In elucidating the meaning of postmodernism, Fredric Jameson, in his essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Culture,” uses the illustration of a poem whose meaning is not based “in the text at all but outside it in the bound unity of an absent book.” According to Jameson, this is symptomatic of the postmodern perception of space and time–the experience of fragmented moments, a “perpetual present,” based upon images whose meaning are derived from other images.Oedipa Mass, the protagonist of Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49,” delves into this “schizophrenic” postmodern experience of reality in search for the elusive meaning behind the “Tristero System.”Whatever meaning she uncovers is either seemingly a part of some alternate universe, much like the “bound unity of an absent book,” or has become part of a no longer relevant past.
Oedipa begins the novel as an “insulated” suburban housewife, “buffered” from the outside world, like Rapunzel confined in a tower.This buffering is the result of her lack of sensitive perception, “as if watching a movie, just perceptively out of focus,” lacking in “intensity” .Set in motion by her former lover’s will, (Pierce Inverarity, apparently one of the first ‘knights’ who was able to ‘pierce’ her tower walls), Oedipus is led on a string of events that widens her perceptions and strips her of her insulation.However, like Jameson’s account of postmodern “realism,” rather than truly being freed, or disillusioned, Oedipa is “condemned to seek [meaning] through [her] own pop images and stereotypes about that [meaning], which itself remains forever out of reach.” Thus, it seems, what Oedipa has really been buffered from is not the truth itself, but the very fact that she can never look directly at that truth—her loss of mental insulation “springs from the shock of grasping that confinement.”
This transition in Oedipa’s perceptions is marked notably in the difference in the way she views San Narciso. At the beginning of her journey, she looks down onto it from a hill in daylight, and experiences a “religious instant” in which she senses some sort of invisible universe that is trying to communicate to her out of the “ordered swirl” of suburbia.There is a sense of connection, even as it is not understood—she feels that there is something beyond herself that she is a part of. At the end of the novel, on the verge of suicide, she faces San Narciso at night, unable to see the mountains or the sea, having “lost her bearings . . . as if there were no barriers between herself and the rest of the land.” San Narciso gives up its “residue of uniqueness” for her and thus becomes only a word again, meaningless. No longer is there the exciting revelation trembling on the verge of understanding—there is only the image.At this moment, too, she understands that Pierce Inverarity is truly dead, that whatever the invisible universe is trying to say cannot reach her. No longer does she feel that the “dead really do persist.”
Thus, in a sense, Oedipa’s past, represented in Pierce, is also dead.She is living in the “fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents” that accompanies the “transformation of reality into images.” Jameson describes this as the schizophrenic experience of time.Oedipa herself feels an affinity to epileptics, sufferers of ‘DT’s,’ and paranoids.The similarity between these pathologies is the loss of self to something that invades, that permeates, that overwhelms.Postmodern experience necessitates, according to Jameson, an “end to individuality” that links it to these psychoses.The idea of epilepsy and illumination of truth is what first suggests to Oedipa “how far it might be possible to get lost” in her search for meaning.The epileptic experiences an otherworldly phenomena while in the midst of his seizure, yet can never remember it—all that can really be remembered is the mundane image captured in memory at the moment of the seizure’s beginning. Similarly, Oedipa intuits that what she will be left with from her search for truth will only be images, words, and “never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold. Thus, meaning, in the postmodern sense, is something that can only be grasped in fleeting, intangible moments.Jameson similarly describes the “perpetual present” experience of the schizophrenic as a “heightened intensity, bearing a mysterious and oppressive charge of affect . . . felt as loss, as ‘unreality.”
Oedipa Mass comes closest to this state of mind after her mind-expanding night in San Francisco, bombarded by images that were hitherto invisible.She demonstrates just how much of her mental buffering she has shed in her encounter with the old sailor who suffers from ‘DT’s.’ She reaches out to him and touches him, as if “she could not believe in him,” a very different response than the old Oedipa who wrapped herself up in layers of clothes to avoid touching Metzger. At this moment, Oedipa is able to see past the word, the label of “delirium tremens,” and see it for what it is: a metaphor for the “trembling unfurrowing of the mind’s plowshare,” a symbol of his ecstatic and terrible mental isolation.She sees him then as a kind of saint, “a true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself.” This parallels Jameson’s account of the schizophrenic’s experience of material reality as “ever more vivid in sensory ways, whether the new experience is attractive or terrifying.” Oedipa herself becomes mentally “unfurrowed” and through a kind of stream-of-conscious thinking links together the ‘DT’s’ of delirium tremens with the ‘dt’ of a time differential, and arrives at a kind of intuitive understanding of the sailor’s inner mind, which she envisions as “music made purely of Antarctic loneliness and fright.” In a sense, at this moment she becomes like the hypothetical ‘sensitive’ of Maxwell’s Demon.Through a kind of mental ‘entropy,’ she received information from some intangible source, and created a metaphor, linking together two coincidences in a meaningful fashion—just as Maxwell’s Demon served as a metaphor to link together two separate forms of entropy.
From this experience, Oedipa learns that the “act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost.” This could be said to be the defining moment when Oedipa feels strongest the shock of grasping her mental confinement. There is nothing she can do to ‘preserve’ the invisible worlds behind the image, behind the metaphor. When the moment has passed, and her relation to the subject has changed; when a lover dies; when a feeling behind a word has been announced; the minute something has been seen, and understood—then it has already become meaningless in itself.The only way for Oedipa to hold onto meaning in this “perpetual present” is to move immediately to embrace the next image, the next fragment of time.
Oedipa herself is unsure whether she stands “inside, safe, or outside, lost.”But the ambiguous closing of the novel seems to make it clear that she is both.Entering the auction room to “await the crying of lot 49,” Oedipa is both locked in, physically, by the shutting of the door, and locked out, mentally, by the men with “cruel faces” in the room who each try to “conceal his thoughts.” The auctioneer, hovering like a “puppet-master . . . spreads his arms in a gesture that seemed to belong to the priesthood of some remote culture, perhaps to a descending angel.” It is at this seemingly pivotal, apocalyptic moment that the novel ends, thus keeping what seems like the final revelation out of the picture.Like the “bound unity of an absent book,” Pynchon furthers the idea of the ambiguity of truth by keeping the overarching meaning of his book in a kind of half-in-half-out status.Pynchon’s intent, in fact, seems to be to echo in form the process of his protagonist in her quest for meaning behind the word “Tristero.”Like Driblette within the novel, Pynchon is the “projector at the planetarium,” taking from the invisible field and transplanting it into words, images, dropping clues, hints. But the meaning?“You can put together clues, develop a thesis . . . You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth.” Perhaps Pynchon is suggesting that postmodern art, images, TV, life itself, is not really meant to be understood–it is only to be experienced.