Monday, November 9, 2009

Oedipa's Journey--The Crying of Lot 49

This one's a bit over due. I read Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 a while ago, and by not posting to this blog right away, the material isn't as fresh, so I'm left to look at the piece once or twice removed. The character of Oedipa--the main character--definitely struck me as very strong and unique. But why should she not be? When reading it, I didn't see her as an anomaly of a woman, I just saw her as a strong, resourceful, realistic, flawed, empathetic, and human character. The issue of gender never struck my mind, and as far as other readings go, as others have argued that Oedipa is indeed a strong feminist character, I don't disagree. I'm a fan of strong female protagonists, not because they are female, but because they are strong. I like any character that breaks through other's established conventions--the underdog--and I suppose female characters are a great go-to for this dynamic.

In a world full of mysterious happenings, secret societies, cosmic coincidences, intrigue, paranoia personified, the character of Oedipa is the reader's one solid anchor--and like us--she goes a bit mad in the process. As discussed somewhere in the middle of The Crying of Lot 49, the existence of a "Maxwell's Demon" is introduced as a "sorter" of things, among other more complicated ideas relating to energy exchanges and engineering. When Oedipa Maas is named executor of her ex-boyfriend's estate, a vast and squandered fortune of property that leads to a conspiracy of secret postal services that date back centuries, Oedipa is swept away by curiosity, almost like Rapunzel unwittingly discovering that she can climb down her tower if she uses her hair as mountain-climbing gear. Her ex-boyfriend's sordid investments become the basis of her own unraveling, and her journey is one of self-awareness, and of becoming more sensitive to the world around her.

While uncovering clues, she becomes more aware of people's attempts to communicate. She also becomes more emphatic--in the beginning she tells her husband Mucho that he is "too sensitive", and before the end of the novel, she is reaching out to a lovelorn stranger on the phone, the only person she has left, and has experienced a Virgin-Mary like role in an encounter with a old man she holds and comforts after he begs her to send a letter to his wife. Oedipa becomes more keen in her observations, and this leads her to a perilous quest for the truth, no matter what the cost.

The one major thing I was wondering, and even fearfully anticipating, by the penultimate chapter of the novel, was how on Earth is Pynchon going to finish this book with a satisfying conclusion? His ending, then, is something I definitely respect and can see why it makes such an impact--and also how it fits into the postmodern structure and attitude. It forces you to engage--it confronts you with its deliberate lack of a resolution of plot--and makes you react. The whole aspect of the novel being a mystery, a journey to "pierce into truth" and unravel the unknown, forces you to invest yourself into the reading. Oedipa wins you over, you want her to figure it out! Or atleast I did. By not having a clear resolution, there is a clear cut intention of forcing you to react: Do you feel disappointed by the ending? Are you shocked? Is it maddening to have the dangling carrot so sharply taken away? Is it new and refreshing that such an ending leads much to the imagination? I had all of the reactions and more, and I began to see why Pynchon did this. I also wondered if the whole time while I was looking for resolution of the story, that I missed something else. I suppose it was Oedipa's journey into self-awareness and into action that was the actual focus, and that the conspiracy of Tystero was only the means of getting Oedipa started on her transformation.

The ending drops us off right at the edge of revelation, a few steps before the climax of resolution. I'm glad that we, as the audience, don't get to figure answer the riddle--that meaning of the intent to communicate--because we find that the message is not important. Instead, it forces you to realize what the actual intent to communicate is! Perhaps, even, there is no conscious intent to communicate: our symbology--our language--is just a record of our desire and attempt to communicate, to reach out; they are a recording of "storm systems of suffering" (or whatever that quote is from the book, I don't have the page number). As Oedipa is beginning to be more sensitive, in sorting out clues and evidence, she is becoming aware, not of the message, but of the intent to communicate. She becomes compassionate.

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