Reading the first pages of Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge, with its story of a shrewd but otherwise unexceptional woman trying to untangle a vast unsolvable mystery, I remembered the excitement I felt more than forty years ago when I first read Pynchon’s earlier novel on the same theme, The Crying of Lot 49.
When that book appeared in 1966, most of the reviews dismissed it as trivial and annoying, a judgment that its author seems to share. Pynchon’s first novel, V. (1963), moved and awed me when I read it as a teenager, but the reviews discouraged me from reading his second one. Then, one day, I needed a book to get me through a two-hour train trip, so I gave The Crying of Lot 49 a try. Having bought a copy in Penn Station, I read it on the train without stopping, occasionally reminding myself to breathe. That night, on the return trip, I read it again.
Since then I’ve read it twenty or thirty times, often with the same excitement that I felt when I read it twice in one day. What continues to move me is the way in which the heroine, Oedipa Maas (the silly names make a serious point, but that’s a matter for another essay), responds when her safe, familiar habits of mind no longer make sense of the world around her. She starts out hoping to solve a more or less straightforward problem—the corporate intricacies left behind by a dead man—only to find herself a hundred pages later with a sense of total isolation and uncertainty, confronting great unanswerable questions that she never hoped to ask: whether the world and her own life have any real meaning, whether justice and injustice exist or are mere words, whether events and persons and nations have moral relations with each other or whether they merely exist.
Oedipa has been trying to figure out something called the Tristero, which is part MacGuffin, part international conspiracy, and it has led her through a variety of possibly random, possibly connected, places and incidents. Now she senses the possibility of something deeper:
Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth. In the songs Miles, Dean, Serge and Leonard sang was either some fraction of the truth’s numinous beauty…or only a power spectrum. Tremaine the Swastika Maker’s reprieve from holocaust was either an injustice or the absence of a wind; the bones of the GI’s at the bottom of Lake Inverarity were either there for a reason that mattered to the world, or for skin divers and cigarette smokers. Ones and zeroes. So did the couples arrange themselves. At Vesperhaven House either an accommodation reached, in some kind of dignity, with the Angel of Death, or only death and the daily, tedious preparations for it. Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none.
Oedipa is facing alternatives that no one can help her with, and no one can ever be certain which is true, so she returns from her isolation to something like normal life with her questions unanswered. But having seen these alternatives, having glimpsed another mode of meaning behind the obvious, she can never see the world in the same way again.
As I thought about The Crying of Lot 49, I belatedly realized that it tells a story very much like the one told by the only other novel that I have read twenty or thirty times with the same kind of excitement. In tone, setting, character, and incident, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) is a world away from The Crying of Lot 49, but both books have the same overall shape and both describe a lonely and reluctant quest for meanings that can never be obvious. There are greater books, but none that move me in the same way.
Like Oedipa Maas sorting out an inheritance, Clarissa Dalloway spends her day organizing her party and avoiding anything deeper. Then, with her party in full swing, she hears of the suicide of the shellshocked soldier Septimus Warren Smith, and, repelled by the intrusion of death at her party, she walks into a little room where she finds herself alone, confronting her long refusal of everything that might have mattered in her life:
She went on, into the little room…. There was nobody. The party’s splendour fell to the floor, so strange it was to come in alone in her finery….
They went on living…they would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them…
And then she returns to her party.
I have no way of knowing whether Pynchon has ever read Virginia Woolf, but it seems clear that both chose a similar problem and found a similar solution. Each experienced, as everyone does sooner or later, the great unanswerable questions that only get asked in solitude and silence, when the fuss and clatter of daily life suddenly falls silent and “the party’s splendour fell to the floor.” Each chose a more or less ordinary woman, with no special strengths beyond a sharp distaste for power-hunger and cruelty, as the reluctant hero of an inward quest for meaning and value. Each told a story with little outward drama, because the heroine faces a crisis that is invisible to everyone but herself.
Like all of Virginia Woolf’s novels and, despite their misplaced reputation for high-tech cleverness, all of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, including his latest one, both books point toward the kind of knowledge of the inner life that only poems and novels can convey, a knowledge that eludes all other techniques of understanding, and that the bureaucratic and collective world disdains or ignores. Yet for anyone who has ever known, even in a crowded room, the solitude and darkness that Clarissa and Oedipa enter for a few moments, that experience, however brief and elusive, is “another mode of meaning behind the obvious” and, however obscured behind corruption, lies, and chatter, “a thing there was that mattered.”