Baby Jenn Analyzes Literature

Wanna read a paper I wrote back in grad school, when I was a newlywed, an MFA candidate, and a mere baby barely past my mid-20s?  Course you do.  This is a paper I wrote for a Postmodernist Fiction class: it’s an analysis of a fragment of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, that was in that class’ textbook. I realize, after having read this paper almost 20 years later, that I never went on to read the whole book. I really want to now.  ~Jenn


2-2-00              Thomas Pynchon—What’s in a Name?  

            First of all, it is difficult to write about a piece of literature when it is merely that, incomplete; a piece. I don’t have much light to shed on, say, what tips Oedipa off about the Trystero, or whether she discovers who is at the bottom of it. Or if there is a bottom to it (though I hear the book ends just before the title event—the crying of Lot 49—happens, so she never gets to see the dude behind W.A.S.T.E. or whatever). Someday perhaps I shall read the entire novel and write a much more scholarly and in-depth account of Pynchon’s dreamy, imagistic workings. For now, I will focus on two details that fascinated me in this excerpt from The Crying of Lot 49: Pynchon’s bizarre, symbol-laden names and acronyms.

Often throughout this piece, I’d come across what I thought was a well-known American acronym (heck, even I know what C.I.A. stands for), then Pynchon would turn around and give a completely new definition for each one. The acronyms he invents (W.A.S.T.E., D.E.A.T.H.) also resonate with several meanings. In fact, sometimes I think that Pynchon would be perfectly happy if we, as readers, came up with even more meanings, until the acronyms end up with as many symbolisms as words per letter. The turned-around acronyms made me more and more a part of a dream-world, not the modern San Francisco in which Pynchon has set his piece. To change what an acronym stands for normally put me as a reader into a different world, resembling the ‘real’ world, but different somehow. I became as confused as Alice when, in Wonderland, she keeps getting her poems all wrong, and can’t understand why everyone keeps giving her rational definitions for made-up words, or mishears her completely.[1] When Oedipa goes straight from a dream into a Mexican restaurant, I wasn’t sure if she was still dreaming, especially when she asks Jesus about the C.I.A., which stands “not for the agency you think, but for a clandestine Mexican outfit known as the Conjuracion de los Insurgentes Anarquistas…”[2]  Where am I? Here is an American government acronym that instead stands for an anarchist group. An anti-American group with a government name. Curiouser and curiouser.

The invented acronym W.A.S.T.E. also looks to be the opposite of its surface meaning: the U.S. Mail is supposedly not private, Oedipa learns. The government opens your mail, reads it, destroys what it finds threatening. So in order to really find out anything, in order to have any real communication, you must use a system called W.A.S.T.E., to insure your correspondence is not wasted. It’s as though these underground connections use their acronyms to put a blinder on anyone out there who isn’t really looking for it—no average joe would be able to tell W.A.S.T.E. from a garbage can, unless he were already in the know. Even for Oedipa, who is obsessed with this puzzle, it is difficult: when she finally finds the W.A.S.T.E. bin, “she had to look closely to see the periods between letters.”[3]  Sort of a protection from anyone that might harm the functions of these underground networks.

It’s funny, too, how more meanings get added onto Pynchon’s acronyms after several years have passed. For example, during Oedipa’s night of seeing postal horns wherever she goes, she sees an ad in a bathroom. It says AC-DC, “standing for Alameda Death Cult…”[4]  Of course, the ‘normal,’ or surface, meaning for this acronym refers to electrical current (a different sort of underground network), but I, being twenty-six, of course thought of the heavy metal group by that name. Since this novel came out in 1966 and the heavy metal band AC-DC came out in 1974(?),[5]  obviously Pynchon did not mean for us to think of anarchistic heavy metal music. But there it is, and it does become a reference, though involuntary: I mean, the group to whom Pynchon referred in the book is a quasi-satanic cult that rape and sacrifice one victim a month.[6]  Similar atrocities have been attached to any number of heavy metal bands, AC-DC being one of them, so it seems pretty well connected to the many-layered references Pynchon stacks onto each of his acronyms (or should I say anachronisms?). I don’t think Pynchon would mind my added reference to AC-DC the band: after all, each person, place, or thing he mentions has, in the words of Edward Mendelson, plenty of “emblematic resonances,”[7]  and in this case, the more resonant the better.

