Pynchon’s early labyrinths

Hawthorne, Mark D

Hawthorne is professor of English at James Madison University. He has authored books on Maria Edgeworth and John and Michael Banim and has published on Pynchon, Kosinski, Lavin, Coetzee, Robert Browning, Thomas Moore, and computer technology.

From the maze of Minos to the knots that fascinated the Renaissance to Borges’s metaphors for the interaction of text and reader, the labyrinth has captured the Western imagination.1 Its architecture may be so complex that it defies analysis and thus appears aimless, but to the insider, the architect or whoever knows the plan, a labyrinth is never formless. To the outsider or the person trapped in it, it may seem as formless as a garbage dump, the canals of Venice, or the crisscrossing of forest paths; escape from it may seem impossible or, if finally possible, very difficult, achieved only by a few initiates. To traverse it may require either the most astute intellect, actively noting each turn and remembering each passage, or it may require complete unthinking acquiescence, a Zen-like blending of the self into the maze until it is fully internalized within the wanderer. The labyrinth may contain a center or secret room, the discovery of which brings joy, or it may conceal a hidden chamber inhabited by evil so devastating that the world is saved only because the evil cannot escape. Mythically, it may be the chapel that hides the Holy Grail from profane or unworthy eyes; psychologically, it may be a buried secret that haunts consciousness but is hidden by layers of sublimation, distortion, or self-deception. The encounter in the center of the labyrinth is either an encounter with “evil,” or, at least, a desired, secret “self,” a Minos’s, a family’s, a culture’s shadow that it would deny or forget or a revelation of divinity so awesome that the wanderer, like Parsifal, can never return to ordinary life.

Hermann Kern (1982) and Penelope Doob (1990) distinguish between unicursal and multicursal labyrinths: in the former, the wanderer is confused by an “inherent disorientation” caused, and fully controlled, by the maze architect who knows the single pathway to the center; in the latter, the wanderer repeatedly chooses which path to take and by choosing correctly transcends his confusion.2 We can apply this distinction to the different labyrinths we find in Pynchon. The labyrinths crossed by Dennis in “Low-lands,” the boys in “The Secret Integration,” and Profane in V. are unicursal: if they merely survive through their confusion, they will find the pre-ordained center determined by the maze-maker. However, Stencil’s search for V. and later Oedipa’s search for the Tristero are more like the multicursal labyrinth in that the mazewanderer takes on responsibility for repeated choices (see Doob 1990, 56-57). One problem with the verbal multicursal labyrinth is that, while the outcome depends on the moral or psychological nature of the wanderer, the reader follows the wanderer’s pathway as a linear progression; the reader, unlike the wanderer, cannot determine progress or make choices to alter the outcome. Nonetheless, as in the “Wandering Rocks” episode of Joyce’s Ulysses, where individual episodes are read chronologically but perceived spatially by means of the heterotropic interpolations (Schwarz 1987, 62-63), the reader follows Stencil in chronologically determined patterns while understanding that he freely chooses his path as a result of accidental discoveries and his obsession to fit all the clues into a pattern that may finally merely reflect his own obsessive desire to find meaning and/or purpose.

By focusing on Thomas Pynchon’s references to and uses of labyrinths, we can isolate a major, often neglected, problem with his early writing: in our critical attempts to valorize Pynchon’s writings, we frequently read early works through the filters of later achievements. But this problematizing of the early works creates a view of Pynchon quite unlike that which he presents of himself in his introduction to Slow Learner (1984) and consequently fails to read the early works in their own light. In that introduction, Pynchon, who may well write disingenuously, constructs a portrait of himself as an apprentice, literally the “slow learner,” who has “stolen” from other writers (we may say, following Kristeva and Bloom, that he “parodied” others, building his works on misreadings), and that he sometimes tended to focus too much on theme rather than on character. We have read some of these works-especially “Entropy” and “Under the rose”-as if he already had the postmodernism of V. and Gravity’s Rainbow under his belt. Thus we have given them more weight than they probably deserve. In contrast, when we read the early stories as Pynchon’s apprenticeship, what we find is a writer facing the complexities of the 1960s and trying to discover his own voice without being absorbed either in the “postures and props” of the Beats (1984, 9) or the high culture intertextuality of T. S. Eliot (1984, 15), a writer trying out the forms and techniques of modernism but finding them inadequate. Looking at his use of the labyrinth metaphor can help us evaluate these early stories more accurately as remarkable achievements of a young writer who is still trying to find his unique voice.

Pynchon’s earliest use of the labyrinth and its hidden room was little more than a mechanical structuring device in “Low-Lands,” originally published in March 1960. A labyrinth and its mirror image divide the story into two halves. At the beginning of the story, Dennis Flange entertains a garbage man in his house on the north shore of Long Island, a house “built vaguely to resemble an English cottage back in the ’20s by an Episcopal minister who ran bootleg stuff in from Canada on the side” (1984, 56). In a mirror image at the end of the story, the garbage man entertains Flange in the dump “laced with a network of tunnels and rooms back in the ’30s by a terrorist group” (1984, 75). In the beginning, the Flange residence rises from a “big mossy tumulus out of the earth, its color that of one of the shaggier prehistoric beasts” (1984, 56); in the end, the dump is “sunk fifty feet below the streets of the sprawling housing development which surrounded it” (1984, 64). Tunnels from the residence “writhed away radically like the tentacles of a spastic octopus into dead ends, storm drains, abandoned sewers and occasionally a secret wine cellar” (1984, 56)3 ; the tunnels in the dump, now occupied by gypsies and entered through a refrigerator, “worm . . . between, around and down through various loosely stacked household appliances . . . [to] a concrete pipe” (1984, 74-75). The maze of tunnels at the residence leads from Cindy, who refuses to let Pig Bodine enter her house because seven years earlier he had led Flange on a two week drunken spree beginning the first night of her honeymoon; the maze in the dump leads to the dream-like Nerissa. The childless Flanges “had lived in this curious moss-thatched, almost organic mound for the seven years of their marriage” (1984, 56); Nerissa, whose only friend is a rat named Hyacinth, kindles romance and makes Dennis think of children.

