It all starts in the
beginning, on the first page of The Crying of Lot 49, when Oedipa Maas, the
main character, comes home from a Tupperware party, finding she's been
of Pierce Inverarity's
will, Inverarity being her lover from long ago. Standing in her living
room she's "stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube" (p. 5).
Not Oedipa is staring at the tube but the TV becomes the 'Electric Eye', a
common term of the early times of picture transmission. In the same moment
"the randomness she projects on the world: thoughts about God, a Mexican
hotel, dawn at Cornell, a tune from Bartók, a Vivaldi concerto for
etc. refer to this staring TV eye.
This succession of pictures has no meaning. Oedipa is just zapping the
(imaginary) TV. Topics get placed next to each other, connected only by
the medium they're coming through. On this very first page of his second
novel Pynchon makes it clear: Oedipas world is determined by the media, by
technical media, "the communication system without content "
apart from itself
And it is not only television that has no content and no meaning. Pynchon
explores the influences of all kinds of technology on American culture.
The radio station where Oedipa's husband is a radio DJ, as well as the
telephone through which the last contact with her former lover Pierce
Inverarity was made, stand for the significance of technical media in the
lifes of Oedipa, Mucho, Inverarity and everyone else.
Just listen to Pynchon's description of his working method: "Opera librettos, movies and television drama are allowed to get away with all kinds of errors in detail", but if writers "get to believing the same thing about fiction", it will "make a difference". "Though it may not be wrong absolutely to make up, as I still do, what I don't know or am too lazy to find out", in general it is of vital importance "to corroborate one's data". 10 It doesn't sound much different from the work of a historian.
Pynchon's novel could be read as a "Versuch, mit den Mitteln der Fiktion den Fiktionscharakter von Geschichte aufzudecken" 11. He is doing it by telling a detective story of a woman, who as an executrix of her ex-lover's will comes accross inexplicable signs and indications of a plot she doesn't understand. She tries to investigate, to find connecting pieces, to make it a history of her ex-lover, something to hold on to, maybe to find the reason for his death, surely to find the reason for her becoming executrix.
But what she finds is no plausible history, soon the plot seems to become a 'Komplott'. Around all the signs she can imagine a story, but as soon as she needs proof, noone is available to give it to her, just as Randolph Driblette, who was in Oedipas view "the dark machine in the centre of the planetarium, to bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning". (p. 56) But he commited suicide just before she could get what she had hoped for from him: a crucial answer.
She tries to find explanations for what happens around her, "bizarre characters crowd in to help or confuse her" (back-cover), and she is still trying to make sense out of her former lover's estate. But until the end no question she asks is answered satisfactorily, there are always more questions remaining than answers.
Is Pynchon's work the attempt to pursue the 'postmodern' chains of signifiers; the attempt, as Friedrich Kittler writes, "die Zeichen der Zeit als Roman zu lesen" 12? What are the signifiers, signs and symptoms of these times in America?
Since World War II an electronic appliance had "steadily and surely, [...] fundamentally changed the American economy and society" 13: the computer. In the early sixties, the time of the writing of The Crying of Lot 49, these computers "became as indispensable to Pentagon strategists playing war games as to the Internal Revenue Service, as integral to the work of the Weather Bureau as to Aerospace scientists 'flying' rockets". The computers "also transformed the nature of work" 14, if not to say the nature of almost anything, just as an economist wrote: the computer's appearance brought changes "as radical as the invention of writing" 15. And The Crying of Lot 49 is a novel about these fundamental changes; why else would Oedipa eventually feel "like walking among 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". (p. 125)
In his novel following The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon makes it even more explicit: "critical mass cannot be ignored. Once the technical means [...] have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good. The word has ceased to have meaning." 16
In The Crying of Lot 49, lack of universal meaning leads to a situation where "everybody is tending toward his own dissident universe of meaning". "[I]n a world whose significances, if any, relate to no conceivable armature", except to media technology wherein no meaning is to be found, the reader is left "making sense of [...] somewhat arbitrary symbolic universes, understanding their construction [...]" 17. The guidance for a reading of lot49 can be received from Oedipa who "had dedicated herself [...] to making sense of what Inverarity had left behind" (p. 123), which seems no less arbitrary and symbolic. She collects words and signs and stories, trying to find the connection between them.