Even more loaded with symbolism, perhaps, are the names of Pynchon’s characters in this piece. Each one, when I first read it, made me laugh: a psychiatrist named Dr. Hilarius? A husband named Mucho Maas? Who’d work for a company named Yoyodyne? And Genghis Cohen??

For the sake of space, I won’t go into every name I saw, guffawed at, and mused over its many allusions. I’ll concentrate on a few that are more central to the story, whose layered meanings no doubt dictate to some extent the character’s actions in the whole story.  The first (and, to me, most obvious) of these unusual names is, of course, Oedipa Maas, our heroine.

Why “Oedipa?” What is her role, that she is named after a literary figure with so much age and analysis behind him already, not to mention his very own psychosis? Well, the first major similarity I can find between Oedipa and her namesake of old is that both are solvers of riddles. Oedipus solved the Riddle of the Sphinx, which is what gains him rule over Thebes. After this feat, and through Sophocles’ entire tragedy, Oedipus is the one who must know, he must know all, he must solve this problem, this riddle, of his heritage, even if it means his destruction.[8]  He methodically, detective-like, interviews each ‘conspirator’ who knows anything about his mysterious parentage until he finds an answer. When Jocasta, or the Chorus, warn him to stop looking for an answer and remain content, he refuses such comfortable options. He has to know. Oedipa, too, is on a mission to solve the mystery of this Trystero (that almost rhymes. Coincidence?). She interviews strangers, she looks everywhere she can find for clues. Unfortunately, in this fragment of the book, it’s hard to trace her entire journey from start to finish, but it does seem as though she won’t stop until she gets an answer, even if it means her destruction. Just as Oedipus is haunted by memories of the murdered Laius, and obsessed with his mission to discover Laius’ killer and his own origins, so Oedipa is searching, haunted by dreams and thoughts of death (the sailor’s imminent death comes to her as she helps him into bed[9]). She is “compelled by phantoms, puzzles,”[10] and is bent on an answer. The iconoclastic Pynchon, however, does not give us an answer, the way Sophocles does. As I mentioned, I haven’t actually read the entire book, but Mendelson refers to the book’s ending in his essay I cited earlier (see note 7): something big hinges on whoever buys Pierce Inverarity’s stamps (lot 49) at an auction after his death, Supposedly the person who buys them is deep in the know about Trystero and the W.A.S.T.E. organization—in short, Oedipa’s whole mystery will be solved if she can see who buys this item. However, the book ends just as “lot 49” is called. We, the readers, never get to see who buys it. We never know the solution to Oedipa’s mystery. We are, like her, in a perpetual state of limbo, of not knowing.

Is there anyone with an Oedipus Complex in this story? Well, there is a boy French-kissing his mother in an airport on page 11 of the textbook, which you can’t really ignore, not when the main character’s name is Oedipa, and her psychiatrist is a former Nazi whose penance is to become fanatically devoted to Freud’s teachings.[11] I’ll read the complete novel, and get back to you on that. Suffice to say, I think Oedipa’s name carries a lot of weight, not just in its humor, as both Poirier and Mendelson suggest in their analyses, but in Oedipa’s parallel role as detective, which she shares with her old namesake.

