The Crying of Lot 49
Oedipa rents a car and leaves her home in Kinneret, California, for the town of San Narciso, where Pierce had lived and where the law firm of Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus, Pierce's law firm, is based. On the way, she drives by the Galactronics Division of Yoyodyne, a company that produces technical parts for the aerospace industry, and she notices that the company moved to San Narciso for tax benefits. Oedipa arrives in the town and checks into the Echo Courts hotel. At the hotel, she meets a man named Miles, one of the hotel's managers, who sings in a band called The Paranoids with Dean, Serge, and Leonard. Miles is truly paranoid and thinks that Oedipa wants to sleep with him when she offers to play one of his band's demo tapes on her husband's radio station.
That night, Metzger, a lawyer from Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus, arrives to help Oedipa in her job of executing the estate. Oedipa quickly learns that Pierce's estate is very complex; she and Metzger have a difficult job ahead of them. Metzger tells her of his weird personal history, relating stories of his job as a child actor named Baby Igor, and as he does so, they drink a very large amount of tequila that Metzger has brought with him. While they are drinking, talking, and working, one of Metzger's films comes on television, and Oedipa watches part of it. He sings to her as they begin to make bets about what will happen at the end of the movie. When Oedipa begins to question him about the film's upcoming ending, Metzger instigates a game of Strip Botticelli, in which Oedipa will have to remove one article of clothing for every question he answers. Oedipa agrees, but first goes to the bathroom and dresses herself in as many layers of clothing as possible, making herself look like a huge overstuffed doll covered in jewelry and undergarments. While dressing, she knocks over a can of hairspray, breaking it and sending it flying all around the bathroom violently. Metzger comes in and lays on top of her while the can flies around. The bathroom gets destroyed, and Oedipa bites Metzger playfully to get him off her.
At this point, Miles and his band show up with a troupe of hippie teenage girls ready to party, but Oedipa asks them all to leave. They go into the hallway and sing songs while Oedipa and Metzger watch the movie some more, commencing the game of Strip Botticelli, although Oedipa never gets substantially more naked because of all her layers. She goes back into the bathroom briefly and is taken aback by the broken mirror, shattered by the flying can of hairspray. She then comes back into the room and falls on top of Metzger, kissing him wildly. The two drift in and out of drunken sleep as they have sex.
Oedipa's arrival in San Narciso is a good introduction to the cultural chaos and mixed messaging that will more thoroughly work their way into later parts of the novel. The second paragraph is particularly indicative of these motifs. Notice the layering related to the setting: The difference between San Narciso and the rest of southern California "was invisible on first glance." In writing this, Pynchon simultaneously asserts the presence of difference and claims it is unnoticeable. In terms of both the differences inherent in San Narcisco and Pynchon's writing, there is a layering of superficiality through which one must pierce in order to get to real meaning. This superficiality and self-referentiality are further embedded in the name San Narcisco, a comical mutation of California place names that alludes to the Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful Greek boy who mistakes his own reflection for another person and promptly falls in love with himself.
Notice also that the paragraph moves from a state of inactivity--"nothing was happening"--to a situation of wild activity marked by voices, music, digging, a whirlwind, and the center of a "religious instant." The "nothing was happening" declaration is particularly troubling because it leads us to believe that the chaotic events that follow it are merely dreamed up in Oedipa's mind. Thus, we see an external world of peace that is mentally blocked out by a woman whose overactive mind leads her to all sorts of wild speculations and imaginings.
This question of reality is one of the most pressing concerns in the novel, particularly later on when Oedipa begins to suspect that the whole Tristero plot may be nothing more than a figment of her own overactive imagination. The problem of understanding the "religious instant" is closely tied to the concept of reality. First, notice that this religious moment has nothing to do with God, at least not directly. It is a type of secular religion that deals with a pagan god of batteries and small towns--a type of order and structure. But whatever is behind the religious instant, it cannot communicate anything in particular. "She gave it up presently, as if a cloud had approached the sun," thus, ending the moment. Oedipa has not come away with a greater sense of understanding but simply with the knowledge that, as the novelist Joseph Heller writes, "something happened." There is no communication as to what. If there is a message implicit in the moment, it is deeply shrouded, and the clouds come in to end the moment before anything can be really gained. The central problem is reaching any sort of underlying truth.
This certainly ties in to the events in the motel with Metzger. The game of Strip Botticelli is particularly illustrative of the plot about to unfold. In the game, the multi-layered Oedipa strips plenty of her clothes off, but she never really approaches any sort of nudity thanks to all her bundles of clothing. On one level, this may be an insight into Oedipa's personality; perhaps Pynchon is trying to assert that she is a multi-layered character who cannot be fully exposed under any circumstances. Indeed, simple, truthful exposure is not possible in this game. However, the game may be a larger allegory for the broader scheme of the detective story about to begin. When Oedipa goes about trying to solve the mystery of the Tristero, she will quickly find that no matter how many insights she discovers or twists she uncovers, she will never fully expose the conspiracy. There are always more layers to the complex plot, and Oedipa will find that each time she strips away a mysterious layer, it only opens up more possibilities and more sub-mysteries to be solved. Strip Botticelli is a means of indicating that the Tristero mystery will never lie open, naked and exposed, because there are always deeper layers to be uncovered.
Finally, notice the way in which Pynchon creates images. The sex scene at the end of the chapter is full of Freudian sexual imagery, all of which is tied in with the events on the margins of the sexual act. For instance, when Oedipa and Metzger begin having sex, Pynchon mentions that the people outside in the hallway are "plugging in" their guitars into amps. The line, "The father seemed to be up before a court-martial, now" is supposed to refer to a character in the film on TV, but its placement immediately after Metzger takes his pants off can only be interpreted as a not-too-subtle means of telling us that he has an erection. The affair between Metzger and Oedipa emerges out of simple desire. In layering the scene with Freudian images through the comedic venue of the Paranoids--Freud being a man deeply engaged in the effort, among other things, to clearly explain sexual desires--Pynchon engages in and mocks the effort to impose interpretation on that which cannot entirely be interpreted.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!