The University of Texas at Austin

Law in Popular Culture collection

Oklahoma City University Law Review
Volume 24, Number 3 (1999)
reprinted by permission Oklahoma City University Law Review



       In this Article, the Author examines the relationship between legal and social inequities in postwar America and historical narratives that help legitimize and sustain those inequities in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon's satirical history of rival postal delivery systems challenges this pernicious relationship by revealing the subversive presence of history's "Other." The Presence of this Other--most often in the form of subcultures either excluded or co-opted by official or mainstream histories-- belies the fiction of an ideal historical development that supplies the foundation for the legal and social structures of postwar America.
    "Lawyers are monists, historians are pluralists--i.e., lawyers want to recover a single authoritative meaning from a past act or practice, while historians look for plural, contested, or ambiguous meanings."1

     Estate law provides the frame for Thomas Pynchon's novel, The Crying of Lot 49." In the opening paragraph, a California housewife discovers she has been named executrix of the estate of her former lover, real estate mogul Pierce Inverarity. Oedipa Maas suspects the dead man's assets are 


"tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary."2 Indeed, her ability to execute the estate is limited by her "deep ignorance of law, of investment, of real estate."3 If her efforts to "bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning"4 ultimately fail, then her investigation evolves into something far more meaningful--an accurate appraisal of the legal, social, and economic structure of postwar America itself. Having been transformed into a critic of that structure by the novel's conclusion, she considers a radical challenge to the legal system that served as an accomplice to Inverarity's empire.
     For a novel that takes place in the present (California in the summer of 1964), it is also remarkably historical in its scope. While appraising Inverarity's rare stamp collection, Oedipa receives an education in the history of mail delivery. The collection features an odd assortment of forgeries made by The Tristero System, an underground postal delivery network with a shadowy past. She discovers that for the better part of four hundred years The Tristero has maintained a form of guerrilla warfare against its officially-sponsored rivals, Thurn and Taxis (official couriers of the Holy Roman Empire) and the United States Postal Service. Part fact and part fiction, Pynchon's history of rival postal systems satirizes Hegel's dialectical model of history, which in its popular forms still occupied a privileged place the historical imagination of postwar America.
     If the relevance of law and history in the novel is demonstrable, their relationship to each other is not immediately apparent. In his foreword to a special symposium on "The Critical Use of History" in a recent issue of the Stanford Law Review, Robert W. Gordon supplies a theoretical framework which is particularly useful in elucidating the complex relationship between law and history in Lot 49. Lawyers, according to Gordon, do not typically use history in a "critical" sense. Rather, the past serves lawyers as a source of authority that legitimizes the present legal system: "History is not only a source of authority but of legitimacy: It reassures us that what we do now flows continuously out of our past, out of precedents, traditions, fidelity to statutory and Constitutional texts and meanings."5 Although lawyers obviously recognize historical changes in jurisprudence, they "establish connections between past and present 


through stories that integrate them into a reassuring narrative of continuity."6
     Gordon identifies three distinct modes of such reassuring narratives in American legal discourse--narratives of recovery, progress, and teleology:
A narrative of recovery ... is one in which the legal system is seen as ready to be guided to recover the purity of its original principles. By contrast, a narrative of progress is one in which the legal system is seen as obeying a long-term process of historical transformation--e.g., from feudalism to liberal capitalism, status to contract, subordination to equality. Finally, a teleological narrative is one which shows legal forms working themselves pure over time to reveal their core of immanent principle.7
Against these reassuring modes of historical emplotment, Gordon recommends the strategic use of critical history.
     If lawyers look to the past for "a single authoritative meaning," then historians look for "plural, contested, or ambiguous meanings."8 Gordon is perhaps too charitable to historians, who are often as deeply invested as lawyers in the master narratives of recovery, progress and teleology. In fact, strong opposition to the "critical" historiography of Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra testifies to the continuing influence of such master narratives. That critical history is still controversial even within the field of history only underscores, however, its value as a contestatory practice, whether in legal or historical discourse. Gordon defines critical history as:
any approach to the past that produces disturbances in the field--that inverts or scrambles familiar narratives of stasis, recovery or progress; anything that advances rival perspectives (such of those as the losers [sic rather than the winners) for surveying developments, or that posits alternative trajectories that might have produced a very different present-- in short any approach that unsettles the familiar strategies that we use to tame the past in order to normalize the present.9