The other name worth talking about briefly is the name of the mysterious organization, Trystero. At first glance, it looks like a combination of two names: Tristan and Prospero. Tristan (of the old story of courtly love, Tristan and Isolde,) the original “star-crossed lover,” ends up in fatal love. He is all but referenced in the stranger’s speech about Trystero in the bar The Greek Way. The Innamorati, he explains, are a group of solitary individuals who are against falling in love—who will not, or won’t ever again, fall in love because it’s dangerous. It’s “the worst addiction of all.”[12] Actually, Tristan and Isolde, in the old story, fall in love after drinking a forbidden potion. Ah, love, that irresistible drug…[13]  It’s this strange isolation that yet is intricately connected by subversive means that fascinates Oedipa, and no doubt accounts partly for the “Tristan” in the name of her puzzle. Prospero is the old exiled sorcerer from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, he of the buried book and spirit messengers. No doubt Prospero is mashed in the mix here because of his subtle ways of communication: he uses inhuman servants, the beastly Caliban and fairy-like Ariel, to carry his messages. In the stranger’s story of Trystero’s founding executive, a messenger appears to the founding executive to deliver mail. He lopes, animal-like, and could almost be a Caliban: “…an aged bum with a knitted watch cap on his head, and a hook for a hand…”[14]

Each name in Pynchon’s piece has a myriad of literary references—almost to many to count or analyze. Mendelson thinks the name Trystero, among other things, refers to “the unseen…relationship of the tryst,[15]  while Poirier calls the novel a “tryst with America.”[16]  Both also refer to the implicit meaning of sadness in the name, a sadness of knowing too much, a sadness from being separated from the world, alienated by its many artificial systems.

Does the reader get all this from a casual reading of the story? Yes and no. Yes, in that I don’t think it’s possible to read this work casually—its density lies to a large extent on Pynchon’s names and acronyms, and one can’t read any of these names without having some kind of allusion, some cultural or literary reference, come up. But I don’t think it’s all that obvious. The layers under each name, each acronym, requires at least a double-take to catch every pun, every significance. Certainly such a dream-like work should have as many internal references as a person’s dreams do: alluding to everything we intake, and processing it as story, or myth.  Pynchon, himself an isolate messenger, has left us a trail of symbol, of code, to follow. The journey down the rabbit-hole is not easy (as Alice will tell you), but going there expands the mind.


[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. I refer to the Caterpillar, Mad Hatter, and Mock Turtle scenes in which Alice is commanded to recite a poem out of a Victorian child’s book. Each time she recites, not the poem in question, but a madcap story in verse almost as odd as the one she is in herself. Also, Humpty Dumpty’s help in explaining to her the “Jabberwocky” poem will stick in the mind of any word-lover. Finally, I can’t help remembering the scene with the Red King, in which he keeps feeling faint and is fed ham sandwiches; when the ham sandwiches run out, he is given hay. After eating the hay, he sighs with relief and declares,

“There’s nothing like eating hay when you’re faint.”…

“I should think throwing cold water over you would be better,” Alice suggested: “—or some sal volatile.”

“I didn’t say there was nothing better,” the King replied. “I said there was nothing like it.”    

[2] Geyh, Lebron, Levy, ed. Postmodern American Fiction, p.9

[3] ibid., p.15

[4] ibid., p.11

[5] Jason Mallott told me that bit of info.  Ask him if I’m wrong.

[6] That textbook again, p.11 again

[7] Edward Mendelson, “The Sacred, the Profane, and The Crying of Lot 49,” from Pynchon—a Collection of Critical Essays,  p. 12

[8] My copy of the plays is in a volume called Sophocles I, in which are all three plays in the Oedipus cycle: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. Any and all references to the Greek Oedipus is from this book. I’m not sure how to cite it (there doesn’t seem to be an editor), but it was published in 1954 by the University of Chicago Press, if that helps.

[9] Yup, that textbook again, p.14

[10] Richard Poirier, “Embattled Underground,” The New York Times Book Review, 1966. Online. p.1

[11] So says Mendelson, p. 125

[12] the textbook, p.6

[13] I am a professional storyteller, and learned this old tale orally. I have no actual print source for Tristan and Iseult, just the “web” of oral folklore. Though it is often in Arthurian books, or books of medieval literature, if you’re interested.

[14] That Darn Textbook, p.7

[15] Mendelson, p.141

[16] Poirier, p.6


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