The first maze, domesticated by middle-class morality, is merely a curiosity to enhance the value of the North Shore house; thus even the tunnels have grown sterile. That maze is dominated by the witch-like Cindy, who seems unconsciously to imitate the maze in her circular pacing upstairs when she is angry. It offers no challenge, no possibility of growth or escape; it lacks a hidden room, though the residence itself may its center. We may say that the nature of the residence is like Kinnneret-Among-The-Pines or the tower in which Oedipa dwells in Lot 49 in that its nature is what is secret and denied by Cindy. But, if this is the case, Pynchon’s concentration on Dennis rather than Cindy leaves the suggestion unexplored.

The second maze carries an aura of mystery. Its entrance is forbidding, the castoffs of suburbanite life thrown randomly into the pit, and its center is a wildly unusual room, the antithesis of Cindy’s respectable Long Island home. But, however much the two treatments of the labyrinth and its center differ, they remain static, undeveloped quite unlike the structuring device we find in V. and Gravity’s Rainbow. Though Dennis’s traversing the second maze might remotely allude to Theseus’s being guided by Ariadne through the Minoan Labyrinth, Dennis is too blase, perhaps too drunk, to illustrate that the successful traversing is worthy of gaining the maiden’s hand. As Joyce’s Bloom does not know that he “is” Odysseus, Dennis does not know that he is Theseus, but the story lacks the corroborating weight to read the physical labyrinths as metaphors for the characters’ inner states. Likewise, Pynchon suggests the possible treatment of Cindy as deterring witch but fails to develop the implications of this role (see Schaub 1981b, 12-13).

Still, this early use of the labyrinth teases the reader into a psychological, though probably atemporal, interpretation of the story as in the suggestion that the labyrinth may be internalized in Dennis’s not knowing his mythic role. Tunnels or tentacles go deep into the earth, possibly into the unconscious, and may reach a hidden inner reservoir that offers temporary peace or contentment. The outside world confines, limits, and rationalizes; it tries to domesticate the labyrinth and thus trivializes it. There is still a labyrinth despite everything suburbia might do to “trash” it; its hidden room may offer freedom without responsibility or even (if we find more sophistication in the story) the reification of Cindy’s greatest denial, the “secret” that Dennis uncovers being what she seems most to dread. Dennis’s experience in the dump with Nerissa may be a surrealistic dream brought on by drinking and the frustration of his marriage and his analyst, but Pynchon’s treatment of Hyacinth may also point to a deeper neurosis: “With a sharp pitying gasp the girl picked up the rat, held it against her breast and began to stroke it, croon to it. She looks like a child, Flange thought. And the rat like her own child” (1984, 76). Unable to “play,” Dennis may have become impotent; unable to father a child, he may have found relief in a dream where a woman irrationally wants him. But all these intriguing possibilities are tenuous. Even in his 1984 preface to Slow Learner Pynchon was unwilling or unable to resolve the confusion his story generates.

Originally published three years later, in December 1964, “The Secret Integration” is also simplistic and confusing. Though pleased at the way that the story “holds up” after twenty years, Pynchon admitted in 1984 that “I could . . . with an easy mind see axed much of the story’s less responsible Surrealism” (1984, 22). Here again we find an architectural labyrinth, a physical maze that describes the journey to the boys’ hideout and culminates in the hideout itself, “the room behind the ancient coal furnace that they’d found and fixed up” (1984, 165). Though less mechanically structured than “LowLands,” the story clearly develops as a triptych, the boys’ labyrinthine journey to their hideout coming in the middle and the enveloping panels suggesting mirror reflections of each other.4 Again located in the landscape of Long Island, where Pynchon grew up, and again filled with mystery and escape from the rationality and “respectability” of adults, the hidden room is patently a retreat to fantasy and probably clarifies the psychological tenor of the metaphor that remained vague in “Low-Lands.”

Built by the New York candy magnate Ellsworth Baffy (1984, 162) and later owned by “a retired train robber from Kansas” and purchased by “King Yrjo’s bucket of jewels” (1984, 163), the deserted estate is an ideal juvenile fantasy. To reach the hidden room, the boys weave through the woods, recover their hidden flat-bottomed boat christened the S. S. Leak, navigate through a maze of ruined mock Venetian canals, and finally reach the Big House. The house is forbidding, seeming both to prevent access to the freedom of the hideout and to present an initiation through which the boys pass to gain the rewards of the hideout:

No matter how often they came to the hideout there was a feeling of ceremony, more than any of trespass, about going into the house: It took an effort to step from outside to inside. The inside was full of pressure, an odor, that resisted intrusions, that kept them conscious of itself until they left again. None of them would go so far as to call it by any name, but they all knew it was there. Part of the ceremony was to look at one another and grin, embarrassed, before pushing on into the twilight that waited for them. (Pynchon 1984, 164)

In the house, dangers increase so that “the route to the hideout was . . like the way into reefed and perilous harbor” (1984, 164). The terror of the labyrinth, more fully developed in Gravity’s Rainbow,5 keeps intruders from the hidden room and provides a secure space in which the boys dream, concoct war plans, and organize battles.