The relationship between law and history in Lot 49 is better understood in the context of Gordon's dichotomy between reassuring and critical forms of history.
     As I will demonstrate, Pynchon's satire of the Hegelian dialectic performs the same subversive function as Gordon's critical history. First, it denaturalizes the legal, social, and economic structure of present day America by questioning the legitimating truth-claims of the establishment's reassuring historical narratives. Second, it destabilizes narratives of continuity and progress by revealing what Gordon calls "discontinuous breaks" and "great epistemic shifts" in the trajectory of history. Third, it reinterprets official historical narratives as if from the perspective of history's "losers," whom Pynchon figures in the allegorical terms of The Tristero System. This rival interpretation demonstrates how "progress" has depended upon the systematic exclusion, violent conquest, or co-option of history's various "Others." Fourth and most important, it underscores the opportunity for a more ethical social order in the present by suggesting the possibility of a rival pattern of historical development that might have led to greater cultural diversity. Indeed, Pynchon's description of the various underground subcultures that use The Tristero in mid-sixties America constitutes a pluralistic, ethical alternative to the oppressively monological postwar order.
     To identify the target of Pynchon's historical satire, it is necessary to examine his diagnosis of a contemporary cultural crisis. Pynchon figures the structure of postwar America in the physical landscape of San Narciso, the fictional Orange County city that served as Inverarity's headquarters. Stepping out of her rented Impala, Oedipasees San Narciso spread out below her:
She looked down a slope [...] onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she'd opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had [....] [T]here were to both outward patterns a 

hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate.10
In this famous image of the city as a printed circuit, the visible structure of San Narciso provides insight into the organizing principles of an entire system of culture. Perhaps the most curious feature of this inorganic landscape is that it appears to be unnaturally devoid of people. The first "neighborhood" Oedipa discovers is in fact automobile-centered. The area was "little more than the road's skinny right-of-way, lined by auto lots, escrow services, drive-ins, small office buildings and factories whose address numbers were in the 70 and then 80,000s. She had never known numbers to run so high. It seemed unnatural."11
     The organizing principles of San Narciso do not serve people, or even cars, so much as they reflect a system of inter-connected concepts. As the narrator notes, like many "places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts--census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway."12 The suggestion is that "concepts" like zoning and tax laws facilitated a postwar development boom that transformed both the physical and cultural landscape of America. With the noted exception of powerful moguls like Inverarity, who manipulate the legal system to serve their selfish interests, zoning and tax laws do not serve the people but the interests of capital itself. The narrator explicitly identifies the landscape with capitalism. In 1954, Inverarity had "begun his land speculating [...] and so put down the plinth course of capital on which everything afterward had been built, however rickety or grotesque, toward the sky."13
  As the allusion to the myth of Narcissus might suggest, San Narciso is governed by a self-referring logic. Since it is impossible to understand the cultural logic of San Narciso in isolation from legal discourse, it is not surprising that a spokesperson for this system of culture is Inverarity's lawyer, Metzger. In one of the oddest seduction scenes in the annals of fiction, Oedipa spends her first night in San Narciso getting drunk and watching television with her co-executor at her hotel room at Echo Courts. Just as Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection, Metzger's seduction 


strategy revolves around an image of himself. As it turns out, the evening's television fare happens to be Cashiered, an old movie that features none other than Baby Igor, Metzger's professional name when he was a child actor.
     Reinforcing this theme of a closed, self-referring system, a seemingly endless parade of advertisements for Inverarity's various business interests illustrates the mutually reinforcing relationships between television, capital and, as Metzger's intimate knowledge of the estate would suggest, corporate law. The first commercial is for Inverarity's new housing development, Fangoso Lagoons. When a map of the project flashes on the screen, Oedipa is reminded of her vision of the printed circuit earlier that day: "Some immediacy was there again, some promise of hierophany: printed circuit, gently curving streets, private access to the water, Book of the Dead."14 This dystopic vision of planned communities is followed by ads for Beaconsfield Cigarettes (Inverarity, according to Metzger, owned fifty-one percent of that company's valued filter process) and Hogan's Seraglio, a Turkish bath in "downtown" San Narciso. The references to Inverarity eventually become so frequent that Metzger would simply say "Inverarity's," or "Big block of shares." Finally, he would settle for "nodding and smiling."
     In this scene, Pynchon demonstrates a disconnection between the system of culture and its subjects. Simultaneously monotonous and bewilderingly complex, a barrage of information about Inverarity's estate triggers the psychological discomfort associated with information overload. In fact, Oedipa becomes so annoyed that she threatens to wrap the TV tube around Metzger's head if he supplies any more information linking the commercials to the estate. Oedipa's irritation is symptomatic of a deeper problem: that individual subjects unable to make sense of the logic that governs their lives are likely to view the system of culture with deep suspicion, or even to postulate the existence of vast conspiracies. Indeed, it occurs to Oedipa that Metzger may have bribed the engineer at the local station to run Cashiered as part of an elaborate seduction plot. She reasons that it must be more than a coincidence that everything on TV that night refers back to Metzger or to Inverarity's estate. While Pynchon does nothing to contradict that possibility, it is more productive to interpret the evening's programming as a commentary upon a culture that operates as if by conspiratorial logic to maintain the postwar establishment.


