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The Influence of TV, Film and Radio in Thomas Pynchon's 'The Crying of Lot 49' (Part 2)

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    Late on during her first night with Metzger, Oedipa notices she has broken her motel bathroom mirror and in another of her ‘studio audience’ moments, references the old superstition: “‘Seven years bad luck,’ she said aloud. ‘I’ll be thirty-five.’” This “makes Oedipa twenty-eight in 1964” which Grant confirms as the novel's setting. Miles is sixteen, and so was likely born in 1946. Oedipa was born prewar, Miles post-war, making him one of the earliest baby-boomers.

Those twelve years of age difference could mean a great deal in terms of their respective attitudes towards media. Susan J Douglas notes that although both age groups “had a very special and intense relationship with radio,” for those born at around the same time as Oedipa “radio listening was a largely family affair,” while the baby boomers “turned to radio for rebellion...One group listened to The Shadow or The Lone Ranger, another to disc jockeys like Alan Freed, Cousin Brucie, Wolfman Jack...” Miles and his friends are happy to identify with what McLuhan called, in a discussing The Beatles, “a formula for putting on the universe – participation mystique. They do not look for detached patterns – for ways of relating to the world à la nineteenth century.”

Berkeley College
Oedipa’s search for a pattern will lead her to Berkeley, where she notices the different just a few years can make in the attitude of the young, compared to her own college years of the late 1950s, when “she had undergone her own educating at a time of nerves, blandness and retreat,” whereas “this Berkeley was like no somnolent Siwash out of her own past at all, but more akin to those...autonomous culture media where the most beloved of folklore may be brought into doubt...” The young are finding identities and narratives of their own, with Oedipa cloaked by the seductive somnolence of Pierce Inverarity’s Shadow.        

As for the Paranoids, they actively place themselves within an imaginary media framing, in continual search of a film or photo opportunity, no matter how odd this looks to a casual observer: “The drummer had set up precariously on the diving-board, the others were invisible.” This state of ‘appearing’ in something seems just as important as their sound. Their physical appearances are copies, and they are copies of each other; when the less media literate Oedipa meets all four members of the group, each resembles “Miles, the kid with the bangs and the mohair suit, multiplied by four...she couldn’t tell them apart.” 

The Paranoids give us a musical number as staged as that of Baby Igor’s in Cashiered, during which they out-number themselves, in a sequence mocking the mimed-as-live performance of bands in rock and roll B-films where there is obvious use of extra musicians than those on-screen: “Outside a fugue of guitars had begun, and she counted each electronic voice as it came in, till she reached six or so, and recalled only three of the Paranoids played guitars; so others must be plugged in.”

The Paranoids enact media appearances by ‘real’ bands without evidence of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of electronic musical performance; no “reflectors, microphones, camera cables,” or indeed amplifiers or instrument leads, as per the then Hollywood convention of making a band more aesthetically pleasing to the viewer by removing the elements of their technical construction (there is an inverted echo of this later in the text, when Oedipa and Metzger visit The Scope and are told by the barman the venue has “a strictly electronic music policy” and non-musicians can perform live onto tape without using conventional instruments). Later, arriving at Fangoso Lagoons, “The Paranoid element piled out of their car, carrying musical instruments and looking around as if for outlets under the trucked-in white sand to plug into,” as if to play a number for one of the popular ‘Beach Party’ films of the mid-1960s and expecting to perform in the way bands would do in such films, by miming to a prerecorded soundtrack.

At the beginning of Chapter Six, the Paranoids are again ready for a staged ‘performance’ as Oedipa finds them at Echo Courts “arranged around and on the diving board at the end of the swimming pool with all their instruments, so composed and motionless that some photographer, hidden from Oedipa, might have been shooting them for an album illustration.” Regardless of the quality of their songs, The Paranoids are forever ready for their close-up, Mr de Mille. And unlike Oedipa, these paranoids do not object to being watched, even if there is nobody present. There is often more of The Monkees about The Paranoids than the Beatles, and while the NBC sitcom did not begin until September 1966, and so so can be discarded as an influence on Pynchon, there is something of a sitcom set-up in their managing a hotel without any other adult guidance. One can easily imagine a different novel altogether, were the reader to ‘pan away’ from Oedipa to watch the Paranoids’ shenanigans instead.