In the adult world, the boys are powerless, confused by the immensity that separates New York from California (1984, 183); in the hideout they grasp the semblance of control, free to plot against adults. Because the “dangerous” route to the sanctuary is an initiation, only children who can join in the “plots” successfully reach it. Though labyrinths often conceal something frightful, a secret like the Minotaur, this labyrinth protects; it is the location where the innocence of childhood remains untrampled by adults. The drunken McAfee cannot enter the sanctuary, partly because he is physically adult and partly because he mentally cannot suspend the rules, logic, and restraints of the adult world; consequently, although Tim and Hogan want to help him escape both alcoholism and the adult world, the police finally arrest him and, with dark suggestions of brutality, make him “disappear” (1984, 184-85). If the children’s world is violent-filled with grandiose plots to disrupt the adult world-the adult world from which they escape is even more violent precisely because it is adult and the adults are behaving like spoiled children. Parents play “practical jokes” such as making anonymous threatening telephone calls (1984, 147) and dumping trash in the black family’s yard (1984, 190); the police threaten McAfee after his arrest; the PTA holds repeated meetings to oppose integration (1984, 187-88). Unable to understand why adults act brutally when faced with integration, the children are confused; thus their violence mirrors adult violence, though distorted by childhood fantasies fed on Hollywood and television. The hideout, somewhat like Nerissa’s chamber but shifted to the center of the narration, is where childhood innocence-protected by Operation Spartacus-can endure: from the news they learn the meaning and futility of the adults’ actions and realize that “They don’t know it, but we’re integrated” (1984, 188), but, as in the case of Spartacus’s revolt of the slaves, the children’s revolt from adults is doomed (Seed 1988, 64).

After the children confront the adult world-through parents, police, and finally Mrs. Barrington-their imaginary black friend retreats to the hideout/hidden room where he closets himself along with their now lost innocence. After Carl leaves, Grover is no longer self-assured: when Etienne asks him if they are still integrated after Carl is gone, he says, “Ask your father. … I don’t know anything” (1984, 192), an acknowledgment that adults have defeated Operation Spartacus. Tim symbolically pushes his face in the mud before they finally go home to a “hot shower, dry towel, before-bed television, good night kiss, and dreams that could never again be entirely safe” (1984, 193). The children cannot recapture the innocence that predated their knowledge; disillusionment has sealed the entrance to the labyrinth and thus to its hidden room. The boys end in the prosaic, unimaginative, and dishonest world of adults who cannot perceive that they themselves are inextricably and unknowingly trapped in a labyrinth.

In both stories, labyrinths describe externalized physicality, spatial arrangements that remain separate from the characters’ inner modality, although they provocatively suggest a concretion in or against which the characters act. This objectification of the metaphor limits it insofar as the textual object insists on being simply a textual object. Functioning as structural devices, these labyrinths are spatial constructs like the modernistic and decipherable maze of Joyce’s “Wandering Rocks.” Although we may read the labyrinth as possessing meaning outside itself, Pynchon, like Joyce, does not problematize its spatiality.

In contrast, he did begin to problematize the labyrinth in V. (1963). On the one hand, chapter 5, “In which Stencil nearly goes West with an alligator,” and chapter 6, “In which Profane returns to street level,” look back to the spatial simplicity of the short stories. On the other hand, he shapes the labyrinth into a metaphor for the complexity of Stencil’s convoluted search for V. and in this way, the novel looks forward to Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow. Here, the omniscient narrator’s labyrinth and physical hidden room, treated as solemnly as in the short stories, can bring peace, terror or horror, and subsequent escape from the spatial maze of New York, but Stencil’s internalized labyrinth results in the discovery that in the twentieth century there is no center, a horrifying but ludic discovery that the meaning of the quest is its own meaninglessness. It is as if the novel tenuously balanced between an omniscient narrator’s modernistic view of traditionally fixed, universal values and Stencil’s postmodern parody of that narrator’s assumption of surety.

While the hidden room of the sewers seems to fill Profane with almost spiritual peace, the hidden room on the city’s surface presents a terrible revelation, enough to make him break from the Mendozas and start a new cycle on his own. In chapter 5, Profane chases the alligator through “tortuous” sewers “built decades ago” (1984, 112) and comes to Fairing’s Parish where he has a sort of epiphany; in chapter 6, he and Angel chase girls through the streets of New York and finally reach the Playboy’s clubhouse where he decides to leave the Mendozas. Whether under or above ground, the route through the maze is tortuous, confused, and dangerous but ends in a single, enclosed room wherein Pynchon places an important plot development-the accidental shooting of Stencil in the sewer or the rape of Fina in the clubhouse. As is the case with the short stories, these labyrinths are passages from one location to another, but here, unlike the situation in the short stories, awareness parallels physical movement and suggests an internalization of the iconic structure.

