The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Harper Perennial, originally published in 1966
192 pages – Amazon
Perusing the reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is pretty much like drawing a line and telling all the X’s to go on the left side of the room and all the Y’s (not-X’s) to go to the right side of the room. Some of the reviews are pretty clever, seek to be literary or entertaining in their own right. But when you get down to principle it’s easy to split them into two sides.
1. Those that didn’t like the book because it was absurd (Those who didn’t get it)
2. Those that liked the book because it was funny, hilarious, genius and/or absurd (Those who got it)
For me? My early experience reading The Crying of Lot 49 fell into the first category. I couldn’t understand anything. When I re-read it again recently at a friend’s insistence that I would appreciate it now, I fell into the second category.
I’ve always been a pretty heavy reader, at heart, although life hasn’t always allowed me to indulge myself. So what failed the first time? Take user Agnieszka’s review (on Goodreads).
But seriously, I really don’t know what to think about that book. Great conspiracy or great baloney? I have to admit that I’m in a dither. It’s useless to describe the plot but in short: Oedipa Maas has been made executrix of her former lover Pierce Inverarity‘s estate. Fulfilling her duties, she discovers the existence of a mystery postal service called Tristero. Mafia, freemasons, secret signs? Is someone manipulating Oedipa? Is this really happening?**
She gave the book 3 stars out of 5 as I’m writing this review. Typical of reviewers she first posits her conclusion and then starts to recite the plot. And consistent with her middle of the road 3 stars, she remains undecided as to what to make of the book. And what a plot it is. You see Agnieszka’s summation of it and it appears to be a quest type plot, or a mystery story in which new information about an undecidable piece of information needs to be placed within context. That is, something that doesn’t make sense needs to make sense.
But as it turns out, the elements of the plot don’t add up. Each new piece of information given by side characters serves to reorient older information in a process that Oedipa herself finds confusing. Read in a way that demands we let the contents of the plot (in this case an accumulation of information) determine for us the overall structure leads one to a position of maximal indeterminacy. After all, the end of The Crying of Lot 49 hinges on a piece of information Oedipa is gung-ho about getting but is never revealed as the novel abruptly ends.
So if creating a plot using the information in the story doesn’t work then what does?
Before we get to one possible way of ordering a book of increasing disorder, let’s borrow the name of increasing disorder from the Second Law of Thermodynamics. An increase in disorder is an increase in entropy. As time moves forward, entropy increases as excess potential energy is lost until the system as a whole reaches a point of equilibrium. In the 19th century this term was developed and explored with the conclusion that entropy would inevitably lead to the universe being a flat uniformity of even temperature. This was called “heat death.” We might be satisfied with that (and some physicists today may claim the universe will end in heat death) but this conclusion disturbed one young Scottish physicist by the name of James Clerk Maxwell. As science journalist Phillip Ball writes in his book Critical Mass:
As the Second Law insists that before this dreary end [of heat death], all change has a preferred direction, in which entropy increases. Does this not suggest that just as a ball released at the top of a hill has to roll down it, so humans composed of many dancing atoms have to behave in a certain way? Free will implies that we can do one thing or another; the Second Law seemed to be saying that wherever change is possible, there is only one way it can happen.
While Maxwell, who helped establish statistics as a method of mathematics used in physics to determine the motions of gases and other complex states, appreciated the Second Law, he sought to re-establish free will’s role in an otherwise deterministic chain of causation through “a very observant and neat-figured being, ” a being later dubbed “Maxwell’s Demon.” Such a demon could in fact, Ball writes, “subvert the Second Law by selectively picking out for special treatment atoms moving in a certain direction by exercising his free will in conjunction with his superhuman knowledge.” The example works in this way:
Say, for instance, this perspicacious being operated a trapdoor in a wall dividing a gas-filled vessel into two compartments. By opening the trapdoor only to gas particles passing in one direction he could cause the number of particles, and thus the pressure, in one compartment to increase at the expense of the other. This would contravene the Second Law, as it produces a less probable configuration of particles than the one we started with.
This is in fact exactly what occurs in The Crying of Lot 49. As Oedipa gathers narrative particles, these tropes overwhelm her. She is unable to sort through them all: the muted trumpet, W.A.S.T.E., Oedipa’s ex-lover’s will, Trystero, Thurn and Taxis, the Courier’s Tragedy and of course John Nefastis and his experiment of the Maxwell Demon perpetual motion machine. All of these tropes are spun madly about, showing up in the Vatican, showing up as a pornographic version, showing up on the Western frontier, showing up in the Netherlands, in theater, in the mouths of grad students. While this is a tiny book, Pynchon creates a closed vessel of tropes spinning about, colliding and influencing one another in indiscernible ways. The climax of the Crying of Lot 49 then comes about when Oedipa has run out of options. She can’t discern the truth of anything anyone has told her, she can’t decide what is going on. By the end of Chapter 6 she’s run out of options. This depression builds up to the rush before we get to the climax, an expression of the immense gradient Pynchon has developed for us. Right before the end, Oedipa hangs all the antagonisms on one unknown figure: the individual who is going to bid on Lot 49.
