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



       This Article discusses recent legal debates over what constitutes validity in interpretation in terms of Pynchon's novel. Just as Oedipa's quest undermines our confidence in interpretation in the literary realm, Stanley Fish argues that our legal and social meanings are only as stable as the communities that agree to abide by them. In light of this, this Article closely examines how Pynchon implicates the novel's depictions of history and community with Oedipa's attempt to find truth. By destabilizing historical and communal formations, Pynchon leaves Oedipa almost without interpretive agency. This Article concludes by examining the novel's peculiar rendering of death as that which is beyond representation and, therefore, beyond the contestation over signification and interpretation. As a banished ontological authority, death mirrors Trystero as a banished political authority, enmeshed in subterranean politics. Oedipa resigns herself to seeking truth as a function of political power, controlled by whatever authority can enforce meanings that are ultimately without meaning beyond the power they represent.

     The Crying of Lot 49, in its symbiotic functions of legal parody, inquiry into textuality and exploration of epistemological indeterminacy, is relevant to questions around both law in literature and law as literature. The novel's relevance to the practice of law moves beyond its depictions of it, as social commentary, to actually dramatize the philosophical stakes of contemporary legal debate. Pynchon, in his unique cosmology, more than metaphorically anticipates the crucial questions that will divide legal 


scholars in critical legal theory debates two and three decades later. He renders the central academic and jurisprudential problems of establishing meaning and validating textual interpretation in Oedipa's quest for the Tristero. Just as Owen Fiss, Ronald Dworkin, James Boyd White, and others have pursued the holy grail of meaning in legal interpretation against, principally, Stanley Fish's arguments that it does not exist, Oedipa negotiates possibilities and difficulties of meaning in the face of the recurring clues of her mystery.
     The story of The Crying of Lot 49 serves not only as a case study in interpretive dilemmas, but also as an ideal object against which to apply the theories and strategies by which one establishes or deconstructs signification. The novel is simultaneously a representation of indeterminacy and a performance of it; it models its dynamics for our analysis while entrapping us within it. The legal themes throughout the work and the legal document--Inverarity's will--that initiates its action invite us to read the novel through the lens of deconstructive legal theory, as if, essentially, it were a legal work being read as literature. This layered theoretical perspective elicits the key issues from the text that place it so perfectly at the crux of critical legal thinking: issues of epistemological authority, interpretive community, communal history, and shared language. By analyzing Oedipa's roles, not only as a detective, historian, literary critic, and incipient feminist, but also as a legalist, we can mark the points of reconciliation and divergence between those who believe truth in legal interpretation is possible and those who do not. The Crying of Lot 49 is perhaps the ideal fiction for students of this conflict, a latter-day analogue to The Trial for showing a modernized alienation from the law. While Joseph K. is utterly subordinate to an omnipotent and monolithic law, Oedipa is powerless under her utter disorientation in relation to a law without identity or fixed location. Both protagonists, however, face an inscrutable force that insinuates its power into their psychologies as well as their societies. The principal difference, of course, is that Oedipa's law might no longer exist. The final irresolution of the novel ultimately mirrors the irresolvability of the debate over interpretation at large, while maintaining the momentum of the original impulse that attempts interpretation anyway.
     The Crying of Lot 49 barely submerges the thematics of political power in enough locations to offer political authority as a metaphor for 


epistemological authority. Oedipa's quest, philosophically, is to find an authority that can validate meaning; the dubiousness of the Tristero's role as this entity causes the crisis of the novel. The Tristero, as simultaneously the potential redeemer of truth and the primary disrupter of it, functions as both a political entity and as a metaphysically symbolic one. By imagistically coding the Tristero to refer to death in ways I detail later, Pynchon posits this possibility of redemption for Oedipa's world. Death comes to represent the ultimate ontological authority, although banished from power, just as the Tristero is a potentially redemptive, although disinherited, political one. Oedipa's search for authority is deeply ambivalent, however, as it both risks absolute subjugation to and offers guiding clarity from the totalitarian/revelatory nature of a monolithic governing truth. These extreme options that Pynchon poses to Oedipa are the same ones that have emerged in the critical legal theory debate. This paper will compare how various parties, fictional and lawyerly, have addressed them.


     Despite herself, Oedipa at several moments is forced to recognize the possible contingency and artifice of her paranoid construction. Not only some of the most poignant moments in a novel of much emotional flippancy, but also the most epistemologically gripping, these crises reveal the psychological stakes of believing in one's own hermeneutics. Contrasting with the aftertastes of transcendence left after each epileptic spell, her opposite moments of skepticism pierce her world just as sharply. Her last conversation with Mike Fallopian, for example, shows her vulnerability:
    "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?"
    It had occurred to her. 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. "No," she said, "that's ridiculous."
    ..."I knew you'd be different," she said, "Mike, because 

everybody's been changing on me. But it hadn't gone as far as hating me."1
Pynchon implies here that the disruption of one's paranoid ordering of the universe is even more terrifying than paranoia itself.2 Her conspiracy anchors her to--more than a concept--a faith and a feeling of attainable truth that secures her own sense of identity within a defined reality. However, as the passage states, she has in fact sensed the possible fictionality of projected worlds before this point. By diagnosing similar paranoid schemes among others, she practices for the eventual diagnosis of her own. While trying to reach Maxwell's demon in John Nefastis' Berkeley apartment, she realizes:
    Nefastis is a nut, forget it, a sincere nut. The true sensitive is the one that can share in the man's hallucinations, that's all.
    How wonderful they might be to share. For fifteen minutes more she tried; repeating, if you are there, whatever you are, show yourself to me, I need you, show yourself. But nothing happened.3
Her diagnosis of self-deception does not necessarily liberate her from it; her adherence to contradictory views fuels the same irreconcilable epistemology involved in her reaction to Tristero. Dr. Hilarious celebrates this same enabling contradiction of willed belief when Oedipa holds him at gunpoint in his office: "I came," she said, "hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy."4
    "Cherish it!" cried Hilarious, 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."5

     Her search for a paranoia in which to be proves most disrupted, ultimately, by her own ineradicable skepticism. She bases her critique of her own hermeneutic structure on grounds very similar to what Stanley Fish uses to critique meaning in literary and legal interpretation. The comparison is apt. Oedipa effectively plays the role of literary critic both in her textual games with various editions of Wharfinger's play and, more importantly, in reading and interpreting the signs written into the textuality of the world around her. Her quest for Tristero is essentially an effort to stabilize the meaning of signs, to find their ultimate referents, and enter fully into their system. However, as if Derrida himself lurked behind one of the Tristero's black masks, all her sign-clues remain on the level of other sign-clues, leading her in perfectly enclosed circles of mutual signification. She often notices the textuality of her experience, attended by a feeling of hollowness, starting with a conversation with Metzger in her Echo Courts hotel room: "'And how often,' Oedipa inquired, now aware it was all words, 'has this line of approach worked for you, Baby Igor?"'6 This reduction of everything to "all words" proceeds to define her problem; she never escapes the field of open interpretation.
     Even when in the thick of her research of the Tristero, she cannot attribute it any deeper level of existence than sign-creations: "Now here was Oedipa, faced with a metaphor of God knew how many parts; more than two, anyway. With coincidences blossoming these days wherever she looked, she had nothing but a sound, a word, Trystero, to hold them together."7 Never escaping a literary aspect to her experience, she looks at Clerk Maxwell's photo for inspiration only to imagine that "[he might have been holding a book."8 These binding black marks, which she never escapes reading in some form, are referred to shortly prior in a footnote in Plays of Ford, Webster, Tourneur and Wharfinger: "This [interpretation of the contested line], however, it must be pointed out, leaves the line nearly as corrupt as before, owing to no clear meaning for the word trystero [...]"9 This sense of significative corruption generalizes to the rest of her efforts 


and experience as well, stemming from the tenuous ability of words to carry any signifying cargo at all. In fact, Oedipa repeatedly senses meaning to lie specifically outside the linguistic domain altogether. Her contentless epileptic revelations, an epistemological contradiction that signifies meaning by its absence afterwards, belie words completely. Similarly, she doubts the accumulating sign-clues of her night's pilgrimage through San Francisco: "Each clue that comes is supposed to have its own clarity, its fine chances for permanence. But then she wondered if the gemlike 'clues' were only some kind of compensation. To make up for her having lost the direct, epileptic Word, the cry that might abolish the night."10 The "Word" to which she has no access never materializes as any word at all. It is only at the end of her night, in fact, that she encounters, in the soundless and perfect orchestration of the deaf-mute ballroom dance, something that appears informed by an inexpressible knowledge. "Jesus Arrabal would have called it an anarchist miracle. Oedipa, with no name for it, was only demoralized."11 Aware of a miracle that defies linguistic designation--aware that it is only a miracle because it defies it--she flees to her hotel room for twelve hours of empty, dreamless sleep.
     However, the corruption that infects acts of interpretation does not come only from the fallibility of words; it also stems from her necessary act of imposing meanings where none inherently reside. Anticipating the reader- response dictums of English departments, Pynchon describes Oedipa's role in eliciting meaning from the text:
    She had caught sight of the historical marker only because she'd gone back, deliberately, to Lake Inverarity one day, owing to this, what you might have to call, growing obsession, with "bringing something of herself"--even if that something was just her presence--to the scatter of business interests that had survived Inverarity. She would give them order, she would create constellations [...].12
     Her intuition to find meaning by participating in, if not initiating, its creation comes to plague as much as serve her as she immerses herself 


more and more in the Tristero's possibilities. In fact, Roland Barthes' notorious death knell for the author recurs in Oedipa's lamentation that her authors are dead, too. As she decides to "read over the will more closely,"13 like a good literary critic, she takes stock of her external interpretive resources: "her deep ignorance of law, of investment, of real estate, ultimately of the dead man himself.14 She faces the same ignorance in relation to Driblette, who kills himself as if to elude her understanding, creating another unknowable intention of another inaccessible author. She is similarly corrected when she inquires about "the historical Wharfinger. Not so much the verbal one"15 at Professor Bortz' house: "'The historical Shakespeare,' growled one of the grad students through a full beard [....] 'The historical Marx. The historical Jesus.' 'He's right,' shrugged Bortz, 'they're dead. What's left?' 'Words."'16 It is fitting, immediately after, that the parody and accompanying woodcuts of "The Courier's Tragedy" that Professor Bortz shows Oedipa are anonymous, further failures in grasping the act of authorship.17 With the death of intentionality and suppression of authorship, the responsibility to forge a general meaning from these signs shifts completely to her; Barthes acknowledges this transfer of authority when he writes that "the birth of the reader must be requited by the death of the Author,"18 corresponding to Oedipa's allegorical processes of metaphysical birth and psychic awakening. However, she senses the limitations of an interpretation originating from her specific circumstances, according to her particular history and perspective, and defined by her inescapable biases and expectations. She comes to doubt her ability "to bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning, all in a soaring dome around her"19 exactly because her interpretation is so contingent on other meanings about the world she has constructed in the first place. Her instinctual strategy to freeze these slippery shifts parallels the efforts of legal scholars who argue that social and legal meanings are ultimately constrained by shared understandings within interpretive communities. 


Pynchon thematizes this possibility in questions of community, anomie, and the attempt to establish history on which communal identity is based. These elusive entities are poised to offer redemption to both Oedipa and legal critics who strive for some way to validate interpretation.


     For interpretive moderates in search of hermeneutic security, an equation that leads to truth in interpretation might look like this: a commonly acknowledged history creates a unified community; a unified community gives birth to a shared language; through a shared language comes a generally recognizable and verifiable meaning of its signs. Oedipa's quest for the Tristero also entails a veiled search for historical certainty and interpersonal solidarity, against which she confronts temporal and sequential disorientation, a pervasive ahistoricism, and widespread social alienation. Her final success in establishing or discovering legitimate history and community, of course, remains an open question. In his essay Objectivity and Interpretation, Owen Fiss writes from a legal perspective about the practical constraints that prevent absolutely deconstructive interpretation. While acknowledging that meaning is found in the "dynamic interaction between reader and text,"20 he introduces two tools that ultimately limit a text's range of possible meanings:
To explain the source of constraint in the law, it is necessary to introduce two further concepts: One is the idea of disciplining rules, which constrain the interpreter and constitute the standards by which the correctness of the interpretation is to be judged; the other is the idea of an interpretive community, which recognizes these rules as authoritative.21
Pynchon does, in fact, posit versions of such legitimate rules in Lot 49. One of the primary and earliest manifestations of a "disciplining" force in the novel is the law itself. The novel begins by defining Oedipa as the will's executor, an identity immediately constrained by the responsibility to interpret and, in this way, serve law's meaning. Her importance in the eyes of the law subsumes all other ways of defining herself: every other part of 


her life is sacrificed to her ostensible legal duty. The gravitational pull of the law takes her permanently away from home and into inescapable orbits around Metzger, Pierce and the Tristero: each associated with or encoded into the law's documents. She tries to experience what James Boyd White describes in Justice as Translation as a constitutive effect of legal participation:
[F]or through its forms of language and of life the law constitutes a world of meaning and action: it creates a set of actors and speakers and offers them possibilities for meaningful speech and action that would not otherwise exist; in so doing it establishes and maintains a community, defined by its practices of language.22
Oedipa could begin her epistemological adventure in no other way, perhaps, but through the law, just as Joseph K. must use the law to confront his existence. Kafka and Pynchon both recognize that the idea and representation of the law offer a defining authority in which one can participate. The terrible strengths of Lot 49 and The Trial, however, are that this invited participation is soon frustrated, rendered so absurd that the authority of the law itself is undermined--and undermined in large part by its own subjects. Insofar as the truth that Oedipa imagines inscribed in Inverarity's will is attainable only through a mastery of the law, she spends the novel trying to join Boyd's "set of actors and speakers" that it forms. When Metzger abandons her, his farewell note only refers to their relationship vis-a-vis the law: "No word to recall that Oedipa and Metzger had ever been more than co-executors. Which must mean, thought Oedipa, that that's all we were."23 Her role as Inverarity's mistress and her seduction by Metzger in chapter two suggest a peculiar dynamic between her and the law as well: while ostensibly accepted by it, she never experiences it on equal, fully informed terms; she remains an object of the law instead of a participant in its functions. The "disciplining rules" that Fiss describes try to govern the novel's world by seduction and manipulation, with a generally disorienting and uninterpretable result.
     But Pynchon invests more effort in exploring the possibility of sustainable interpretive communities than in the various manifestations of 


their rules. He bases a partial but crucial aspect of communal viability on the formation of history. The past in Pynchon's works, as many critics have observed, is both a disturbed and compelling entity. Perpetually unstable, yet constructed with as much ornate detail as the Tristero conspiracy, representations of the past in Lot 49 share the quality of advertising their own unprovability. Like Oedipa's epileptic moments of revelation, they provide the form for meaning without firm content. Confusion first infects history at the primary level of time's mechanics: Both the sequencing of time and awareness of duration break down. The recurring disorder of sequence is subtle but revealing. This condition drives much of the first encounter between Oedipa and Metzger in her hotel room, in fact, starting from one casual detail: "She looked at her watch, but it had stopped."24 As if liberated from this clock-time, Metzger's movie "Cashiered," suddenly appearing on television, quickly falls into its own temporal disorder. "'Golly,' Metzger said, 'they must have got the reels screwed up.' 'Is this before or after?' she asked [....] 'That would be telling."'25 Nor does Oedipa ever find a remedy for these structural flaws in time's progression. She fails again when she tries to situate another part of the movie:
    "So," she said, "an early reel. This is where he gets cashiered, ha, ha."
    "Maybe it's a flashback," Metzger said. "Or maybe he gets it twice [...]" Oedipa would scowl back, growing more and more certain, while a headache began to flower behind her eyes, that they among all possible combinations of new lovers had found a way to make time itself slow down.26
The disturbing impression by this point of the evening's chaos is that Metzger does not know the correct order either: that the progression is equally random for him. The confusion provokes the scene's troubling denouement in which, again out of order, she prematurely pays off for a bet she was to win--a bet she was destined to win since the beginning. Her forfeiture also forfeits time's logic. She fails both to reorder the movie sequence and to rectify her loss to Metzger. We see her retroactively coopted into her loss at the chapter's end: "'Come back,' said Metzger. 'Come 


on.' After awhile she said, 'I will.' And she did."27 This temporal/sequential confusion carries over into the beginning of chapter three, as well, when Oedipa fails to organize her personal past: "It got seriously under way, this sensitizing, either with the letter from Mucho or the evening she and Metzger drifted into a strange bar known as The Scope. Looking back she forgot which had come first."28 In failing to control these small details of sequence, the novel's temporal machinery jeopardizes her project to construct a past strong enough to support meaning in the present.
     The novel's ahistoricism finds its appropriate base, but not its boundaries, in Southern California, a land of sourcelessness and historical mirage. Metzger, in a conversation after "The Courier's Tragedy," seems almost outraged at the idea of her researching the past: "Not this one folks, she wants to right wrongs, 20 years after it's all over. Raise ghosts."29 Nevertheless, Oedipa herself seems to have barely any specific roots or past; in an unheard of recommendation, Dr. Hilarious tells her to leave his treatment because she's "cured," as if she had exhausted all the material of her unconscious.30 When Dr. Hilarious later proves unable to escape his own Nazi past, however, his principal threat is against memory:
"There is a face," Hilarious said, "that I can make. One you haven't seen; no one in this country has[....] it has an effective radius of a hundred yards and drives anyone unlucky enough to see it down forever into the darkened oubliette among the terrible shapes, and secures the hatch irrevocably above them[....]"31
The word oubliette, meaning dungeon in English, also refers to the French verb oublier: to forget. By collapsing the threat of incarceration with forgetting, or elimination of the past that Oedipa seeks to revive, Hilarious (echoing earlier Nazi experiments with "clocks that ran backward"32) reinforces the vulnerability of history to present corruptions. Another such historical corruption, although equally a corruption of taste, occurs in Fangoso Lagoons, the housing development owned by the late Inverarity. 


The central social hall, an "Art Nouveau reconstruction of some European pleasure-casino," is further ahistoricized by submerged relics of the past: "'These bones came from Italy. A straight sale. Some of them,' waving out at the lake, 'are down there, to decorate the bottom for the Scuba nuts."'33 This phenomenon of history-as-prop eliminates its epistemological potency, weakening the reality of the present and any meanings she tries to validate in it. The widespread efforts that she encounters to kill history, to replace the past with its sterile simulacra, point toward death; Pynchon embodies the violence of this historical discontinuity in a woman who appears during Oedipa's night in San Francisco: "a Negro woman with an intricately-marbled scar along the baby-fat of one cheek who kept going through rituals of miscarriage each for a different reason, deliberately as others might the ritual of birth, dedicated not to continuity but to some kind of interregnum."34 The paradoxical continuity of these acts of termination reflects the stillborn failures of historical creations throughout the novel, reinforcing the vulnerability of a viable future to the confusion of the past. Pynchon suggests that we imagine Oedipa's world as such a ritualized, intentional miscarriage resulting from the abuse and neglect of history.35
     As a result, attempts at historical narrative and identity either collapse or reveal their structural flaws wherever they appear, weakened by the fundamental contingency that pervades any subjective attempt at establishing fact in the novel. The Paranoids model the narrative dysfunction of history when they relate the plot of "The Courier's Tragedy," rendering it "near to unintelligible by eight memories unlooping progressively into regions as strange to map as their rising coils and clouds of pot smoke";36 the absurd complexity of the drama itself then seems to ridicule the attempt to get the facts straight in the first place. Much later, during her San Francisco peregrinations, Oedipa finds "a piece of her past, in the form of one Jesus Arrabal,"37 offering, at first sight, a chance for historical reclamation. While Jesus seems able to "remember everything," he is also subject to the atemporality of his mail system. Oedipa notices the 


1904 date of his anarchist newspaper "Regeneracion" next to the muted post horn and asks for explanation:
    "They arrive," said Arrabal. "Have they been in the mails that long? Has my name been substituted for that of a member who's died? Has it really taken sixty years? Is it a reprint? Idle questions, I am a footsoldier. The higher levels have their reasons."38
Arrabal's submission to temporal indeterminacy resembles Mike Fallopian's resignation to the historical indeterminacy surrounding Peter Pinguid, hero of the Peter Pinguid Society: "What happened on the 9th [of] March, 1864, a day now held sacred by all Peter Pinguid Society members, is not too clear."39 The series of either/or possibilities for that day's events culminates in the disclaimer, "But motion is relative," a fact that could serve as the motto for all troublingly subjective attempts in the novel to objectify the world. The seemingly arbitrary operations of history increasingly inform Oedipa's experience as she approaches the Tristero, an entity that appears simultaneously to be anti-historical, hiding from historical documentation, and to be controlling history. However, one of the most thorough historical narratives of the novel accretes around this mystery, for which Oedipa finally forms a story. Despite its expository, almost textbook presentation, however, it is immediately undermined by its juxtaposition to Driblette's funeral.40 At his grave, Oedipa realizes that she needs confirmation for Tristero from a dead man, and searches for it:
She tried to reach out, to whatever coded tenacity of protein might improbably have held on six feet below, still resisting decay [....] If you come to me, prayed Oedipa, bring your memories of the last night[...]. [S]o I'll know if your walk into the sea had anything to do with Tristero.41
   The history that Oedipa needs in order to create a general community, which will share a common language, repeatedly proves dependent on individuals who suffer the solitary experience of death. Mr. Thoth, already 


embroiled in the temporal illogic of dreaming of his perpetually ninety-one-year-old grandfather, threatens as much confusion as clarification in his clues about Tristero. Oedipa senses the vulnerability of history, not only to individual death, but to the limitations of individual perspectives as she thinks "of how tenuous it was, like a long white hair, over a century long. Two very old men. All these fatigued brain cells between herself and the truth."42 Oedipa's most profound revelation of the contingency of history in the face of death occurs when she contemplates the sailor in San Francisco. As if it were a tangible possession in his care, she imagines a significant segment of the past being lost with his death:
So when this mattress flared up around the sailor, in his Viking's funeral: the stored, coded years of uselessness, early death, self-harrowing, the sure decay of hope, the set of all men who had slept on it, whatever their lives had been, would truly cease to be, forever, when the mattress burned. She stared at it in wonder. It was as if she had just discovered the irreversible process. It astonished her [...] that so much could be lost [....]43
While not explicit, her realization leads her back to the loss represented by Inverarity's death as well. The deaths around her implicate history as a flawed, impossible endeavor. She feels uneasy with Professor Bortz' continued efforts to secure it: "But should Bortz have exfoliated the mere words so lushly, into such unnatural roses, under which, in whose red, scented dusk, dark history slithered unseen?"44 History's dark slithering eludes and oppresses Oedipa with its contingency more than it enlightens her way to community.
     The interpretive communities potentially born of coherent histories are profoundly jeopardized by the time Oedipa finds them; nevertheless, they represent attempts to counteract a world of both complete alienation and radical meaninglessness in interpretation. Accordingly, the series of groups that Pynchon depicts are alternately absurd and schizophrenic. Most remarkable, of course, are the networks allegedly connected by the Tristero: Inamorati Anonymous, "a society of isolates";45 the circle of sleeping 


children in Golden Gate Park who "needed nothing but their own unpenetrated sense of community";46 the Alameda County Death Cult (ACDC) who bond by sexually abusing and sacrificing someone "from among the innocent, the virtuous, the socially integrated and well-adjusted";47 and "a child roaming the night who missed the death before birth as certain outcasts do the dear lulling blankness of the community."48 Orienting their bonds around their alienations, lonelinesses, and withdrawals from society, people in these groups engage in the paradoxical combination of community and sabotage of communal restrictions. This anomie proliferates by the end of the novel to the point that Oedipa imagines the entire nation to be populated by
drifters she had listened to, Americans speaking their language carefully, scholarly, as if they were in exile from somewhere else invisible yet congruent with the cheered land she lived in; and walkers along the roads at night, zooming in and out of your headlights without looking up, too far from any town to have a real destination[....]
    How many shared Tristero's secret, as well as its exile?49
This general state of self-exile, which also defines the Tristero, serves as the necessary, radical alternative to the communicative and communal failures of the "mainstream" that Oedipa herself has also left, albeit without intending to. Although her state is even more paradoxical: while she has left the mainstream, she is unable to enter any sub-group.
     By experiencing all these sub-groups from the outside, as a removed observer who does not participate in their rules, myths, or vocabularies, Oedipa reveals their limitations as interpretive communities. In his book on Pynchon, The Grim Phoenix, William Plater describes the "closed systems" that pervade Pynchon's work.50 Simultaneously a controlled, isolated system in physics, within which entropy occurs, and a social group, within which communication occurs, a "closed system" is a defined unit from 


within which the world can be measured and understood. In terms of the bizarre, contained communities in Lot 49, the term describes a self-sufficient worldview--a paranoia--that makes sense according to the hermeneutic terms of the enclosed group. It is a necessarily limited and exclusionary construction that has the virtue of retaining unassailable meaning in all its constitutive parts. In this way, a closed system in society is akin to Owen Fiss' interpretive community that agrees to hold its interpretive rules as authoritative. It is exactly this construction that Oedipa, by remaining outside their rules, deconstructs into unmeaning. Stanley Fish's legal critique of Fiss' hermeneutic structure, drawing from Derrida, is relevant:
rules, in law or anywhere else, do not stand in an independent relationship to a field of action on which they can simply be imposed; rather, rules have a circular or mutually interdependent relationship to the field of action in that they make sense only in reference to the very regularities they are thought to bring about.51
By arguing that interpretive rules are contingent on the interpretations one makes about the game in the first place, Fish arranges everything as equally textual, as equally open to unrestricted interpretation and meanings imposed by the reader. He states that "[b]ecause we are never not in a situation, we are never not in the act of interpreting. Because we are never not in the act of interpreting, there is no possibility of reaching a level beyond or below interpretation."52 This model of radical textuality defines all interactions and relationships within a closed system as merely further levels of interpretation. According to this deconstructive perspective, there is no original or external meaning on which to validate interpretations from outside a closed system. Oedipa's principal crisis is precisely this confrontation with an endless sliding of her clues into other clues, forever evading a foundational knowledge that can verify them.
     This Derridean circularity of meaning informs various metaphors and operations in the novel. To return to Pynchon's representation of history: not only does ahistoricism devalue signification in the present, but patterns of circularity within history repeat themselves in a closed signification 