That Profane enters Fairing’s Parish alone inscribes the entrance into the hidden room as an initiation, a conflation of the sewers in “Low-Lands” and the boys’ journey to the hideout in “The Secret Integration.” When Profane leaves Bung and Angel, Pynchon notes that he “wasn’t scared” (1984, 117), though the passages become more twisting as he goes deeper into the old sewers. Passing cryptic inscriptions and thinking of Father Fairing and Veronica, Profane senses his isolation; it is as if Pynchon has shifted focus so that we can immediately see the alienation of the Carl character, an alienation that becomes almost as self-absorbing as Father Fairing’s madness. Profane even fears that he might die in the sewers, his body joining the garbage that will wash out to the East River, and that he might chance upon Father Fairing’s sepulcher-death images that mark the threshold of his entrance into the otherworldly hidden room:

Suddenly-so suddenly it scared him-there was light ahead, around a corner. Not the light of a rainy evening in the city, but paler, less certain. They rounded the corner. He noticed the flashlight bulb starting to flicker; lost the alligator momentarily. Then turned the corner and found a wide space like the nave of a church, an arched roof overhead, a phosphorescent light coming off walls whose exact arrangement was indistinct. (Pynchon 1984, 122) That Pynchon now couches the hidden room in religious imagery indicates a significant shift from the short stories: here the text itself contains what it describes.

The apparently sentient alligator has led Profane to a location in the sewers that is somehow remote from the sewers themselves: it seems aware that it has come to the place of death; the ghosts of Fairing’s rats seem to haunt the room. Kenneth Thingpen associated the alligator with the dragon and the sewers with the labyrinths and caves of folklore, a provocative intertextuality that gives Benny Profane’s adventure wider significance (Pynchon 1984, 100-101), but the alligator also acts as Anubis, a guide leading Benny toward a “salvation” that he fails to discover as surely as Godolphin fails to find Vheissu. As schlemiel, he cannot cope with the inanimate objects that he uses to hunt alligators-the shotgun and the flashlight: the flashlight goes out when Profane shoots the alligator, and the pellets of the shotgun blast also wound Stencil. In other words, by shooting the guide, Benny exiles himself from whatever the hidden room may have promised and, at the same time, prevents Stencil’s finding certitude; where he, like the boys, may have found retreat (here in its religious signification), he instead noisily shatters calm. Still, Pynchon leaves the meaning of this hidden room ambiguous: as in the cases of Carl’s return to the hideout at the end of “The Secret Integration” and Dennis’s encounter with Nerissa, he provocatively suggests signification without helping the reader interpret that signification.

Likewise, as Angel was the means whereby Profane went into the sewers, Angel is the ficelle who orders him to don a suit so that they can chase girls, his name both identifying the character and his role as mediator. Pursuing Lucille and her friends, Profane, Geronimo, and Angel follow through a maze of bars until they find the social club in a Mott Street basement. Only after Mrs. Mendoza asks him and Angel to look for Fina, do they search through the club on Mott Street and finally discover her. From the “chaos” outside (a full blown rumble is underway), they go inside to a clubhouse where “Angel opened a door at the end of the hall” and finds Fina naked on a cot. This hidden room, concealed from Profane when “the door closed behind” Angel, marks the end of Profane’s association with the Mendozas and with alligator hunting; like Tim and Grover, Profane leaves without looking back. Again, the physical labyrinth acts as a structuring device and hints at greater signification that tantalizes the reader.

But while labyrinth imagery remains spatial in the third-person narration of the chapters dealing with Profane and thus maps the confused world through which he wanders, Pynchon transforms it in those sections dealing with Stencil’s impersonations.7 In the first case, the labyrinth is much as it appeared in the short stories-the description of a locale; the text thus becomes objectified as if the locale were contained in the words that signify it. But in Stencil’s sections text is subjectified and place is internalized; they are a movement in time through a variety of mental masquerades much like the impersonations of chapter 3. The external, physical labyrinth with its hidden room is inverted into a mental labyrinth that seems to lack a hidden room or that has an inner room so hidden that neither Stencil nor the reader can find it or even recognize, if it has been found, that it has, indeed, been found. If we read Stencil’s impersonations as a parody of the omniscient narrator’s assumption of fixed, though sometimes confused, values central to a modernist view of morality and selfhood (we “know,” for example, that Profane is a schlemiel because the narrator assumes that we know how a non-schlemiel acts and thinks), we can further see Stencil as what Linda Hutcheon dubbed the “excentric,” the off-center alternative to traditional values (1988, 60).

While Profane seems to reach the center of unicursal labyrinths, Stencil wanders through a multicursal labyrinth without finding a hidden room that gives him an answer either benevolent or malicious. If the unicursal labyrinth suggests an architect, a designer who built the maze itself and thus determines the character’s movements, Stencil’s and Oedipa’s multicursal labyrinths suggest that there is no plan and offer no rest from wandering. Instead, as Werner Senn points out about other modern verbal labyrinths, they draw attention to the text itself, alerting the reader to its discontinuity (1987, 229). As theme, the labyrinth underlies “the finely wrought ambiguity” of Pynchon’s account of Oedipa’s education, her movement toward awareness and a sense of inner fulfillment.8 In other words, the labyrinth functions subtextually in The Crying of Lot 49. It shapes the paper chase both through Pierce’s estate and through the gathering of tidbits to discover the identity of the Tristero, and, at the same time, the text itself is a multicursal labyrinth that thwarts our readerly desire to find a hidden room that contains traditional certitude. One revealing sentence acts as a syntactic complement of the novel as a textual multicursal labyrinth; in this sentence Pynchon makes the word “labyrinth” a description of confused, uncentered reasoning:

