2015 Brennan Prize Winning Essay

Charlotte Anderson, The Integration of Noise in "Crying of Lot 49"


The world is about overpopulation, Imperial invasions, Biocide
Genocide, Fratricidal Wars, Starvation, Holocaust, mass injury & murder,
high technology
Super science, atom Nuclear Neutron Hydrogen detritus,
Radiation Compassion Buddha, Alchemy…
Hitler Stalin Roosevelt & Churchill are about arithmetic &
Quadrilateral equations, above all chemistry physics & chaos theory --
Who cares what it’s all about?
I do! Edgar Allen Poe cares! Shelly cares! Beethoven and Dylan
care. Do you care? What are you about
or are you a human being with 10 fingers and two eyes?"
– “Is About” by Allen Ginsburg (1986)

       Allen Ginsburg’s poem “Is About,” published the year IBM launched the first laptop computer, captures several major features of the American postmodern condition. In the postmodern era, loosely characterized as the mid-to-late twentieth century, the rapidly growing fields of science and technology began to produce a mounting multiplicity of information embodied in Ginsburg’s lengthy lists (MacMillan 260). With the rapid proliferation of available information, it became increasingly difficult to process and extract firm patterns in order to, as Ginsburg states, determine what something “is about.” The French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard similarly declares in “The Postmodern Condition” that postmodernism denies “order, a desire for unity, for identity, for security,” in short the necessary components for integrating information into a clear, stable understanding upon which purpose and meaning can be abstracted (35). Ginsburg’s challenge for the reader to consider “What are you about?” indicates that this abundance of information can overwhelm individuals who, unable to easily make sense of so many concepts, struggle to formulate a cohesive understanding of themselves and the world around them. This leads to a sense that, as Jean Baudrillard states in his “Simulacra and Simulation,” “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning” (79). Thomas Pynchon, an American author often characterized as the father of postmodernism, explores this challenge of finding meaning by sorting through outside information to ultimately produce one’s own ideas in his 1966 novel “The Crying of Lot 49.”  Throughout the book Pynchon represents the concept of noise literally and figuratively in the two major contexts of early-to-mid twentieth century thermodynamics and information theory, using noise thermodynamically to aid the abstraction of meaning and informationally to hinder that abstraction. By employing noise as a literary metaphor to connect these two scientific models, Pynchon offers engagement with literature as a vital tool for coping with the unsolvable problem of information overload and the ensuing sense of vacancy symptomatic of the American postmodern experience.

     Pynchon explicitly uses the metaphor of Maxwell’s Demon to connect the two concepts of thermodynamics and information theory, suggesting that entropic noise operates in both senses throughout the novel. The Berkeley-dwelling intellectual John Nefastis explains to the main character Oedipa Maas, “Entropy is a figure of speech… a metaphor. It connects the world of thermodynamics to the world of information flow” (85). Nefastis believes that Maxwell’sDemon, a machine proposed by the nineteenth century scientist James Clerk Maxwell, can thwart the second law of thermodynamics by organizing molecules into hot and cold sections, thus decreasing a system’s entropy without a counterbalancing universal entropic increase. Such a process is physically impossible, as the Demon’s sorting process involves the acquisition of information, which requires work that irreversibly increases the system’s entropy (Leland 50).  When Oedipa fails to make Maxwell’s Demon sort molecules, Pynchon confirms the impossibility of the tasks of Oedipa and the reader, who must both attempt to organize information in an increasingly chaotic environment. As Leland states, “[the reader’s] attempts to impose a meaningful pattern on Pynchon’s story are doomed (like Oedipa’s quest) from the beginning” (47). Pynchon alludes to this impossibility of complete integration of the metaphor by using “noise” in two opposing ways in the two theories: communication noise obscures a message’s meaning while thermodynamic noise helps to produce meaning in a redundant system.  However, both theories confirm the overall triumph of figurative entropic degradation in the novel, as despite her best efforts, Oedipa is never able to come to a clear conclusion about the existence or nonexistence of the mysterious Tristero postal system and the meaning of her ex-boyfriend Pierce Inveriarty’s will. Pynchon suggests that the failure to completely integrate the metaphor and the ultimate triumph of entropic disorder reflect the inability of the postmodern individual to fully synthesize the increasing amounts of information made available by technological advances. By alluding to the metaphor of noise explicitly in Maxwell’s Demon and implicitly throughout the rest of the novel, Pynchon guides the reader to undergo a decoding process similar to that of Oedipa and thus journey with Oedipa to determine the best way to cope with the incomprehensibility of excessive information.

