The Crying of Lot 49
In a story as confusing and ambiguous as Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, it is difficult to connect any aspect of the book to a piece of modern culture. However, Oedipa’s quest, her search for the truth, and the paranoia therein, are inherent in the plots of today’s most-watched television and movies. Though many themes from the story can be tied to modern culture, perhaps the most prominent is the theme of a quest for truth. Oedipa’s quest is best represented via a popular FOX television show called The X-Files.
At first sight, the comparison is almost too obvious. Agent Fox Mulder, played by David Duchovny, seeks the truth behind the apparent mystery of alien abduction and the supernatural, a quest that he dubs “the X-Files”. Oedipa, too, is looking for the truth underneath her mystery: WASTE. Both characters yearn for the truth behind events, a truth that may or may not exist, in mysteries that fold plots upon themselves endlessly. Beyond the obvious similarities, however, lie more, almost uncanny, parallels.
Though both Mulder and Oedipa claim to seek the truth, what they both seek is resolution to the questions within themselves. For example, it is understood by fans of The X-Files that Mulder began his search for extraterrestrial life with the supposed alien abduction of his sister. The quest for the truth, then, is personalized for Agent Mulder, as he himself claims that he would not work as an FBI agent if his sister had not been supposedly abducted. Oedipa is on a personal quest as well. No other character in the story seeks the “truth” behind WASTE, the muted courier’s horn, the play The Courier’s Tragedy, Pierce Inverarity’s stamps, and a secret postal service. In fact, no one else has ever before made such a possibly ridiculous connection! So, as both characters seek their personal truths, they slowly begin to fear that no answer exists.
The motives of these two seekers are important, and indeed similar. There seems to be an obsession to find a truth in symbols (be they horns or crop circles), a truth that both characters come to realize may not even exist. By definition, obsession is “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling”. Therefore, the moment that their questions are absolved, the moment that their hypotheses are proved, the quest and its subsequent paranoia, frustration, and pain are removed. The motive is fear that the quest is unending, that there is no answer to the questions, and perhaps that there truly was no mystery to begin with. For each character, Mulder and Oedipa, this fear drives them in their personal quests for the truth.
Many themes from The Crying of Lot 49 can be seen in modern culture, especially movies: paranoia in Conspiracy Theory and Enemy of the State, and Hilarius’s psycho-drug culture in Girl Interrupted. However, no movie or show ties so well to Oedipa’s quest as FOX’s The X-Files. Both Oedipa Maas and Fox Mulder seek personal truths, one based on a secret postal system, another on alien intervention in human life, but they hold more in common than it first appears. Maybe aliens are delivering mail behind the back of the US government.
In the penultimate chapter of Black Boy, Richard very uncharacteristically participates in a boxing match with Harrison, a fellow “black boy” employee. Though this seems unlikely early in the chapter, Richard eventually caves to Harrison’s requests for a fight.
The culture instigating this fight is fairly obvious: the white employers want to see the black boys fight like a “dog or rooster” for their entertainment. The ideology behind the event, then, would be the assumptions of the white men, like most in the Southern culture in this book, are that blacks are inferior to whites. This idea is not consciously implemented into the minds of the employers, but it is an aspect of the culture that they take for granted. In the minds of Richard and Harrison, however, such a fight would be degrading. However, Harrison needs the money that the white men offer him for the fight. For Harrison, it is not so much an ideology that influences his choice, but a need, that cash is necessary to survive. For Richard, though, a deeper influence may be pressing him to fight. All through Chapter 12, Richard opposes the idea of a fight. Even at first, when the white men try to trick him into thinking that Harrison wants to hurt him, he is wary and intelligent enough to not fall for the ploy. Later, when Harrison presses him to fight, Richard says, “‘I don’t want to fight for white men. I’m no dog or rooster.'” However, almost immediately thereafter, Richard agrees to the fight. What caused this sudden change of mind? Call them ideologies, perhaps, but there is a combination of factors that lead Richard to fight.
First of all, Richard feels a loyalty to Harrison as a co-worker and fellow “black boy”, evidenced in Richard’s narration: “Harrison and I knew each other casually, but there had never been the slightest trouble between us” and “Harrison was black and so was I; I would ignore the warning of the white man and talk face to face with a boy of my own color.” Secondly, the ideas that the employers plant in the minds of Richard and Harrison are seeds of doubt that both men can stifle for a while, but eventually they grow and flower. Richard tells us, “We were toying with the idea of death for no reason that stemmed from our own lives, but because the men who ruled us had thrust the idea into our minds.” Perhaps, in these words, the fear of unemployment or worse, death at the hands of the white men, also caused Richard to fight. By doing this, Richard feels he has “done something unclean for which I he could not properly atone.” In fighting for the white men, Richard has helped maintain the status quo of the white-superior society.
