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The Influence of TV, Film and Radio in Thomas Pynchon's 'The Crying of Lot 49' (Part 1)

By Edited Jan 20, 2016 0 0

old sony tv

Humanity has always turned to storytelling to make sense of the world, and the ways in which we tell those stories changes in step with technology. The early twentieth century saw the rise of cinema and radio, followed by television in the immediate post-war years.

This new age of electronic media not only led to a greater need to explain this new and complex world, but also provided the means to spread those stories. Narratives proliferated through technology, narratives so lifelike people began to measure themselves against fictional characters. “Movies,” noted Laura Miller in The Guardian, “are integral to the way real people talk and think...individuals...who see a lot of films are constantly comparing themselves and the events in their lives to the characters...on screen.”

The danger comes in not recognizing the level of fabrication needed to create such mediated narratives. “Continuity editing and linear narrative convention, for instance, hide the artificial processes that go into film-making and help to create objective, omniscient narration akin to a Dickens or Hardy novel.” Media theorist Dan Laughey explains how what we see on-screen merely 'represents' the real and “representation is not a perfect mirror when it comes to reflecting reality.” The infiltration of the electronic media in our lives is such, those representations became our experience of reality, “so representation is not something that occurs after the ‘real’ but it is part of the reality we interpret. Representation does not merely re-present reality but actually contributes to what that reality means.”

If we take post-war life as taking place before this background of narrative saturation, we can see how Oedipa Maas, and the eccentric retinue of characters that fill The Crying of Lot 49, all show, to varying degrees, this continual influence of all-surrounding storytelling. Part of Oedipa’s struggle comes of bringing an inappropriate, or semi-formed, set of skills to this environment. Oedipa is effectively a modernist exploring a postmodern world, with the smattering of narrative techniques she has learned during her upbringing proving insufficient for her quest. Laughey: “TV dramas, including soaps share realist narrative conventions...Viewers are positioned as invisible onlookers with the prefect vantage point from which to follow the narrative.” 

The experiences of Oedipa Maas demonstrate how the ceaseless representing of reality in convenient narrative form influences our behavior and decisions. Ironically, it is the electronic media’s alluring escapism which entraps Oedipa until she finds release at the novel’s putative ending, in a modernist setting, “the oldest building in San Narciso, dating from before World War II.”   

Oedipa’s belief is of being in the perfect place to lead her own TV-style story of ‘investigations’, when in fact she lives in world only represented by TV. Her wish for linearity and neat conclusions further complicate an untenable search, in which Oedipa takes coincidences as plot points; collect enough ‘clues’, she thinks, and revelation and justice will be her rewards. This is not to call Oedipa a fool, as she is arguably more conscious of the media than most, but her status as a ‘cusp’ character makes her uniquely vulnerable in Lot 49.

This may account for her determination to the find the truth ‘behind’ the forces she encounters, such as the Pierce Inverarity estate, the Tristero, and the WASTE network. Hanjo Berressem quotes that great influence on Pynchon, Marshall McLuhan: “With TV, the viewer is the screen.” In Lot 49, Oedipa’s story plays out upon no-one else but Oedipa, a story she concocts which then threatens to envelop her, due to her belief in the heroine and the narrative.   

Television is not only mentioned in the opening passage of Lot 49, but also dictates its

family watching tv
content. Oedipa reads the letter informing her she is now executrix of the Inverarity estate “stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube.” Aside from its ominous echo of the two-way televisions of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), Pynchon makes us aware of television as a living influence in the home, even when switched off.  In her discussion of the rise of television, Milly Buonanno quotes fellow media historian Jeffrey Sconce: “Television remains, even forty years after its introduction, a somewhat unsettling and alien technology,” and Pynchon’s description here fits that observation.

Oedipa finds herself in a stock dramatic situation, that of receiving a life-changing letter, and our “parodic everywoman of the 1960s,” as Bernard Duyfhuizen calls her, defaults to the reactions of a character in a television drama; she “spoke the name of God and tried to feel as drunk as possible.” A TV character might typically down a stiff drink at such news, visual shorthand to display shock, but Oedipa has already consumed kirsch at the Tupperware party and should feel more drunk, as if in reflex at the news, "But this did not work." The failure of this learned behavior sets the tone for Oedipa’s experiences.

