Hi guys! It’s Annie again, and today, sadly, is my very last New Classics column. I have absolutely treasured my time with Art + Deco, running this blog and working publicity, but fall will bring new adventures for us all, and I can’t wait to see how the company grows and changes in the future. Continue to stay tuned to meet Dana who will take over the blog spot next week with a new series!
In order to wrap up on a note of love and musings of home, I’m going to delve way in to one book today, entitled The Crying of Lot 49. This has long been one of my favorite novels, so I wanted to make sure I give one long blog post about before I leave you all. It’s a one-book-post, because it’s got a lot of heavy analysis, but don’t worry, it’s still an easy read 🙂
The power of the Pacific is a tangible one to anyone who has stood beside its expanse. It is a commanding yet subtle murmur, faintly underlining coastal and near-coastal life, giving context to unnoticeable cities. The ocean graces the air with a tinge of home, and, as Thomas Pynchon will describe, it swells with psychological force.
In The Crying of Lot 49, a current of postmodern schizophrenia runs through Oedipa’s subconscious, bubbling up in geysers of panic and delusion. In the end, she finds herself disoriented, discombobulated, and emotionally dismembered. After spiraling into hysterics, unable to decipher whether the Tristero was a plot or fabrication or reality or what exactly, Oedipa finds herself in an unstable location, unfamiliar and barren. Her once-home disowns her: this is when she breaks.
But it does not start this way; to be uprooted and shattered as she was, she must have at one point grown roots deep into the ground of San Narciso. She must have felt the constant pull of her home, a rope tied to her heart. When she no longer feels the tension, when the rope is let go, she disintegrates. So what is it that held that rope taut for so long? That pull is, of course, the Pacific Ocean.
“Somewhere beyond the battening, urged sweep of three-bedroom houses rushing by their thousands across all the dark beige hills […] lurked the sea, the unimaginable Pacific, the one to which all surfers, beach pads, sewage disposal schemes, tourist incursions, sunned homosexuality, chartered fishing are irrelevant, the hole left by the moon’s tearing-free and monument to her exile; you could not hear or even smell this but it was there, something tidal began to reach feelers in past eyes and eardrums, perhaps to arouse fractions of brain current your most gossamer microelectrode is yet too gross for finding.”
When I first read this sentence, my jaw was on the floor. The sentence swept in, knocking me down like a wave crashing on the sand. It was so unexpected, so eloquent, flowing, so beautiful and out of nowhere on the modernist landscape of San Narciso. When I tell my friends about how life-changingly incredible this book is, I refer them to this passage. I leave the book in their hands and wait for a smile, or a quiet “wow,” or, at the very least, “nice.”
Pynchon introduces the ocean halfway through a rather lengthy sentence (abridged here) and takes the description in a vivid, cinematic direction. The beige hills of suburbia linguistically yield to the swell of the Pacific, and the tone is dynamically altered. The trivialities of beach town life pale in comparison to the almost godly sea, “the hole left by the moon’s tearing-free and monument to her exile.” How do I even break that down? The sheer magnitude of the sea, both psychically over the nearby residents and physically, is conveyed perfectly in Pynchon’s prose. You can feel it in the air, like a pheromone acting on your brain, reassuring you of its proximity. A tiny, microscopic, electric reminder. It is subconscious. It is innate. There is no question that the sea is, and always will be. It is looming with certainty.
I grew up near the Pacific Ocean (15 minutes away driving, or probably 20 if I take the train they just built near my house) in Los Angeles, and my favorite view in the whole city has always been standing on the beach at night, looking out at the ocean; I find myself mid-abyss, unable to distinguish where the sky ends and water begins. This passage articulated my admiration for it in a way I have never been able to. It feels, in a word, significant, like you are a part of some greater metaphor, standing next to the neon lights of the refurbished ferris wheel on the Santa Monica pier. The murmurs of tourists who inhabit the suspended wooden plank at seemingly all hours are drowned out by the crashing of the waves. The crashing seems almost kind, perhaps because I can only hear it, I can’t see it; the rush reminds me of the ocean’s omnipresence, allowing me to find comfort in its depth, magnitude. When the wind blows, I don’t reach for my jacket. The Pacific has a hold on me, and Oedipa, and the minds which, by migrating seaward, develop their coastal “feelers,” that uninterrupted stimulation from the ocean.
The tone completely changes later in the novel, after Oedipa’s journey and subsequent descent into paranoia, when Pynchon returns again to the trope of the ocean.
“She stood between the public booth and the rented car, in the night, her isolation complete, and tried to face toward the sea. But she’d lost her bearings. She turned, pivoting on one stacked heel, could find no mountains either. As if there could be no barriers between herself and the rest of the land. San Narciso at that moment […] gave up its residue of uniqueness for her; became a name again, was assumed back into the American continuity of crust and mantle.”
In a city she was once so sure of, that seemed to speak to her through subconscious languages, she stands between two impermanent, impersonal spaces: the “public booth,” and the “rented car.” The car, of course, does not belong to her, or anyone, and the booth belongs to everyone at once in a manner just as isolating. She looks up, and the sea is no longer there. This huge, even cosmic certainty has disappeared; the Pacific so large it’s, “unimaginable,” and yet it’s gone.
And then the mountains, out of sight where they once would have anchored the horizon. The topological identifiers of the region, which (she would have hoped) were more stable than clues in the night or the lives of the men she touched, have vanished, leaving in their wake an echo of plainness. She doesn’t refer to America just by name, but rather calls it, “the American continuity of crust and mantle.” Oedipa’s new America is flat and featureless; it consists only of the land it rests on. It is a “continuity,” not a nation; there is no inherent identity in this haphazardly organized land mass, no mention of the people who inhabit it.
Stripped of all personality and personification, San Narciso, for Oedipa, is meaningless. She has lost her sense of place, found herself uprooted and abandoned in public spaces, non-homes. But what is truly lost is so much more than that. This is psychic vertigo, a total loss of identity, dissociation, pushing her and pushing her until she can’t distinguish herself in relation to space. She cannot decipher where her home ends, or where she is safe, so she proceeds to live with a consistent undertone (or, arguably, overtone) of anxiety. Her paranoia has severed her “feelers” from the natural world. She has othered herself from her environment, her home.
A hollow grew in my heart when I read this second passage. No, the ocean is not my home. I used to resist trips there as a kid, exhausted by the sun’s rays and the necessity to have fun, fun, fun all the time. But it always comforted me, peaking out in glimpses still as I drive over hills, in rearview mirrors, in the air and the foggy mornings. I would seek it out at night, driving an extremely circuitous path along PCH instead of directly home. My heart felt whole next to the beating tide that I could not see, but I heard and felt it, and it was this wholeness that stayed with me. I orient myself toward the water; it reminds me constantly where it is. Oedipa has lost her reminder. She is in a foreign land, one where the sea cannot tell you, “You are home.”
I’m Annie, a recent UC Berkeley grad and publicity intern here at Art + Deco Agency. I’ll be your resident blogger, chatting with and about emerging voices in the literary industry and getting you started on your summer reading list. Catch me here every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday!