Oedipa Maas, Maxine Tarnow, and the Possibility of Resistance
A common observation in appraisals of Thomas Pynchon’s eighth novel, Bleeding Edge, has been to note its more than passing resemblance to his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, especially in terms of their respective protagonists: Maxine Tarnow and Oedipa Maas (Cha; St. Clair, “Pynchon’s Postmodern Legacy”). While most reviews point out this resemblance, they—understandably—do not proceed to discuss it or its implications at any length. Only Keith Miller goes on to note that Bleeding Edge “deals with the threat or promise of The Crying of Lot 49 made flesh: the dream-life of a fully networked world” (50).
What follows is a more focused examination of not only the similarities but also the dissimilarities between the two protagonists and what they imply about the possibility of resistance to the threat of the world of The Crying of Lot 49 and to the fulfillment of that threat in the world of Bleeding Edge. Because, despite what a reader might assume based on the aforementioned comparisons, Bleeding Edge is not simply retreading familiar ground, especially in the relationship between Oedipa and Maxine, which is not by any means a straightforward equivalence: the two women have very different attitudes toward the roles they are expected to fulfill.
Oedipa and Maxine self-consciously perform a number of roles during their respective quests, roles that are both stereotypically feminine and stereotypically unfeminine. In the case of Oedipa, the feminine roles she assumes initially assist and eventually hinder her in her investigation, while her attempts to move beyond them are met with resistance and rejection by the men she comes into contact with. Maxine, on the other hand, meets far less resistance when performing unfeminine roles. In addition, her negotiation with the conventionality of feminine roles is also, crucially, more complex, and, as a result, she is able to perform them in a different, wider context, treating them ironically as set roles while sincerely enacting the attributes they have been built around. This allows Maxine to turn the feminine from a restriction into a political tool and to be at least partially successful where Oedipa fails: not in unraveling the conspiracy she suspects is unfolding around her but in her reaction to her inability to do so. In contrast to Oedipa, who is installed “Rapunzel-like […] in her tower” (12, 29), Maxine acts as an anti-Rapunzel; not as “the Princess” but as “the practical elf who comes while the Princess is sleeping […] and gets the real work of the princessipality done” (25).
It is this “real work” that proves to be the true source of continuity between the two novels and the paradoxical reason why Bleeding Edge, despite coming at, and dealing with, a perhaps even more despair-inducing historical moment than The Crying of Lot 49, ends on a note of if not optimism, then at least fearful determination to persist, to resist the “indexed world” (476). This hope is linked to themes that have led critics to suggest that Pynchon has “slightly mellowed with late fatherhood” and “taken a domestic turn” (Konstantinou 170), but I argue that it represents a genuine politics rather than a retreat into the personal, a politics that has been present in Pynchon’s work since the very beginning and that is brought to the fore in Bleeding Edge.
The Crying of Lot 49 Redux?
How similar are The Crying of Lot 49 and Bleeding Edge then? Very, a cursory glance would suggest: they are the only two Pynchon novels to feature a single female protagonist who is in both cases a kind of insider-outsider. Oedipa is a Young Republican housewife who is deeply unhappy with the traditional roles she is expected to fulfill, but she is also in a position to use her insider status as the executrix of real estate tycoon Pierce Inverarity’s will to investigate his tangled affairs. Maxine is the Upper West Side mother of two and former certified fraud examiner who can use her know-how and connections to investigate dotcom billionaire Gabriel Ice’s affairs with a certain liberty that, were she still a CFE, would perhaps not be available to her. Both women are sort of detectives whose initially seemingly simple investigation brings them into contact with what may or may not be some kind of worldwide conspiracy whose nature will finally remain beyond their understanding. Both abandon their husbands (in the case of Maxine, before the novel opens) and claim a new lover, whom they find irresistible against their better judgment.1
So, if the novels’ plots are broadly similar and lead to the same conclusion (and if Bleeding Edge consistently refers back to The Crying of Lot 49), wherein lies the difference? Let us turn to Oedipa and Maxine themselves and the roles they play.
Famously, at the beginning of The Crying of Lot 49 we encounter Oedipa as the very image of conventionality; she is in what Theodore Kharpertian has referred to as “a condition of inactive uniformity” that she will gradually exchange for one “of active diversity,” as she moves from a state of “unknowledgeable certainty to one of knowledgeable uncertainty” (104).