Oedipa then indulges in a mental montage of scenes complete with incidental music, “a dry, disconsolate tune from...the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra.” The sentimental montage, a staple of TV and film, does contain the “sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University,” an impossible flashback, “because the slope faces west.” Pynchon here suggests regret on Oedipa’s part (perhaps Oedipa wished to attend Cornell) and this intimate representation of the non-real is arguably the sole instance of Oedipa using pure imagination, which could have saved her from McLuhan's “worldpool of information” she finds herself in later.

Instead, Oedipa sinks back to the mediated, and the passage concludes with Oedipa talking aloud: “You’re so sick, Oedipa, she told herself, or the room, which knew.” There is no reason for this pronouncement, but the “watchful” television and Pynchon’s description of the knowing room, makes us feel Oedipa is acting for the benefit of a non-existent audience. This is not the paranoid behavior of someone suspicious of being watched and recorded unwillingly, rather an act of a woman informed as how to act as if unknowingly performing for the cameras.

Later, the television news brings a pertinent memory back to Oedipa, when during “the middle of Huntley and Brinkley,” she recalls her last contact with Inverarity. The NBC News, an example of television authority, jolts Oedipa out of the semi-comatose state of shopping, gardening and cooking. W. James Potter explains this as 'automatic processing', when person is “...in a perpetual flow that continues until an interruption stops the exposure or ‘bumps’ the person’s perceptual processing into a different state of exposure.” But in Oedipa's instance, the television interrupts in such a way, via a fact-based news program, as to give a permissive verisimilitude to her commitment to narrative.

    

WellesShadow
Inverarity’s phone call is remarkable in that we do not hear his natural voice, rather successive stereotypes from the movies, TV and radio, from horror (a man with “heavy Slavic tones...Transylvanian...looking for an escaped bat”), a depression-era comedy or musical (he “modulated to comic-negro”), a sleazy gangster thriller (a “hostile Pachuco dialect”), a stock war character  (“a Gestapo officer”), “and finally his Lamont Cranston voice, the one he’d talked in all the way to Mazatlan.” (6) Berressem remarks “his constant shifting of voices hides a basic void and exposes his personality as being always an impersonation,” and uses “various cultural icons,” as a way of covering his self-absence with familiar figures from the media.

The most powerful of these figures in reality (and the least recognized by the media itself), Berressem goes on to suggest, is the media tycoon. Pynchon has one specific example in mind, a character played, as the Shadow was for a time, by Orson Welles: “One of the most important models of Lot 49, a book that deals at length with the subject of cultural iconicity, is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a work of art that itself has become a cultural icon.”

As the childhood toy sled, Rosebud, was the symbol of the dying Kane’s yearning for simpler times, so The Shadow, a popular radio detective drama of the 1930s and 1940s, assumes a similar place in the mind of the dying Inverarity, who connects with Welles/Kane, and in so doing becomes the equivalent figure in Oedipa's life. The Shadow may also be the cause of his psychosis. Radio historian Susan J Douglas notes: “Raised on independent, brave pop culture heroes like the Shadow...American boys were torn, urged to be aggressive, distinctive individuals, yet urged to obey authority figures and behave themselves.”

Inverarity ensures his legacy survives even as his physical image does not. Towards the end of the novel, Oedipa finds “she could never again call back any image of the dead man to dress up, pose, talk and make answer.” The image of the man will outlive the man; this, warns Pynchon, is the danger of the media stereotype. David Seed says that Inverarity “becomes the ultimate media personality in only existing through the media; Oedipa remembers a telephone call when he mimicked a radio character, she hears of his estate through TV advertisements...” 

Oedipa's ex-lover survives as a dominant, divine presence and the only way in the postmodern age he could do this was to ape the power of the media. As a result, Oedipa will experience, if not fully acknowledge, as David Giles puts it, “the way that media infiltrate everyday life and, indeed, how media have now become everyday life to an extent that we frequently fail to realize.”  

