Inverting the Archetypal Heroic Quest
Some thoughts on Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49
©2001, 1990 panamaus. Excerpts ©1966, 1965 Thomas Pynchon.
"He that we last as Thurn and Taxis knew
Now recks no lord but the stiletto's Thorn,
And Tacit lies the gold once-knotted horn.
No hallowed skein of stars can ward, I trow,
Who's once been set his tryst with Trystero."
— From Richard Wharfinger's The Courier's Tragedy Act IV Scene 8
Joseph Campbell's three phases of the archetypal heroic quest are all present in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. However, Pynchon's novel subverts the ending of this classical schema in a way that validates its universality and illustrates its flexibility. This writeup examines how Pynchon follows this formula from a reverse angle, beautifully and effectively turning the archetypal heroic quest inside-out.
Our heroine Oedipa Maas is called to adventure through a letter from the law firm of Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus of Los Angeles, informing her that she is the co-executrix of the estate of the late Pierce Inverarity, a real estate mogul with whom she was once romantically involved. At first she is reluctant to accept her assignment, until Roseman arouses her curiousity ("... Aren't you even interested ... in what you might find out?" (p. 20),) causing her to reflect upon her insulated, Rapunzel-like life in Kinneret-Among-The-Pines, and elect to attempt an escape through this opportunity. An escape to what, she is uncertain.
She proceeds to San Narciso and therein the Galactronics Division of Yoyodyne, Inc. to begin the slow and tedious task of sorting out Inverarity's estate. At this threshold, she encounters a shadow presence guarding her passage. The opening paragraph of chapter three suggests that Pynchon is employing a variation of Alfred Hitchcock's "bomb theory" in his narrative: giving the audience just enough information about something terrible that is going to happen, while revealing nothing to the characters in the story, thus creating suspense. Oedipa's encounters with Metzger, the Paranoids, Mike Fallopian (of the Peter Penguid Society) and her discovery of the "W.A.S.T.E." icon in the ladies' lavatory at The Scope unfold upon her as Campbell's "shadow presence." She must conciliate this presence, or be slain — in this case, Oedipa reneging on her responsibilities as executrix would mean her defeat, as this adventure is her salvation from complacency. She conciliates the shadow presence:
So began for Oedipa, the languid, sinister blooming of the Tristero. Or rather, her attendance at some unique performance, prolonged as if it were the last of the night, something a little extra for whoever'd stayed this late. As if the breakaway gowns, net bras, jeweled garters and G-strings of historical figuration that would fall away were layered as dense as Oedipa's own street-clothes in that game with Metzger in front of the Baby Igor movie; as if a plunge toward dawn indefinite black hours long would indeed be necessary before the Tristero could be revealed in its terrible nakedness. (p. 54)
Beyond this threshold, Oedipa confronts challenges and is often aided by "magical helpers." Her primary challenge is to find out what the Tristero is all about (and how Inverarity's estate is involved), and following an episode with Manny Di Presso and her discovery of the G.I.'s bones at the bottom of Lake Inverarity at Fangoso Lagoons, her research begins with Richard Wharfinger's Jacobian revenge play The Courier's Tragedy
Randolph Driblette (who later commits suicide) confides in her (on the bottom of page 79) that he is the only key of truth to the mystery surrounding the Tristero, but she is distracted by an interest in the bones, and declines his offer. Stanley Koteks and his W.A.S.T.E. revelation, Zapf and his books on Jacobian revenge plays, Mr. Thoth, the philatelist Genghis Cohen, the deaf-mute assembly, John Nefastis and Maxwell's Demon; all these people assist Oedipa in some "magical" way (however minimal or obscure) before her journey into the "underworld," which in her case is San Francisco via the Bay Bridge. She is tossed back and forth by Pynchon on a rollercoaster of discovery and convolution between Berkeley, San Narciso and Oakland, before the mainline of the freeway sucks her into "hades" in her escape from Nefastis - for the "supreme test."