Out of some murky train of reasoning, which may have included the observed fact that American tourists, beginning then to be plentiful, would pay good dollars for almost anything; and stories about Forest Lawn and the American cult of the dead; possibly some dim hope that Senator McCarthy, and others of his persuasion, in those days having achieved a certain ascendancy over the rich cretini from across the sea, would somehow refocus attention on the fallen of WW II, especially ones whose corpses had never been found; out of some such labyrinth of assumed motives, Tony Jaguar decided he could surely unload his harvest of bones on some American someplace, through his contacts in the “family,” known in these days as Cosa Nostra. (Pynchon 1984, 6263)

As the modifiers of the object of the preposition “out of’ cause the sentence to meander through a complexity of interrelated ideas, the grammatical apposition of “train of reasoning” and “labyrinth” may also describe the novel as a whole; that is, by meandering through a “murky” chain of associations, Oedipa may slowly discover a truth about herself, not necessarily about the outside world.

A related use of the word “labyrinth” further suggests that the text itself may be a labyrinth that will thwart our expectations. Almost at the end of her quest when she sits on Driblette’s grave, Oedipa tries to figure why he had inserted the two mysterious lines into The Courier’s Tragedy:

Changing the script had no clearer motive than his suicide. There was the same whimsy to both. Perhaps-she felt briefly penetrated, as if the bright winged thing had actually made it to the sanctuary of her heart-perhaps, springing from the same slick labyrinth, adding those two lines had even, in a way never to be explained, served him as a rehearsal for his night’s walk away into that vast sink of the primal blood the Pacific. She waited for the winged brightness to announce its safe arrival. But there was silence. (Pynchon 1984, 162)

Here “labyrinth” signifies a sexual passage that can bring life, understanding, and hope while simultaneously moving toward death. The association of sex and death suggests the distance that Oedipa has matured since her “Barbie doll” affair with Metzger. This labyrinth seems to lead to its hidden room”the sanctuary of her heart”-a place that she has dared neither to expose to others nor to confront for herself. Only after “the winged brightness” does not enter safely, does she begin to confront the possibility of total aloneness. To Oedipa, who is the Reader in a text, and to us, as readers of the text, the possibility that the text lacks signification outside itself turns the text inside out, the absolute alienation that paradoxically renders usual speech (such as surrounded Profane) silent and gives silence (such as haunted Stencil) a voice.

Unlike earlier uses of the labyrinth, Pynchon here joins the description of outer physicality and an account of Oedipa’s inner thoughts. Oedipa’s entrance into a spatial, physical labyrinth occurred in San Narciso, a locale that seems, at the same time, to be a pun on the words “San Francisco” and “narcissism,” in the motel called Echo Courts, where the face of the billboard nymph seems to resemble her own (1984, 26). As she drove into the town, she saw the labyrinth from the outside: “She looked down a slope . . . onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit” (1984, 24). If in and out are conflated, her inability to break the semiotic code of the circuit integrates the two different types of labyrinths. Thus she plunges into the maze as Profane had entered into the sewers and, at the same time, as Stencil had “stepped” into his maze in 1945 when he read the Florentine entry in his father’s journals (1984, 53). Her Stencil-like search for signification begins, not in the tower of romance or on the couch of seduction, but in the privacy of the women’s toilet at The Scope: unlike the other graffiti, the muted horn symbol so fascinates her that she copies it into her memo book and asks Mike Fallopian what it means, only to be told “You weren’t supposed to see that,” a dismissal that increases her curiosity (1984, 52) and awakens her desire to find answers.

Perhaps stemming from his enjoyment of spy novels and the novels of intrigue (1984, 18), the conundrum evolves into Pynchon’s most sophisticated metafictional use of the labyrinth. Through solving, or at least attempting to solve, the conundrum, the character, like Stencil, solemnly undertakes a quest toward fulfillment and, in undertaking the quest, moves further and further from the ordinary world. In classical form, the knight overcomes each trial to earn a vision of the Holy Grail or traverses the Labyrinth to kill the Minotaur and thus free the maiden. This form Pynchon fully internalizes. If his character were to be successful-and the maze were a road of trials-that character’s reward would be to enter a hidden chamber that would contain a truth closed to others who continue within the normative world. But in Lot 49 Pynchon parodies this classical form: he changes the quester’s usual gender and thus leaves the traditional reward of the maiden’s hand out of the story.9

As Stencil’s quest cannot end with certainty, Oedipa’s quest abruptly ends when she enters the auction room, apparently the hidden room of her search. While the quester remains serious, having little or no sense of the ridiculous, the reader increasingly suspects that Pynchon has created a maze to befuddle, confuse, and finally poke fun at the reader him/herself, a maze that we traverse hoping to find a solution, only to discover in the end that all we can do is traverse the maze again and again. Thus the last words of the novel, rather than solving the mystery, force us back to the title page as if the reader, not Oedipa, were somehow the butt of a joke and needed to traverse the maze again, perhaps with greater attention or perception, perhaps finding some overlooked clue. In this respect, the novel becomes its own hidden room, giving voice to the silence that it itself creates, a silence that we cannot translate past the context in which we hear the voice of the silence.