     As Gordon's essay on the relationship between history and law would suggest, systems of culture rely in part upon historical narratives that help justify and sustain them. In Lot 49, one of the most significant of these legitimating narratives is the "official" history of postwar America: the grand narrative of American destiny. Pynchon cleverly represents this grand narrative through Inverarity's rare stamp collection. At first glance, Inverarity's stamps reflect the conventional iconography of an heroic American past: Columbus' discovery of the New World, Manifest Destiny and the conquest of the West, and the great promise of individual freedom symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. This monumental version of American history tends to naturalize any present legal, social, and economic order as if it were an inevitable stage of an ideal historical development. The dream of an ideal historical process governed by universal laws of rational necessity evokes the Hegelian dialectic and its analogues--ideal unity, continuity, teleology, and totality. These formal characteristics of Hegelian idealism have two significant effects upon the present social order: first, they justify the current order by suggesting the present could not be other than it is; second, they provide a normative model for how society should be organized. Not surprisingly, Pynchon describes a postwar America characterized by a myth of consensus, a teleological faith in material progress, and a totalizing cultural logic.
     If, however, the closed system of postwar America is recognized for what it is, an artificial construct (as the image of the printed circuit certainly implies), then it can be deconstructed. Poststructuralist philosophy has demonstrated how a totalizing structure can be challenged--by showing how it is founded upon that which it excludes. By exposing an aporia, that which is irreducibly in excess of a system, the system can be deconstructed. This is precisely what Pynchon does. To undermine the monumental version of history, he attacks the ethical implications of its essentially Hegelian structure--a structure that depends upon the systematic exclusion of history's Other.
     As John Grumley notes in History and Totality: Radical Historicism from Hegel to Foucault, Hegel's early work is best understood as a response to the rapid disintegration of cultural unity during a turbulent period in European history. Hegel understood particularity and social division, or "diremption," as the central problems of the age and the 


"reconstitution of the 'whole"' as its principal philosophical challenge.15 While Hegel accepted particularity as inevitable, he regards it as a necessary foil or counterforce to unity in the dialectical process. After all, there can be no advance without opposition to the present order. Indeed, the progressive, processual emancipation of human spirit is achieved by positing this opposition as "Other" only to later absorb it in a synthesizing process that leads to ever-greater unities--in particular to the unity of the state, which represents the highest expression of unity and the true subject of history.16
     Instead of viewing the Hegelian dialectic as a progressive realization of human freedom or unfolding of world spirit into new ideal unities, Pynchon understands the synthesizing process as a violent conquest of the Other in the service of hegemonic interests. Far from constituting an obstacle which must be overcome, social division signals to Pynchon the possibility of an irreducibly diverse, non-hegemonic culture in which the Other is not conquered or co-opted but retains its otherness. The mere presence of history's Other, which is revealed most clearly in moments of diremption, belies the fiction of unity that is the foundation for the received history of postwar America and for the legal and social structure it serves. To counter this pernicious relationship between history and the postwar order, Pynchon reconfigures Hegel's dialectical system by casting the Other as the hero of his historical satire.
     Fascinatingly, Pynchon explicitly links the Tristero to the Other. Oedipa first hears the name "Trystero" (alternate spelling) at a performance of a Jacobean revenge play, The Courier's Tragedy. She later discovers that the name only appears in a rare edition of the play published by the Scurvhamites, Pynchon's fictional example of a "sect of most pure Puritans." She learns the Scurvhamites believed in two mechanisms of predestination: "the Scurvhamite part, ran off the will of God, its prime mover. The rest ran off some opposite Principle, something blind, soulless; a brute automatism that led to eternal death."17 The Manichean Scurvhamites saw in the Trystero an ideal symbol for "the brute Other, that 