     Pynchon represents noise in information theory as undesired disruptive signals that prevent a message from being clearly perceived by a receiver. According to basic information theory, communication involves a sender, a message, and a receiver. When more information is contained in a message, the receiver has greater freedom of choice to interpret the message, and thus there is greater uncertainty that the message extracted is the right one. In the communication sense, entropy measures the degree of uncertainty of a message, as it “signifies and prizes our lack of knowledge about any specific [information] unit” (Schachterle 191). A message with higher entropy, or uncertainty, contains more noise because there are more possibilities for various interpretations; “as the information rate – or entropy – increases, so does the ‘noise level’” (St. Clair 179). It follows that a communication process with a high level of information exerts a greater demand on the receiver to “filter out the intended message from the unintended noise” (Schachterle 194). Pynchon not only creates a high noise level with the multitude of detailed information through which Oedipa and the reader must sort, but he adds a layer of noise with his convoluted writing style; as Gleason notes, Pynchon often “backtracks, interrupts… or layers his descriptions” and frequently “amasses details until they blur” (87). By presenting an enigmatic plot in often obscure ways, Pynchon increases the noise level in the novel and creates a more difficult “Demonic” sorting task for Oedipa and the reader. Throughout “The Crying of Lot 49,” Pynchon portrays Oedipa as oscillating between sound and silence, as she receives an overabundance of external noise but fails to perceive any internal sound that signifies her response to and understanding of that external noise, which alludes to the postmodern individual’s problem of encountering information overload and lacking the capacity to abstract meaning in the midst of such chaos.

     Oedipa fluctuates between states of overwhelming noise, in which she must attempt to filter out the meaning from the meaningless, and impenetrable silence, in which there is not enough information or noise from which to glean any understanding. Pynchon portrays the overwhelming noise levels as caused mainly by technology, the “machinery” of the Republic, indicating that the excess noise represents the vast body of information present in the technological, pluralistic postmodern world (101). When a hair spray can explodes in the bathroom and Oedipa is forced to helplessly cower, not “fast enough” to save herself by “comput[ing] in advance the complex web of its travel,” the movie playing in the next room adds to the jingling of broken glass with “a slow, deep crescendo of naval bombardment, machine-gun, howitzer and small-arms fire, screams and chopped-off prayers of dying infantry” (25). At this moment of confusion in which Oedipa is unable to understand the path of the can’s movement, the loud, jumbled noise levels from the frenzied battle scene and the turbulent can reflect the chaotic high level of information that Oedipa simply cannot process. When Oedipa wanders throughout San Francisco on the city buses, the “transistor radios” play background songs, but she can’t fully “hear one of these through snarling static from the bus’s motor” (99). Oedipa’s inability to discern the clear song from the radio static and motor noise echoes her failure to distinguish which of her experiences can lead her to understand the Tristero. She queries in confusion, “What tonight, was chance?” as she cannot recognize which experiences are random coincidences and which are firm evidence of the Tristero’s existence (98). At the Yoyodyne engineering plant, Oedipa does not understand what the scientist Stanley Koteks explains to her about the theory behind Maxwell’s Demon, as all around her the sounds of technological devices crowd the room – “the air-conditioning hummed on, IBM typewriters chiggered away, swivel chairs squeaked, fat reference manuals were slammed shut, rattling blueprints folded and refolded” (69). Pynchon represents Oedipa as encountering staggering noise levels, both literally and figuratively, in order to indicate the plight of the postmodern reader, who must struggle to find patterns and meaning in both the “high-entropy text” of “Crying of Lot 49” and in an increasingly information-rich world (Schachterle 212).

