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About Me:18-year-old sixth form student, studying English Literature, History and Government and Politics. My articles will broadly cover topics from the current affairs of politics to reviews of books and albums, as well as adding my own creative pieces, whether it be short fiction or general opinion.
Thomas Pynchon and Vladimir Nabokov share more than just the intertextual reference in former’s text (‘With all these Humbert Humbert cats’) and their respective student / lecturer relationship at Cornell University. Both authors play with the conventions of reading literature, in particular with how eager we might be to find revelation in symbols and intertextuality, and how this informs the meanings we derive from texts. This article will demonstrate how Pynchon and Nabokov exploit such conventions and how, in doing so, they force us to question our potential for overreading when searching for meaning.
Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is a novella in which its protagonist, Oedipa Maas, has been named executrix of the will of Pierce Inverarity, which is a ‘job of sorting it all out’. This ‘sorting’ leads to Oedipa finding various signs and symbols, which seem at times disparate and at others connected, leading Oedipa to state that ‘She would give them order, she would create constellations’. This very act of giving things order, aligning them in such patterns so that they create homogenous ‘constellations’ mirrors that of reading and understanding fiction. As Patrick O’Donnell states, ‘the reader, like Oedipa, is on her own, stranded amidst the entanglements and wonders of Pynchon’s words and signs.’ Like the protagonist, we are always looking for ‘a sense of concealed meaning’, listening for words being spoken ‘on some other frequency’.
One of the ways we try to find this meaning is looking for revelations in character’s names. As Robert D. Newman states: ‘Naming attempts to order the flux of life, to make sense of a shifting array of signs to derive meaning.’ In Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona’s death is foreshadowed by her name, meaning ‘ill-fated’. Pynchon echoes this convention of deriving meaning from names with his protagonist’s – ‘Oedipa’ – which immediately calls to mind mythological and Freudian connotations. Like Oedipus, Oedipa is on a quest for meaning, and so in this sense Pynchon upholds the literary convention. However, the name seems jarringly out of place in a novel set in 1960s America and seems to satirise how shallow the revelation of a name is: apart from being on a quest for meaning, the two share no other similarities. This satire extends to the abbreviation of Oedipa’s husband’s radio show, KCUF. Newman is right to point out that, reversed, the abbreviation shows Pynchon’s juvenile humour, but it is perhaps more than that. David Steed states that Pynchon’s fiction is ‘an assault on the reader’s assumptions of truth by a principle of juxtaposition. If one block of information is plausible then might not the adjoining one be also?’ If the reader was to find some revelation in ‘Oedipa’, might they not find some in ‘KCUF’? No, they only find ‘FUCK’ – a vacuous expletive; a humorous critique of their reliance on revelation through names and their propensity for overreading.