Frank Kermode has mentioned this parallel. "What Oedipa is doing is very like reading a book. Of course books can be read in very strange ways" 18, which in Oedipa's case obviously can't be disproved. Strictly speaking, it seems more like reading a hypertext with possible linked words, not necessarily marked, leading to another level of the text almost anywhere. But you could never be sure if you have tracked all of them down to the last potentiality. Oedipa, like her Sophoclean namesake, must follow a "skein" (p. 50) of clues which leads her simultaneously to illumination and destruction. All the time she is afraid she might without knowing it be "drifting into paranoia, the normal hermeneutic activity in disease" 19. Supposed what Oedipa does is really like reading a (hyper)text the way of reading The Crying of Lot 49 would have to be following it's and her move, to search for the links, to try, just like Oedipa, to decode the system of Tristero and this way the system of The Crying of Lot 49. So Kittlers assertion will come true, "daß die kritisch-paranoische Methode des Romans auf seine Leser übergreift. Sie verwandeln sich von Konsumenten einer Erzählung zu Hackern eines Systems" 20, so again referring back to the computer.
Changes of the dimension of the appearance of the computer have an enormous impact on societies and they can't go on without friction, but "[t]he conflict in those days was, like most everything else, muted" 21. Muted like the posthorn that Oedipa finds during her search for the Tristero. This muted posthorn seemingly turns out to be the symbol for "a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system" (p. 117-8).
Searching like Oedipa for information and for evidence, the reader needs to find the appropriate data source. In an introduction, written by Pynchon in 1984, to a collection of his early short stories, the up-to-date method to get access to information is revealed: "We have, after all, recently moved into an era when, at least in principle, everybody can share an inconceivably enormous amount of information, just by stroking a few keys on a terminal." 22 The communication network of present times, where nowadays all terminals are connected to and where everybody is put into a position to be able to find all sorts of information, is the internet, this worldwide computer network. Does the internet have any affinities with the Tristero?
The next thing is to strike a few keys and get logged into the net, to search at first for the different names. With 'Thomas Pynchon' the search engine shows a few hundred hits in the World Wide Web. Some of them lead to an address of the so-called 'unofficial homepage of Thomas Ruggles Pynchon' at Pomona College in California. But there seems to be no possibility to get access to this page. Other WWW-pages whose titles sound very promising are also inaccessible, even though trying again and again. Is there someone blocking these pages to prevent people from reading them? (Even though it's hard to imagine how to do it.) Or maybe these pages don't even exist and have never existed and someone is just producing all the links that are pointing to nil or to nirvana, as programmers would put it. It's probably just the paranoia, infected by Oedipa Maas and "purely nervous" (p. 75).
Other WWW-pages are to be discovered, such as Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: Identity, Meaning, and the Presence of Thomas Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49., a paper on The Crying of Lot 49, written by Jonathan Hudson at Duke University. Among other things it deals with the backgrounds of Pierce Inverarity, the ex-lover: The last instance when Oedipa comes in contact with Inverarity is via a phone conversation a year before his death. In that conversation, Inverarity constantly switches voices, oscillating from "heavy Slavic" to "comic-Negro" to "a Gestapo officer" to "Lamont Cranston". After that "the shadow has waited a year before visiting" (p. 6), but he inevitably came to disturb Oedipas suburban life. Jonathan Hudson from Duke comments: "The final voice Oedipa hears before the conversation ends is that of Lamont Cranston a. k. a. The Shadow from the early days of radio broadcasting." A look into "Tune in Yesterday. The ultimate encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio 1925-1976" teaches that The Shadow had been on air since 1930. But only "in 1937, they finally hit upon the right formula, Orson Welles, the 22-year-old audio magician [...]" became "the man of mystery who could cloud men's minds so that they cannot see him. [...] The Shadow, Lamont Cranston, a man of wealth, a student of science and a master of other people's minds " is "using advanced methods [...]. Cranston is known to the underworld as The Shadow never seen, only heard, as haunting to superstitious minds as a ghost, as inevitable as a guilty conscience..." 23. Pierce Inverarity remains the shadow throughout the novel; never seen, heared only with alienated voices, nevertheless the haunting central issue of The Crying of Lot 49 . Just consider his name: Pierce Inverarity turns out "to be a compound of a quite famous reallife stamp collector named Pierce, and of the fact that if you should go to Mr. Pierce for the kind of flawed and peculiar stamps so important in The Crying of Lot 49 you would ask him for an 'inverse rarity'." 24 Another assumption about the origin of Pierce Inverarity's name is formulated by Jonathan Hudson in his WWW paper: "[Inverarity's] name might have an allegorical meaning deriving from the Latin root inveritas, which translates to not truthful or without truth." A netsurfer has added: "And then consider the whole name: Pierce Inverarity! pierce untruth." The next addition would be that since latin inveritas may also be paraphrased to 'in truth', Pierce INverarity may also be translated to 'pierce (into) truth'. And this is about what Oedipa Maas does during her investigations. She's piercing truth, but she can never grab it. "Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself" (p. 66).
