Thomas Pynchon's The Crying Lot 49

3260 words - 13 pages

Peter Barry says of the cultural materialist approach to literature that “it is difficult to know how to ‘place’ writing of this kind” (189). By “writing” Barry refers to cultural materialist criticism itself—not the work being criticized—but it is probably safe to assume that the analysis properly reflects the analyzed in this respect. It is certainly arguable that Thomas Pynchon’s THE CRYING OF LOT 49 qualifies as “difficult to place,” and this may be its only legitimate connection offered to a cultural materialist reading. Yet similarities arise between the text and the theory that suggest, at least on some level, a harmonious ideal. Of course, should such a comparison exist, it is only by the theory’s compatibility to the text, it being the work critiqued and, besides that, having originated much earlier than the theory. But there is value in contrasting the two as if they are more than just analysis and analyzed, but two products of a literary history whose similarities point toward or influence ongoing likenesses. Such a likeness is their contribution to an overall theme of almost fairy tale-style escapism.

A fundamental start is to examine the use of Shakespeare in both situations. This may seem odd without an understanding of its intrinsic contribution to both the novel and the theory. In LOT 49, Oedipa Maas encounters a number of eccentrics and organizations that all hint at involvement in some sort of mail system conspiracy, not the least of which is a Jacobean play called THE COURIER’S TRAGEDY by Richard Wharfinger. The play and playwright are of course fictional, but what’s more, they are blatantly—caustically—related to Shakespeare’s HAMLET. “Oedipa found herself after five minutes sucked utterly into the landscape of evil Richard Wharfinger had fashioned for his 17th-century audiences, so preapocalyptic, death-wishful, sensually fatigued, unprepared, a little poignantly, for that abyss of civil war that had been waiting, cold and deep, only a few years ahead of them” (Pynchon 49). This description, while initially sounding more like 20th-century cyberpunk, “in which the interpenetration of human and technological or electronic realms…is taken as the basis of fictional speculation, usually dystopian” (Baldick 56), upon closer examination paints a clear portrait of HAMLET’s setting. Or rather, a closer examination of THE COURIER’S TRAGEDY does so. The plot, which the narrator describes extensively, replaces Hamlet with Niccolò, Claudius with the “evil Duke of Squamuglia”, and so forth until every Shakespearean role is fulfilled in some way by the supposedly conspiratorial representations of the novel’s larger theme. This results in one particular line that prompts Oedipa into further investigation of the Thurn and Taxis postal service and their rival, Trystero, which seems to be resurfacing as the aforementioned conspiracy: “No hallowed skein of stars can ward, I trow, / Who’s once been set his tryst with...

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