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


The More You Holmes

From: 2.1, Elementary 6.19

Title: “The Geek Interpreter”

Reference: in BBC Sherlock, The Geek Interpreter is one of a quick chain of plays on words from canon mysteries that we see breeze by in an illustration of Sherlock’s busy-ness. In this case, it’s a group of young comic book fans that notice the comics are coming true.

In Elementary’s most recent ep of this same title, we watch a brilliant mathematician interpret some data under duress, and her lovelorn PhD advisor hire Holmes & Watson to find her and her kidnappers.

Both shows use this title as a nod to original canon story “The Greek Interpreter,” one of the most chilling and (in my educated and well-read opinion) underrated stories in the canon. Though the ending is pretty anticlimactic–good on the Grenada series for making that right.

Problematic Toxic Masculinity Tropes

If you’ve followed my Problematic Badass Female Tropes series (over at Writers’ HQ, kids), you’ll recall that the central argument to all those discussions was that those tropes restrict and weaken strong (read: badass) female characters. The bait and switch problems of each PBFT was the dangling of the “badass” in front of us to distract us, while assuming that the character’s strength is enough to make us not notice nor care about the inherent misogynistic structures she has been constructed with.

This new series will look at seven Problematic Toxic Masculinity tropes, and its central argument differs somewhat from that of the PBFTs, though of course the two sets of problematic tropes are intricately and innately connected. This series centers around the inherent assumption that males are strong and dominant. Where the PBFTs focus on the bait and switch of the strong female that’s in fact not strong but subservient to males, the PTMTs focus on the false labels of strength in male characters, as well as the narrow, restrictive, and damaging definition of what it means to be a strong man.

Both sets of tropes do similar things; both are examples of problems of gender and power. We will learn as we go through the male counterparts to the PBFTs that both sets of Problematic Tropes affect how media and entertainment express characters of all genders, and that all these problematic trope characters have a negative impact on the real people that consume and admire them.

But first, what does this trendy phrase Toxic Masculinity actually mean? Lately, in the continued wake of the #metoo movement, the phrase Toxic Masculinity is being bandied about by feminists of all stripes, mainly as a way to shut down conversations. I want to start conversations by writing about these tropes, not shut them down, so real quick let me give you, dear intelligent readers, my working definition of what Toxic Masculinity means (at least as far as these discussions go).

In a nutshell: Toxic Masculinity is the harmful view (ingrained in our patriarchal and heteronormative society) that if a man does not dominate, he is not a man. Domination of all things (from one’s own emotions to other people) is the key poison that puts the Toxic in Toxic Masculinity. Also remember: just like the Problematic Badass Female Tropes were, the Problematic Toxic Masculinity Tropes are not examples of what real men in the real world are actually like, but rather are problematic expressions of masculinity in the forms of characters in popular culture, art, and entertainment, and as such are influential to those who consume and attempt to emulate them. I want to point out the problems in these characters so that we can be aware of what the tropes are doing to us even as we continue to enjoy our media.

I will be writing full blog posts discussing these seven tropes, just like I did with the PBFTs, but first (as indeed I did with the PBFTs), here’s the bare basics in a rundown of what you can expect from these new magnificent seven:

1. Go Big or Go Home

As a man, the only choice you have for beauty is to be big and muscular. Thin, short, “feminine” or small men aren’t men, and certainly aren’t desirable. Where women are told by culture to lose more and more weight, diminishing themselves to invisibility, men are told they are nothing unless they take up more and more space, and are physically strong to boot.

2. Grow a Pair (or, Stoicism Ain’t Just For Hellenistics Anymore)

Pop Culture Detective’s excellent video article, “The Case Against the Jedi Order” describes this harmful trope well. Basically, boys are taught at very young ages to man up, grow a pair, boys don’t cry, etc. which means by the time they become men, they are not able to express emotions healthily, or even at all. The Jedi are a prime example of this, as is every Shane that breezes into town, kicks the bad guys’ collective ass, and moves on. The coolest male characters are ones that show no emotion whatsoever, and certainly don’t form deep emotional connections with other humans. Which leads me to:

3. Bond, James Bond

The misogyny and classism of the gentleman’s gentleman will be explored here, with our good friend 007 at the helm of our examples.

4. The Tale Of The Nerd and the Neckbeard

Nerds are sub-males. That’s the gist of this problematic trope. Brain bigger than your biceps? Well you certainly won’t get the girl. And the extreme of this trope is the seed from which incels sprout.

5. Sassy Gay Friend (with his polar opposite companion, the Terrifying Leather Daddy)

This pair of gay male stereotypes are two sides of the same problematic coin. Both sides of this trope speak to the deep seated fear ingrained in men of being seen as feminine, and as we have said in our definition of Toxic Masculinity, a man who does not dominate is not a real man.