Pynchon seems to indicate Oedipa’s plunge into voiced silence-“a paranoia more protective than psychotic” (Schaub 1981a, 41)-by her name.lo Easily an allusion to the Freudian Oedipa(l) Complex, a reading supported during the madness of Dr. Hilarius, the lack of any references to parents, as Edward Mendelson has pointed out (1978b, 118), seems to make this reading untenable. Like her namesake, Oedipa tries to use reason and logic to sift through evidence to find hidden truth. As a female quester (see Cowart 1980, 111-33), she searches for evasive truth in a world of confused and misleading signs. In this sense, the name can allude to her “bound feet,” her “rational” unwillingness to leave the relative safety of her tedious marriage, and the relative comfort of reacting to responsibility within socially “accepted” modes. Unwilling to experiment with mind-altering drugs, she dislikes not being able to control events around her. Later, she relies entirely on intuition; finally, she moves from “noisy” rationality that poses more questions and few answers to a Zen-like silence that accepts without asking questions or seeking answers; she internalizes the reason Dennis Flange refused to tell sea stories:

as long as you are passive you can remain aware of the truth’s extent but the minute you become active you are somehow, if not violating a convention outright, at least screwing up the perspective of things, much as anyone observing subatomic particles changes the works, data and odds, by the act of observing. (Pynchon 1984, 69)

For Oedipa, the multicursal labyrinth is this passive silence that spurs her to action and thus infolds upon itself so that inner mental state and external physicality flow endlessly and imperceptibly into each other.

Until silent, she relied on the power of words, as if to name were to understand.ll She refused to face the possibility that the entire Tristero plot might be “all a hoax, maybe something Inverarity set up before he died,” discounting this possibility “like the thought that someday she would have to die” (Pynchon 1984,167). At the beginning both she and the reader limit identity to traditional, seemingly concrete, sureties, but outside a gay bar, she dons an ID badge, announcing to her and others that she is Arnold Snarb, who is “looking for a good time” (1984, 110). Concealed under another’s name and appearing to be in drag (1984, 116), she confesses, “I really think I am going out of my head” (1984, 111). The next day, she goes to Dr. Hilarius because she wants him to tell her that she is “some kind of nut” (1984, 132), but Hilarius, who has built his practice by perverting words, has reverted to the identity he had tried to conceal. Immediately afterwards, Mucho again confuses her identity by calling her Mrs. Edna Mosh in his news cut for KCUF (1984, 139).

With each alias, she moves further from the reliability of tags and from the logically verifiable. Professor Bortz, who cannot talk of history, knows only words: he orders her, “Pick some words” (Pynchon 1984, 151), and later argues that the artist either does not exist or is anonymous because only the play has a clear identity (1984, 154-55). But he cannot talk about the play without talking about the history of the text, the circumstances under which it evolved through different editions, and its references to historical events. Bortz, like Hilarius though not sinister, cannot help Oedipa because he is as hopelessly enmeshed in delusion as Mucho is in LSD fantasies. Oedipa’s attempt to find articulated answers through “established” or normative authorities causes silence-greater confusion and disorder- blurring the lines between reality and fantasy and seeming to muddle all experience (Mangel 1976, 92-93).lz Oedipa’s final silent passivity enables her to transfigure mere words, just as earlier she had been moved to tears when looking at Remedios Varo’s “Bordando el Manto Terrestre” in Mexico City (1984, 20). She becomes the voice of silence by infolding words so that we hear the same voice repeating the same words each time we read her text and turn to the beginning to complete the ending.

Though Pynchon himself may act as the paranoiac in creating plots where there are none (Sanders 1976, 153), Oedipa realizes the artistic horror of the reader who might lose identity trying to make the plots rational. Joseph W. Slade has suggested that Lot 49 may take its shape from the critical reaction to the shapelessness of V. (1974, 125). If so, we can, perhaps, read Oedipa’s search for the Tristero as a comment on the reader’s struggle with V., both involving a distance between the rational mind that attempts to structure confusion and the mind of the artist who has created a self-reflexive text out of nothing.

As she advances through this maze of (mis)information, Oedipa increasingly relies upon intuition. On the one hand, the reader who concentrates on the impenetrability of the maze will find with Robert Merrill that Pynchon’s vision in Lot 49 “is darker than we have yet acknowledged” (1977, 69); on the other, a reader who concentrates on Oedipa may well agree with Carole Holdsworth that the novel is “Pynchon’s most positive novel” (1983, 71).13 One by one, Oedipa loses each of the men whom she had used to protect herself-lover, husband, analyst, and the men who might help her resolve her search; in each case, the removal comes with a revelation of the man’s identity.l4 Her childish husband has become addicted to LSD, moving hopelessly through infantile fantasies; her lover has run off with a girl young enough to be his child; her Freudian analyst has been captured as a war criminal by the Israelis; the egoistic director of the play has committed suicide, thus revealing that he has no clear grasp of his own self. She may have escaped the confines that imprisoned her and have learned that Pierce’s “legacy was America” (1984, 178). If Pynchon denies the reader a definite answer by excluding the reader from the inner room, just as Angel had excluded Profane from the hidden room that held the raped Fina, he also gives the reader a definite answer by forcing us to retrace the very words that will finally deny themselves and make us again repeat our efforts.

