The Crying of Lot 49 and Point of View

The Crying of Lot 49 opens with a disorienting account of Oedipa’s discovery that she has just been named executor for her recently deceased ex-boyfriend, Inverarity. Though the novel is not written in the first person, Pynchon works through Oedipa with a narrative style that is at once extremely evocative and jarring. Take for instance this long, run-on sentence,

“She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlán whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby; a sunrise over the library slop at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faces west; a dry disconsolate tune from the fourth movement of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept over the bed on a shelf so narrow for it she’d always had the hovering fear it would someday topple on them.” (1)

These are the thoughts that assail Oedipa as she reels from the strange news and all of it is telling and yet the reader has almost no sense of Oedipa as a character at this point. Within the first page of the novel, Pynchon lets the reader into many moments that are important to Oedipa–things worth remembering when she thinks of her ex, and yet there is a distinct lack of any words that might identify how Oedipa might feel about any of these snippets. The hotel door slamming seems to carry some sadness with it or dread with the words “it seemed forever,” but why is this significant to Oedipa–perhaps it is their break-up but there is no real confirmation for the reader here, just a barrage of thoughts that hint at a greater interiority which is kept private from the reader. There is a strong sense of disillusionment and dread throughout this bit of narration and the reader might be led to understand Oedipa as somewhat of a cynical, lost, and disenchanted individual but for how much information Pynchon gives the reader about key points of remembrance for her, he reveals very little of her actual selfhood.

Focalization and Memory of the Self

The indivisibility of the internal monologue from the external dialogue throughout The Sympathizer, and the relationship of that stylistic choice to the genre of the (then judged inadequate) confession, appears to highlight how strongly focalized to an individual the experience of being a character can be. A quotation mark implies exactitude, perfect recall of both oneself’s and another’s words. Their lack functions as a hint to the later outright acknowledgment that “Yes, memory was sticky” and the entire concept of memory’s fallibility. In a way, it depicts words and internal monologue as an individual often experiences them in retrospect—all in a jumble, not neatly recorded and written out by who said them. The narrator’s “resistance” or his inability to grasp at first that his confessional could be judged as not confessional enough reflects that jumble, in which an individual’s assessment of what is important in a personal narrative does not conform to any objective measure. The confession is not an archival record, because neither, of course, is memory. Nor is an individual character’s collection of traits, attitudes, etc. I think that the consequence of this mixture of intensely focalized but subjective memory is that strong individual focalization does not translate to an accurate view of the self, let alone of other characters. Experience of the self, sadly enough, does not lead to self-knowledge.

The Role of Physicality in Characterization

The roles that physicality and adornment play in the characterization of persons within a novel is something interesting we see in both The Invisible Man and The Sympathizer. Both novels bring up the question of how much significance does a character’s physical appearance play in defining who they are and how they are seen in and outside the novel.  We are not really told what the narrator in The Sympathizer usually wears; we can assume that he wears traditional 70s American clothing (jeans and a t-shirt maybe?), but we can’t be sure. This trait is not important for our understanding of the novel until the character puts on something that is out of the ordinary. We saw this in The Invisible Man when the narrator puts on a big hat and sunglasses and is repeatedly mistaken for a man named Rinehart. In Chapter 16 of The Sympathizer when the narrator murders Sonny, he switches from jeans into a “blue polo shirt,” “khakis and loafers,” and a “wig, cap, and glasses” (277). Bon gives him all these adornments so that the narrator will look “a white man” (277) so he can leave Sonny’s apartment inconspicuously. The narrator says, “To me I still looked like me,” but to everyone else who does not know what he looks like, they will not be able to tell that he is wearing a disguise. I found this passage interesting in comparison with the invisible man because we are never told what these two narrators really look like. We know their race, but that’s it, and the first time that we have probably thought about what exactly they look like is when they are disguising themselves to look like someone else. This leads me to believe that physical appearance does not have to play a huge role in characterization; we can still attach ourselves to and relate to a faceless character, which is very interesting to me since, I think, we are such visual creatures. We like to put faces to names, and I must say that I was glad to have even just that little sketch of the narrator on the front of my book for reference.

Rebuilding the Self: The Sympathiser and Invisible Man

In the ending three chapters of The Sympathizer, the narrator undergoes a dynamic evolution in his self. In Chapter 21, he is in the initial stages of a split. It is indicated to the reader by the narrator’s first person narration disappearing and third person self referral takes its place (uses  third person “he” and calls himself “the prisoner”, “the pupil”. There is a brief return to first person language during his confession of doing nothing during the rape of the Communist agent by the policemen. (it seems that through confession/ memory, he regains his identity). However, there is still the sense that the narrator is “within” himself when contrasted with the narrator of Chapter 22. The narrator in Chapter 22 is further split into a complete separation: “I was divided, tormented body below, placid consciousness floating high above” (355). Throughout the chapter, the narrator watches the interrogation of himself. It is important that while he observes himself, he still identifies the interrogated/tortured as himself (“I saw myself admit it then” (356), yet there is a definite separation as done through the dialogue formatted like a movie script to be read. Finally at the end of Chapter 22, through psychological torture the narrator is reborn through his reeducation (pg 367), and we see that frenzied recount of sensations until the answer of “nothing” is forced out of him. In Chapter 23, the narrator goes through the process of “I glued myself back together” (369), where a residual split continues in pg 376, when the narrator refers to himself as plural “we”, “our” which ultimately extends to include others fleeing the country: there is the combining of consciousness, but is he subsumed into the collective or is he attempting to subsume the collective into himself?