kept the non-Scurvhamite universe running like clockwork [.... Evidently they felt Trystero would symbolize the Other quite well."18
     Historical evidence of this Other first surfaces when Oedipa's philatelist expert, Genghis Cohen, discovers some "irregularities" in Inverarity's stamp collection. It appears that The Tristero has created a number of forgeries that darkly satirize the grand narrative of American destiny celebrated in the authentic issues. As a result, a very different picture of American history comes into focus. In the Columbian Exposition Issue, "Columbus Announcing His Discovery," "the faces of three courtiers, receiving the news at the right-hand side of the stamp, had been subtly altered to express uncontrollable fright"; in the Centenary Issue celebrating an icon of westward expansion, the Pony Express, the head of the rider "was set at a disturbing angle unknown among the living"; and on a 1954 regular issue was a "faint, menacing smile on the face of the Statue of Liberty."19 In each of these stamps, idealistic images designed to commemorate American identity, destiny, or historical progress are recast as if from the perspective of those who were its victims. Ironically then, the forgeries tell a truer story about American history than the authentic stamps. That the Tristero is symbolically linked with those who cannot share enthusiasm for the reassuring narratives of recovery or progress is confirmed in another forgery which depicts the Capitol dome: "at the top of the dome stood a tiny figure in deep black [the traditional uniform of a Tristero rider, with its arms outstretched. Oedipa wasn't sure what exactly was supposed to be on top of the Capitol, but knew it wasn't anything like that."20 Tellingly, the actual statue which graces the top of the dome is the figure of a Native American.
     With the help of Cohen and Emory Bortz, an English Professor at San Narciso College, Oedipa manages to cobble together a history of The Tristero. Like Hegel, the history which Pynchon constructs highlights such decisive turning points in history as the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution. Hegel values these historical moments in spite of the fact that they led to particularity in the short term, for they ushered in new stages in the long march toward absolute unity. While Pynchon also celebrates historical ruptures, he does so because they carried the potential for cultures in which particularity and diversity are valued for their own 


sake and not simply as antithetical forces in a dialectical process that reaches apotheosis only in unity.
     Since historical ruptures occur when the old verities which underpin powerful hegemonies are called into question, it is not surprising that Pynchon situates the emergence of The Tristero in the Reformation when crises caused by religious and scientific revolutions triggered diremption throughout much of Europe, and particularly in the Holy Roman Empire. Tristero, a disinherited Spanish noble who claimed to be the rightful heir to the Thurn and Taxis postal monopoly in the Holy Roman Empire, founded his alternative system when, for the first time in centuries, there was no common religious belief-system in Europe: "It may have been some vision of the continent-wide power structure [...] now momentarily weakened and tottering, that inspired Tristero to set up his own system."21 Luther and other major figures of the Protestant Reformation emphasized a personal interpretation of the Bible that threatened the authority of the Church as a mediating agent--hence the commonplace observation that the modern cult of individualism can be traced to Luther's theological challenge. Grumley points out that Hegel valued the Protestant Reformation because it was a "decisive modern landmark in the awakening of free subjectivity."22 But the Protestant Reformation also led to particularity, and it is on this issue that Hegel and Pynchon sharply differ. While Hegel saw particularity as something to be overcome, Pynchon welcomes the emerging Protestant counter-culture precisely because it might have led to a pluralistic culture more tolerant of religious differences.
     Pynchon's emphasis upon the Holy Roman Empire is also an appropriate choice to locate the emergence of an agency representing difference and diversity. Nominally under the central authority of an elected Holy Roman Emperor, power in the Empire was in fact notoriously decentered. As historian Mary Fulbrook points out, the Empire "had evolved a rather different political pattern from that of the more centralised monarchies of England and France."23 In contrast to the unified nation-state, the "political map of [the Empire ... was exceedingly complex, a patchwork of dynastic and ecclesiastical territories dotted with imperial free cities and the castles of independent imperial knights."24 Pynchon would 


probably agree with Fulbrook that the Empire's decentered structure should not be "viewed, anachronistically, with the assumption that the unified nation state is the ultimate goal of history."25 Rather than viewing (as Hegel certainly did)26 the Empire's unusual structure as an anomaly which requires explanation or apology, Pynchon identifies a lost opportunity for the formation of social and political orders far less authoritarian and monological than elsewhere in Europe.
     Pynchon situates the next opportunity for the Tristero at a time when the source of political authority in the Empire was most uncertain. When the Empire plunges into virtual anarchy during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and its immediate aftermath, the "actual locus of power" in Thurn and Taxis "remained uncertain." With "signs of decay in the system," the Tristero believes "the great moment [was] finally at hand."27 Pynchon welcomes decay in the Empire because the "coming descent into particularism"28 seemed to represent a golden opportunity for pluralism.
     Although the Reformation and the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire signaled the possibility for a culture tolerant of radical difference and diversity, their promise went unfulfilled as new political and religious formations reconsolidated power, knowledge, and culture. After the resolution of the Thirty Years War, the Empire entered a period of political history characterized by structural stability in the form of authoritarian local governments. In this "Age of Absolutism," the metaphysical uncertainty occasioned by the Reformation failed to deliver religious freedom. As Fulbrook notes, after the Peace of Augsburg dissenters "from the religious confession of a given territory would have to emigrate .... 'Freedom' of religion thus meant freedom at the territorial, rather than individual, level .... This was an ironic outcome of a struggle which had started as a struggle for individual experience of faith...."29
     Pynchon supplies a possible reason for this failure in the performance of The Courier's Tragedy. As the narrator notes, the off-stage presence of the Trystero appears to represent an unspeakable force, even more terrible than the mundane evils of torture, incest, and murder that fill nearly every scene of the play. Whenever the possibility of The Trystero's intervention in state affairs occurs to the characters,