system. As if mirrors had been held up to historical events, time falls into a self-referential cycle that Fish could describe as an endless interpretation of itself. For example, the bones placed at the bottom of Fangoso Lagoons' Lake Inverarity echo back to at least four other events: the GI deaths at Lago di PietI in World War Two; Diocletian Blobb's account of the murders of Torre and Tassis mail carriers at the same lake; the murder of the Duke of Faggio's Lost Guard at the lake in "The Courier's Tragedy;" and the final murder of Niccolo at the same lake in the same play. These five slightly altered repetitions depict history not only as a closed system, but as a unsignifying one, without reference external to itself. The obscure figure of Inverarity is temporally mirrored as well, first in the epilogue to the story of Peter Pinguid: Pinguid ends up
    "[s]peculating in California real estate," said Fallopian. Oedipa, halfway into swallowing part of her drink, sprayed it out again in a glittering cone for ten feet easy, and collapsed in giggles.
    "Wha," said Fallopian. "During the drought that year you could've bought lots in the heart of downtown L.A. for 63 cents apiece."53
Even this real-estate mogul predecessor is preceded, however, by Hernando Joaqu'n de Tristero y Calavera. Described as "perhaps a madman, perhaps an honest rebel, according to some only a con artist"54 he embodies the different aspects of Inverarity's personage and creates the organization that seems so closely aligned with Inverarity's estate almost four centuries later. It is appropriate that Professor Bortz employs a research methodology that he calls "mirror-image theory"55 in researching a past that inevitably repeats itself away from its own sourcelessness.
     Pynchon also uses the theme of incest to extend this model of enclosed self- referentiality in meaning. While not yet literal, the powerful metaphor of the "[e]ndless, convoluted incest"56 at Mucho's used car lot establishes an inevitability of repetition: "he could still never accept the way each owner, each shadow, filed in only to exchange a dented, malfunctioning version of himself for another, just as futureless, automotive projection of 


somebody else's life."57 Such repetition can also be read historically, depicting the lack of change despite apparent progression. Mucho's association with incest is more fully realized through his affairs with teenage girls and, ultimately, through his simultaneous, schizophrenic embodiment of countless personalities at once, as if he were endlessly giving birth to himself. His subsequent loss of identity under this internal repetition reflects the unsignifying power of larger repeating historical cycles.
     As much as such convoluted historical cycles can be read as temporal incest, in fact, we can also read literal examples of incest as metaphors for it: the sex between Angelo and his sister Francesca in "The Courier's Tragedy,"58 and the lustfully kissing mother and son who Oedipa sees at the San Francisco airport.59 Such metaphors reveal how an epistemology of incest corrupts history into a self-engendering closed system that fails to establish meaning outside itself. Oedipa, left outside while entertaining the hermeneutic perspectives of those inside, finds herself at an impasse. Her quest to find and verify meaning demands a greater authority, one not defined by the circular systems she has confronted thus far.


     Any redemptive alternative to Oedipa's unreal, uninterpretable experiences must lie outside of the established field of signification if it is to retain meaning. The limits of the corrupt system of language of her world leave no way for original, essential truths to be represented; nevertheless, she senses their absences. As unrepresentability becomes the criteria for truth, Oedipa, as well as Pynchon, face the challenge of depicting the black hole of meaning through its invisible gravitational effect on the things around it. Pynchon suggests his attempt to represent an unrepresentability with his use of silence. Tristero's almost unbroken silence--from which stems its slogan: We Await Silent Tristero's Empire--signifies more to Oedipa than anything else in the novel; the unspeaking, unrepresented Tristero becomes the text's center of meaning. Its ineffable message, perpetually on the brink of expression, defines its presence: "Or would it 