The point of this splitting and merging and doubleness in one is first indicated by the doctor in Chapter 21: “he can observe himself as someone else…. For we are the ones most able to know ourselves and yet the most unable to know ourselves… if we could only split ourselves in two and gain some distance from ourselves, we could see ourselves better than anyone else can” (342). The doctor suggests that the closest a self could be understood is for that self to do it themselves, that is a split is required. This is precisely what the narrator undergoes in Chapter 22. Through confession, a sort of split of self by style, he regains his identity briefly in Ch. 22. However, though he glues himself together eventually, there is the enduring sense of split/ divide within. Earlier, the narrator had acknowledged he was of two minds, he had stated it was a disadvantage in the beginning of his first written confession (written before his final reeducation). However, now he sees a division in self as reality that may be so for most, that “the true optical illusion was in seeing others and oneself as undivided and whole” (374). It seems in the end he has embraced the division which he has chosen but was also born with (361) and how it is impossible to choose between selves (“it was truly impossible, for how could I choose me against myself”). Through the process of splitting, he reclaims or claims  his identity (depending on whether you think he had it before) and accepts his life and reconciles his selves.


Ellison’s Invisible Man Connection

The scene in Chapter 21 is evocative of the scene in Ellison’s Invisible Man when the invisible man/ narrator wakes up in the hospital. In both scenes, the narrator undergoes a rebuilding of the self and it is prompted through  questions like “Who are you?” “What is your name?”. The answer of the question “What are you?” is more important than “Who are you?” in both instances. In Invisible Man, the doctors do not see the Invisible Man as a person, they see only a racial stereotype, a “what”. Here in the Sympathizer, it is more important to the Commandant if the narrator is a Communist. The who is not of concern to the others, but to both narrators, they are trying to find their who. Only through a split was the who (identity) found.

Memoir and Confession in The Sympathizer

When The Sympathizer breaks from the memoir form in Chapter 19, it opens by framing the Commandant, to whom the “confession” has been addressed, as an editor, “Like Stalin, the commandant was a diligent editor, always ready to note my many errata and digressions and always urging me to delete, excise, reword, or add” (309). This dry comment makes it plain that the commandant (a literal authority) has authority over the text we have been reading this whole time and it retroactively frames the “confession” as more of a memoir. This also begins the shift towards his confinement and torture in order to produce a true confession, one that fits Foucault’s definition from Discipline and Punish, “Through the confession, the accused himself took part in the ritual of producing penal truth” (38).  While the rupture in narratological structure and the ambiguity of truth it produces are not necessarily unique to The Sympathizer, the novel manages to problematize both the memoir and the confession as reliable vessels of truth. When the nature of one’s character is on trial, the novel suggests,  form is more important than function.

Ultimately, the narrator returns to himself following his successful confession and relates the experience of recovering himself through his manuscript. Yet that process represents another attempt to edit the manuscript and add to it, further distorting or at least concealing the truth value of chapters 1-18. No novel is ever perfectly clear about what is true, but The Sympathizer deserves a lot of credit for forcing its reader to confront and reexamine the problems of authority and the cultural, ideological, and narrative valences that shape what is true, what a character consists of, and their particularities.

Boundaries & Representation

The stripping of the Sympathizer from the narrative voice was rather interesting, and I thought, at first, that he was being striped of his faces. The opposite seemed to happen though, as the narrative voice returned to him and he began referring to himself with pluralities. It seems like the stripping removed not the faces but the arbitrary boundaries the Sympathizer set up between them. This goes back to his fear of representation, and leads me to wonder whether he mis-represented himself previously or if he ended up losing his representative faculties in the end. The former would be supported by the return of the narrative voice, while the later would be supported, I think, simply because he was usually understood in the terms of others, with the relevance of his mixed cultural heritage being the prime example.