The Monkees

    We go back to Oedipa however and although she is able to fend off Miles’ advances with, in a twist of irony, a TV antenna, she has no defense against the handsome lawyer Metzger, who is such a familiar character to Oedipa, the situation becomes hyper-real: “At first, They, somebody up there, were putting her on. It had to be an actor...she looked around him for reflectors, microphones, camera cables, but there was only himself...this rollicking lawbreaker.”

In a reversal of The Paranoids, Metzger is someone who appears as if they should be surrounded by technical equipment, without anticipating such a set-up. The moment feels so perfectly staged to Oedipa one can argue it effects her judgement throughout the rest of the novel, struck as she is by the idea that filmic scenes such as this are real and yet still seem filmic, a side-effect, according to Duyfhuizen, of “the massive production and reproduction of images...within contemporary culture.” John Johnston has remarked upon how “Metzger lives in a world made solely of images; in fact, he often behaves as if he were on camera," and his smooth, practiced entrance into Oedipa’s hotel room is as much a cliché as Inverarity’s telephone voices.

Metzger steps out of a dream Oedipa has never had and this induces a kind of artificial déjà vu in our heroine, a friendly variety of paranoia that, like Inverarity’s will, pulls Oedipa into ‘playing at reality,’ as N Katherine Hays comments: “Oedipa, agreeing to play Strip Botticelli with Metzger, is surrounded by the sense that she is playing a role. She looks for stage lights when he appears at the door.” Metzger, slightly older, and as both a lawyer and an actor, is part of the media role, immune to its effects as he is the source of its effects.

    Oedipa is at ease with formulaic storytelling Metzger’s image represents, as we learn when she “had nothing more involved planned that evening than watching Bonanza on the tube.” Oedipa’s choice of the popular NBC western, the number one TV show in 1964, seems somehow disappointing; even the Paranoids found a Jacobean play to attend in San Narciso. One could posit its appropriateness however, given Bonanza’s most enduring image, a map showing the American heartland burning from the center outwards as seen in the show’s opening credits, is an apt metaphor to Oedipa’s vision of “what Inverarity had left behind, never suspecting that the legacy was America.” Burning from the inside out, a surface layer of representation proceeding a mythologized past – this is what is to become of Oedipa’s America.

Interestingly, McLuhan referenced the Western in a way befitting Oedipa’s changed circumstances: “When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects to the flavor of the recent past...suburbia lives imaginatively in Bonanza-land.” (In the same passage, McLuhan describes how “We look at the present through the rear-view mirror,” just as Oedipa would have figuratively done on the way to Fangoso Lagoons, with the Paranoids following behind!)  

    Although she doesn’t tune into Bonanza, Oedipa still turns to the television for escape, this time in fear of self-knowledge, when Metzger asks if she wants to know what Inverarity said about her when drawing up his will. There is no escape, however; only a younger version of the person sitting beside her on the sofa. Media turns to media, although Buonanno would disagree about the potential for harm: “Watching television creates the conditions for more fluid and continuous switching, and for transitions between the real and the imaginary that are less pronounced and upsetting.” For a time, Metzger and Oedipa stare into “each other’s eyes for what seemed five minutes,” while at other times they focus on the TV; a cynic might suggest there is little difference between the two acts.