In “Low-Lands” and “The Secret Integration,” Pynchon simplistically described labyrinths as either architectural or natural constructs, places of twisting, winding passages through which characters move from one location to another. In V. he contrasted this sort of architectural maze (for example, the New York sewer system) with a controlling image of the labyrinth as process (Stencil’s search for V.). Here the image suggested narrative discourse itself, wherein the text may explore the character’s thinking while it metafictionally describes the making of that character, but Pynchon inscribed the image in a text that posits differing images of the labyrinth and thus conflates the maze wanderer in the text and the reader of the text in such a manner that the possibility of finding hidden rooms-if they, indeed, exist-confuses us. Thus while the text, like a Moebius strip, turns endlessly in on itself, we are left with the uncertainty of trying to locate resolutions or clarity where such resolutions themselves become deceptive, leaving us, like Benny in Malta, “run[ning] through the absolute night” because we “haven’t learned a goddamn thing” from our experience. Finally in The Crying of Lot 49 Pynchon fully transforms the labyrinth into a metaphorical process that describes the fragile human condition and the forces of disruption, evil, irrationality, or disorder that threaten to upset it. By ironically contrasting Oedipa’s desire to find the truth about Tristero, her version of Stencil’s search for V., and the possibility that there is no answer, he built what Werner Senn described as a “confusing, discontinuous and multicursal maze . . . where . . . the way itself, not the goal (centre, exit) to be reached, provides the focus of interest” (1987, 110).

Thus the metaphor of the labyrinth, used rather simply as a physical description in “Low-Lands,” becomes fully sophisticated only in The Crying of Lot 49. From a unicursal architectural setting, in which characters move in clearly manipulated directions, to the multicursal verbal icon that metafictionally calls attention to itself, the labyrinth in Pynchon’s fiction of the 1960s moves from the externality of a complex physical world to the internality of a discontinuous, confused, and confusing creating mind. While first using it to describe escape from a confining middle-class marriage, Pynchon slowly turned the labyrinth into a metaphor for the quest for evasive self-awareness. Though the unicursal labyrinth and its hidden room later appear in Gravity’s Rainbow in such striking paragraphs as the description of Pointsman and the first Forty-One Lectures, Gravity’s Rainbow, like Lot 49, uses the multicursal labyrinth as structure (Seed 1988, 157-58). While Pynchon used the labyrinth with more control and greater subtlety in this later novel, he had already shaped it in the 1960s from a description of characters’ physical settings to an image describing the novel itself.


1 Robert Graves (1955) reports that Daedalus built the Labyrinth at Knossos to conceal the Minotaur; only later, and with a change of perspective, did it become the

terrifying place where Theseus with the help of Ariadne proved his manhood (1955, 294, 339). W. F. Jackson Knight earlier suggested that the successful mastering of the maze represents the hero’s growth into full maturity (cited in Campbell 1959, 450): Campbell also points out that “the Cretan labyrinth was difficult to enter and as diffcult to leave” (1959, 69). Erich Neumann treats the labyrinth as the essence of mysteries of initiation and “the corresponding processes of psychic development in modern man” (1955, 177). J. E. Cirlot cites Eliade’s note that “the essential mission of the maze was to defend the `Centre”‘ and that it represented the apprenticeship wherein the neophyte learns “the proper path leading to the Land of the Dead” (1962, 167). David Seed even named his study The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon; although he used the word “labyrinth” to describe Pynchon’s short stories and novels, he did not explore the symbol itself.

2 Though common in art criticism, Kern first made the distinction (1982, 13); Doob later used it with great perception and sophistication in her The Idea of the Labyrinth From Classical Antiquity Through the Middle Ages (1990, 48). My discussion follows Doob’s analysis.

3 Interestingly, Pynchon later associated the octopus and the labyrinth in Gravity’s Rainbow. There, unlike its use in this early story, the octopus is the frightening threshold to Slothrop’s descent into Pointsman’s labyrinth when Teddy Bloat and Dr. Porkyevitch facilitate Slothrop’s introduction to Katje with an attack of a trained octopus (1973, 186-88).

4 Seed’s analysis of Pynchon’s debt to Mark Twain helps to focus some of his treatment of the children, balancing between avoidance of the sentimental narrated for children and emphasis on satire narrated for adults (1988, 63-65).

5 Combining allusions to Tannhauser and the Minoan Labyrinth, Pynchon early applies the labyrinth symbol to Pointsman’s reading of The Book and his dedication to behaviorism: thirteen years into his work on conditioned reflexes, Pointsman’s mandate came “like a mandate of the submontane Venus” and led him, like Ariadne, into a labyrinth where the hidden room (“the central chamber”) might contain a terrifying secret (1984, 88).

6 Though tenuous, Pynchon’s mentioning Zeitsuss’s predecessor at this point (1984, 120) might well be a veiled reference that “Manfred Katz,” a “cat” who contrasts the rats of Fairing’s journal, might also be “Mr. Kurtz” of The Heart of Darkness, a reference that adds to the notion that Profane here ironically duplicates the Conradian journey to the heart of the human condition, a journey that Pynchon describes more directly in “Mondaugen’s Story.”

7 New reaches this same conclusion from a different approach (1979, 411). 8 Thomas H. Schaub perceptively analyses this theme and its possibilities (1981b, 21). Debra A. Castillo finds similarity between Pynchon and Borges, who both use “intensely imaged symbols,” including dreams and labyrinths (1991, 22). Also writing of Lot 49, Pierre-Yves Petillon further developed this suggestion by arguing that Oedipa’s fascination with the labyrinth is to lead her to “a rock-bottom . . . under the strata” of language (cf. Borges’s “The other tiger,” which, while within language, is somehow outside the text), as if she were led by the labyrinth to a “black hole” where she can find the primeval truth (1991, 14748).

