Many readers of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 would argue that the conclusion of the novel leaves the meaning of the story open to two primary interpretations. The first of these interpretations is to believe that the Tristero system exists, which means believing that there is “transcendent meaning” (150) in the world. According to this interpretation, the world makes sense and is not a chaotic hodgepodge of random events. Because there is organization in the W.A.S.T.E. system, there is organization that structures and gives meaning to life. The second interpretation is more dismal. It is the idea that Tristero has been a lie the whole time, possibly a fabrication of Pierce Inverarity’s, which sends Oedipa Maas searching for a greater meaning to life that never existed.
When one considers all the factors, however, the scales are tipped in favor of the latter interpretation. The majority of the book might suggest otherwise, since it describes Oedipa’s logical progression and gathering of evidence of Tristero’s existence. Yet at one key moment in the novel, all of the evidence she collects is nullified. After this point, Oedipa continues attempting to validate the Tristero system only because she is in denial. Furthermore, Tristero is nullified partly because Oedipa has always known in the back of her mind that Tristero is a sham- a sham that she wants to believe because the truth is too upsetting.
The key moment that changes Oedipa’s perspective for the rest of the novel occurs when she visits Mike Fallopian again at the Scope. Oedipa asks Fallopian why his group did not use the W.A.S.T.E. system. To Oedipa’s dismay, Fallopian offers the cruel truth that Oedipa dreads: “Has it ever occurred to you, Oedipa, that somebody’s putting you on? That this is all a hoax, maybe something Inverarity set up before he died?” (138). Fallopian knows from Oedipa’s description of Pierce that Inverarity owns nearly all the businesses in San Narcisco. He realizes that because of Pierce’s vast means and connections, it is a distinct possibility that controlling people, and, therefore setting up a huge conspiracy to trick Oedipa, is not a feat beyond Pierce’s reach. Oedipa herself comes to understand that “Bortz, along with Metzger, Cohen, Driblette, Koteks, the tattooed sailor in San Francisco, the W.A.S.T.E. carriers she’d seen” were all quite possibly “Inverarity’s men” (140). Fallopian recognizes these unfortunate circumstances, and he supplies Oedipa with the brutal truth. Up to this point in the novel, Oedipa has collected evidence that she believed would prove the existence of an ordering system. Yet from this point on, Oedipa is forced to consider that Pierce is playing mind games with her from beyond the grave.
One observation readers can make about Fallopian’s words is that he does not seem to be merely speculating, but making a definite assertion. There is no use of any indefinite words such as “maybe,” “possibly,” or “perhaps” in the sentence, “Has it ever occurred to you, Oedipa, that somebody’s putting you on?” (138). To express uncertainty, Fallopian could have said “somebody might be putting you on” or “somebody is probably putting you on.” On the contrary, when one splits the contraction of “somebody’s,” the statement reads “somebody is putting you on.” It is true that in the sentence that follows, Fallopian says “maybe”: “That this is all a hoax, maybe something Inverarity set up before he died?” (138). Yet the “maybe” comes in the second half of the sentence. Therefore, the uncertain speculation is not that Tristero is a hoax. Placed in the first half of the sentence, the “maybe” would have cast a doubt on the fakeness of Tristero: “That this is maybe all a hoax.” This, however, is not the case. In short, Fallopian’s words prove that he is sure that Oedipa believes in a lie. The only doubt in his mind is whether or not Inverarity has intentionally created a set up.
Fallopian’s certainty strengthens the argument that Tristero is false because he serves as a neutral party. He is one of the novel’s select few characters not under Pierce’s thumb, so his words cannot possibly be biased toward or against Piece as Pierce’s employees’ are. In addition, he has been acquainted with Oedipa for only a short amount of time, so he cannot be biased toward or against Oedipa, either. Another testament to Fallopian’s neutrality is that he does not believe in love. He is not a heterosexual, nor is he a homosexual. He is equally not attracted to both sexes. Fallopian’s asexual neutrality establishes him as a trustworthy figure in the novel. He has nothing to gain or lose from telling Oedipa the truth about Tristero because he loves no one. Ergo, Fallopian’s words are objective and worthy of being believed.