This jump to deciding that this unknown figure can answer all her questions doesn’t really make sense. There’s no evidence that he is even related to anything as he is a stranger and “may be from Tristero,” yet Oedipa is swept along, much like the tropes in the narrative, along one inexplicable wave.
In The Crying of Lot 49, the inventor John Nefastis builds a box that serves as a physical expression of Maxwell’s thought experiment. Since one can’t open the box, Nefastis adds a piston to it. When a sufficient gradient builds between the box’s two chambers, a piston moves so observers outside the box can see a gradient exists. Oedipa drives from Los Angeles to Berkeley to visit Nefastis, looking for answers to Maxwell’s Demon. But there’s a twist here. Pynchon combines the term entropy from the Second Law with entropy from Information Theory. These two entropies reside within Nefastis’s box.
[Oedipa] did gather that there were two distinct kinds of this entropy. One having to do with heat-engines, the other to do with communication. The equation for one, back in the ‘3o’s, had looked very like the equation for the other. It was a coincidence. The two fields were entirely unconnected, except at one point: Maxwell’s Demon. As the Demon sat and sorted his molecules into hot and cold, the system was said to lose entropy. But somehow the loss was offset by the information the Demon gained about what molecules were where.
“Communication is the key,” cried Nefastis. “The Demon passes his data on to the sensitive, and the sensitive must reply in kind. There are untold billions of molecules in that box. The Demon collects data on each and every one. At some deep psychic level he must get through. The sensitive must receive that staggering set of energies, and feed back something like the same quantity of information. To keep it all cycling. On the secular level all we can see is one piston, hopefully moving. One little movement, against all that massive complex of information, destroyed over and over with each power stroke.”
In other words, in order for the piston to work, Pynchon’s Maxwell’s Demon needs someone on the outside, a sensitive, to sort the information back to the Demon. Despite an earlier episode where Mucho Maas, Oedipa’s husband, complains that she’s too sensitive, when Oedipa participates in Nefastis’s experiment, the piston does not move. The implicit conclusion at this point is that Oedipa is not a sensitive.
Yet if you compare Maxwell’s thought experiment with Nefastis’s invention, there seems an added complication. Why does Maxwell’s Demon need an outside sensitive to “reply in kind”? Phillip Ball can answer this question. Ball notes that telecommunications engineer Claude Shannon pokes a hole in Maxwell’s thought experiment in the 1940s when:
Scientists uncovered the flaw in Maxwell’s argument: he had neglected to take into account the thermodynamics involved in the processing of information that the demon must conduct. That is, the demon cannot make a choice about whether or not to open his trapdoor without generating as much entropy as is “saved” by letting a particle through.
Said another way, in information theory, entropy is the probability of information loss in information transfer. The state of a totally neutral field of molecules is one that has perfect information because we know this field completely. Any one area will have the same information as any other area. However, once we get a difference in the field, we now have the possibility of entropy (that is, information entropy) reoccurring in the transfer to the subject.
As Oedipa sorts information, or Thurn and Taxis sorts information in the form of postage for others, or as anyone sorts out information for the Courier’s Tragedy or any kind of history, one starts to accumulate a probable loss of information. Entropy insures. In fact, it’s arguable that the narrative of The Crying of Lot 49 loses entropy (as tropes are sorted into gradient) in order to potentially increase entropy (as information about tropes are lost).
To wrap this up: The gradient in the narrative may follow the narrative curve and become climactic right at the end, but that’s curve is equaled by the confusion about the narrative as we become continually displaced. The more side characters reveal more and more information to Oedipa, the less we know of what is actually going on–although we gain information. In other words, right before the climax, the narrative gradient (loss of entropy) is equal to the narrative entropy (gained confusion). Imbalance of both information and gradient is offset when both are balanced: information about nothing is equal to a field of indistinguishable nothing. We are left off with everything riding on the crying of lot 49, but we have no idea what’s at stake or how to name the missing piece.
So we can conclude that it is Nefastis’s experiment that doesn’t work; after all, while Oedipa sits pleading with the Demon in the box for the piston to show her a sign, the piston never moves. Yet in The Crying of Lot 49 Oedipa does receive a “staggering set of energies” (as the reader witnesses the wild variety of information Oedipa is exposed to) and Oedipa does seek communication in kind, her movement up and down the coast of California, the movement of “one little piston.” In her travels, she uproots the information she gathers, destroying the precarious order she discovers all the while she absorbs “all that massive complex of information” displacing it with each additional movement she makes. In this way she is the piston that registers change. As we travel with her, we see the shifts in the topography even if we do not understand. She may be the piston, but she seeks communication with the unnamed, unknown demon she matches with the stranger who shows up at the auction. She seeks to be the sensitive in Nefastis’s experiment “repeating, if you are there, whatever you are, show yourself to me, I need you, show yourself. But nothing happened” like the very end of the novel in which “Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of lot 49.”
