The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49 Summary and Analysis of Chapter 1

Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home to find a letter naming her executrix of the estate of Pierce Inverarity, a man with whom she had once had an affair. Pierce was a California real estate mogul with a great number of assets and Oedipa was shocked to be in charge of sorting it out. Hoping to divert herself, she pushed her thoughts back to old memories of Pierce, music, and sunrises. The letter was signed by the co-executor, Metzger, and detailed that Pierce died a year ago but they had just found the will. She did her errands downtown in Kinneret-Among-The-Pines and tried to uncover what might have happened a year ago to cause Pierce to name her in the will.

Finally, during the evening news, she remembered a three A.M. phone call she received a year ago, made by Pierce. He had spoken to her in different voices, spilling out nonsense. That was the last Oedipa had heard from him. Soon, her husband, Wendell "Mucho" Maas, arrived home with his own problems. He complained, as he always did, that he did not care about the radio station, KCUF, where he was a disc jockey and that his boss, Funch, was trying to censor him. Mucho had formerly worked as a used car salesman, a profession he did care about, until he could no longer take it. The used cars brought in were like sad, old, used extensions of their owners, and of life. Mucho tried as hard as he could to look and act as far from a stereotypical used car salesman as possible, but the job overwhelmed him anyhow. Oedipa tried unsuccessfully to calm the fearful memories he retained from this line of work. She showed Mucho the letter, but he told her to take it to their lawyer.

That night, at three A.M., Dr. Hilarius, Oedipa's shrink, called and asked Oedipa if she was taking his tranquilizer pills. She refused to take the pills or to join his experiment, Die Brücke, which tested hallucinogenic drugs on housewives. The next morning, little rested, Oedipa met with her lawyer, Roseman. He frantically hid a copy of his play indicting television lawyer, Perry Mason, when she entered. She noted that his guilty look was progress. Oedipa explained her situation and then they went to lunch, where Roseman played footsie with her. Back at his office, Roseman explained to Oedipa what she would have to do as executrix, informing her that she could pay him to do it but would not find out much about the will.

She would have many revelations because of the will, "about what remained yet had somehow, before this, stayed away." She thought of herself as Rapunzel in a tower, Pierce having found his way to the top thanks to a credit card opening the doors. She thought of the painting by Remedios Varos she had once seen with Pierce in Mexico City which had made her cry. Out of the tower in the painting, wove a tapestry that contained the world and forced Oedipa to realize that her jaunts with Pierce, or with anyone, did not provide an escape. The fear was enough to make her go crazy or marry a disc jockey.

Chapter 1 Analysis:

Thomas Pynchon is well known for his complex fictional worlds of postmodern literature. The Crying of Lot 49 has often been defined as Pynchon's most accessible work, though also one of his densest. There are many cultural, technical, scientific, and historical references packed into the less than two hundred pages of the novel. It is a labyrinth of references and details and parodies which lead, according to some, toward and/or away from meaning and structure. Often more questions are raised then answered and for every binary presented, an inversion of the duality is also usually suggested. One of the most common terms thrown around in literary criticism concerning Crying is the "excluded middle." This will be discussed in much more depth as we continue but keep in mind that the progression toward dichotomy is also a progression toward the questioning of what lies between the two extremes. The gray area is very significant, while also asking the reader if it is significant only because the human being cannot be satisfied without an attempt at pointing significance.

The chapter begins in very typical fashion for the entire novel. Oedipa Maas is the main character and we learn first that she is coming home from a Tupperware party. As it is the middle of a summer day, we gather from this fact that she is a housewife since she is not working and is attending a Tupperware gathering, a clear symbol of mid-twentieth century American housewifery. As some critics have noted, the fact that the host of the party had likely put too much kirsch in the fondue shows that the party signifies superficial consumership in material America more than any type of sincere communal bonding as the hostess felt the need to get her attendees drunk in order to entertain them. The first sentence is very long and complicated, containing an introduction to Oedipa, the letter about the will, the character of Pierce Inverarity, and Oedipa's typical lifestyle. The amount of dependent clauses in the sentence is synecdochal for the entire work, bombarding the reader with information, both tangential and direct.

