In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, something always seems to exist in the periphery: a paranoia that follows Oedipa’s every moment and distorts the world in which she finds herself in. This sense of foreboding, an unease about the external environment, seems characteristic of a larger problem within narrative structure. While sleeping in a motel, Oedipa awakens and thinks she sees something in the mirror, “nothing specific, only a possibility, nothing she could see”. She falls asleep again, and when she awakens for the second time, she’s confronted with her own “exhausted face” (81) in the mirror. Identity, it seems, plays a large role in this creeping paranoia, as if the interior of character is as elusive and mysterious as the nightmarish figure in Oedipa’s dream. These feelings often bleed into the reader’s interaction with the text, inducing similar feelings of uneasiness and distrust and corrupting the reliability of the characters. This essay explores these sources of ambiguous identity, looking at the ways in which this destabilization induces paranoia in both character and reader, and thus crafting an unreliable connection between the two. In addition, a short creative piece accompanies this investigation, detailing the ways in which these literary techniques shape the reader’s relationship to the narrator.
It’s strange, the way in which most dreams seem to only have an end, and never a beginning. You remember getting into bed, turning off the lights, but you can never recall with certainty that feeling of falling asleep. Then the dreams come, silently infecting your imagination and lifting your spirit out of your body, taking it somewhere far away. This far -away place doesn’t begin, it just exists. You dream and you dream, and the starting point seems hazy, like a cerebral mist has clouded over any possible discernment of time or space. You move through it, the dream, and eventually find yourself at the end. The ending I always remember.
The first dream I can remember occurred on a cold night in late January. I was ten at the time. My doctor had begun prescribing me these blue pills, saying they would help me sleep better. I didn’t believe him, but my mother made me swallow them anyway. They left a strange lump in my throat, and made my body feel numb. The doctor warned against sleep-walking, saying a few of his other patients had reported increased somnambulism after taking them. The first night, I fell asleep in my bedroom and woke up somewhere in the kitchen. My mother found me standing in front of the refrigerator, hand perched curiously on the black handle. Later, she would joke that I looked like I was reaching for something to make myself breakfast.
I’m not sure how I got to the kitchen, nor am I confident why my body chose to take me there instead of somewhere else in the house, like the bathroom or the library. Maybe it has something to do with the familiarity of the kitchen, a communal space where I spent most of my time sitting next to one family member or another. Either way, I remember the ending. The feeling of being pushed from one existence to another, as if slipping through the floor and falling into a different room entirely. My mother’s face hovered anxiously above mine, her hands pressed firmly against my shoulders. For an instant, I was unsure where I was. Everything looked familiar, glossed over with an inconclusive sense of déjà vu, but I recognized nothing.
I remember that, but I also remember what came before. It existed first as a large, industrial city. Smokestacks leaked pitch-black fumes into the air, jostling for space amidst the looming skyscrapers and dusty air. I was walking down the street, the large florescent lamps casting an otherworldly glow on the otherwise empty street. I had the sense that someone was following me. I quickened my pace, occasionally looking behind my shoulder to detect any suspicious forms, but none appeared. The dream continued like this for a while, a methodical alternation between hurried footsteps and nervous glances.
The interiority of a fictional character is a complicated thing. To understand character as having a unique set of beliefs, desires, and motives brings about a whole new set of problems regarding the ways in which these internal machinations interact with the external narrative world. Fictional identity, it seems, is intrinsically linked to the outside world. In describing the presentation of self in the novel, Gelley describes character as “the enabling condition for the order of sociality” (59). This condition serves as a gateway through which the reader can access the narrative world, while simultaneously growing more familiar with the characters that inhabit it. The way in which the reader gains access to the true self of the character is, quite paradoxically, through the exterior. Characters within a novel rely on “self-display or exteriorization” (Gelley 63) in order to provide an index through which their person, or essential nature, can be understood. For this reason, much of character relies on societal context, as what is presented is often shaped through the various ideological and historical systems that determine what is acceptable and what is not. This idea of self as an exterior expression shaped through society becomes complicated, however, when the world constructed around the character is equally as unknowable. In describing her environment, Oedipa mentions that there was “the sense of buffering, insulation,…as if watching a movie, just perceptibly out of focus” (Pynchon 10). In Pynchon’s narrative world, it seems that things are constantly in flux, challenging both Oedipa and the reader in understanding what’s real and what’s not. As a result, Oedipa’s ability to provide a gateway into this world is equally disrupted, affecting the reader’s capacity to understand both her interior and the exterior narrative world. For this reason, the ability of Oedipa’s character to properly reflect a “reliable and sufficient index for the inward” (Gelley 64) becomes equally as uncertain. This leads to a break in the relationship between reader and character, as the inability to properly reflect an interior through external means causes a disruption in the reader’s process of identification.
The narrator experiences a similar problem that manifests itself through the blurring of dream and reality. When he first wakes up from a dream, for example, he mentions the sense of déjà vu, as if something is just barely outside the realm of recognition. Much like Oedipa’s character, this wariness of the external environment seems wrapped up in his character’s interiority, suggesting that the “veiled core of personality” (73) mentioned by Gelley is disrupted by an order of sociality that disrupts and alters the methods of externalization so necessary for this type of revelation.