Despite this, and pace Roger Henkle, Oedipa is not “too slight a little housewife to lead us out of the labyrinths of paranoid California” (106) (a statement that is not only staggeringly condescending but additionally problematic in implying that leading readers “out of the labyrinths” is the goal of The Crying of Lot 49). On the one hand, as Georgiana Colvile notes, Oedipa’s discourse more often sees her hedging than asserting herself (82): she lets Mucho talk first when he comes home, despite having important news to share (7), decides “not to make a fuss” when Roseman tries to “play footsie with her” (12), and apologizes when Nefastis’s portrait of Maxwell doesn’t communicate (74). And there are moments when her entrapment within the social roles she is expected to perform is especially evident: in her life in Kinneret, for example, she had “gently conned herself into the curious, Rapunzel-like role of a pensive girl somehow” (12); upon meeting Genghis Cohen, who has “a touch of summer flu,” she immediately feels “motherly” (65).
On the other hand, it is also Oedipa’s ability as a woman to inhabit such roles in her interactions with the various men she meets while on her quest that enables her to slowly gather information on Pierce’s business interests and the conspiracy surrounding the Tristero. With Metzger in Echo Courts, she speaks with “movie-gaiety,” later “trying for a brittle voice” (21, 22), by which means she finds out about Pierce’s Fangoso Lagoons development. Speaking to Mr. Thoth, she “smiled at him as granddaughterly as she knew how” (63) and finds out about the Tristero’s supposed rivalry with the Pony Express. Talking to Stanley Koteks, she “rested her shades on her nose and batted her eyelashes, figuring to coquette her way off this conversational hook” (60) and is told of the existence of the WASTE system. She “put on a sweater, skirt and sneakers, wrapped her hair in a studentlike twist, went easy on the makeup” (102) for her meeting with Emery Bortz and is rewarded with information about the reference to the Tristero in Wharfinger’s play The Courier’s Tragedy. But being in a position to play these roles is a mixed blessing. As a woman, she is not considered a threat, so the men she “interrogates” are willing to give her information, at least up to a point; at the same time, however, she is also easily rebuffed when she insists on digging further: for example, when pressing Metzger to join her to talk to Driblette about the play, he dismisses her as one of “these lib, overeducated broads with soft heads and bleeding hearts” (51), and her visit with Nefastis is cut short when he brushes off her failure as a “sensitive” and invites her to have sex with him (74).
Equally famously, the knowledge Oedipa manages to gain gets her nowhere, finally. The revelation she has been looking for never comes, and we leave her waiting for it in the form of the anonymous bidder for the Tristero lot of stamps perhaps making himself known. Oedipa’s feelings of helplessness, her unwillingness and inability to act, are evident throughout the novel: “[C]an’t I get somebody to do it for me?” (12); “All she could think of was to […] wait for somebody to rescue her” (58); “She didn’t press the argument. Having begun to feel reluctant about following up anything” (114–15). These feelings indicate the true extent of her trouble, which seems to have as much to do with her internalized assumptions about, and expectations of, her world and her own place in it as it does with the beliefs of men like Metzger (Davidson 43). A telling example is when during her meeting with the old sailor, Oedipa asks, “Can I help?” (86), only to soon conclude that she can’t: “‘I can’t help,’ she whispered, rocking him, ‘I can’t help’” (87). The mechanical, whispered repetition suggests that Oedipa is in reality addressing herself rather than the sailor. As a woman, she believes, she can “mother” him, provide him with temporary comfort, but “nothing she know[s] of would preserve […] him” (89).
It is this helplessness that comes to dominate by the end of The Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa has struggled to move beyond the conventional social roles she is meant to perform and seems to have no patience with them anymore; the “patient, motherly look” Mucho gives Oedipa during their final meeting makes her want “to hit him in the mouth” (99, emphasis added). But despite the knowledge she has gained about her world, Oedipa is unable to replace conventional feminine roles with anything else, anything meaningful. Knowledge leads her to isolation and comes at a paradoxical cost: while serving as an imperative to act it offers no effective way to do so alone. (Having failed to confront Tremaine over selling Nazi armbands, she thinks in self-accusation: “This is America, you live in it, you let it happen” ). While no longer wanting to be part of Pierce’s America, she has also found nothing else to be part of, no “real alternative to the exitlessness” (118), and therefore cannot see a way forward. The Tristero remains her only (menacing) hope because it stands for organized, potentially effective resistance to America. If it exists, it has an active politics, for better or for worse, whereas Oedipa’s politics, if she now has one, is a passive one wrought purely of despair. She wants, as Lois Tyson puts it, to “have a purpose in life yet eschews the responsibility of taking action” (115).
