it.
Oedipa can’t get over it. Before the end she’s suffering from terrible insomnia, has driven drunk on the freeway hoping to bring an end to it all, has told a doctor that she’s pregnant – I’ve no idea what that’s about – and, finally, has narrowed down what might be going on to four possibilities. She’s hallucinating. Or everything she has found out about Trystero is true. Or everything is an elaborate and expensive hoax, with people paid to feed her plausible but false information. Or, to put it simply, she’s crazy. And the truth is… we never discover. Oedipa, as the novel ends, might (or might not) be about to find out – but, as the final sentence tantalisingly ends, we remember that she is only a character in a fiction anyway. As for uncertainty, existential angst, the search for meaning… that’s no more than the human condition. Hands up anybody who hadn’t already realised this. Nobody? So what has Pynchon been doing all this time?
He’s been having fun, I suppose. The elaborate hoax is not Inverarity’s, a posthumous torment aimed to entangle the woman who didn’t love him enough, but Pynchon’s. The facetious surface glitter of the early chapters has given way, although neither smoothly nor completely, to a kind of dogged earnestness as Oedipa comes face to face with questions not only about an underground mail system but of the nature of her own existence. At one moment she imagines reality as ‘like walking among the matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth.’ (I’m guessing this was what gave the Wachowski brothers a key motif for the two-hour ontological tease that is The Matrix. Let me just google it…. Yep, someone called Paul Di Filippo agrees, in an essay on the film’s influences. He suggests another influence on both that film and this novel, the master of the long-running SF conceit that ‘simulation and reality can be indistinguishable’: Philip K Dick. He’s right.)
So Pynchon has shifted things a long way from the novel I thought I was reading at the beginning. Even then, as I mentioned at the time, it was clear that he likes to wrong-foot us; but I wasn’t quite expecting to be taken quite so far away from the goofy humour of the first few pages. And it’s only now clear that he co-opts the genre of an investigation into a secret cabal – one which, in this case, is all about the conveying and withholding of information – to bring out his larger scheme: however hard you look, you won’t find answers.
But I’m starting to repeat myself. To get to this point, since I last wrote, Pynchon has had Oedipa speaking with more of her men. She’s increasingly reluctant to do it, worrying that they might go the same way as the four who have already disappeared. But some of them seem to be as mystified as she is, and no part of any grand scheme of deception. Emery Bortz, deconstructor of historical texts, can be no more sure than she is that what they are reading is genuine. One of his texts was bought from the same bookshop as the paperback Oedipa has – the shop in a property owned by Inverarity and that has since burned down so conveniently – and we realise as she listens to him that his historical conjectures might well have no basis in truth. (I’ll avoid for the moment the metafictional dead-end that we’ve always known this anyway, this being a novel.)
She’s convinced that only Driblette could have helped her get to the bottom of the mystery, and actually finds herself longing for a visit from a ‘winged brightness’, some kind of ghostly or angelic messenger from the dead man. It’s a bizarre hope – but it isn’t so far away from the realm of psychic energy that she tried to believe in when she did Nefastis’ test. She had no success then either, in her attempt to attune her mind to some alternative reality.
And so on. She gets nothing from the man from Inamorati Anonymous in a short phone conversation she manages to get with him. She gets nothing from Mike Fallopian, the man who first set her going on the quest. He seems a different person, as though he’s either acting now, or he was earlier. He tries to convince her that it’s all a hoax – but she has no idea what his own agenda might be, so that doesn’t help. And Genghis Cohen, like Emery Bortz, can do more than interpret the evidence he is presented with, and he passes this on to Oedipa. That doesn’t help either.
And so we reach the final scene, at the auction of Inverarity’s stamp collection. A secret bidder who was going have put in his bids by post – no comment necessary – is going to be at the auction after all. At last, she thinks, Oedipa is going to find out something concrete about a man who has taken a remarkable interest in the forgeries. We reach, at last, the crying of lot 49…. The end.
A part of me wishes I’d read this in a headlong rush, to suit the style of the writing. The novel, disorientating the reader as it morphs into something new and strange, might have seemed more persuasive had I not stopped to chew it over all the time…. But another part of me is quite glad I read it the way I did. It’s possible to see exactly how Pynchon seeks to baffle the reader, constantly gives answers that aren’t really answers, flaunts his own stylistic inconsistencies as a kind of badge of honour. And having remained unconvinced for much of the time, I’ve decided to end with a quotation of Pynchon’s own that I suspect is often rolled out about it:
‘The next story I wrote was The Crying of Lot 49… in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up until then.’