This fight certainly maintains the status quo in Southern culture in this era. Black submission to the white man was accepted and expected every day, and by allowing himself to fight, Richard feels he has not only let down himself, but his entire dream as well. Throughout the book, Richard tries to change cultural standards, and in fighting Harrison, he has given up on those standards, if only for a moment, and allowed himself to help the culture he fights so hard to change.
The cultures of black and white, in this scenario, are both in conflict and in support of each other. It appears that black culture is supporting white culture, in that the black boys participate in the fights staged by white men. However, these fights are, at the same time, degrade black culture further. As Richard sees it, blacks must escape from this kind of oppression, and for Richard, that escape is education, his key to freedom.
The uncharacteristic fight that Richard takes place in is, indeed, not so uncharacteristic at all, once the ideology and culture of his surroundings are examined. Though Richard feels, perhaps, that he should not have taken part in the fight, the message he conveys in the book would not be quite the same. It is not one ideology or one aspect of his culture that led him to the decision to fight, but rather, it was many smaller sub-ideologies that brought him to the decision.
Bastard Out of Carolina
“Love” is a word, a signifier, tied to many meanings, all different in context, cultures, and ideologies. Love is used numerous ways in Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, by many characters. In the character of Bone, love is a confused thing, always changing, as Bone uses it to fit her life on the fly.
In relation to parental love, Bone wants Daddy Glen to love her. However, early in the book, Bone’s conception of “love” is that of a child, obviously. On page 52, she says, “I wanted him to love us. I wanted to be able to love him. I wanted him to pick me up gently and tell Mama again how much he loved us all.” This idea of love is simple, involving hugs, smiles, and friendliness, the sort of “love” Bone gets from Anney. However, as Bone’s relationship with Glen changes, so does her perception of “love”.
On page 108, Glen asks Bone, “‘Don’t you know how I love you?'” Bone thinks to herself, “No, I did not know.” This is near the beginning of Bone’s confusion about love, what it means, and what it does. At the time he asks her, he is molesting her. It is no wonder that Bone was confused, having love expressed simply, from her mother, and sexually (if indeed it is “love”) from Glen. This confusion leads bone to question the idea of love, and to look elsewhere for it, perhaps to compare.
Love, she finds, is a prominent idea in the Southern Baptist church. Bone is enthralled with the black and white of Christianity, the definitive line drawn between good and evil, because she can see where the love is, and what it does. She believes she can see that other people truly love one another, and believing this, she thinks the has a better grasp on the abstract idea of love. However, as Bone later discovers, love is abstract, and being abandoned by her mother, she never truly figures it out.
The problem within, for Bone, is that love is a conceptual idea, and that, really, it means something different to each person. Not only that, but love is used by others, in ways that may not suit anyone else’s conceptions of the idea. So when Anney insists to Bone and everyone else that Glen loves her and her girls, Bone tends, of course, to believe her, and thus the idea of love is transferred to how Glen treats Bone. His sexual and physical abuse to her takes on the meaning of “love”, because she believes that Glen loves her, and anything he does must be representational of that love. However, her confusion stems from the fact that others, too, love her, and do not treat her in this way. Bone, in trying to discover the meaning of love, compares between the love of people, compares their actions, and compares their histories. In her encounters with Raylene, Bone finds that love, for her aunt, meant sacrificing one person for another’s well being. Her experiences with the church show her that love is universal, and that each person should love one another. The problem lies in people’s actions regarding love. Had everyone acted similarly toward Bone, especially Daddy Glen, the child would not have been nearly so confused and traumatized.
Love, indeed, is an abstract concept, very difficult for anyone, especially a child to grasp. Bone tries to find out what love means, but the situations in which she is placed do not lend themselves to analysis of a less-than-concrete idea. I think that without the reader’s own conception of love in the back of his mind during the story, the book would not succeed. Because love is socially regarded as a good thing, a beautiful thing, and something to be cherished, Bone’s conceptions of “love”, whatever it may be, frustrate and sadden the reader.