Throughout Bleeding Edge, Maxine’s response to the roles she is called on to play is markedly different from Oedipa’s (as one would expect in light of the vastly different gender politics of the two eras the novels are set in). If, as Cathy Davidson has noted, “the very pervasiveness [of the discouragements that Oedipa encounters] […] indicates how persistently Oedipa’s world conspires to keep her in her ‘place’” (41), then Maxine’s path in Bleeding Edge is much easier, for she meets far less resistance when she acts in ways that are stereotypically unfeminine: talking to Despard, she is “brusque,” which has “lost [her] some business. On the other hand, it weeds out the day-trippers” (9). She refuses to “help” Windust with his “self-esteem,” telling him to “try the self-help section at Politics & Prose—empathy, we’re all out of that today, the truck didn’t show up” (106). A taxi driver sees her Beretta and suggests she pay the “special rate for pis”—which she accepts without correcting him (148). Randy, realizing she’s armed, suggests she is not a “cop” or “dealer,” then speculates she might be an “insurance adjuster” or “one of these them crime-lab babes, like on TV,” and when Maxine tries to puts a stop to his flirting by saying “Randy, if I wasn’t so wired into office mode right now?” (187–88) he immediately drops the subject. Her friend Heidi asks Maxine whether she’s “expecting trouble” upon the return of Maxine’s ex-husband, Horst, to which Maxine replies, “Emotions, maybe” (288).
But it is important to note that the difference with Oedipa is twofold. On the one hand, Maxine is never dismissed simply for being a woman and does not need to assume the stereotypically female roles that Oedipa does when she “interviews” various men while on her quest. On the other, compared to Oedipa, Maxine (in addition to being on the whole assertive rather than hedging) crucially also appears much more self-aware regarding her roles; she is able to accept or reject them, often treating them ironically as set roles while performing their essence sincerely. So, for example, immediately after delivering her “Emotions, maybe” quip to Heidi, when Horst and the children return from their trip to the Midwest, she “kneels on the floor and holds the boys till everybody gets too embarrassed” (289). When Despard flirts with her during the AMBOPEDIA cruise, Maxine reacts by considering whether to be offended or not—and not “how much,” but “how little” (13). When Despard responds to her genuine attempt to warn him to be careful with a joke about the Bionic Woman’s Oscar Goldman, Maxine answers “He was a strong Jewish-mother role model for me” (143–44). With Driscoll she is “immediately [toggled] into Anxious Mom mode” (48). (Note, here, as elsewhere, the ironic capitalization.) Talking to March she refers to herself as the “Insensitive Daughter” (56). With Justin and Lucas, she keeps “finding herself […] slipping back and forth between Helpful Native and […] Jewish Mother” (72). Even when meeting Xiomara (Windust’s wife), “Jewish-mother defaults switch in” (441).
The key passage in thinking about this self-aware negotiation with feminine roles comes early on, when we are told that in the context of their relationship both Maxine and Heidi consider Maxine as some sort of anti-Rapunzel: “Maxine understood that she was not the Princess here. Heidi […] thought she was the Princess and furthermore has come over the years to believe that Maxine is the Princess’s slightly less attractive wacky sidekick. Whatever the story of the moment happens to be, Princess Heidrophobia is always the lead babe while Lady Maxipad is […] the practical elf who comes while the Princess is sleeping […] and gets the real work of the princessipality done” (25).
This leads to what I suggest is the central question Bleeding Edge comes to pose—namely, what is the nature of that “real work”? Because despite being a more willing and experienced investigator than Oedipa, Maxine, by the end of the novel, arrives more or less at the same point: nowhere. In a sense, her final position is even more despair inducing: while Oedipa only sees evidence of the nature of her world indirectly, in its margins, down among the preterites whose very existence and implications are so easy to ignore (which is, in fact, what Oedipa does, for the most part), Maxine is everywhere presented with direct, horrible proof of the nature of her world, in 9/11 itself and its repercussions, in Windust’s death (unlike Oedipa with respect to Driblette’s disappearance/suicide, Maxine gets to experience the horror of discovering Windust’s corpse), in her own terror at the thought that she is unable to protect her children, and finally, in the failure of the promise of DeepArcher and, by extension, the very idea of the Deep Web as a locus of resistance.2
DeepArcher, the Tristero, and Resistance
To an extent, DeepArcher functions as the Tristero equivalent in Bleeding Edge. Unlike the Tristero, it is unquestionably real, and its origins and goals are not a mystery, but similarly to the Tristero it initially serves as an alternative and antagonist to a commercialized, hypermonitored world, in this case, the world of the internet. It carries the potential for some kind of organized resistance to that world, thanks to a security feature that allows its users to move through the web “without leaving a trail” (37): “DeepArcher […] forgets where it’s been, immediately, forever” (78). The migration of more and more aspects of everyday life to the web is problematic, since, as Maxine’s father, Ernie, points out, what seems like freedom on it is “based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cellphones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable” (420).
This may seem rather too straightforward a rejection by a writer known for far more complex ironies, but it seems indeed to be a departure from Pynchon’s tendency to maintain a certain distance from such pronouncements by placing them in the mouths of characters whose views the narrative undercuts, for I read no glaring ironies in the portrayal of Ernie as a caring father and grandfather and perhaps relatively—healthily?—paranoid American leftist (although, as David Cowart has argued, “Ernie’s paranoia is ironically mirrored in the very medium he despises” [“Down,” par. 39]).3
Unfortunately, in line with what has been argued is Pynchon’s demonstration from novel to novel of how, historically, the space available for organized resistance becomes ever more limited as They seize ever more absolute control of media and the balance shifts from anonymity that serves the individual to anonymity that serves authority and that “hide[s] the origins of control” (Maragos par. 18), DeepArcher is doomed from the start. The true anonymity necessary for resistance in Pynchon’s works eventually proves impossible to maintain on the web, and the kind of anonymity offered in the compromised DeepArcher only increases the chances that anyone a user interacts with may be one of Them, not even alive, not even human, leading to isolation and negating any chance for organized resistance. While these interactions take place in a meatspace context, Maxine does in fact ask herself near the novel’s end, “Who of all those on her network really is trustworthy anymore?” (412, emphasis added).
DeepArcher itself becomes another node in the commercialized web, and though it may seem as if hope remains thanks to those few “going” looking for a new “border country, the edge of the unnavigable, the region of no information” (358), and the creation of spaces like Ziggy and Otis’s Zigotisopolis, these ventures are nothing more than temporary respites. Just like DeepArcher, the regions of no information will inevitably be subsumed into the “indexed world”, and, as Maxine knows, “the spiders and bots […] one day too soon will be coming for [Zigotisopolis]” (476).
Pynchon, I contend, signals the falseness of DeepArcher’s promise from the start in presenting us with a truer equivalent to the Tristero, namely, Marvin the kozmonaut: mysterious and serving unknown, truly anonymous, potentially malevolent interests, “some kind of otherworldly messenger, an angel even” (111) with “an uncanny history of always showing up with items Maxine knows she didn’t order but which prove each time to be exactly what she needs” (107). The religious register here is telling: it directly links Marvin with The Crying of Lot 49 and Jesús Arrabal’s “anarchist miracle”—“another world’s intrusion into this one” (83). It should also be juxtaposed with DeepArcher’s original conception by Justin and Lucas as “a virtual sanctuary,” because the religious register reached for with “sanctuary” is nullified by Deep-Archer’s being referred to in the very next sentence as a “grand-scale motel for the afflicted” (74). Despite agreeing with Thomas Schaub that Edward Mendelson’s reading of The Crying of Lot 49 is too straightforwardly optimistic (93), I suggest that Mendelson’s take on the Tristero as a “manifestation of the sacred” remains a relevant one here (135). In this context, it is clear why DeepArcher cannot succeed: being a “synthesis” of Justin’s desire “to go back in time, to a California that had never existed, safe, sunny all the time,” and Lucas’s search “for someplace […] a little darker” (74), DeepArcher is already, as Molly Hite has similarly argued about the effect of Oedipa’s efforts to historicize the Tristero, “assimilated to the historical continuum” of the novel’s world (79). (Nostalgia for a nonexistent past is very much a feature of this world, and one that distracts from, and limits contemplation of, resistance in the present.) Just like a historicized Tristero, DeepArcher is finally not “the sort of thing that can infuse ‘transcendent meaning’ into a sterile and banal world” (Hite 79–80), and its ultimate fate can be read as this banal world’s intrusion into (what only seemed like) another one.
From Maxine’s point of view, the failed promise of DeepArcher is potentially even more devastating than Oedipa’s inability to establish the existence of the Tristero. After all, Oedipa has been equally unable to establish its nonexistence, and if at least the idea of a Tristero can be maintained, the hope that there exists a “real alternative to the exitlessness” also can be. And yet, even if the realities of Bleeding Edge arguably end up being inescapable in a way that the radical uncertainties of The Crying of Lot 49 are not, Maxine and Bleeding Edge do not quite succumb to the politics of despair that haunt the ending of the earlier novel, and this refusal to succumb is intimately related to the way Maxine perceives her roles. It is this that allows her to maintain a sense of purpose in the face of the same exitlessness that overwhelms Oedipa—a sense of purpose that centers (mostly, though not exclusively) on her sons. This is surely why critics such as Konstantinou have spoken of Pynchon “mellow[ing] with late fatherhood” (170), though it is my contention that to do so is to miss the point.