     Pynchon portrays silence as the elusive meaning that Oedipa cannot grasp, which represents the emptiness postmodern individuals experience when they are unable to find and internalize meaning. The Tristero postal system, with all its secrecy and mystery, is symbolically silent; two of the organization’s phrases are “Tacit lies the gold once-knotted horn” and “We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire” (58, 139). The muted post-horn and “the mute stamps” symbolize the silence of an organization working surreptitiously outside of governmental control as well as Oedipa’s inability to understand the meaning and existence of that system (32). Near the Yoyodyne plant Oedipa encounters the dark, “silent” Scope crowd, from whom she does not glean any satisfying information about the Tristero (34). At the Deaf-Mute Dance, where the participants dance in a “silent, gesturing swarm” to “some unthinkable order of music,” Oedipa cannot understand the mysterious synchronicity of the dancers, as “something they all heard with an extra sense atrophied in herself,” and she soon flees, frustrated at her inability to comprehend the meaning hidden in the growing silence (107). As the noise level in the novel increases, Oedipa becomes overwhelmed with the abundance of clues about the Tristero that she cannot synthesize into a cohesive pattern, and she degenerates into silence, seemingly having lost her ability to find any meaning at all. From “the first of many demurs” when Oedipa fails to ask Zapf, the used bookstore clerk, a question, to when she stifles a query to Emory Borz and keeps “a silence, waiting, as if to be illuminated” with answers, Oedipa becomes increasingly incapacitated by the noise (71,125). Unable to find her own voice to make sense of the madness, Oedipa begins to stop actively seeking new external information to instead focus on filling her internal silence by making sense of the information she has already received. Oedipa finds excuses to avoid Driblette’s friend, who could potentially give her more insight into the mystery, because she is “anxious that her revelation not expand beyond a certain point. Lest, possibly, it grow larger than she and assume her to herself” (137). Here Pynchon represents the central confusion and frustration of the postmodern individual, as Oedipa slowly loses her understanding of herself and the world in the vast silence accompanying her inability to process all this informational noise, just as Pynchon implies that postmodern individuals recede into a passive acceptance of the massive information from consumer ads and information-distributing technology such as radios and TVs, until they are no longer able to form their own beliefs separate from those fed to them by the external culture.

     Pynchon uses noise in the thermodynamic sense as a beneficial random intrusion of energy into a closed system that fights overall entropic degradation to a redundant state. In thermodynamics, entropy refers to the number of possible spatial and energetic rearrangements of molecules in a system that maintain the integrity of the macroscopic state. The more possible rearrangements, the more disordered a state, and the higher its level of entropy (Matsoukas 196). The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy in a closed, isolated system increases until it reaches a maximum at some final equilibrium (Matsoukas 150). Thus time directs systems to explore all possible rearrangements until a state of redundancy and “entropic homogeneity” is reached, in which no further new arrangements exist and there is simply an endless recycling of old configurations (White 268). In this way increased entropy is associated with “decreased order and increased stasis (even paralysis, figuratively)” (Schachterle 189). However, there are two fundamental ways to counter this entropic degradation: first, an active outside force can breach the system’s isolation by introducing energetic molecules into the system to fuel reorganization; or second, if the system stays closed, random molecular fluctuations can cause local pockets of negentropy, or more ordered states, to spontaneously appear. In the first case, the entry of “noise,” or new molecular intrusions, into the system may decrease the local level of entropy but always irreversibly maintains or increases the overall entropy in the universe. The second is an internally random, spontaneous process, more unpredictable and less common than the first, that does not involve any external interaction but has the same result of preserving or increasing global entropy. Thus the best outcome of either method is “to break even” and maintain entropic levels, but “more often one loses” and the process increases entropy (Lyons 197). In “The Crying of Lot 49,” Pynchon explores the thermodynamic aspect of the noise metaphor by portraying both individuals and the overall 1960s Californian society as closed systems approaching states of redundancy and depicting the characters’ attempts to find meaning by employing either or both entropic-countering strategies.