We cannot escape The Shadow of the media and nor can Oedipa, for Inverarity becomes her personal Charles Foster Kane, who with a few disguised words and some TV commercials, comes to influence nearly every decision Oedipa makes. The legal will is Pierce’s willpower, as David Seed notes: “Inverarity rapidly fades out of the novel as a person and attenuates into a disembodied principle of power or ownership.” From now on, the influence on Oedipa of Inverarity and the media are interchangeable.

If Pynchon has made Inverarity as a god, and media the new religion, then television characters are the new saints. The first call for Oedipa is to her lawyer Roseman, who obsesses over the Perry Mason TV show, but what is as interesting as his semi-belief that the show is real (“‘you might be one of Perry Mason’s spies. Ha ha.’”) is the context in which Pynchon situated Roseman’s fixation.

Perry Mason, like many television heroes of the time, is holy in his infallibility, and is unstinting in his defense of the helpless and weak, who seek Mason in times of need. Roseman, in wanting to become the impossible ideal, suffers from a perverse hero-worship that has something of the death wish about it, “at once wanting to be a successful trial lawyer like Perry Mason and, since this was impossible, to destroy Perry Mason by undermining him.” 

Roseman however cannot undermine the system any more than Oedipa, for so indoctrinated are they by the media, they conduct their meeting with the snappy dialogue and sharp direction of a Hollywood romantic comedy: “‘Run away with me,’ said Roseman when the coffee came. ‘Where?’ That shut him up. Back in the office...” The lack of an answer from Roseman to Oedipa’s question not only suggests there is no escape, but also life, unlike TV, is not well-scripted, much to Roseman’s disillusionment.

As for Oedipa, we might be grateful that she seems unaware that Perry Mason actor Raymond Burr starred in the US version of the original Godzilla film, otherwise her brief trip on the trimiran Godzilla II at Fangoso Lagoons might have led her to tracking down the actor to question him about using GI skeletons as cigarette filters. 

After this meeting, Oedipa’s life develops a film-like quality: “she had noticed the absence of an intensity, as if watching a movie, perceptibly out of focus, that the projectionist refused to fix.” It could be argued that Oedipa is adjusting to a new role and this passage shows her as being aware of the shift without recognizing the change for what it is, the psychic re-framing to a mediated method needed to make sense of her experiences. Pynchon demonstrates in Lot 49 how an awareness of this fake self can feel worse than ignorance, and questions whether it is possible to slip under both states, just as the mini-sub tries to slip under the Turkish nets in the film she watches later, Cashiered.

Oedipa’s sense of artificiality strengthens as she leaves Kenneret for San Narciso, which “lay further south, nearer LA.” Los Angeles is home to Hollywood, the television and film center of the USA, if not the entire Western world: “What this road really was, she fancied, was this hypodermic needle, inserted somewhere ahead into the vein of the freeway, a vein nourishing the mainliner LA, keeping it happy, coherent, protected from pain.” As Oedipa has miscast herself as the heroine, she cannot see it is Los Angeles that narcotizes its users, with the road spreading its opiate across America.

syringe

The image Oedipa employs is close to the ‘stimulus/response’ theory of media literacy, which “assumes that the media are very influential in shaping how we behave and act in the real world." This theory is also known, as Laughey reminds us, "as the...’hypodermic syringe’ theory of media effects." The theory goes that the psychological effect of the media is so strong and immediate that we base our speech, opinions and actions upon what it feeds into us. When our experiences conflict with the media's representations, this can cause frustration or unhappiness.

In this instance, Oedipa pulls in at a random motel, tired of travelling due to the cognitive dissonance between what seems the alluring imagery of a car commercial and her experience in reality: “this illusion of speed, freedom, wind in your hair, unreeling landscape – it wasn’t.” Pynchon echoes this effect later, with Oedipa’s near collision with: “...a swift boy in a Mustang, perhaps unable to contain the new sense of virility his new auto gave him, nearly killed her...” Oedipa, it seems, is not the only person given a false sense of self by a car commercial.

Oedipa processes her surroundings through metaphors of electronic media, such as the memory of seeing a printed circuit inside a transistor radio: “Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns...an intent to communicate." For Oedipa, it is “as if on some other frequency, words were being spoken.”