9 Citing John Layard’s Stone Men of Malekula, Neumann concludes that two of the five “main archetypal traits of the labyrinth” are that the quester must be male and that the reward is the maiden (1955, 176).

lo See, for example, the detailed and provocative decrypting of the name in Colville (1988, 26-27).

II I have based many of the ideas in this paragraph and the next two paragraphs on John Johnston, “Toward the schizo-text: Paranoia as semiotic regime in The Crying of lot 49” (O’Donnell 1991, 47-76).

12 Also see Seed’s analysis of Pynchon’s use of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1988, 137-48).

13 In this discussion Holdsworth argues that the maze is a dream from which a strong and self-reliant Oedipa may awaken (1983, 69-71).

14 Roger B. Henkle has argued that she “is too slight a little housewife to lead us out of the labyrinths of paranoid California” (1978, 106). In contrast Davidson has discussed Oedipa’s development from the captive maiden in the tower to a fully developed woman who “challenges the cherished myths of a male-dominated society” (1977, 50).


Campbell, Joseph. 1959. The masks of God.’ Primitive mythology. New York: Viking. Castillo, Debra A. 1991. Borges and Pynchon: The tenuous symmetries of art. In New essays on “The crying of lot 49,” ed. Patrick O’Donnell. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cirlot, J. E. 1962. A dictionary of symbols. Trans. Jack Sage. New York: Philosophical


Colville, Georgianna M. 1988. Beyond and beneath the mantle: On Thomas Pynchon’s “The crying of lot 49.” Amsterdam: Rodolphi. Cowart, David. 1980. Thomas Pynchon: The art of allusion. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Davidson, Cathy. 1977. Oedipa as androgyne in The crying of lot 49. Contemporary Literature 18 (Winter): 38-50.

Doob, Penelope.1990. The idea of the labyrinth from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Graves, Robert. 1955. The Greek myths. vol. 1. Baltimore: Penguin. Henkle, Roger B. 1978. Pynchon’s tapestries on the western wall. In Pynchon: A collection of critical essays, ed. Edward Mendelson. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall. Holdsworth, Carole.1983. Fateful labyrinths: La vida es sueno and The crying of lot 49. Comparatist 7: 57-74.

Hutcheon, Linda. 1988. A poetics of Postmodernism: History, theory, fiction. New York: Routledge.

Johnston, John. 1991. Toward the schizo-text: Paranoia as semiotic regime in The crying of lot 49. In New essays on “The crying of lot 49,” ed. Patrick O’Donnell. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kern, Hermann. 1982. Labyrinthe: Erscheinungsformen und deutungen. Munich: Prestel Verlag.

Levine, George, and David Leverenz, eds. 1976. Mindful pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon. Boston: Little, Brown.

Mangel, Anne. 1976. Maxwell’s demon, entropy, information: The crying of lot 49. In Mindful pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, ed. George Levine and David Leverenz. Boston: Little, Brown.

Mendelson, Edward, ed. 1978a. Pynchon: A collection of critical essays. Twentieth Century Views. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

1978b. The sacred, the profane, and The crying of lot 49. In Pynchon: A collection of critical essays, ed. Edward Mendelson. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall. Merrill, Robert. 1977. The form and meaning of Pynchon’s The crying of lot 49. Ariel 8.1: 53-71.

Neumann, Erich. 1955. The great-mother: An analysis of the archetype. Bollingen Series, trans. Ralph Manheim, no. 47. New York: Pantheon. New, Melvyn. 1979. Profane and stenciled texts: In search of Pynchon’s V. Georgia Review 33: 395-412.

O’Donnell, Patrick, ed. 1991. New essays on “The crying of lot 49.” New York: Cambridge University Press.

Petition, Pierre-Yves. 1991. A re-cognition of her errand into the wilderness. In New essays on The crying of lot 49,” ed. Patrick O’Donnell. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pynchon, Thomas. 1966. The crying of lot 49. New York: Lippincott. 1973. Gravity’s rainbow. New York: Viking. . 1984. Slow learner. Boston: Little. 1989. V. New York: Harper.

Sanders, Scott. 1976. Pynchon’s paranoid history. In Mindful pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, ed. George Levine and David Leverenz. Boston: Little, Brown. Schaub, Thomas. 1981a. Pynchon: The voice of ambiguity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

1981b. “Where have we been, where are we headed?: A retrospective review of Pynchon criticism.” Pynchon Notes 7 (October): 5-21. Schwarz, Daniel R. 1987. Reading Joyce’s “Ulysses.” New York: St. Martin’s. Seed, David. 1988. The fictional labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Senn, Werner. 1986. The labyrinth image in verbal art: Sign, symbol, icon? Word & Image 2.3: 219-30.

.1987. The labyrinth as a structural principle in narrative texts. In The structure of texts, ed. Udo Fries. Tibingen: Gunter Narr. Slade, Joseph W. 1974. Thomas Pynchon. New York: Warner. Thingpen, Kenneth. 1979. Folklore in contemporary American literature: Thomas Pynchon’s V and the Alligators-in-the-sewer legend. Southern Folklore Quarterly 43: 93-105.

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