Discussing this scene, Berressem observes “Technological development has created a space...in which the subject’s psychic space is constantly endangered by the conflation of a simulated and therefore imaginary real and the ‘true’ imaginary.” The unreal ‘narrative’ development of Metzger’s arrival both into Oedipa’s mediated reality and her chosen media of television makes her situation so hyper-real that the narrative structure of the film becomes impossible to sustain. For a film like Cashiered to become impossible within its conventional terms is to mean it appears to become more possible in our reality, as we see in its finale, which nonetheless fails to bring home to Oedipa the unlikelihood of a definitive end to her own adopted narrative quest regarding Inverarity’s will.

We must also consider, as Berressem does, how detached Cashiered is from its true home and the normal, respectful context of the cinema: “unlike film, which still has its own ‘theatrical’ space in the cinema television has become so much a part of everyday reality that it is already in the position of reality.” In this instance, television proves its power over cinema by playing the reels of Cashiered in the wrong order.

 An interesting exercise is to compare Oedipa’s reaction to Cashiered with an academic account of how audiences conceptualise media realism. W James Potter details Alice Hall’s 2003 study in which “she found complex definitions that varied by genre and were based on six ideas: factuality, plausibility, typicality, emotional involvement, narrative consistency and perceptual persuasiveness.” By taking each of these elements in turn, we can discover how Oedipa absorbs or rejects Cashiered. Factuality, “what actually happened,” covers the setting of the film and Oedipa appears to accept the fact of submarine warfare during the First World War and although Cashiered features a child hero, a suspiciously intelligent dog and romantic pairings for all three of our protagonists who are fighting the Axis powers single-handed, Oedipa does not question these elements (although she does baulk at the dog’s abilities as a viewer) well-versed as she is to the film's plausibility within its own genre, as it is clear from the first few moments of viewing that Cashiered is a jolly wartime musical, perhaps the least plausible film genre ever devised.

The End
This leads into typicality, and here Oedipa finds difficulties: “‘all these films have happy endings,’” she tells Metzger, and she is right, but Pynchon has other intentions. We take for granted so much of the mechanism of films like Cashiered (such as “the phoney Dodecanese footage,” “the merry old Greek fisherman who appeared out of nowhere with a zither,” and the swelling “strange thirties movie music...in faded the legend THE END.”) that like Oedipa, we stop querying the images: “Oedipa watched TV for five minutes, forgetting she was supposed to ask questions.” 

Without the querying of the source material, we and Oedipa are in danger of media illiteracy, of a blindness to the source and purpose the media and its methods in convincing us of the reality of unreality. Pynchon and Metzger plays this as a game, and Oedipa becomes emotionally involved with Cashiered, but only through the anger at being denied her own happy ending, in losing the game with Metzger; perhaps she is also angry at being betrayed by a representative of the media, and what this means for her in investigating Inverarity’s will.

    As she learns with the sailor Oedipa meets later, death is the ultimate and perhaps only possible ending for an open narrative. Prefiguring this disruption to her programmed expectations is the disordered narrative of Cashiered with the TV station showing the film’s reels out-of-order (which in itself makes an interesting contrast with Oedipa “shuffling through a fat deckful of days” as she searched her memory earlier; not for the last time, the mental rendered in physical terms). The longer the film goes on, the exposed become the techniques of film; contrived flashbacks, facts smoothed over for the sake of drama (the Justine attempting to dive below the German net as Metzger explains how they could have sailed through a gate in the net) and avoidance of gore, which Metzger ‘avoids’: “Metzger...his eyes squeezed shut, head away from the set. ‘For fifty yards out the sea was red with blood. They don’t show that.’” (Indeed, the massacre of the troops begins at the sound of “a phoney British accent.”)

As for perceptual persuasiveness, which relates to how real the film looks, the film works well in showing Oedipa how films work, and yet it also works on the level of realism, given the film’s grim ending which one would imagine be the result of a man, a child and a dog’s effort to attack the Turkish forces in a mini-sub – the conclusion is unrealistically realistic, one might say: “Oedipa feels her encounter with Metzger is like playing a role in a movie, but the movie they watch together is eerily real” (Hays). Oedipa, forced to go against her expectations of a film, guesses Baby Igor, his father and pet dog are doomed (“She felt the words had been conned out of her.”); as J Kerry Grant says, “she is uneasy because she is betting on an outcome that violates the norms of the Hollywood movie genre, norms she would instinctively favor under different circumstances.”