Another point that proves Fallopian’s statement is that Oedipa dreads what Fallopian is going to say even before he says it. Evidence of this dread comes in the following sentence: “She sensed what he was going to say and began, reflexively, to grind together her back molars” (138). The very possibility that the Tristero system is a hoax caused Oedipa to become so nervous that she began to grind her teeth as a reflex. It is important to note that Pynchon uses the word “reflexively” in the sentence. Reflexes are involuntary, which means Oedipa did not even intend to begin grinding her teeth; her instincts prompted the nervous action. Here Pynchon is directing his readers’ attention to the idea that Oedipa’s subconscious is active during her conversation with Fallopian. Oedipa does not notice everything she is doing or thinking about. Therefore, she is going through mental processes that are just beneath her awareness or consciousness. If Oedipa’s subconscious instinct in response to Fallopian’s idea is to grind her teeth nervously, then Oedipa must have held doubts about the Tristero system in the back of her mind the entire time. Because Oedipa senses that Fallopian will address the doubts she has formulated in the recesses of her mind, Oedipa’s doubts of Tristero emerge to the forefront of her consciousness, just as Oedipa’s inner worrying emerged in the form of grinding her molars. Therefore, her consciousness of the truth about Pierce Inverarity’s Tristero, W.A.S.T.E., and the muted bugle comes at the exact moment when the wall between her subconscious and consciousness is shattered- when Oedipa grinds her molars the instant prior to Fallopian informing her that Tristero is a hoax.
Another essential word in Pynchon’s language of the subconscious is “sense.” Oedipa did not use logic to figure out what Fallopian was about to say- she “sensed” it. Her gut feeling told her that all the effort she had spent was about to be laid to waste. Her worst fears were about to come true: someone would confirm her unconscious notion that she had been duped into attempting to prove a conspiracy that did not even exist. The truth then emerges from her subconscious along with her teeth grinding, and Oedipa’s anticipation of Fallopian’s words instantly nullify all the evidence Oedipa has gathered since the novel began.
The fact that she sensed what Fallopian was going to say before he said it proves that it was only a matter of time before Oedipa would have to face the truth. Pynchon writes that “It had occurred to her” (138) that Tristero is a hoax. It seems, however, that Oedipa represses all of her doubts about Tristero: “But like the thought that someday she would have to die, Oedipa had been steadfastly refusing to look at that possibility directly, or in any but the most accidental of lights” (138). Thus, Oedipa has brief flashes of doubt, but she views these instances as “accidental.” The use of the word “accidental” suggests that Oedipa views these unpleasant moments as momentary, minor glitches in her thought process, not to be taken seriously. She never stops to think that her moments of doubt are not accidents, so these doubts are left to plague her subconscious until Fallopian finally validates them.
There must have been many of these instances as indicated by Pynchon’s use of the word “steadfastly.” This word indicates that Oedipa has repressed doubts of the existence of Tristero not just once, but she does so frequently. The word “steadfast” has connotations of repeated faithfulness and determination; one cannot be labeled “steadfast” if he or she acts in a certain way just once. Therefore, Pynchon indicates with the word “steadfast” that Oedipa remains faithful to her pursuit of the supposed secrets behind Tristero even if it means denying her constant suspicions.
Even after Fallopian tells her that Tristero is phony, Oedipa still does not want to believe the truth: “‘No,’ she said, ‘that’s ridiculous’” (138). Following Pynchon’s psychological theme of defense mechanisms, this quote displays that Oedipa is in denial. That Tristero is not real has been on her mind frequently, so it cannot be ridiculous. Her reflex of grinding her teeth nervously, the fact that she senses what Fallopian will say before he says it, and her steadfast repression of her doubts all point to the idea that, although she does not want to believe it, she knows that Tristero is a sham.
Pynchon uses the fact of death to remove all doubt as to whether or not Oedipa is in denial: “But like the thought that someday she would have to die, Oedipa had been steadfastly refusing to look at that possibility directly” (138). Here Pynchon compares the idea that Tristero is a hoax to death. Although Oedipa does not often think about it, death is sure no matter what. Death is an immutable truth that cannot change. Because Pynchon compares death to the Tristero hoax, he is implying that Tristero’s fakeness is as sure as death is sure. Yet Oedipa refuses to confront either of these directly. Just as death is no accident, the ultimate realization that Tristero is nonexistent, therefore making the world not organized or meaningful, is no accident. Instead of confronting the truth that she had sensed all along, Oedipa makes use of the psychological defense mechanisms of repression and denial. Oedipa uses these tools to ease the pain the truth that Fallopian objectively provides. She would rather put faith in a lie than come to terms with the idea that life does not have transcendent meaning.
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