a gentle chill, an ambiguity, begins to creep in among the words. Heretofore the naming of names has gone on either literally or as metaphor. But now ... a new mode of expression takes over. It can only be called a kind of ritual reluctance. Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown onstage; though it is difficult to imagine, given the excesses of the preceding acts, what these things could possibly be.30
     Perhaps The Trystero is perceived as frightening because it represents to the Jacobean audience a fate worse than mere death--religious uncertainty. The Trystero is a religiously ambiguous force, neither good nor evil but radically Other.
     Europe found a new bulwark of certainty during the Age of Reason. Sensing that conditions had become less favorable, the Tristero passes into "the penumbra of historical eclipse." When the Tristero next surfaces, its character changes to accommodate new fears and categories of Otherness. The Tristero still represents a disruptive force to those in power; but whereas in the religious age the Tristero was invested with supernatural qualities, it is now viewed as a secular threat to power. During this period, Thurn and Taxis "come to discover the secular Tristero. Power, omniscience, implacable malice, attributes of what they'd thought to be a historical principle, a Zeitgeist, are carried over to the now human enemy." As Bortz notes, it was even suggested that The Tristero "staged the entire French Revolution, just for an excuse to issue the Proclamation of 9th Frimaire, An III, ratifying the end of the Thurn and Taxis postal monopoly in France and the Lowlands."31 Of course the Reign of Terror prematurely ended the revolutionary bid for individual freedom. Ironically, Hegel blamed the failure of the French Revolution on individualism and particularism, the very things that may have prompted Pynchon to include the French Revolution in his short list of historical events that promised but ultimately failed to deliver individual freedom, diversity, and tolerance of differences.
     Later still, The Tristero first becomes explicitly involved with anarchy, an association it will maintain to the present day. The Tristero begins to handle the correspondence of anarchist movements and is linked to the various uprisings of 1848: "in Germany with the ill-fated Frankfurt 


Assembly, in Buda-Pesth at the barricades, perhaps even among the watchmakers of the Jura, preparing them for the coming of M. Bakunin."32 Inthe wake of the failures of 1848, The Tristero finally emigrates to the United States in 1849-50. Pynchon again chooses a historical moment ripe with possibilities. Just as The Tristero was founded at a time of religious crisis and political fragmentation, it re-surfaces in a nation absorbing a massive influx of immigration. As a result of the melting pot ideology, however, the rich potential for cultural diversity goes unrealized. Oedipa learns from Mike Fallopian that the federal government began in 1861 a campaign "designed to drive any private competition into financial ruin." According to Fallopian, who is writing a history of private mail delivery in the United States, the year 1861 is no coincidence. The suppression of private carriers is related to crushing the South's rebellion of the same year, for the Civil War afforded the federal government an opportunity to launch its cherished project of centralizing power. Fallopian "saw it all as a parable of power, its feeding, growth and systematic abuse."33 Oedipa later learns The Tristero resisted assimilation into the "melting pot" by operating "in the context of conspiracy" against the Pony Express.34
     Although Fallopian, a member of a right-wing paramilitary organization, is a dubious source, Pynchon seemingly shares his assessment of the trajectory of American history. The centripetal tendencies in American history identified by Fallopian culminated in the fifties and early sixties in the monolithic order embodied in San Narciso. Oedipa wonders how had it ever happened in America, "with the chances once so good for diversity?" Indeed, she feels as if she were "walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless." Postwar America's binary cultural vocabulary excluded an entire range of middle options, and Oedipa had "heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided."35
     Since, however, there was no place for the excluded middles to go, "there had to exist the separate, silent, unsuspected world" of The Tristero.36 In seemingly every place she looks, Oedipa finds a counterforce to the America she grew up in and thought she knew. As early as her 


