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.
The Frow readings have briefly alluded to the religious practice of confession and its strategic secularization into a device for modern literature. Traditionally, the ritual of confession serves for the confessor to acknowledge his or her wrongs in aims to be absolved of sin/ignominy (forgiveness), reform himself or herself through penance, and ultimately be reborn of conscience. In The Sympathizer, Viet Than Nguyen structures the narrative as the protagonist’s confession to his unidentified “Commandant.” In keeping with the Augustinian model of confession, the narrative includes both admittance of wrongdoing as well as proclamations of faith. This is demonstrated in the passage that opens Chapter 7: he admits his guilt over the assassination – “I confess that the major’s death troubled me greatly, Commandant…He was a relatively innocent man” – and then affirms his commitment to the revolutionary project, which serves as a stand-in for God in this book – “We’re revolutionaries, and revolutionaries can never be innocent” (111). This novel’s confessional structure, however, deviates strongly from the religious model because its narrator’s confession is not a voluntary enterprise; it is the result of an exercise of political force. Thus, contained within any ideological proclamations in the text, there is another layer of deception added to the already Janus-faced narrative. It makes me wonder, if in writing this confession the narrator becomes a reformed subject in the eyes of the state, how has his perspective and thus the story we receive been altered? Or how, if it all, does the narrator subvert the limitations of his prescribed confession?
The Bluest Eyes and narrative shifts
The Bluest Eyes keeps shifting the point of view of the narration, through various mechanisms, either through a different narrator or a change in the focalization. If the first part kept mostly to Claudia and an omniscient narrator’s perspective, the second part of the novel is less sparse in using these kinds of devices, as we are made aware of both of Pecola’s parents’ stories – Polly through a first-person narrative like a journal, intertwined with the omniscient narrator’s account, and Cholly through his own internal focalization. We are even invited into Pecola’s mind, in a strange dialogue with an unnamed “friend” (who might be understood as a form of Pecola’s subconscious). In a novel that questions the subjective view of beauty, showing multiple accounts and perspective serves to create and question a previously fixed understanding of what beauty can contain. There is no clear and definite perspective on beauty, and it translates in the form of a wavering identity; there is a clear vocabulary of stripping oneself of everything once the self is viewed through the lens of beauty: Polly experiences it both when she take on the standard of beauty for herself – “in equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap” (122) – and when she gives it up – “Everything went. Look like I just didn’t care no more after that.” The clear dichotomy between “after” and “before” (196) getting blue eyes – or, the equivalent of becoming beautiful – is soon blurred by the unnamed voice who plants seeds of doubts in Pecola’s mind, forcing her to continue her quest – until the last image of her, “searching the garbage” (206).
In The Bluest Eye, the plot is not centered around just one character, but two, both Claudia and Pecola. It is almost difficult to determine who is the minor character in the other person’s story. So when beginning to think about writing a post, I was surprised that I didn’t quite know which character was the main character. If you read the summary added by the publisher on the back of the book, it makes it quite clear that Pecola is the main character, the primary person of interest. No other character is mentioned. But when we read the actual novel, we find that we get none of Pecola’s interiority or internal thoughts, only her outward behaviors and actions. At the same time, we get all of Claudia’s internal thoughts. We can track Claudia’s development on a personal level, but we are always somewhat removed from Pecola. We never hear her internal voice. She is a minor character in her own story.
In the Forward, Morrison writes that, “Begun as a bleak narrative of psychological murder, the main character could not stand alone since her passivity made her a narrative void. So I invented friends, classmates …” (x). How is our understanding of Pecola affected by this status as a ‘minor’ main character? Does it limit the reader’s ability to connect with her? Does it inform the reader’s understanding of her relegated position in society?