     The major characters experience a sense of emptiness stemming from the metaphorical entropic degradation of the closed systems of society and of themselves. Pynchon depicts Californian 1960s society as approaching final entropic redundancy, as Oedipa calls her life “a fat deckful of days which seemed… more or less identical” and states while driving through Oakland that the “landscape lost all variety” (2, 106). Pynchon implies that technology often contributes to this redundancy, as Oedipa sees San Narciso as a “printed circuit,” immutable and cyclic, and the lawyer Metzger describes a TV series starring a former lawyer-turned-actor who depicts himself, an actor-turned-lawyer, and states that due to technological preservation, this film will last forever and be “repeated endlessly” (14, 22). Not only is California redundant, but so are its inhabitants, including Randolph Driblette, Mucho Maas, and Oedipa. Randolph Driblette, the director of “The Courier’s Tragedy,” does not attempt to introduce any external meaning into his isolated system, as he states, “the reality is in this head. Mine… all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth” (62). Content to wait for spontaneous internal negentropic pockets, Driblette looks solely inside his system for meaning. Thus, devoid of outside intrusions to fight his internal entropic degradation, at the end of the novel Driblette reaches his final equilibrium and commits suicide. Mucho Maas, Oedipa’s husband, takes a disc jockey job to attempt to introduce noise into “the unvarying gray sickness” and “endless, convoluted incest” of his job as a used car salesman (4), but as the novel progresses he fails to introduce enough noise into his world and instead, as that world implodes, seeks refuge in an imaginary, LSD-induced one, where he finally finds new meaning in that “the world is so abundant. No end to it” and the songs “are something, in the pure sound. Something new” (118).

     More persistently than the other two, Oedipa fights the isolation of her system, spurred by her miserable sense of being “a prisoner” trapped in a virtual tower with “no escape” from hersystem’s boundaries (11). As the production of meaning can be described as “a process of transformation involving the integration of noise,” Oedipa continually attempts to find meaning by seeking noise in the clues to the mystery of the Tristero (White 268). Wandering around San Francisco searching for clues, she hopes for miracles, “intrusions into this world from another,” to enter into her system, equating them with “each of the night’s post horns,” the symbol of the Tristero (101). Oedipa continually seeks the miracle of the Tristero as “a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know, and you too” (141). Pynchon directly relates Oedipa’s plight to that of the reader with the use of the second person, implying that the postmodern individual also experiences this encompassing homogeneity and ensuing “sense of emptiness” (Dussere 573). Oedipa fights a losing battle, as her isolation dictates that she cannot fully step outside of herself to find enough noise to stop her internal movement toward more disorder and uncertainty, and she becomes overtaken with the recurring question of the Tristero’s existence that continually cycles through her brain, never leading her to a firm conclusion. Her persistence at the first method of combating entropy ensures that she does not degrade to the states of Mucho and Driblette, whose internal systems become so disordered that they are forced to escape to other worlds. However, by the end of the novel Oedipa begins to employ the second method, as she shifts from trying to introduce external noise to allowing her internal system to process information and spontaneously produce the meaning she seeks. “Having begun to feel reluctant about following up anything,” Oedipa becomes increasingly “less excited” to find more clues about the Tristero, and instead she takes more time to internally reflect on the possibilities of what the noise could mean by evaluating the “symmetrical four” possibilities (137, 143, 141). In the final line when she waits for the auctioneer to reveal the bidder for Pierce’s stamp collection, she adopts the patience that the second method requires, as she “settle[s] back, to await the crying of lot 49” (152). Pynchon implies that for both Oedipa and the postmodern reader, a balance between actively striving to introduce outside noise, or new mechanisms for the creation of meaning, and patiently waiting for spontaneous internal productions of meaning, is the most successful way to slow down entropic degradation, a process that can never fully be stopped.