All of these layers wrap themselves together to form one vessel in which one chamber is empty, and the other is increasingly placed but unknown. From beginning to end, Pynchon carves a space out of words on the page for us to fall deeper and deeper into, grounding an experience in us, of an end so conclusive that we can’t ever reach it without that conclusion topping in on itself. The missing piece cannot arrive without exceeding the vessel and erasing the narrative motion that created the gradient of tropes. Thus, we wait for the stranger who will cry for the lot 49 as Oedipa waited for the demon to communicate with her. We can draw a parallel in this case with Oedipa as piston as neither moves, waiting for the sensitive’s feedback (in the first case Oedipa is the piston waiting for the stranger, whereas in the second, the piston waits for Oedipa). This doubling of structure exceeds the novel’s capacity to supplement our understanding by both conditioning our situation as a reader (we watch Oedipa) and a situation in the novel (Oedipa watches the piston).
Following Peter Osbrne’s essay “The Postconceptual Condition” from Radical Philosophy, Pynchon’s novel can be grasped transcategorical as the novel:
is determined at once as an artistic situation and that which conditions it—primarily, that interplay of communications technologies and new forms of spatial relations that constitute the cultural and political medium of economic processes of globalization […]. Such a condition is historical, but it functions transcendentally from the standpoint of interpretation, as a condition of certain (unpredictable possibilities that are embedded within, and come constructively to express, a particular historical actuality
In other words, Pynchon’s creation of a Maxwell’s Demon in a book structured like Maxwell’s Demon parrots the cultural and political processes Ophelia seeks to illuminate. As a “worldling” of the larger world, The Crying of Lot 49 parrots the process by which we understand historiocity itself. The cultural signifiers of our situation constitute the cultural and political medium through the economic processes of globalization much as Oedipa sorts the riddles of the tropes of The Crying of Lot 49. Both conditions (globalization and The Crying of Lot 49) are partial riddles: ambiguous, contradictory and meaning different things to different people in different situations. As Adorno would say, such a situation “presupposes concrete analysis, not as proofs and examples but as its own condition.” In this way, The Crying of Lot 49 is syntagmatically the very condition Ophelia seeks to uncover. Thus, the resolution of the condition, which is the book, is unpresentable within its own condition, meaning that to conclude the narrative gradient, we must step out of the book, as the book is nothing more than its narrative gradient. Thus, right before Ophelia gets to the subject that determined the situation she’s in, we reach the limit of Maxwell’s Demon’s box.
So in going back to the inconsistent responses of readers of The Crying of Lot 49, the condition that is The Crying of Lot 49 can be said to be post-conceptual because it is only a condition that is made of nothing but conceptualizations that order each other without resolve. Rather than crafting one conceptualization that is a plot hinged on content, Pynchon has put forth a multitude of side characters each of which presents a different take that is often incompossible with one another. This gathering information in which Oedipa engages side characters, interrogates them, and then gets more information leading her to another side character who may or may not agree with the others does not lend itself to resolving any conceptualizations. Understandably, this irresolvable difference leads many readers to be frustrated by the unexpected load of work they are then left holding. In this sense, Nefastis is absolutely correct: A sensitive is needed to give feedback to the Demon so that the gradient can be formulated.
Taking The Crying of Lot 49 as Nefastis’s box, we can then read Oedipa as Demon of The Crying of Lot 49 because she assaults the reader with “all that massive complex information” by “collect[ing] data on each and every one” of the “untold billions [. . .] in the box.” The reader then must “reply in kind” participating to “keep it all cycling,” hopefully moving along the story. This is definitely not a traditional reading in which we are given a clear road map, but one in which we must be “sensitive.” What Pynchon has created for us, should we accept it, is a masterful self reflexivity of our own existential ambition. To paraphrase Alain Badiou, generic knowledge is only decidable as Truth if it is extended into the indiscernable, so that we continue to find Truth to be applicable, out there. Only when we are able to balance the two entropies, can we push all the tropes to one side all the while erasing the certainty of each bit of data Oedipa has gathered, can we force the stranger to reveal himself. Only then can we force Oedipa from her seat. Pynchon impresses us with an inevitability equaled to the indiscernible— that is to say Pynchon completes his book by compelling us to see the missing piece, which is the absolute nothing he gives us so we can “hopefully see the piston moving.” Pynchon stops the book, not so that we stumble, but so that we can find the gap filled and extend the narrative beyond limits of the book.
I think it safe to say that never have I read a book that was so masterful at saying nothing at all, when in fact it ends up saying everything in how it says what it says.
(Really. Go read it for yourself. You’ll see exactly what I mean.)
** Note: The grammar and punctuation of the quoted Goodreads review has been reorganized a bit so it could be read fluidly in the context of this article. To see the original text, click here.