It is also interesting to think about the strange things the narration must do in order to have Pecola’s story told by Claudia. There are some instances where Claudia is very clearly the narrator, and where she is talking about thoughts and experiences in first person, many of which have nothing to do with Pecola, like when she is narrating her interactions with her mother or her thoughts about Maureen Peal. However, there are other sections of the story where Claudia is absent, and the story is centered just on Pecola, like the scene with Junior and the cat or the time Pecola goes to buy Mary Janes. These are all narrated in third person. Are we supposed to understand Claudia, perhaps an older Claudia, narrating these stories, or are we supposed to understand them as coming from an outside, third person narrative voice?
In Chapters 5 and 6 of The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa becomes increasingly isolated from her friends and family. Mucho is lost to LSD, Dr. Hilarius goes mad, and Metzger elopes, and Driblette commits suicide, to name a few specific instances. Oedipa’s world, both the “real” domain as well as the one concerning Tristero and Thurn and Taxi, is spiraling out of control. This growing feeling of isolation is hinted earlier on at the beginning of Chapter 5 when the narrator observes, “Oedipa sat, feeling as alone as she ever had, now the only woman, she saw, in a room full of drunken male homosexuals…Despair came over her, as it will when nobody around has any sexual relevance to you” (94). In a scene reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” parallels can be drawn between Oedipa and the typist, especially with relation to the young man carbuncular in an automatic, emotionally empty sexual encounter in “The Fire Sermon.” The level of dissonance in Pynchon’s amalgamation of multiple cultural, geographical, and chronological spaces also relates closely with the cacophonous melding that erupts in The Waste Land.
The sheer lack of communication and genuine human interaction between characters, further worsened by the protagonist’s growing retreat into herself and conspiracy theories, also cuts ties between the reader and the world of The Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa is the main lens through which readers can explore the novel’s fictional world, and this lens becomes increasingly clouded or fractured as Oedipa cuts her ties, either intentionally or not, to this world. The third person limited point of view also contributes to this growing sense of loss and isolation on both the part of Oedipa and the reader. Even as Oedipa learns more about Tristero, only more questions follow, and as she begins to doubt whether her entire voyage might be a foolish wild-goose chase orchestrated by Pierce and becomes suspicious of the acquaintances that are still alive and relatively sane, the reader faces a repeating dilemma of who to trust as options exponentially narrow as the novel races towards an inconclusive end.
“‘Metzger,’ it occurred to her, ‘what is a potsmaster?’ … ‘So they make misprints,’ Metzger said, ‘let them. As long as they’re careful about not pressing the wrong button, you know?'” (33). The irony of course is that the “wrong button” is in fact exactly what is pressed in order to make the typo from postmaster to potsmaster. The dialogue therefore becomes not about whether there is a level of control placed by a higher power onto this fictional world but to what point it is greatly influential on the lives and experiences of the characters – obviously the press of a nuclear button dramatically influences the ability for the characters to interact in the world, while a misprint on an envelope has fewer consequences. But the question arises; what if an obscene message is received? Can it be reported? The function of the notice has lost all relevance to the world because of an uncontrollable structure. The private postage conspiracy that follows this event is then given new meaning; if the purpose of the conspiracy is to fight this uncontrollable power, the same power that has mislabeled the direction for how to report a letter, is the problem it tries to fix worth the effort, and if it is, is there any solution that comes out of division of power anyway?
Though the text was written in the third person, the narration seems to emphasize Oedipa’s point of view, since there’s a lot of description of her mental activity and emotions, while others’ psychology was only implied by their actions and potentially Oedipa’s view of them. It strikes me as interesting that there seem to be so many people whose psychological states were not so stable, and I was not sure whether it was because Oedipa, who showed and was aware of her paranoia symptoms, was more sensitive to those with similar problems, and was more able to identify them, as when she told Miles that he was a paranoia just after exchanging a few sentences. Di Presso claimed “they bug your apartment, they tap your phone” (p.48) after learning the girls were listening, but I see no clear logic to lead to this remark, and it appears much like Di Presso was at least somehow paranoid, extending being probably accidentally overheard to a constant state of being supervised, which may or may not be the case, but nobody present seemed to be surprised at his reaction. I wonder if it could be Oedipa filtering the information she receives: conversations, events, actions, etc. and presenting them to the readers in a way that made it felt like many were paranoid while actually, Oedipa was the only one with paranoia.