     Pynchon merges the two implications of the thermodynamic and communication theories in Oedipa’s fleeting moment of insight in the final few pages of the novel. Just as Oedipa reaches the height of discomfort at the extreme emptiness and isolation of her internal silence and states “this, oh God, was the void,” she gleans a brief insight of meaning represented by the loss of distinction between herself and San Narciso, “the loss pure, instant, spherical, the sound of a stainless orchestral chime held among the starts and struck lightly” (141, 147). Finally, after all her struggles with noisy messages and silent, unperceived meanings, Oedipa hears a pure sound, free of extraneous noise and at the perfect volume, that penetrates her internal silence. At the same time, Oedipa realizes that San Narciso has become lost, “assumed back into the American continuity of crust and mantle” (147). The thermodynamic boundaries of Oedipa’s own isolated system and that of the closed system of San Narciso have finally been breached, as Oedipa is able to redefine the system as incorporating herself, San Narciso, and all of America, and for a moment the redundancy of San Narciso is reduced with this influx of external noise. By having Oedipa experience such a moment only once and at the end of the novel, Pynchon implies that finding this balance between sound and silence, between outside noise and internal negentropy, is rare and fleeting, but obtainable. What Oedipa understands at that ephemeral moment is not entirely clear or conclusive, as Pynchon states earlier in the novel that Oedipa can never grasp “the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold,” (76) but it seems that Oedipa’s process of attempting to decode the mystery and the reader’s analogous journey of deciphering the noise metaphor will produce transitory glimpses of understanding in which an instantaneous new meaning surfaces as the two aspects of the metaphor are momentarily integrated.

     Pynchon implies that, just as Oedipa never hears the final sound of the “crying of lot 49” nor fully understands the Tristero, and just as the two components of the noise metaphor can never be completely matched, postmodern individuals will never be able to accomplish the impossible task of making sense of all the information they receive (152). However, Pynchon advocates that maintaining a balance between actively seeking information to increase entropic noise and settling to wait for the random fluctuations of life to help decrease the communications noise and make sense of that information is the best way to cope with this problem. By “keep[ing] it bouncing,” as Pierce once said, or “keep[ing] it all cycling,” as is the task of Maxwell’s Demon, a cyclic process that entails seeking thermodynamic noise, becoming overwhelmed with the informational noise embedded in that thermodynamic noise, experiencing silence and emptiness in the inability to produce meaning from the message, and enduring the period of emptiness to wait for random activity to aid in the production of meaning, will lead to the abstraction of some meaning, though the process of entropic degradation implies that meaning is relentlessly changing and thus requires constant pursuit (148, 85). If one stagnates too long at any one point during the cycle, he or she will likely fail at obtaining this meaning and instead degrade like Mucho, Driblette, and the passive American consumer. By attempting to decode the noise metaphor in “The Crying of Lot 49” and journeying through this cycle with Oedipa, postmodern readers gain tools to deal with their exposure to ever-increasing amounts of information due to technological advances in information-distributing devices such as TV’s, radios, and computers. As “The Crying of Lot 49” is one of the first truly postmodern books,  Pynchon suggests that reading postmodern literature can provide individuals the skill set to find meaning and purpose in the overwhelming late twentieth century American landscape, which is full of “disruption, dislocation, decentering, contradiction… multiplicity, indeterminacy” (Perloff 7-8). Though Pynchon implies that we will never be able to fully answer Ginsburg’s question of “What are you about?” with persistence and patience we can avoid simply being generic “human being[s] with 10 fingers and two eyes” by finding brief, transient pockets of order and meaning that can guide an understanding of our own beliefs in the context of the wealth of surrounding ideas.



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