The Pynchon reader compellingly feels the same after a while. The more he makes an effort to follow the hints, the signs, the more he is led to all kinds of discoveries that might be connected with one another, but never to "the central truth itself". It seems like Pynchon is telling the reader what he has put into the mouth of his figure Randolf Driblette: "You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several, about why characters reacted [...] the way they did [...]. You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth." (p. 54) Wasting your life to develop theories that have nothing to do with what's going on outside of them? Sounds like paranoia. Or could these theories become "figure[s] of speech", "verbally graceful" (p. 73) metaphors for the world "in the same special relevance to the word, or whatever it is the word is there, buffering, to protect us from[?] The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost." (p. 89)
Staying inside the virtual safety of the internet, other key words of The Crying of Lot 49 are left to be processed by the search engine. Queries like WASTE [W.A.S.T.E.], Yoyodyne etc. lead to homepages where Pynchon terminology is used and one often finds the symbol of the muted posthorn.
On Yoyodyne's homepage in the internet of today, the editor states that "I'm not J.D. Salinger nor am I Thomas Pynchon. Fact is, both these famous recluses could do quite well in cyberspace. They can adopt new identities and make their mark without giving up their privacy." And he adds: "Of course, there's no way to prove that I'm NOT either or both of these men " (Yoyodyne News) Be that as it may, in the virtual neighborhood we come across the homepage of W.A.S.T.E. , decorated with lots of little muted posthorns and hosting the NALC - National Association of Letter Carriers, without further comment.
But obviously the World Wide Web accomodates "God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by US Mail". Instead these citizens spread and exchange information, which is neglected by official news channels, in the internet and it might be "a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery" (p. 86).
Wolfgang Coy, a professor for Computer Science at the Humboldt University Berlin, has once called the internet a "technisch induzierte globale Subkultur". Is the internet the matrix for the description of the Tristero? Or rather: is the internet the continuation of the Tristero? When Oedipa first sees the W.A.S.T.E.-Symbol and the mail delivery at The Scope, Mike Fallopian explains that they are using "Yoyodyne's inter-office delivery. On the sly." (p. 35) And as Oedipa and Metzger had noticed before, the "Scope proved to be the haunt for electronics assembly people from Yoyodyne" (p. 31). So the inter-office delivery at "Galactronics Division of Yoyodyne Inc." might as well have taken it's way by computers. The carrier throwing envelopes into the crowd at The Scope might just be a human metaphor. As quoted before: in 1984, when Pynchon wrote the introduction to his early short stories, he knew about the keys to strike to be able to find and send information. But when did "inter-computer delivery" start? The Crying of Lot 49 was published in 1965. Was there anything like the internet around? To find out, the early or even pre-history of the internet is needed. And this is to be found, of course, in the net.
On the homepage of the RAND Corporation, 'America's foremost Cold War think-tank', you will find that "the Internet is first conceived in the early '60s. Under the leadership of the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Project Association (ARPA), it grows from a paper architecture into a small network (ARPANET) intended to promote the sharing of super-computers amongst researchers in the United States. In 1962 the RAND Corporation begins research into robust, distributed communication networks for military command and control."
The occasion for this research was the Cuban Missile crisis and the arising question: "In the aftermath of a nuclear attack, how would U.S. authorities communicate? How could any sort of command and control network survive? [...] Consequently, Paul Baran conceived a system that had no centralized switches and could operate even if many of its links and switching nodes had been destroyed. All of the nodes in this unusual network would have equal status; be autonomous; and be capable of receiving, routing, and transmitting information." (RAND Corporation)
This construction plan sounds like it could easily have roused some basis-democratic fantasies of free and equal communication, a fantasy that has actually survived among 'netizens' until the present day. Most internet users don't even know that they are using military equipment. In The Crying of Lot 49 Pynchon refers to the martial past of the Tristero by describing the history as a history of battles against the official postal system.
In the early sixties Thomas Pynchon had a job as a technical writer with Boeing Company in Seattle. At this company the state of the art in technology must have been familiar, just as discussions about a communication system between computers. I guess it is no accident that "The Galactronics Division of Yoyodyne, Inc," was "one of the giants of the Aerospace industry" (p. 15), just like Boeing 25.