Names within the work have garnered much attention from all critical audiences and the fashion in which Pynchon approaches his naming is instrumental in the understanding of the literature. Oedipa has obviously been compared to her literary and psychological predecessors, from the Oedipus of Sophocles to the Oedipal theories of Freud. And, there are definite allusions and connections which can be drawn between our heroine and these figures. However, the majority of recent critics, such as Tanner, seem to believe that these allusions are partially red herrings, an attempt by Pynchon to lead the reader into drawing the easy references and falling into the traps readers so often do when they reach for allusions in order to find significance. Pynchon is possibly leading the reader into assumptions which they are all too likely to make so that they realize the error as they proceed within the postmodern novel which espouses a theme of non-categorization and structuralism. These critics have an interesting view which allows them to blend the former, more obvious allusion with the self-mocking quality which is also inherent. Grant tells us, "Hite remarks that Oedipa's name is 'initially merely ludicrous,' but that it 'loses its associations with Freudian trendiness as the quest proceeds, and begins to recall her truth-seeking Sophoclean predecessor.' Finally Cowart notes in passing that 'Oedipa' is 'a suitably neurotic name.'"

Oedipa's last name, Maas, usually draws the comparison to the term of mass, with some taking it as far as connecting her to Newton's theories on mass and inertia. The theories of inertia, entropy, and thermodynamics do enter in at times and will be discussed as we continue. Others have found translations of the word in languages where the meaning is web or net and have then linked, hyperbolically, Oedipa's life maze to the definitions of these. Pierce Inverarity's name has also been examined in full, though not as easily. His last name is thought to likely appeal to ideas of inverse, whether the inverse of rarity or truth has not been determined. In general, his name is symbolic for the inversion of Oedipa's monotonous life and the search for knowledge and meaning he sets her on. Mucho Mass is another name to observe, especially as his first name is often compared to the term, macho. The irony is apparent as Mucho is portrayed as both lust-seeking, "horny," and thin-skinned and vulnerable. He is laughably haunted by the remnants of the lives instilled within a used car lot. Still, as with all of the characters, the dimensions of his persona are somewhat contrived but allow for multiple interpretations. Dr. Hilarius is another seemingly obvious name which can be drawn to Pynchon's interpretation of the state of America. It is ridiculous that Oedipa does not know why she needs a shrink and does not trust her own, but still refuses to leave him. Ironically, we will later note the serious power Hilarius contained when he drags Mucho into his sardonic study, nicknamed Die Brücke.

By bringing Oedipa into the search for truth with his will, Pierce takes her away from her monotonous housewife existence. The reader watches as Oedipa tries to remember when she might have heard from Pierce a year before she learns of the will. Her thoughts take her through a well detailed account of her mundane set of errands, from buying ricotta while listening to muzak downtown to the California evening news, before she recalls the three A.M. phone call. Pierce's foolishness during that call arouses suspicion, as he refuses to use his own voice, his own identity, except during his last sentence to Oedipa where he threatens to bring the Shadow onto Mucho. The threat is in play, but then again, so it appears is the entire call. So, why call in the middle of the night? Oedipa does not know and neither will the reader. Pierce, in this fashion, refuses categorization. In his communication with Oedipa, he is fractionalized and broken into a myriad of characters. His phone call is symbolic of the rejection of structure and definition within the novel. He leads Oedipa on a search within herself, most would say, however one could also argue that Oedipa leads herself into this search keyed on by the circumstantial death and will of her former lover.

The image of the tapestry in Oedipa's daydream, concerning the Rapunzel tower, explicitly asks for critical analysis. Oedipa's search for information and cohesion within the world at large is symbolized by her entrapment by commercial society. Parallels have been constructed between the green bubble glasses that Oedipa wears when crying as she views the painting in Mexico City and the lone green eye that is a metaphor for the television screen. Furthermore, expanding the theme of disillusioning modern commercialism, Oedipa notes that in her vision, Pierce only reaches the top of her tower when he uses a credit card to shim his way up. She realizes that the world and all life is sewn into the tapestry which hangs from the painted tower and in the tapestry which hangs from the window of her existence. She tells the reader that she is no more free in Mexico with Pierce than she was any where else in the world. She could not escape. She falls from this tower in Mexico City to the mundane life she lives with Mucho, a life compared through metaphor by Oedipa to a deck of cards facing all in one direction and by Mucho to a "gray dressing of ash." Her tower is the inadequacy of definition and communication in the modern world. And, yet, she asks at the end of the chapter, "what else?" We are taken on her journey because the search for self and meaning and connection is insatiable, even when it is being parodied as is often the case with Pynchon.