Robert E. Kohn. New Close Readings of The Crying of Lot 49.
Writing in 1987, twenty-one years after the publication of Thomas Pynchon's second novel, critic Alan Wilde prematurely claimed, "The Crying of Lot 49 has been combed over thoroughly and well for all its possible meanings." Twenty-five years later, further meanings are still be teased out of Pynchon's tangled tale, supporting Frank Kermode's earlier claim that Lot 49 "is loaded with hidden meanings, and although there will be a consensus as to certain of these, there is no suggestion that the process of interpretation need ever cease." Both remarks are quoted by Robert E. Kohn in his new book (on pp. 2 and 25, respectively), an attempt to uncover more of those "hidden meanings."
Trained as an economist, Kohn's method is to propose a model, such as the assumption a certain book influenced Pynchon, run a simulation to find words and concepts common to both texts, and then see if the model implies or yields "facts capable of being observed," as economist Milton Friedman put it in Essays in Positive Economics, which Kohn cites (3). He goes on to quote Friedman's blithe admission, "Truly important and significant hypotheses will be found to have 'assumptions' that are wildly inaccurate descriptive recommendations of reality, and, in general, the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions" (6-7). Emboldened by this model and by the freedom Roland Barthes granted to readers upon announcing the death of the author (4), Kohn runs a number of simulations on Pynchon's novel, acknowledging that he may be wrong in some of his assumptions, but grateful nonetheless that those assumptions have "given me insights into aspects of the novel that I wouldn't have had otherwise" (97).
So, in Chapter one, he acts on the assumption that Pynchon read E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel prior to writing Lot 49--a safe assumption, given its popularity at the time--then proposes as a "corollary hypothesis" that "the fact that Forster's book was made possible by 'a bequest in [William Clark's] will to Trinity College" suggests that Pynchon was thereby inspired to make the protagonist of his novel the executor of a will (45). If this strikes you as probable, or at least a possibility that cannot be ruled out with 100% certainty, then you'll find Kohn's book a goldmine of such nuggets. If, on the other hand, you consider that a meaningless coincidence, and probably the furthest thing from Pynchon's mind when he decided to make Oedipa Maas an executrix, then you'll probably throw the book at the wall before finishing it.
The book would have been more suitable titled New Intertextual Readings of The Crying of Lot 49, for each chapter pairs Pynchon's novel with a possible influence: Aspects of the Novel in Chapter one, Henry Adams and J. R. Pierce in Chapter two, followed by chapters on Rachel Carson; Loren Eiseley and Charles Darwin; various authors on plate tectonics; The Tibetan Book of the Dead; the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; critics Roland Barthes, Paul Virilio, and F. R. Leavis; and two tangentially related essays on Pynchon's Against the Day and Inherent Vice. Nearly all of these are valid pairings, yielding occasional insights and useful suggestions. But too many of Kohn's observations are along the lines of his assumption that Pynchon named his Jacobean scholar Emory Bortz after W. Y. Evans-Wentz, who translated the edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead Pynchon may have read, for "The names, Emory and Evans, both begin with an E and have five letters. Bortz and Wentz both end with tz and have five letters.... To seal the connection between Evans-Wentz and Emory Bortz, the latter is married to a 'wife named Grace' (Crying 148); Evans-Wentz's edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead instructs the deceased, upon 'enter[ing] into the womb' to 'emit thy gift-waves [of grace, or good-will] upon the womb which thou art entering, [transforming it thereby] into a celestial mansion' (191, square brackets in the original). In the index, they are listed under 'Grace-Waves' (245), rather than 'gift-waves'" (91).
Like Horatio talking Hamlet down from one of his wild speculations, I want to tell Kohn, "'Twere to consider too curiously to consider so" Verbal and thematic similarities between books are sometimes merely that, similarities, and many of Kohn's examples look like what a character in Gravity's Rainbow, using electrical imagery, calls "Parallel, not series" (159). However, I grant there are precedents for such readings elsewhere in Pynchon criticism, as well as in older, richly suggestive texts like Finnegans Wake and the Bible. (Spend an afternoon with the Zohar to see some truly wacky Rube Goldberg overinterpretation.) Since The Crying of Lot 49 is a parable about literary analysis and interpretation, one that is deliberately open-ended--the only mystery the reader solves at the end is the meaning of the novel's odd title--I suppose it would be arrogant to reject such an approach. Besides, Kohn has had his fill of rejections: the book begins with a 44-page introduction in which he records the negative, often condescending responses these chapters received when submitted to journal editors, which makes for some embarrassing reading. (Kohn quotes at length the kind of rejection letters most critics hide in a drawer.) They have been somewhat revised with those objections in mind, but Kohn stuck to his guns and self-published the book partly to "enjoy the freedom of saying what I wanted to say" (216). It's an amateurish book, but in the best, oldest sense of the word: one written by someone who loves the subject and wants to share his discoveries with others. This is not the first book a student new to The Crying of Lot 49 should want to read, but anyone fascinated by that brilliant novel and willing to sort the wheat from the chaff, will find something of interest here.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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