In addition to a narrative world that comes across as indecipherable, the concept of “agency panic” also plays a significant role in the way that identity is presented in The Crying of Lot 49. Described as an “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy or self-control” (Melley 12), the concept of a social order which infringes on character identity similarly impacts the way in which this identity is conveyed. From this fear comes paranoia and conspiracy, psychological mechanisms created to “explain numerous complex events (Melley 8) and “defend the integrity of the self against the social order” (Melley 10). As stated by Melley, paranoia seems to be a tool used to defend individual identity against vast corporations and unknown entities that threaten this individuality. Oedipa seems to register this as well, stating that the true paranoid is always “the central pulse” of orbiting “spheres joyful or threatening” (Pynchon 105). This seems strange when considered in conjunction with Gelley’s “Character and Person: On the Presentation of Self in the Novel”, as the latter relies on social order to reveal interiority, while the former is adamantly opposed to it. Paranoia seems to be the disrupting factor in both of these cases, severing any possible ties between interior identity and exterior world. Once Oedipa becomes fixated on the conspiracy of the Trystero conspiracy, for example, she begins to see the horn everywhere. These moments of revelation are complicated, however, because Oedipa cannot decide if “Trystero did exist…or it was being presumed, perhaps fantasied by Oedipa” due to a frantic obsession (Pynchon 88). This night, already muddled by an uncertain connection between Oedipa’s internal state and the things she’s perceiving, is further complicated by her inability of “sorting the night into real and dreamed” (Pynchon 95). In this particular instance within the text, the paranoia experienced by Oedipa’s character hinders her ability to reconcile the various events and symbols of the external world with a personal understanding of her internal state. Confronted with the loss of autonomy and the possibility of misrepresentation, characters like Oedipa resort to a state of constant agitation.
The narrator, for example, begins to sleepwalk after taking strange blue-pills prescribed by a doctor. This is a clear loss of agency attributed to a larger corporate entity, explicitly costing him the ability to control his own behavior and “effect meaningful social action” (Melley 11) by inducing a state of sleep-walking: a physical loss of control of the body and mind. This loss of agency disrupts his ability to present a coherent self, partially sacrificing a trustful relationship between narrator and reader. An exaggerated example of Oedipa’s more subtle fears that the world is conspiring against her, both nonetheless demonstrate how the strenuous relationship between a character’s interiority and the external world leads to a sense of unreliability.
The dream ended when I felt someone grab my shoulder. I can’t be sure if this was my mother or someone else, perhaps that man whose hidden presence I could feel stalking my every move. When I awoke, my mother took me back to my bedroom and gave me another blue pill, telling me it would be alright, that all I had to do was lie down and it would be better by morning.
The dreams, much like the enigmatic phantom who haunts them, have followed me here, nearly eleven years later. This morning, I went to the grocery store to buy a carton of eggs for my mother. Right before I got to the dairy aisle, I had the familiar sense of being watched. It occurred to me that I didn’t remember waking up that morning. When I asked the cashier what day it was, he said it was Tuesday and then he proceeded to laugh. I could tell it was a nervous laugh, the kind you artificially conjure to protect yourself from something much too ugly to confront. It was an average response, something I predicted, but I didn’t trust him. I left the store without buying anything, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being followed.
When I got back home and explained to my mother what happened, she said she was worried about me. She touched my face and kissed my hand, telling me things like “it’s going to be alright sweetie” and “don’t worry, we’ll figure this out”. I didn’t like the way she said those things. I could hear the fear embedded deep beneath her maternal concern. It came out through quick glances and a shaking tone, but it never completely revealed itself; she was too good at playing my mother.
A few days ago, I heard her whispering with someone. It was well past midnight, and my nightly dosage of blue pill hadn’t done a particularly good job. I was facing the ceiling when I heard the lower mutterings drift through the plaster that separated my room from hers. The next morning, when I asked her about it, she denied there being anyone with her last night. I knew she was lying even then, just like I know the person she was talking with in muted conversation is the same person who’s been following me around. Don’t ask me how I know this, I just do.
Now, I barely leave the house. When I fall asleep, it’s only with the help of those blue-tinted pills that rest in an orange capsule on my bedside table. I don’t like taking those pills, a feeling so chemically foreign that it burns my throat on the way down. Sometimes, I swear I can feel it dissolving in my stomach, sending a million tiny chemicals into my blood stream and infecting whatever individuality I have left. The corporation that sells those blue pills recently became the most profitable pharmaceutical company in the history of the world. When I read this in the newspaper, I flushed one of the pills down the toilet. It accomplished nothing, but it felt like enough.