As with Oedipa, Cashiered wins and loses, as its representative in reality, the grown Metzger, wins outright – as is Hollywood convention, the boy gets the girl. Oedipa’s exchange with Metzger after Baby Igor’s song surmises her situation: “‘you didn’t sing along,’ he observed. ‘I didn’t know,’ Oedipa smiled.” As regards film and TV, Oedipa is smart enough to know the tune, but not enough to know the words. Metzger wins because of his double-edged knowledge, as Cashiered's basis in a disastrous historical campaign (the cheery musical deals with a 1915 massacre of allied troops) along with his insider account of the making of the film. In effect, he provides Oedipa and the reader with what we might today recognize as a DVD commentary on the Baby Igor movie, a meta-narrative easier to follow, if less easy to predict, than the narrative of Cashiered, which Metzger undermines as the crew of the Justine attempt to sail...under mines.     

The result of the seductive Metzger’s presence during this chaotic re-run is to give Oedipa a dangerous feeling of security against the media's influence. In one example, Metzger’s conflating question “‘wasn’t I there?’” is countered by Oedipa’s request for lemon and salt with her tequila, spoken “‘with movie gaiety,’” as if Metzger’s obfuscation ‘allows’ Oedipa to fall back into mediated behaviour.

Later, Oedipa tries to thwart Metzger’s game of Strip Botticelli with a ploy of wearing extra layers of clothes, by which, as Duyfhuizen points out, “we can again see the influence of television culture as Oedipa’s acts of avoidance rival any that Lucille Ball concocted during the years of I Love Lucy.” This leads to the scene with the self-propelling hairspray can, staged, like many sitcoms, before a live audience, as the Paranoids and their girlfriends appear at the moment of maximum innuendo, from which Oedipa wisecracks her way out of embarrassment.

Towards the end of the chapter, Pynchon extends the “Hollywood distortions of probability,” by subjecting the reader and Oedipa to successive climaxes in a sequence which begins “like a cut to a scene where the camera’s already moving,” as if Oedipa is now a film being watched, the screen for Pynchon’s story. The cameras imagined by the Paranoids, and which would seem to follow Metzger, are now part of Oedipa. Duyfhuizen remarks “Oedipa has become nearly totally passive as the metaphors suggest the intersection of music and the cinematic,” and as Oedipa sexually accepts the former film star Metzger, in front of the television and to the soundtrack of the Paranoids, Oedipa’s penetration by the electronic media appears total, as Seed comments: “This climax dramatizes the way in which the media have now ‘penetrated’ Oedipa, impregnated her with the desire to see how they relate to each other.” This helps Oedipa to query her quest's reality, but doesn’t cause her to doubt her desire for its narrative.

    The adverts that interspersed the showing of Cashiered, all for Inverarity’s business concerns, appear to allow Oedipa to know something of her former lover, but serve only to amplify Inverarity’s will upon Oedipa. Potter explains the general effects of commercials: “Adverts constantly program the way we think about ourselves. Advertisers program an uneasy self-consciousness in our mind.” David Seed goes further: “McLuhan argues that modern advertising methods are annihilating the ego and Pynchon similarly demonstrates how technology pre-empts human activity.” By this, Seed means that the adverts ‘inspire’ Oedipa to visit Inverarity’s business concerns; without the adverts, she may not have done so and proceeded with executing the will, and not ‘investigating’ it; the medium is controlling her actions. Johnston goes into more detail: “What is striking...is the obvious gap between the seeming banality of the ‘contents’ of Oedipa’s perception and the religious imagery that it evokes.”