second night in San Narciso, she spies her first muted post horn (The Tristero's symbol) at a bar that caters to employees of Yoyodyne, another of Inverarity's holdings and "one of the giants of the aerospace industry." The eccentric individuals at The Scope are alienated, both from Yoyodyne and America. The source of their alienation takes many forms. Mike Fallopian, for example, is opposed to any government monopoly, including the postal system. Oedipa bumps into another disgruntled employee at Yoyodyne's headquarters. Stanley Koteks is angry that the company forces engineers to waive their legal patent rights in the name of a teamwork ethos that discourages individual creativity: "Teamwork [...] is one word for it, yeah. What it really is is a way to avoid responsibility. It's a symptom of the gutlessness of the whole society."37
     Later, during an all-night excursion in the Bay Area, it becomes apparent that Yoyodyne's employees are just the tip of the iceberg of alienation. Wondering whether she is the victim of a colossal, posthumous hoax by Inverarity, whose confederates, she hypothesizes, might have arranged to plant the post horns in advance of her movements, Oedipa decides to drift at random to see whether The Tristero exists independent of the closed system of the estate. For a suburbanite like Oedipa, San Francisco is associated with "the customary words and images (cosmopolitan, culture, cable cars)."38 But over the course of the night Oedipa discovers a side of the city the tourists rarely see. In her encounters with various subcultures that use The Tristero, there is an implicit need for critical histories that challenge the grand narrative of American history and thus destabilize the postwar order it helps buttress.
     In North Beach, Oedipa wanders into a gay bar, The Greek Way, where she meets a member of the Inamorati Anonymous (IA), a society of isolates dedicated to principle that falling in love is the "worst addiction of all." Although the unidentified man claims to be neither gay nor straight, his patronage of a gay bar pointedly reminds us that in mid-sixties America gays did indeed belong to a kind of Inamorati Anonymous--that is, a society of isolates afraid to acknowledge their sexual preference because of strict social norms. Not surprisingly, the IA member is wearing a pin shaped like a muted post horn on his lapel. After Oedipa tells him what she has found out about the history of The Tristero, he acknowledges that he 


"never thought there was a history to it."39 Here Pynchon identifies a major problem: the absence of an articulated historical tradition contributes to the legal and political vulnerability of subcultures like gays. Soon after the publication of Lot 49 in 1966, the gay movement began in earnest, fueled in part by the construction of a historical tradition to fill the void in mainstream histories.
     In Chinatown, Oedipa spies what appears to be a post horn on a sign among ideographs in the window of an herbalist. In the dim streetlight, she also makes out a pair of post horns written in chalk on the sidewalk. Between the two post horns is a series of boxes with letters and numbers inside them. Oedipa wonders whether this is a kid's game or something more, perhaps "[p]laces on a map, [or] dates from a secret history."40 Unlike the emerging gay subculture of the sixties, Chinese Americans had access to the mature historical tradition of China but felt compelled to keep it "secret." As a result of the melting pot ideology, many (especially American-born) Chinese Americans abandoned their Chinese roots in favor of dominant Eurocentric historical narratives. In identifying the need to recover ethnic histories, Pynchon anticipated one of the most dynamic developments in American letters over the coming decades. By the late sixties, a wide variety of ethnic writers began to recover historical traditions that had long been dormant. As a Chinatown character says in Frank Chin's novel, Donald Duk, "like Confucius himself, I will restore ways that have become abandoned and recover knowledge that has been lost."41
     Still later on a bus in an African American neighborhood, Oedipa notices a post horn scratched into the back of a seat. Representing a kind of shadow work force, the "busful of Negroes going on to graveyard shifts all over the city"42 do not participate in whatever prosperity mid-sixties America might provide. This economic inequality suggests the need for a history that could help explain the continuing effects of the past upon the socio- economic conditions of contemporary black America. Such an approach would later become paradigmatic for Houston Baker, who argues that the history of African American letters can only be fully understood if it were grounded in the "economics of slavery."43


As the night winds down, the roster of subcultures using The Tristero steadily expands. Indeed, as the narrator observes: "Last night, [Oedipa] might have wondered what undergrounds apart from the couple she knew of communicated by WASTE ["We Await Silent Tristero's Empire"] system. By sunrise she could legitimately ask what undergrounds didn't."44 In fact, it can be argued that Pynchon is a bit too promiscuous in his celebration of Otherness. In a washroom at the airport, for example, Oedipa finds an advertisement for the Alameda County Death Cult (AC-DC) along with a WASTE address. The AC-DC would "choose some victim from among the innocent, the virtuous, the socially integrated and well-adjusted, using him sexually, then sacrificing him."45 While Pynchon's description of the AC-DC is amusing, its inclusion under the umbrella of Otherness compromises the moral authority of legitimate subcultures that were still fighting for their basic civil rights, notwithstanding the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that very year. The inclusion of parodic figures such as an incestuous mother and son who believe that dolphins will succeed man has encouraged many commentators to assume this entire sequence is one of many examples of textual undecidability designed to frustrate Oedipa's (and the reader's) desire for total understanding, for the "Word, the cry that might abolish the night."46 Although textual undecidability is indeed central to Pynchon's fiction, such a reading ignores the fact that for the first time in the novel The Tristero is not just a theoretical Other, a virus in the digital computer of official culture. As Thomas Kharpertian notes, it is not insignificant that for the first time Oedipa's encounters with the disinherited "take place in an 'actual,' not fictional, locale."47 While it is obvious The Tristero only exists within the fictional universe of Lot 49, many of the subcultures which Oedipa encounters during her night's wanderings do exist in the real Bay Area of the 1960s.
     Various ethnic subcultures, people of "unorthodox sexual persuasions," anarchists, frustrated inventors, and right-wing ideologues cannot find meaning in the homogeneous structure of official America. Anticipating the "drop out" movement of the late sixties, they disengage from the official system altogether:


For here were God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by U.S. Mail. It was not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote, loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private.48
Feeling politically disenfranchized and cheated by legal "loopholes," the users of The Tristero withdraw from the system because they find it unintelligible. Here Pynchon uncharacteristically appears to be in agreement with Hegel. As G. Heiman notes, Hegel believed all "civilized nations ought have a thorough and clearly comprehensible code of law."49
     While walking along a stretch of railroad tracks in San Narciso late in the novel, Oedipa finally understands that Inverarity's city and the alienation it engenders in those who cannot recognize their own interests and aspirations in its laws or in its economic system are pandemic conditions in postwar America: "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.50 "There was the true continuity, San Narciso had no boundaries."51 In this lyrical passage, Oedipa demonstrates an understanding of American society that was unimaginable a few short weeks ago when she left Kinneret-Among-The-Pines. By learning to identify "storm-systems of group suffering and need" and the "prevailing winds of affluence" on the national weather map, Oedipa has solved the mystery of Inverarity's legacy: "She had dedicated herself, weeks ago, to making sense of what Inverarity had left behind, never suspecting that the legacy was America."52
     Armed with this deeper understanding of the problem of injustice in postwar society, Oedipa considers a legal maneuver that is best understood 


within the context of the revolutionary milieu of the mid-sixties.53 Throughout the novel, one gets the sense that the summer of 1964 is poised at the very cusp of a historical transition between the repressive fifties and the radical late-sixties. At Berkeley in particular, Oedipa becomes aware of this profound cultural shift and of its potentially revolutionary consequences:
She moved through [campus] carrying her fat book, attracted, unsure, a stranger, wanting to feel relevant but knowing how much of a search among alternate universes it would take. For she had undergone her own educating at a time of nerves, blandness and retreat among not only her fellow students but also most of the visible structure around and ahead of them ... and this Berkeley was like no somnolent Siwash out of her own past at all, but more akin to those Far Eastern or Latin American universities you read about, those autonomous culture media where the most beloved of folklore may be brought into doubt, cataclysmic of dissents voiced, suicidal of commitments chosen--the sort that bring governments down [.... Where were Secretaries James and Foster and Senator Joseph, those dear daft numina who'd mothered over Oedipa's so temperate youth? In another world.54
Without exaggeration, what Oedipa discovers in the summer of 1964 is another world than the one she left behind in suburban Kinneret-Among-The-Pines. Indeed, Pynchon discloses the latest in a series of similar historical ruptures and asks whether this current instance will succeed in delivering true diversity and tolerance of difference where previous instances had failed.
     Recognizing a revolutionary window of opportunity, Oedipa contemplates distributing the estate to the disinherited "shadow-legatees" Inverarity's America had disinherited. She realizes such a radical challenge would encounter swift and decisive opposition from a legal establishment still aligned with the Cold War rhetoric of postwar America:


How many shared Tristero's secret, as well as its exile? What would the probate judge have to say about spreading some kind of a legacy among them all, all those nameless, maybe as a first installment? Oboy. He'd be on her ass in a microsecond, revoke her letters testamentary, they'd call her names, proclaim her through all Orange County as a redistributionist and pinko, slip the old man from Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus [Metzger's law firm] in as administrator de bonis non and so much baby for code, constellations, shadow-legatees.55
This imagined mobilization of the legal establishment to block any redistributionist scheme has a firm basis in reality. But if the official establishment remains resolutely in power at the novel's conclusion, Oedipa's revolutionary impulse hints of the possibility of alternative legal and political systems. For the reconstruction of America's legal, social, and economic structure, Oedipa had only to wait "for another set of possibilities to replace those that had conditioned the land to accept any San Narciso among its most tender flesh without a reflex or a cry."56 If Oedipa is "unfit perhaps for marches and sit-ins," the Berkeley scene suggests at least that such a set of possibilities had emerged.
     Pynchon is understandably coy about what an alternative structure might look like. We are given a glimpse of a possible order, or perhaps anti-order, when Oedipa stumbles upon a dance of deaf mutes in the grand ballroom of her hotel in Berkeley. In response to the dystopic systematicity of San Narciso, Pynchon supplies a vision of anarchy that is nothing if not utopic. As each couple dances to "whatever was in the fellow's head: tango, two-step, bossa nova, slop," Oedipa waits for collisions which must, surely, occur. When no collisions do occur, Oedipa concludes that the only possible explanation is an order entirely alien to her Western way of thinking: "The only alternative was some unthinkable order of music, many rhythms, all keys at once, a choreography in which each couple meshed easy, predestined." Oedipa's acquaintance, the Mexican anarchist Jesus Arrabal, would have called it "an anarchist miracle."57
     The metaphor of the dance of the deaf mutes illustrates the limits of a subversive ethos which, by conceiving of the very principle of order in 