There seems some attempt within Oedipa to separate medium and message, to get inside the radio as an idea just as she was able to as a physical object, but postmodern media by its nature is inaccessible, as Oedipa realizes later; there is no “central truth itself,” only something “too bright for her memory to hold; which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly...” The message being, there is no message; now forget the message.

For Oedipa however, there is always the feeling that reality is ‘like’ something. When something unusual happens to us, we often say ‘this is like being in a movie;’ for Oedipa, so much happens beyond her usual experience that she feels a narrative is developing around her, when in fact it is the narrative of her own subconscious making. There is an “intent to communicate,” but the words are both transmitted and received by Oedipa. 

Hollywood sign
As a side note, it is interesting to speculate that the geographical environment Oedipa travels through as she nears Los Angeles would be more familiar to her than both we and she might realize, given the volume of films and TV shows filmed in the city's vicinity. Rather than the “pines and salt fogs of Kinneret,” Oedipa sees “the dull brown earth,” the scrubby, rocky hills and valleys seen in the background of films since cameras started rolling around Hollywood. This may enhance the effect noted by Buonanno: “Television’s most significant impact on the spatial experience of present-day individuals rests...in the simultaneousness of being and feeling oneself here and elsewhere, thus with a dual sense of place.”

The second-hand familiarity of her surroundings help to cause Oedipa’s later psychological disorientation. Laughey describes the sensation as follows: “I have never lived in or even visited New York, but I have a vividly hyper-real sense of the ‘Big Apple’ thanks to...countless other media simulations of the place.” Oedipa’s surroundings are, unlike New York, nondescript and yet as recognizable, adding to her unease.

Miles manages the hotel, who is “maybe sixteen with a Beatle haircut and a lapeless, cuffless, one-button mohair suit.” Noticing he sings with an English accent, Oedipa asks why so. “‘Our manager says we should sing like that. We watch English movies a lot, for the accent.’” (Prior to ‘the British invasion,’ it was not uncommon to hear British rock’n’roll singers affect American accents; see Billy Liar [1962] by Keith Waterhouse for an example). Many miles from England, the Miles of southern California is a figure voluntarily altered by the media. Their initial influence, one imagines, would be The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show of February 1964, though it is possible the group have seen A Hard Day’s Night (1964) at the cinema.

The Paranoids have entered into the characteristic postmodern pursuit of authenticity via conscious simulation, though through their ‘knowing,’ the group less troubled by the assimilation than Oedipa comes to feel with her unwitting Sherlock Holmes impersonation. For one thing, Oedipa becomes caught in what Laughey describes as an ‘open narrative,’ which are “continuous and have no certain ending. TV soaps and drama serials are open narratives.”

Oedipa, perhaps more a fan of cop shows and detective stories, hopes for a ‘closed narrative,’ as these, as Laughey mentions, “have a clear beginning, middle and end, like most films and pop songs.” This applies to the lawyer, Metzger, and the Paranoids respectively, but the differing perspectives between Oedipa, Metzger and the pop group may also be caused by a slight but telling age difference, as I shall explain in the next part of this article.    

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Bibliography

  1. Laura Miller "Donna Tartt - Is This The Year of the Goldfinch?." The Guardian. 30/05/2014. 27/09/2014 <Web >
  2. Dan Laughey Media Studies: Theories and Approaches . Harpenden, Herts, UK : Kamera Books, 2009.
  3. Hanjo Berressem Pynchon’s Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text . Chicago : University of Illinois Press, 1993.
  4. Milly Buonanno, trans. Jennifer Radice The Age of Television: Experience and Theories. Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2008.
  5. Bernard Duyfhuizen New Essays on The Crying of Lot 49 . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  6. J. Kerry Grant A Companion to The Crying of Lot 49 . Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
  7. Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore The Medium is the Massage. London: Penguin Books, 1967.
  8. W. James Potter Media Literacy: Edition 6. London: Sage Publications Inc., 2013.
  9. Hanjo Berressem Pynchon’s Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
  10. Susan J Douglas Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
  11. David Giles Psychology of the Media. Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  12. David Seed The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988.

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