Back in the WWW you might come along the homepage of the Trystero Corporation. There's no mention of Pynchon's name and no muted posthorn or anything, nothing referring to Pynchon aside from the name of the company. They call themselves: "The Trystero Corporation, sometimes known as the 'Watergate Plumbers' of on-line marketing [...]." And the job they're offering is most Pynchonesque. "For a fee, [they] will construct a sort of 'virtual fan club' for a given [TV-]show. As a group, they create a bunch of fake accounts, scattered on systems throughout the net, each with a cute little home page and a page devoted to the product they are being paid to push. Of course, the pages are all linked to each other, and to the various internet search engines." This is the basic service; for a little extra they could fake even more net-activities. The result of all this? "To the casual observer, it looks like there is something of a groundswell behind the product. And this hype is much more believable if it comes not from official advertisements, but from an apparently commercially disinterested third party fan. It is probably another inevitable expansion of exploitation of the technology of the net. [...] The separation between projected and real identity in the net was bound to be exploited."
But: "Don't ask me what products they're pushing I can't tell you without getting sued. [...] Just remember, everytime you're looking at Yahoo [or any other search engine] and all of a sudden 8 sites for a new show or band jump out at you, there just might be an agenda behind them after all." Maybe it's them who made up all these Pynchon-pages, especially the inaccessable ones?! There might be a plan or there might be no plan. Just as it went through Oedipas head: "Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none." (p. 1)
Once again on the surf through the WWW, almost automatically trying to get from the Pomona College homepage with a nice little photograph of some historical college building to the San Narciso College Thomas Pynchon Home Page, never reached before. But this time I get a surprise. All of a sudden, the page is being loaded. The text reads: "Welcome to the profoundly unofficial but widely collaborative Web page devoted to the work of Thomas Pynchon - one of the most challenging and most rewarding of contemporary American writers. This interactive project-in-progress comes to you from a small college town named Claremont at the eastern edge of LA County - a town that looks a lot, in fact, like San Narciso."
There are more similarities between the Pynchon homepage and San Narciso: Their locations seem to be quite close to each other: a homepage is eventually located [to use Pynchon's words] "among matrices of a great digital computer" and San Narciso looked to Oedipa when she drove down towards the town like a "printed circuit" (p. 14). which is a central part of the computer. The main printed circuit of the computer is called motherboard. 26 Motherboard and matrix must be pretty close.
There is much to read on this unofficial Pynchon page. On the sub-page for The Uncollected Pynchon you can find articles, book reviews, even liner notes (the short essays that often come tucked inside a CD, tape, or record case) and other pieces written by Pynchon. And there's also a letter that Pynchon wrote to the editor of NYTBR and which was published there on July 17, 1966:
"In a recent letter to the editor, Romain Gary asserts that I took the name 'Genghis Cohen' from a novel of his to use in a novel of mine, 'The Crying of Lot 49.' Mr. Gary is totally in error. I took the name Genghis Cohen from the name of Genghis Khan (1162-1227), the well-known Mongol warrior and statesman. If Mr. Gary really believes himself to be the only writer at present able to arrive at a play on words this trivial, that is another problem entirely, perhaps more psychiatric than literary, and I certainly hope he works it out.
Thomas Pynchon, New York City."
Here another name has revealed it's possible origin. The reason to call a stamp collector after a Mongol warrior must be the military history of communication systems. Another name, Nefastis, the weird scientist who built Maxwell's Demon as a machine, reveals his identity by a return to the latin dictionary consulted before with Inverarity: nefastus is translated to: "Unglück bringend, unheilvoll oder auch sündhaft". But why is Nefastis especially harmful? Is it for his speaking about "all that massive complex of information, destroyed over and over" (p. 73) by his Maxwellian Demon? In an age "with information come to be the only real medium of exchange" 27, destruction of information is a sinister crime.
Back to the Pynchon homepage, at the end of the page with the uncollected Pynchon-works after the thanks and all kinds of names I read that "someone who goes by 'Outerspacia' also contributed some of the texts". And again I felt in Oedipa Maas' skin, being asked or asking myself: "Has it ever occured to you [...] that somebody is putting you on? That this is all a hoax [...]?" (p. 116)
Either someone is fooling me and other people or there's really a Pynchon contributing texts to his 'unofficial' homepage.
Checking out the Pynchon Biography page, called "The Straight Dope", where someone has compiled all the tiny bits of information on Pynchon's whereabouts all of a sudden this one line, which seems to stand kind of excluded while in the middle of the text, jumps out at me:
"Who knows where he is now? And who cares? I don't want you to know who am."
I was struck by thunder. Who is I?
That was the point to stop the investigation. Like Oedipa, I "left it alone, anxious that [the] revelation not expand beyond a certain point. Lest, possibly, it grow larger than she and assume her to itself." (p. 115)
And besides: who cares who is talking? 28