6. Violence is Normal

Not only is violence a normal behavior trained in boys since early childhood, it’s encouraged and even necessary in most social situations depicted by culture. Violent domination is the most commonly seen form of domination in our entertainment and arts, in the form of Problematic Masculine characters taking their strength and power by force.

7. Mr. Mom

LOL, men can’t be good parents! The awful trope of the bumbling dad, nothing more than another child for moms to manage, is the trope on this list that angers me personally the most. Look for some heartfelt angry rants in this article, readers.

Well that’s the basic idea! What do you think? Look for this series to start up on Writers’ HQ after the PBFTs are all done. And leave ideas you have in the comments; I may want to include some of them as I get more in depth with these tropes during the writing process.

The More You Holmes

From: ep. 2.1, Elementary 6.11

Line/mention: in Sherlock, when Watson expresses excitement at his blog getting hits, Sherlock scoffs. Watson retorts, “this is your living, Sherlock, not 240 types of tobacco ash.” To which Sherlock replies, “243.”

In Elementary, Irregular member The Nose mentions reading Sherlock’s “monograph on the 140 varieties of ash,” and pointing out that his differences in Trichinopoly and Birdseye ash are wrong.

Reference: we first hear of Holmes’ monograph on the 243 types of tobacco ash in the very first story, novel-length A Study in Scarlet. It is mentioned more throughout the canon, including in The Sign of Four, where he declares,

“To the trained eye there is as much difference between the black ash of a Trichinopoly and the white fluff of bird’s-eye as there is between a cabbage and a potato.”

The More You Holmes

From: Elementary 6.2

Line: SHERLOCK: It was easier to know it than to explain how I knew it. If you were asked to prove that two and two made four, you might find some difficulty. And yet you are quite sure of the fact.

Reference: this quote in the Elementary ep is Sherlock’s response to an incredulous FBI agent (no spoilers–this ep aired recently), and this exact same quote, verbatim, was uttered by Holmes to an incredulous Watson, in one of the earliest moments in the duo’s relationship of detective and record-keeper. This exchange took place in the very first Sherlock Holmes story, the novel-length A Study in Scarlet, after Watson couldn’t quite believe how Holmes saw the commissionaire’s situation just by glancing at him out a window.

Punching Through a Crystal Wall

Remember that Doctor Who episode, where he was trapped in the nightmare loop? The way he escaped was, each time he got to the end/his death, he punched a thick glass (or rock crystal?) wall, just once, with his bare fist. Turns out that he ends up going through that time loop so many times, that he eventually punches through the thick crystal wall completely. Think of how many millions of times you’d have to punch with a bare fist, to get through a rock wall several feet thick. But he succeeds, and it sets him free.

My life lately has run up against that thick layer of crystal, or so it feels: beautiful, but holding me in a loop. I’m punching it with my bare fist, though, over and over, and will persist until it gives way. Problem is, I also have to rely on others to add their punches to mine, and so am also being forced to wait. I spent a long while musing about this last night: I’m stalled, and it’s frustrating, as I am powerless to move these other people into action. And so I wait.

But here’s the stuff I am indeed actively doing–these things may be interesting to you, lovely lurkers, so here goes:

Wisdom From Everything was a remarkable production, and my scenes of violence were carried out beautifully. This production closes on the 26th, so those of you lurkers who are local, don’t miss it.

My initial writings on the topic of Problematic Female Badasses in lit and pop culture are slowly, painfully, becoming a book. Page 23, the academic branch of Denver Comic Con, has accepted it as part of their panel presentations, and so I will be talking about this project and my 7 Tropes live in front of a roomful of geeks this June. Will I be the catalyst for Gamergate 2.0? Time will tell…

Also this summer, I’ll be trekking back to Longmont to teach the teenaged ballerinas how to fake punch each other in the face, drag each other around by their hairpinned buns, and etc. One of the highlights of that is when they learn the face slam. The initial teaching of it is slamming the face into the floor, but some tutued girl always gets the idea to slam her partner’s face into the ballet barre, which is just such a delightful thing to witness.

Sooner than that, though: Blue Dime Cabaret is having our first show at Full Cycle on April 7th. It’s a bike shop, coffee shop, and bar over on Pearl Street where Penny Lane used to be. This is going to be a really fun show: we’ve got comedians, burlesque, burlesque on roller skates, and an opera singer. I’ll be jiggling my sparkles in a 1920s Charleston inspired burlesque bit that I actually need to finish choreographing… anyway, we’ve also been picked to perform in this summer’s Boulder Fringe Fest, too, so this’ll be a fun way to see how these variety shows will turn out. If you’re local, do come see us, and tip generously. I need the money.

I’ll let you know how Goth Prom goes, too. I have a rather ’80s inspired outfit to honor my early days of gothiness. But anyway.

These are the punches I’m throwing these days. What punches are you throwing into your walls? Add them in the comments, if you’d like to share. Of course, there’s a reason I call you all “lovely lurkers…”