Identity through confession

After the narrator realizes that the faceless commissar is Man and so undergoes the “final revision” (336) of his confession, the narrative abruptly shifts from the first person to what seems to be the third person omniscent. It is unclear whether the narrator (what we have, until now, called the protagonist) is still really the narrator, as the narrative suddenly refers to him as “the prisoner” and “the patient.” (339) It seems as though he is not, especially since the novel had been framed as a confession to the Commandant, but we know that the narrator has already submitted his confession to him and that the confession had been rejected. We learn that “later, sometime in the bright future, the commissar would play the patient a tape recording of his answer [to the question about the female communist agent], though he had no memory of the tape recorder’s presence,” (349) which seems to further indicate that the narrator is no longer in charge of the narrative. However, we shift back to the first person, from the perspective of the narrator, over the course of his confession of the gang rape. Especially after our discussion of the Foucaultian concept of confession in class on Monday, I think that this strange break in the interiority of the narrator reflects the gap between the loss of his previous identity, as someone who did not witness the gang rape, and the construction of his new identity, as someone who does remember participating in the incident. It is through the confession that he realizes and regains his sense of interiority. The confession is now not for the benefit of the Commandant, but rather for himself, as a method to come to terms with his self and his memories.

Identity of the spy

When we think of a spy, we are made to envision a cold figure who lives a life stranded in between two worlds, often devoid of emotion, robotic almost. It is the type of thing we have come to expect via a James Bond movie. However, when the spy is seized by guards, we clearly able to gauge senses of panic, nostalgia, and uncertainty. “At least an hour must have elapsed since I was blindfolded, hadn’t it? I longed to luck my lips, but with the gag in my mouth I almost vomited. That would have been the death of me. When was he coming for me? How long would he leave me here? What had happened to his face?” (325). It is interesting to note that the formulating of this fictional character is somewhat at odd what the traditional spy. If the ideal spy is mysterious with little known about him, is it to say that his character is underdeveloped, or simply that a character that has intentionally underdeveloped to fit that role is sufficiently developed? Either way, this spy deviates from the traditional, and in that way is able to challenge the norm of how a fictional character like him is developed, and yet can still fill the role of a spy.

Hypothetical Construction of History, Memory, and Self

One of the most engrossing sections for our last reading of The Sympathizer was towards the end of Chapter 21 after the narrator finally confesses the details of the gang rape of the communist agent. After remarking, “Yes, memory was sticky” (352) after the policemen empty a bottle of coke into the agent, the narrator slips into a chain of hypotheticals that at first concern him, but soon spirals into ceaseless circles of backtracking through national, political, and religious memory spanning ages in history. In a series of rhetorical questions that arise only to dissipate without any further development or answer, the narrator rambles, “…so if you would please just turn off the lights…if history’s ship had taken a different track…if I had fallen in love with the right woman…if we forgot our resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play…if you  needed no more revisions, and if I saw no more of these visions, please, could you please just let me sleep?” (353-354). Along the way, the narrator questions everything ranging from the Soviets, labels like “nationalists or communists or capitalists or realists” (353), Buddha, Jesus, the Bible, the Chinese using gunpowder for fireworks and not firearms, Adam and Eve, Mao, the Japanese, his own mother and father, and the concept of history itself. The way that the narrator filters through this immensely disorganized yet somehow coherent list of hypotheticals, and his attempt to thereby construct some meaning out of the series of events, random or planned, fictional or real, that have led him, his nation, and the world to this moment in time, resonate closely with his continuing attempts to construct himself. A gook? A half-gook? French or Vietnamese, Occidental or Oriental? A bastard? A spy, a Communist, a military aide, a movie advisor, an academic assistant, a prisoner, a killer, a traitor, a patriot? What forces led him here, and who has the power to write and revise his history, especially if the narrator’s own memory is simultaneously unreliable and malleable? Which of his many masks would he be donning if a single factor in his past was nudged away, the falling dominoes of construction irrevocably altered? The passage also is reminiscent of the attempted reconstruction of Alison’s father in Fun Home, the entire memoir an attempt to resuscitate him as a character by ruminating upon hypothetical explanations to memories of his words and actions. How much of character construction, and construction of the human narrative, is hypothetical? And does it matter?

Palatability in The Sympathizer

I was quite struck by the scene in The Sympathizer where the narrator meets with the Auteur, criticizing him for his portrayal of the screaming Vietnamese characters in his script. The narrator asks “would you like to hear how they scream?” and when the Auteur nods, he stands up, says “here’s what it sounds like,” but instead of physically screaming simply writes down an onomatopoeic representation of a scream (p 131). The scene sets up an expectation of an actual scream, and the Auteur seems nervous about this possibility (he is described as swallowing, Adam’s apple is bobbing). In considering what to make of this scene, where the narrator bravely stands up to the Auteur but finds himself unable to do so with the physical force of a raised voice, I was reminded of the list that the narrator makes earlier of his “oriental” and “occidental” qualities. The “oriental” category is full of descriptors such as “respectful of authority,” “worried about others’ opinions,” “usually quiet,” “always trying to please,” and “self-sacrificial.” As a half-French and half-Vietnamese immigrant, and as a double agent and political prisoner, the narrator is forced to navigate aggression and palatability in interesting ways. He is constantly performing, both conforming to and subverting other’s opinions of him, and given the style of the novel as a confession written to a specific interlocutor with control over the narrator’s fate, this calculus of the opinion of others seems inescapable.

« Older posts