instead, the dance ended, come back down the runway, its luminous stare locked to Oedipa's, smile gone malign and pitiless; bend to her alone among the desolate rows of seats and begin to speak words she never wanted to hear?"60 This wordlessness combined with the threat of words maintains its potent contrast to the powerless signs proliferating elsewhere.
     Tristero accumulates associations with death, not only through its primal silence and refusal to be depicted, but in a host of details that Pynchon leaves in its wake. Thinking about this relationship, William Plater writes that "[t]he object of the paranoid search is confirmation of some controlling group or force, which, once discovered, would be a confirmation of death; the process of searching, however, is life-sustaining and at the same time a form for relating the individual to death."61 Oedipa's approach to the Tristero undoubtedly forces her to confront death as well: we see her emotionally and physically deteriorate by the auction; lose her allies to accident, suicide, and old age; and, metaphysically, as she becomes more and more the author of meanings around her, she is required to suffer Barthes' authorial death like Inverarity and Wharfinger do before her. Her process of becoming a "sensitive" leaves her, above all, sensitive to death and aware of death's ontology of absence. Pynchon codes her search for the Tristero as an inquiry into death's possible role in redeeming the flat meaninglessness of her world. Driblette dares a subtle and rare exposure of the organization near the end of "The Courier's Tragedy":
Offstage there is a sound of footpads. Niccolo leaps to his feet, staring up one of the radial aisles, hand frozen on the hilt of his sword. He trembles and cannot speak, only stutter [....] Suddenly, in lithe and terrible silence, with dancers' grace, three figures, long-limbed, effeminate, dressed in black tights, leotards and gloves, black silk hose pulled over their faces, come capering on stage and stop, gazing at him. Their faces behind the stockings are shadowy and deformed. They wait. The lights all go out.62
Retaining elements of non-representation, the scene conflates Tristero with the larger unspeakable, but poetic, ontology of death. Many of the organizations that supposedly use its mail services revolve around death as 


well: the Alameda County Death Cult, as mentioned above; the founder of Inamorati Anonymous, who receives letters from failed suicides who further fail to encourage him to live; and the San Francisco sailor who sends a letter with Oedipa while on the palpable verge of death: Oedipa asks his friend, "'Does he have to come up?' she said. 'Up there?' 'Where else, lady?' She didn't know."63 After obliquely confirming his imminent death, she goes in search of the secret organization, having earlier learned its acronym D.E.A.T.H.: Don't Ever Antagonize The Horn. The imagery, symbols, and events associated with the Tristero provide the novel's principal reference to death, both creating an uncorrupted language in which to signify its presence and, by association with this unrepresentable experience, removing the Tristero from the field of signs.
     This strategy is necessary because death has been banished from the immediate realm of experience in the novel's peculiar, ahistorical world. In the same way that Oedipa notices a "sense of buffering, insulation [... [an absence of an intensity, as if watching a movie, just perceptibly out of focus, that the projectionist refused to fix,"64 she feels the absence of death's clarifying sting. Inverarity's unexplained death, for example, is less a death than a partial disappearance that leaves his identity intact in his will and corporate holdings. Oedipa specifically laments the displacement of death, akin to the erasure of history, when she drinks Genghis Cohen's dandelion wine; the dandelions were originally picked from a cemetery since removed for the San Narciso Freeway:
    "It's clearer now," he said, rather formal. "A few months ago it got quite cloudy. You see, in spring, when the dandelions begin to bloom again, the wine goes through a fermentation. As if they remembered."
    No, thought Oedipa, sad. As if their home cemetery in some way still did exist [....] As if the dead really do persist, even in a bottle of wine.65
Oedipa reads both the past and the redemptive power of death in the clarifying dandelion wine; these two are inextricably connected by their shared ability to transcend the sterility and inconsequence of her world and 


offer what she increasingly senses to be the content of the inexpressible meaning of her epileptic moments.
     However, this meaning remains frustrated and Oedipa remains at an impasse before death's banishment. Death has suffered an ontological exile, just as the Tristero has suffered a political one. Pynchon depicts this simultaneous usurpation of political and metaphysical authority, this furtive coup d'etat against the enforcers of social and ontological meaning, in metaphors of political power. In doing so, he establishes a connection between the definition of truth and the dynamics of power, leaving truth not only contingent on one's subjective perspective but on the power to impose that subjectivity on others. Our first graphic exposure to the intersection between truth and power occurs in "The Courier's Tragedy," a work disturbed as much by epistemological confusion as by the intrigue of political usurpation. In the fourth act, the confusion extends beyond mere complexity into a competition between alternate versions of truth, after Niccolo is killed by the Tristero and the deceitful letter he carries changes "miraculously" into an honest confession.66 The supposed history of the Tristero itself is defined by its ebb and flow of political clout. Once disinherited from power, the organization submerges itself in guerrilla anti-authoritarianism, basing its identity on its opposition to dominant structures of information control. This political context profoundly affects the informational content of the messages that the Tristero carries; and by carrying anarchist and socially deviant correspondence, it promotes Oedipa's radical re-reading of her country. Bortz and Oedipa further hypothesize that the text of history itself (the French Revolution, parts of the American Civil War) can be read as signs of the Tristero's political manipulations and resistances. The question of truth in interpretation entangles itself with political authority to the point of rendering interpretation less a practice of judgment than of wielding secular power.
     In her legal writings about the critical legal theory debate, Robin West diagnoses the same political dimension to interpretive praxis in law. Applying Foucauldian contexts of power relations to the act of adjudication, she argues that the debate over verifiable interpretation ignores the political structures that determine meaning and, more importantly, the political 