The dancing Samba doll in this set of chapters sets off the shooting with which the Invisible Man grapples to find meaning for the final part of this reading. The doll itself, however, has a specific meaning given by the Invisible man as demeaning. – we see recognition of symbols like this earlier in the text with the coin sorting iron figure in his room at Mary’s, and we are to understand through the horrified emotions and deep anger at the Samba doll scene that our protagonist recognizes that humiliation comes with these symbols. Throughout the Samba scene however, the narrator never directly says why the dancing slave doll is so offensive, instead using insights of the internal emotional state of the protagonist combined with our out of text context to let us craft together meaning in the symbol. The meaning of Tod Clifton’s actions therefore for us does not come completely from the text – it fundamentally relies on meaning we’ve already placed into the doll by knowing what it “is”. The causal chain is therefore supposed to continue from this – the doll is profane, so the action is profane. But this causal logic seen earlier in the text seems questioned by the Invisible man. In the previous reading, he says at the Brotherhood event, “was it that she understood that we resented having others think that we were all entertainers and natural singers? But now after the mutual laughter something disturbed me: Shouldn’t there be some way for us to be asked to sing?” (314) Can we make the symbol of a black man singing profane in this section? Can it become something else when approached correctly? And if so, can there be a situation where Tod Clifton is approaching selling the doll in a correct way? The invisible man doesn’t seem to think so – “I thought, seeing the doll throwing itself about with the fierce defiance of someone performing a degrading act in public, dancing as though it received a perverse pleasure from its motions” (431)” Just the doll dancing causes the problems for him.
Character Aspect: Limited Point of View
One aspect of all fictional characters is their point of view, a view that is necessarily limited by their very participation in the fictional narrative. This limited point of view means that there are things inside the narrative that they can see and know, and there are also things that they can never know. If the fictional character is not the narrator, or at least not the sole narrator, the reader is exposed to knowledge that the fictional character does not have. This creates a sympathy in the readers as they watch a character who is necessarily removed from themselves by this difference of knowledge. However, in some fictional works, such as Invisible Man, the main fictional character is the sole narrator. In this case, the reader knows only as much as the fictional character, and is left curious and confounded about the same things that the fictional character is not allowed to know. Thus, the reader emphasizes rather than sympathizes with the fictional character, as they are confused together, with the same level of knowledge.
For example, throughout Invisible Man, there is the constant feeling for both fictional character and reader that there are things going on, forces at work, that involve the fictional character, but about which neither he nor the reader is given the full story. This is the situation of the factory hospital where the invisible man is given electrotherapy. He is confused and we are confused because things are happening to him about which he was never given full disclosure. Thus, he only has part of the story, and due to his being our only source of information, so do we. The situation is similar with the disappearance of Tod Clifton. How he went from being a leader in the Harlem community to selling dolls on a street corner will never be known to us. The narrator wants to know how it happened, and we want to know how it happened, but he will never be in a position to find out, so neither will we.
From the very beginning of the prologue of the Invisible Man, there is a strange dichotomy presented in that, as both the protagonist and first person point of view character, he is the center of our attention as readers, yet within the world of the novel the complete lack of attention people give him renders him effectively invisible, since “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (pg 3). This reaches the point that “you doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds” (pg 4). He doesn’t cease to exist when he “becomes” invisible, he can still attack the man on the street or listen to the music of other invisible people, yet this lack of attention or deliberate acts of ignorance makes him doubt his own personhood. When he’s first called invisible it’s because he’s “learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He’s invisible, a walking personification of the Negative” (pg 94). From this view of invisibility, if someone does not recognize your personhood you start lose your personhood. I find this point of view problematic that from this perspective a person is defined by the perceptions of other people and can even become invisible if you are someone deemed by society to not be worth paying attention to, but it is an interesting argument.