The dissolving connection between reader and narrator in works like The Crying of Lot 49 can be better understood through the concept of reading as construction. Initially posited by Tzvetan Todorov, construction is a process through which the reader constructs “an imaginary universe through his reading of the text” (72). Through the use of referential language, authors are able to signify an account of the imaginary world that is processed and understood through the reader’s own imagination. Following this stage, readers engage in a process called reconstruction, in which they discern “the novel’s underlying system of values and ideas” (Todorv 75). What’s most notable about this theory, however, is Todorov’s belief that the process of construction and reconstruction mirrors the fictional character’s own process, as they too must “construct the facts and the characters around him” (78). In this way, the character’s journey parallels that of the reader, as both are confronted with an imagined world which they are responsible for interpreting. Interestingly, both the reader and the character’s construction can be wrong due to “flaws in the transmitted information” (Todorov 79).
As discussed earlier, the imagined universes created by the author can be quite complex, varying in both reliability and structure. While the narrative world was initially relegated to shaping character identity, Todorov’s theory of construction introduces a second possibility: that character also impacts the environment through reconstructing what is presented. While viewing a play embedded within the narrative of The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa notices that “a gentle chill, an ambiguity” began to creep into the story, signifying that “certain things…will not be spoken aloud” (Pynchon 55). This seems particularly related to the concept of construction, as the reader’s perception of the play is focalized through Oedipa. She is keenly aware that certain signifiers within her world represent more than what appears on the surface, but it is unclear if a reader’s construction of the play would identify a similar ambiguity. Her inability to process this subtlety reflects a similar hesitation in the reader, both unable to fully decode the values that lie hidden within the novel. It operates on another level, however, by disrupting the relationship between reader and character through differing processes of construction, as Oedipa’s state of paranoia leads to a fractured construction which doesn’t seem to properly parallel that of the reader’s.
The same can be said for the narrator, whose attempts to construct his world often come across as misguided. When presented with his mother whispering in another room, for example, he assumes that this points to a larger conspiracy working against him. A trivial detail that nonetheless acts as a referential signifier, the narrator’s inability to properly interpret this transmitted information seems to be related to his overall mistrust of the environment. This mistrust, however, is where the character’s process of construction departs from the reader’s, creating a further divide between the two entities. Both Oedipa and the narrator, through a distrust of the environment and their ability to interpret it, further isolate themselves from the reader.
Recently, my mother tried to take me to the doctor. I told her no, that I wouldn’t go. She threatened to call the police, but I knew she wouldn’t. She said she didn’t recognize me, which I thought was a strange thing to say to someone you’ve known your whole life. But the more I thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. When I saw my mother this morning, she was drinking coffee and reading a book. It struck me that I didn’t really know who was sitting there. Yes, it was my mother, but the more I tried to reconstruct her in my head, the fuzzier she became. I can’t be certain if it’s her anymore, or someone else.
The dreams are becoming worse, sometimes arriving by day. The industrial sky-line will appear behind the trees or in front of a classroom window, signaling what’s about to come. I’ve still never caught a glimpse of my stalker, but I know he’s out there somewhere. Sometimes I see him in the grocer, in the banker, even in my own mother. I sense his presence when I’m at school, and when I’m alone. When I feel the pill slide down my throat, I feel his breath on my neck. No matter how hard I run, I always hear his footsteps echoing behind me.
The world has become a confusing place. I’m not sure I understand it anymore. I distinctly remember the feeling of waking up in the kitchen, arm outstretched and mother hovering overhead. It was like I had lost control of myself, like some other entity had guided my movements towards a destination I didn’t recognize. I had difficulty understanding where I was or who I was, and that scared me. An unescapable sense of disorientation.
I’ve never been able to shake that feeling. When I told my mother this, nearly two years ago, she smiled her motherly smile and hovered a clenched fist over my outstretched hand. When she released, a single blue pill fell from her delicate fingers and landed squarely in my palm.
A character’s reliability is a tricky thing to quantify, as it often seems to shift depending on the circumstances. These circumstances are important for many reasons, as they inform both character and reader on a novel’s particular set of ideas. For this reason, a character’s ability to properly interact with their environment and maintain a cohesive identity seems importantly linked to their respective reliability. As the external world of the novel is responsible for both shaping a character’s external identity and informing their internal agency and uniqueness, the distinction between the two becomes blurred. An inability to reconcile these two things, as seen in the case of Oedipa, leads to a sense of paranoia, or the feeling of personal misrepresentation. The reader experiences a similar level of distrust, but it is aimed at the character and not the external world, as they are the conduit through which construction is possible. Their inability to understand what is happening around them significantly hinders their connection to the reader by diverting their once parallel-paths of construction. Therefore, the reliability of a character seems linked to their ability to reconcile external and internal, and by extension maintain an identity that’s consistent with the world around them. When this is not possible, however, their ability to re-tell events becomes questionable, and the reader is forced to engage in an understanding of the novel without a character by their side. In worlds inhabited by night-time specters and all-powerful corporations, the self is the last place of solace in which both character and reader can congregate. When this is threatened, however, the reader, much like the character, is thrust into a realm where nothing and no one is reliable.
Gelley, Alexander. “Character and Person: On the Presentation of Self in the Novel.” The Modern Language Review, vol. 1, 1987, doi:10.2307/3732438.
Melley, Timothy. “Empire of Conspiracy.” 2017, doi:10.7591/9781501713019.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2014.
Todorov, Tzvetan. “Reading as Construction.” The Reader in the Text, doi:10.1515/9781400857111.67.