consequences of making interpretations. She claims that, from a political perspective, interpretation in law is unlike interpretation in literature:
 Adjudication is in form interpretive, but in substance it is an exercise of power in a way that truly interpretive acts, such as literary interpretation, are not. Adjudication has far more in common with legislation, executive orders, administrative decrees, and the whimsical commands of princes, kings, and tyrants than it has to do with other things we do with words, such as create or interpret novels.... [A]djudication is imperative. It is a command backed by state power.67
In Lot 49, Pynchon seems to argue against West's implication that literary interpretation is politically inconsequential. He reveals the deep connections between interpretation and the conceptual formation of the world that defines the very terms of politics. While West argues that strictly literary analysis is superfluous to "a truly radical critique of power," Pynchon accommodates both, interweaving Oedipa's epistemological questions with political ones. Yet, at the same time, the novel seems to reflect West's analysis of interpretive/adjudicative difference as Oedipa passes through the campus at Berkeley:
She came downslope from Wheeler Hall, through Sather Gate into a plaza teeming with corduroy, denim, bare legs, blonde hair, hornrims, bicycle spokes in the sun, bookbags, swaying card tables, long paper petitions dangling to earth, posters for undecipherable FSM's, YAF's, VDC's, suds in the fountain, students in nose to nose dialogue. She moved through it 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 [....] [T]hey had managed to turn the young Oedipa into a rare creature indeed, unfit perhaps for marches and sit-ins, but just a whiz at pursuing strange words in Jacobean texts.68
In rendering this anxiety of worldly relevance that all literary critics face at some point, Pynchon questions the viability of an interpretative critique of 


the authority that creates the critical context in the first place. Throughout her various quests, Oedipa remains unsure, not only if Tristero exists as a political entity, but if her interpretation of it means anything. But the politics represented in the novel are too wide-ranging (anarchist to fascist) not to be ambiguous, and in this ambiguity to suggest its close relation to the novel's epistemological indeterminacy. Pynchon's negotiations of truth value on a matrix of political power suggest a (perhaps disheartening) epistemological/legal compromise: that while truth is irredeemably relative and unverifiable, one might achieve enough power to own the originary rules of its definitions, and therefore be able to legislate truth. Legal interpretation in this view is not only complicit with, but finds its very raison d'etre in rendering judgments that reinforce its own claim to power, judgments that reestablish its own hermeneutic basis. In participating in the law, Oedipa is propelled as much toward the roots of power as of knowledge; we shall see how the novel ends with a return to these roots. As the ontological redemption embodied in the unrepresentability of death is not accessible, Oedipa settles, as the auction is about to begin, for the secular authorities instead: "She was not sure what she'd do when the bidder revealed himself. She had only some vague idea about causing a scene violent enough to bring the cops into it and find out that way who the man really was."69 Her aspirations for revelation are ultimately inextricable from state power, which is the closest approximation that Oedipa finds to definitional boundaries of truth. The fact that political power enforces these boundaries serves the purposes of interpretation; however, Pynchon shows the boundaries of language, history, and community to be collapsing quickly. Pynchon leaves the world paradoxically interpretable by its uninterpretability. In between epistemological anarchy and legislated, enforced interpretation, the novel both defies and invites us to adjudicate meaning for ourselves.



* English doctoral student, New York University; B.A., University of California, Berkeley. The author wishes to thank Ignacio Ernst and Belle Sherman for their assistance.

1. THOMAS PYNCHON, THE CRYING OF LOT 49, at 167-68 (1965).

2. See generally THOMAS PYNCHON, GRAVITY'S RAINBOW (1973) (noting Slothrop's admitted dependency on his own paranoia).

3. PYNCHON, supra note 1, at 107.

4. Id. at 138.

5. Id.

6. Id. at 29.

7. Id. at 109.

8. Id. at 107.

9. Id. at 102 (Since Thomas Pynchon is known for his use of the ellipse, the ellipses inserted by the Author are in brackets [....]).

10. Id. at 118.

11. Id. at 131-32.

12. Id. at 90.

13. Id. at 81.

14. Id. at 82.

15. Id. at 151.

16. Id.

17. See id. at 155.


19. PYNCHON, supra note 1, at 82.

20. Owen Fiss, Objectivity and Interpretation, 3 STAN. L. REV. 739  (1982).

21. Id. at 744.


23. PYNCHON, supra note 1, at 148.

24. Id. at 34.

25. Id. at 35.

26. Id. at 41.

27. Id. at 43.

28. Id. at 45.

29. Id. at 76.

30. See id. at 18.

31. Id. at 135-36.

32. Id. at 137.

33. Id. at 61.

34. Id. at 123.

35. Without space to fully explore it here, I would like to point out the relevance of themes of motherhood (in Oedipa's identification with Grace Bortz, primarily), pregnancy and religious rebirth to this combined image of failed birth and interrupted history.

36. PYNCHON, supra note 1, at 64.

37. Id. at 119.

38. See id. at 121.

39. Id. at 49.

40. Id. at 159-62.

41. Id. at 161.

42. Id. at 93.

43. Id. at 128.

44. Id. at 163.

45. Id. at 116.

46. Id. at 118.

47. Id. at 122.

48. Id. at 123.

49. Id. at 180-81.



52. Id. at 355.

53. PYNCHON, supraa note 1, at 51.

54. Id. at 159.

55. Id. at 162.

56. Id. at 14.

57. Id.

58. See id. at 67.

59. See id. at 123.

60. Id. at 54.

61. PLATER, supra note 50, at 191.

62. PYNCHON, supra note 1, at 73.

63. Id. at 126-27.

64. Id. at 20.

65. Id. at 98-99.

66. See id. at 73-74.


68. PYNCHON, supra note 1, at 103-04.

69. Id. at 183.