In San Francisco she meets an Inamorati Anonymous member, wanders the streets looking for the W.A.S.T.E. logo, and after dawn finds a dying man who thrusts a letter upon her and directs her to the postal drop. She finds this place and follows a courier through San Francisco, into Oakland, and back into Berkeley. When our heroine emerges from the underworld and makes it back to Kinneret, we realize that the pieces of her life that she returns to are beginning to disintegrate. She seeks counseling only to find that Dr. Hilarius, her shrink, has cracked from the weight of neurotic housewives, and is shooting at passersby outside his clinic - convinced that someone is after him. He advises Oedipa about her "fantasy" of the Tristero:
"Cherish it!" cried Hilarius, fiercely. "What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by its little tentacle, don't let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be." (p. 138)
Her husband, Mucho, is perpetually popping tabs of LSD-25, and can aurally analyze the sound spectrum in his head — but at least he has finally found something he can believe in. Metzger has run off with one of the Paranoid's girlfriends. Her greatest consolation is the information she finds in Emory Bortz's collection of "Wharfingeriana" and then we are dumped on with a sea of unanswered questions and loose ends:
Meaning what? That Bortz, along with Metzger, Cohen, Driblette, Koteks, the tattooed sailor in San Francisco, the W.A.S.T.E. carriers she'd seen -- that all of them were Pierce Inverarity's men? Bought? Or loyal, for free, for fun, to some grandoise practical joke he'd cooked up, all for her embarrassment, or terrorizing, or moral improvement?
... Either you have stumbled ... onto a secret richness and concealed density of dream; onto a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system ... Or are you hallucinating it? Or a plot has been mounted against you, so expensive and elaborate ... all financed out of the estate in a way either too secret or too involved for your non-legal mind to know about ... (p. 170)
Even though Bortz puts two and two together and pretty much spells the Tristero out as it most likely is, we are left with a myriad of choices as to what happens during the crying of lot 49. Is Ghengis Cohen behind this - is he the secret bidder? Are one (or all) of the stern-faced men in the auction room co-conspirators of the Tristero? Is it an elaborate hoax set up by Inverarity as a lesson - or a joke? Is Oedipa's life in danger? Does she have enough information to expose the secret conspiracy? Will she want to? Will she be allowed to do so? What will be done? And the question that still remains - What is really going on here?
Pynchon deliberately inverts Campbell's formulated pattern of the archetypal heroic quest by internalizing the protagonist's challenges and conflicts, and concluding the adventure without joyous rewards or any boon that will restore the world. Oedipa is left with only a perplexing "how and what" and little else but a vague sense of self-knowledge, and we are abandoned with an unresolved conspiratorial view of the Tristero.
Oedipa's victory is in a sense a great remorse, for her adventure leaves her with an understanding that the world is not as it appears to be; that there are dark undercurrents that run through our society just out of sight, based on perverse corruptions of some maniac's perceptions of "historical fact." Oedipa's self-discovery is a rude awakening into a cold reality of cryptic networks built on centuries of fading disenfranchisement; bitter avengers plotting away out of spite, just for kicks, or for reasons which are incomprehensible to the sane mind. A tragic victory, as are all involving such a painful loss of innocence, even if that innocence is predominantly insulation. Pynchon subverts the archetypal "happy ending" to reverberate the theme of this novel right back into our faces.
The author follows the schema in classic form up to a point, where he proceeds to inject trap doors and funhouse mirrors into the heroine's deserved (by Campbell's estimate) rewards. Her victory would be for everything to be revealed, in its sinister nakedness. Instead, she is led to the very brink as the novel ends, and we must come to the realization that we as readers have had the rug pulled out from under us by the prankster Pynchon.
Finally, we must conclude that Pynchon affirms Campbell's study of archetypal patterns by attacking it so rabidly as to go through it and come out somewhere other than naturally intended. Oedipa's quest follows the traditional schema on its own erratic course, veering inside ass-backwards — maybe out of desperation for something new. Pynchon breaks the rules, even if they be as old as the myth of mankind. If we can say he has succeeded at this, what does this say about him? Is subverting the archetypal heroic quest in The Crying Of Lot 49 really so remarkable? And considering the remarkable work that is Pynchon's book, does it really matter if it isn't?
Yet she knew, head down, stumbling along over the cinderbed and its old sleepers, there was still that other chance. That it was all true.... Suppose, God, there really was a Tristero then and that she had come on it by accident. If San Narciso and the estate were really no different from any other town, any other estate, then by that continuity she might have found the Tristero anywhere in her Republic, through any of a hundred lightly-concealed entranceways, a hundred alienations, if only she'd looked. (p. 179)