exclusively negative terms, sees anarchy as the only ethical alternative. Here Pynchon risks defining the range of cultural options in the binary terms he elsewhere conceives as dangerous. Like Arrabal, Pynchon would like perhaps to believe in the possibility of an anarchist miracle, of "another world's intrusion into this one [...]. Where revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul's talent for consensus" enables a coalition of the disfranchised to "work together" against the common enemy.58 Yet the conception of anarchy as a harmonious coalition of have-nots ignores significant tensions within and between marginalized subcultures; it depends upon a single us-them dichotomy (between the official order and the users of The Tristero), when in fact there is a proliferation of us-thems.
     Pynchon later supplies a more apt metaphor for culture. If the dance of the deaf mutes is an anarchist miracle, then Oedipa later discovers the "secular miracle of communication." Observing a web of telephone wires stretched above the railroad tracks, Oedipa imagines thousands of disconnected Americans attempting to communicate during the night's "darkest, slowest hours." She envisions the sheer density of communication in the sublime terms of a "roar of relays."59 Pynchon began his novel with a figure of communicational entropy in the postwar order, the printed circuit of the transistor radio. With this image of a polyglot roar of relays, he suggests that discursive space had become increasingly contested by the mid-sixties.
     In many ways, Pynchon's novel anticipated the profound decentering of American culture that took place over the next thirty years. Since the publication of Lot 49, many of the underground cultures that formed The Tristero became more visible, demanding and in most cases securing greater legal rights and political power than they enjoyed in postwar America. It is no accident that one of the strategies used by those subcultures is the practice of what Gordon calls "critical history." In part by challenging the reassuring assumptions of conventional historical narratives, African Americans, Chinese Americans, gays, and other subcultures undermined a pillar of the postwar order. In the process, they staked a claim to the inheritance of America.



*  Robert J. Hansen currently serves as Assistant to the President, Saint Xavier University, where he also teaches literature. Dr. Hansen is completing a book entitled Timely Meditations: Reclaiming the Use-Value of History in the Postmodern Novel. He lives with his wife and daughter in Chicago.

1. Robert W. Gordon, Foreword: The Arrival of Critical Historicism, 49 STAN. L. REV. 1023, 1024-5 (1997).

2. THOMAS PYNCHON, THE CRYING OF LOT 49, 82 (Harper & Row 1990) (1966).

3. Id.

4. Id.

5. Gordon, supra note 1, at 1023.

6. Id.

7. Id.

8. Id. at 1025.

9. Id. at 1024.

10. PYNCHON, supra note 2, at 24 (Since Thomas Pynchon is known for his use of the ellipse, the ellipses inserted by the Author are in brackets [....]).

11. Id. at 25.

12. Id. at 24.

13. Id.

14. Id. at 31.



17. PYNCHON, supra note 2, at 155.

18. Id. at 156.

19. Id. at 174.

20. Id. at 127.

21. Id. at 160.

22. GRUMLEY, supra note 15, at 31.


24. Id. at 27.

25. Id. at 72.

26. See GRUMLEY, supra note 15, at 15-16.

27. PYNCHON, supra note 2, at 163.

28. Id. at 164.

29. FULBROOK, supra note 23, at 46.

30. PYNCHON, supra note 2, at 71.

31. Id. at 165.

32. Id. at 172-73.

33. Id. at 54.

34. Id. at 173.

35. Id. at 181.

36. Id. at 125.

37. Id. at 85.

38. Id. at 117.

39. Id. at 112.

40. Id. at 117.

41. FRANK CHIN, DONALD DUK 63 (1991).

42. PYNCHON, supra note 2, at 121.


44. PYNCHON, supra note 2, at 124.

45. Id. at 122-23.

46. Id. at 118.


48. PYNCHON, supra note 2, at 124.

49. Heiman, The Sources and Significance of Hegel's Corporate Doctrine, in HEGEL'S POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY: PROBLEMS AND PERSPECTIVES 120 (Z.A. Pelczynski ed., 1971).

50. PYNCHON, supra note 2, at 179.

51. Id. at 178.

52. Id.

53. For a persuasive analysis of the topicality of the novel, see Pierre Yves Petillon, A Recognition of Her Errand into the Wilderness, in NEW ESSAYS ON THE CRYING OF LOT 49 (Patrick O'Donnell ed., 1991).

54. PYNCHON, supra note 2, at 103-04 (emphasis added).

55. Id. at 181.

56. Id.

57. Id. at 131-32.

58. Id. at 120.

59. Id. at 180.