New Close Readings of The Crying of Lot 49

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

Published 7 years ago -


New Close Readings of The Crying of Lot 49

By Robert E. Kohn

Review by Dan Geddes

New Close Readings of The Crying of Lot 49 comprises twelve essays by Robert Kohn, a former economics professor, who turned to literary studies in his retirement.

Kohn is most interested in uncovering Pynchon’s sources and influences, the works he read that had a great  (or a heretofore undiscovered) influence on Pynchon as he was writing The Crying of Lot 49. Thus, most of the essays are thought experiments that assume Kohn’s thesis that a given source (E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem) influenced Pynchon’s writing. Then Kohn sets out to prove the assumption, using techniques such as word frequency analysis or interpretation of Pynchon’s characters names. As Kohn says near the end of essay one:

Was this first model useful, even if the hypothesis on which it was based—that Pynchon had studied Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and drew on it for themes in The Crying of Lot 49—turns out to be spurious? My answer would be an emphatic “Yes!” (Kohn, 53)

Since Kohn derives value from hypotheses of literary influence even if they are false, he is aiming rather low. Theoretically, one could select any two art objects and compare them, and draw out connections, and suppose that one artist influenced the other, and learn something from the exercise. However, it is clearly more valuable to identify the actual influences on an artist, when such a thing is possible. Pynchon’s “reclusiveness” makes the search for his sources more difficult perhaps than with other writers, who may freely discuss the origins of their work; or who may upon their deaths, leave behind their journals, their libraries, their own lists of books they’ve read, so that the determination of their sources becomes a fact-based research project, rather than a matter of conjecture.

To be sure, it is an interesting game, this hunt for influences. However, too often in Kohn’s essays I found myself thinking “this is really a stretch.” Consider, from the concluding paragraph of essay four, “The Influence of Loren Eisley and Charles Darwin”:

When Pynchon included Darwin’s first and middle name in the same sentence, he subtly anticipated the impact that the theory of evolution, in combination with molecular biology and the resultant discovery of DNA, would have on the arts as well as the natural and social sciences.

Earlier, Kohn writes:

Just as he identified Eisley by his first name alone, so he may have subtly signified Charles Robert Darwin by his first and middle names in the line: “Robert Scurvham had founded during the reign of Charles I, a sect of the most pure Puritan” (Crying, 155). (Kohn, 74).

While it is true that writers such as Pynchon do give even their flat characters “meaningful” names, clearly the common first name “Robert” used here could conjure up numerous associations; and the fact that “Charles I” is mentioned by Pynchon, probably as a shorthand to place the Scurvhamites in the time of the English Civil War. When I read Pynchon’s sentence, I see him gleefully inventing a fictitious religious sect, “the most pure Puritan.” Scurvham is a funny name, as it conjures up scurvy and scurrilous and other words. It just doesn’t suggest Darwin.

Unfortunately, Kohn draws too heavily on supposed connections between first names in in other essays, such as in essay five, “The Plate Tectonic Revolution.” Kohn supposes that a mention of Pierce Inverarity using his “Lamont Cranston voice,” (the radio voice of “The Shadow” ) is a subtle reference to the Lamont Geological Observatory, which “provided much of the data” leading to the new theories of seafloor spreading and plate tectonics.

Kohn’s analysis of character of some character names, such as Manny Di Presso, is useful. The connection between Pierce Inverarity’s name and the communication theorist J.R. Pierce is also suggestive, though according to Kohn, was first presented by another critic.

Kohn is also unconvincing when trying to find Pynchon’s sources in a work like E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. What would it even mean if Pynchon had read Forster’s book and if Pynchon’s book illustrates the major aspects of the novel discussed by Forster, namely: Story, People, Plot, Fantasy, Prophecy, and Pattern? Forster was addressing general aspects of the novel, and so his work could be seen as influencing any novel written by any novelist that read Forster’s book. Forster was casting light on aspects that are present in most novels (prophecy may not occur in most novels, but foreshadowing nearly always does).

Kohn’s first essay also contains many weak connections. For example, the fact that Forster’s lectures at Trinity College were made possible by a bequest in William Clark’s will, and that Lot 49 begins with Oedipa’s learning that she has been named executrix in a will, is not a relevant connection. Many novels use inheritance as a plot. The inheritance plot is the mystery-like clothesline on which Pynchon can hang otherwise disconnected episodes. It is not a subtle signifier of Forster. Even if Pynchon was saluting Forster (in writing a novel based upon executing a will), he cannot have expected readers to understand this. Thus, this is, most charitably, a private joke figured out by no one except for Kohn.

The connection between Forster’s example of the Gide novel Les Faux Monnayeurs bears a more meaningful connection to Lot 49. But it is still feels like a stretch to assert such a connection. Is Kohn asserting that Pynchon was inspired to include so many forgeries in Lot 49 (not only the stamps, but the mention of the forged versions of The Courier’s Tragedy) after reading Forster’s brief treatment of Gide’s novel in Aspects of the Novel?

The fact that Forster specifies causality, fantasy and prophecy as essential aspects of the novel and that these occur in Lot 49 is not such an interesting connection. Again if Forster is trying to identify the most important aspects of the novel, and if subsequent novelists who might have read Forster’s book actually include causality, fantasy and prophecy in their novel, what do we conclude from that? That these novelists included causality, fantasy and prophecy in their works because they once read Forster? This would be little different than mapping a work like Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations to any novel, and pointing out that many or most of these dramatic situations are present in the novel; and that the novelist included them because they read Polti’s book. An aspect of the novel such as causality is necessarily intrinsic to the form; so Kohn shouldn’t infer Forster’s influence on Pynchon from the latter’s use of causality.

The essay on “Evans-Wentz and the Tibetan Bardo” is more convincing. Kohn identifies the bardo rebirth theme in several passages of the novel, as well as explicitly in Vineland. Pierce Inverarity does sometimes seem like a presence seeking his rebirth in Oedipa. Near the end, it is suggested that Oedipa is pregnant. So when Kohn identifies similarities between names of Tibetan Buddhist scholars (Evants-Wentz, Ralph Metzner) and Pynchon characters (Emory Bortz, Metzger) it is here more convincing as a supporting insight, rather than the plinth of the whole argument.

Kohn’s other essays seek connections between Lot 49 and the study of mental disorders, and further elaborate the influence of Tibetan Buddhism on post-modern writers such as Pynchon and DeLillo. I found it hard to agree with Kohn’s statement:  “Presumably, Oedipa’s rejection of psychedelic drugs mirrored Pynchon’s views at the time, which were compatible with the view expressed by the DSM-III-R in 1987” (Kohn, 101). Pynchon, who would later go on to write Inherent Vice, featuring the detective Doc Sportello of LSD Investigations, would seem to have little trouble with psychedelics per se, even if Oedipa avoids them in Lot 49.

Kohn also devotes a few essays to Pynchon’s Against the Day, which I cannot comment upon, since I still have only read the first hundred pages or so of that work.

In essay eleven, Kohn sees a connection between Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil (which covered the trial of Adolph Eichmann) and Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Kohn sees the hippies as stand-ins for the Jews

affirmed by the reference to “hippie metaphysics,” which evokes the “Jewish metaphysics” that the German physicist and Novel Prize laureate, Johannes Stark, intended as a slur to Albert Einstein….That Bigfoot’s contract killer was named Adrian Prussia further reinforces the Nazi connection (Kohn, 166)

This observation that the hippies are the stand-ins for the Jews is unconvincing. “Hippie metaphysics” is a funny phrase; but physics and metaphysics are such different disciplines that it is doubtful that Pynchon meant “hippie metaphysics” to connote “Jewish physics.” Bigfoot’s disparagement of the hippie lifestyle is one of the funniest elements in the novel, and similarities between this and Nazi persecution of the Jews is tenuous. The name Adrian Prussia might connote German aggression, but Nazism started as a Bavarian movement, and Prussia is a name we associate more with pre-1871 German history, and maybe with World War I (when the Prussian army was more or less the Germany army), but not with World War II or Nazis particularly. “Prussia” sounds aggressive and German, but not particularly Nazi.

My main problem with drawing such a connection between Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report On The Banality of Evil and Inherent Vice (despite an interesting similarity between the titles) is that most of the vice depicted in Pynchon’s novel involves drugs and sex, activities toward which Pynchon has a demonstrated a high degree of tolerance and even endorsement. While there are murders in Inherent Vice they seem like pretty standard murder mystery fare; nothing that could be compared to Eichmann and the Final Solution. And the fact that the diction and events of Inherent Vice are rather banal compared to Lot 49 does not suggest to me that Pynchon was somehow referring to Arendt’s The Banality of Evil. For whatever motives, Pynchon was writing his most accessible work to date in the form of a hippie detective story. However, Kohn’s identification of real estate developer Eli Broad as a source for Wolfmann is useful.

Kohn admits in the closing to essay twelve that “On the face of it, my interpretation of The Crying of Lot 49 would appear to be the pinnacle of overinterpretation; it requires a greater number of pages, and these more dense, than the novel it interprets.” I agree with Kohn that much of his work is overinterpretaton; not because of the sheer number of pages he devotes to Lot 49. I can imagine a book of Lot 49 criticism much longer than Kohn’s.

One problem is that Kohn’s criticism doesn’t convey the experience of reading The Crying of Lot 49: the sense of paranoia and vertigo that Oedipa feels exploring Inverarity’s estate, or that we feel reading about it; or the feeling of being  thrust into such a world. Reading Kohn we do not re-experience the black humor that Pynchon arms us with to protect ourselves in this world.

Kohn’s methods feel reductionist, as he relies too heavily on word counts (in essay eleven, Kohn indulges in some purely statistical analyses of word frequency in Inherent Vice and in Lot 49) and roman à clef style name recognition. Perhaps if Kohn had first laid out a more general interpretation of Lot 49, and then included his more specific conjectures about Pynchon’s sources, Close Readings  would be a more satisfactory read.

Pynchon’s sources were so varied that he could hardly expect the general reader, or even the most well-read of readers to discover all of his sources. Lot 49 displays Pynchon’s youthful delight in his own genius. And it is a spectacle to behold, especially his literary treatment of scientific developments, which were not traditionally the focus of most literary fiction.

Kohn includes a lengthy introduction to the book that explains that most of the essays were not accepted for publication in various literary journals (though some of Kohn’s articles have been). Perhaps this level of detail about the origins of each essay would have been better placed in an appendix to each essay.

Kohn thinks of himself as a latecomer to Pynchon criticism, so he recognizes that his work might represent examples of the “probably decreasing returns to interpretation.” However, Pynchon criticism is a difficult business, and one can sense passages where Pynchon is deliberately confounding the critics. I agree with Kohn when he states: “The only model reader that I can imagine for The Crying of Lot 49 would be Pynchon himself” (Kohn, 192).


23 October 2011


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