Oedipa makes the mistake in finding meaning in commercials simply because of their ‘liveness,’ “the instantaneous of voice transmission by electronic media” (Johnston) and their supposed ‘connections’ between Oedipa and Inverarity, but Oedipa’s faith in the media’s holy voice stems only from her ability to convert media images into her extant language of comprehension. What Oedipa does here is little more than play ‘six steps to a celebrity’ game, whereby one can link oneself through friends, relatives or spurious contacts to a famous person; it’s Oedipa’s misfortune that she requires not six steps, but just one.

Oedipa becomes as close to Inverarity and Metzger as some people feel close to celebrities, and as ‘close’ as Oedipa later becomes to the Tristero, but the connections are still, in the greater scheme of things, specious. In fact, in the postmodern world in which Oedipa lives, there is no ‘greater scheme,’ and the meta-narrative circuits she tries to build fuse or burn out at every flip of the switch. 

    By way of comparison, we can look at Oedipa’s later viewing of The Courier’s Tragedy as a

Jacobean Play
way of marking her immersion into the world of narrative fiction through the non-technological setting of the stage. What is novel to Oedipa in the theater throws into relief her abiding relationships to TV, film and radio, relationships otherwise made invisible by their sheer familiarity. The play highlights Oedipa’s underlying need for story for the reader by showcasing the need in a new spotlight. Oedipa becomes absorbed by the action: “Oedipa found herself after five minutes sucked utterly into the landscape of evil Richard Wharfinger had fashioned for his seventeenth-century audiences.”

Despite the violent and difficult nature of the play, with its bloodlust and dense plotting, Oedipa ‘found herself’ during its course and becomes lost in The Courier’s Tragedy - in both senses. Giles and Potter have descriptions for Oedipa’s absorption by, and reading of, the play. “Active audience theory has always contended that audiences are much smarter and more inventive than traditional communication theory gives them credit for, and they can be highly creative in their responses to media” (Giles). Oedipa, as if to make up for a lifetime of passive engagement, enters a transported state, like so many before her who are “...swept away with the message, enter the world of the message, and lose track of their own social surroundings” (Potter).

Oedipa does not question her true motivations for her interest in The Courier’s Tragedy; she does not enter “the self-reflexive state,” in which the viewer analyses their own motivations for media exposure: “Why am I exposing myself to this message? What am I getting out of this exposure and why?” And why am I making these interpretations of meaning?” (Potter) In a novel in which Oedipa, having left Mucho and soon abandoned by Metzger, encounters various groups of isolates, it is notable that one of the themes of Lot 49 is connecting with others, even through media. Patrick O'Donnell makes this point: “For Lot 49 speculates on the whole idea of ‘connection,’ or the activity of connection, as the characteristic human endeavor, whether it be in writing and reading literary works, or articulating ourselves – our identities - as human beings.” Buonanno sees this as one of the main functions of storytelling, in whatever form: “The capacity of narrative to become an instrument of knowledge and to yield meanings has unquestionably helped to nourish the sort of ‘addiction to the story’ that seems to have been a universal and ubiquitous constant in human affairs.”

Oedipa becomes addicted to ‘her’ story; her earlier premonition of “Oedipa some single melted crystal of urban horse” becomes true as The Courier’s Tragedy leads Oedipa down through the dark, endless path of the mysterious Tristero, with whom Oedipa enters what could be described as a parasocial relationship, almost on the level of a celebrity-obsessed fan. Connections with the Tristero, as before with Inverarity, become like a ‘hit’ and Oedipa soon needs more, filling the darkness of absence when she believes she is journeying towards the light. During her long night in San Francisco, she seems to play the role of a junkie, helplessly wandering from one rundown location to the next, searching for something to keep her going to the next point of meaning, wherever it might be. We shall look with her in the next part of this article.

Note: you can find the references used in this article part one.

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