Resistance, Family, Community
Maxine’s family does eventually come to play an important role in Bleeding Edge, as she gets back together with her ex-husband and finds herself thinking that “the only question it’s come down to is, where will Ziggy and Otis be protected from harm?” (412). It is however crucial to note that this does not signal a regression in terms of the novel’s gender politics, considering that Maxine is not acting as “wife” and “mother” but as partner and parent—in the face of the horror of 9/11 and its unfolding repercussions there is no room for ironic capitalizations or scare quotes. Indeed, in the post-9/11 part of Bleeding Edge, Maxine and Horst walk their sons to school, where Maxine “notices other sets of parents, some who haven’t spoken for years, showing up together to escort their children, regardless of age or latchkey status, safely to and from” (321); March and Tallis patch up their relationship (thanks in part to Maxine’s intervention), focusing on their common concern for Tallis’s son, Gabriel (469–76). Which, it could be argued, does all sound somewhat sentimental and perhaps not particularly political—another case of the “it’s Pynchon, Jim, but not as we know him” argument that has to an extent followed Pynchon since Vineland.
But this is not some retreat into the bosom of the nuclear family in the face of a terrifying world. For one, to Maxine’s “family” are added Driscoll and Eric, who move into the spare room—“It’s been happening all over the neighborhood,” we are told, “[r]efugees, prevented from entering their apartments in Lower Manhattan […] have been showing up at the doors of friends farther uptown” (332). We should read this taking in of refugees in conjunction with Horst talking about how on the morning of September 11, he and his friend Jake “notice people out the window, heading for the water, figure it might be a good idea to join them. Tugboats, ferries, private boats, pulling in, taking people out from the yacht basin, all on their own, amazing coordination of effort, ‘I don’t think anybody was in charge, they just came in and did it’” (320), as well as March’s editorializing: “Maybe it’s unbeatable, maybe there are ways to fight back. What it may require is a dedicated cadre of warriors willing to sacrifice time, income, personal safety, a brother/sisterhood consecrated to an uncertain struggle that may extend over generations and, despite all, end in total defeat” (399).
What is important to note here is not just the references to neighbors, friends, and refugees, pointing away from isolation and toward community, but the fact that in March’s editorial the register shifts to that of family and religion: “sacrifice,” “brother/sisterhood,” “consecrated.” March’s politics—the need to “fight back,” the possibility of it all ending, as it did for Oedipa, in “defeat”—is extended into an argument for establishing loci of at least persistence, for holding on to the hope that subsequent generations will attempt to stand up against their day.
Justin St. Clair notes that “[t]here is little debating conservatism’s conceptual claim on the nuclear family, but a narrative effort to rebrand the institution may well be Pynchon’s last political stand,” although he likewise detects a “sentimentality” in late Pynchon (“Rereading,” par. 10). That Pynchon has made a turn is undoubtedly true, but what needs to be stressed is precisely the wide-reaching politics of this turn: in rejecting the social determinations that modern conservatives associate with the nuclear family while reaffirming its core of altruistic love and sacrifice, Pynchon is able, contra our day’s “there’s-no-such-thing-as-society” tendencies, to establish family as a viable model for community; this is repeatedly demonstrated by Maxine’s tendency to ironize phrases like “Jewish Mother” while simultaneously enacting the very attributes these stock roles have been built around, and not only with her actual family.
Joanna Freer has suggested that “Pynchon’s early novels express a Beat or ‘post-Beat’ sensibility in proposing that freedom and spiritual meaningfulness may be gained” by, among other things, “association with communities of exiles” (34). The idea that spiritual meaningfulness can be found in communities is, however, just as present in Pynchon’s later work; this is precisely what March’s editorial is arguing for and what Maxine demonstrates in choosing the roles she adopts.
Choosing a Politics beyond Anger
Near the end of Bleeding Edge, Ernie talks about how he spent Maxine’s childhood waiting for her to “turn as cold” as the adults around her and “praying” (that religious register again) that she wouldn’t, how she remained so “angry” over “crimes” that Ernie had “hardened [his] heart against years ago,” and how all he could tell her in response was “you don’t have to be like them, you can be better” (421–22). Maxine responds by acknowledging she is in a similar position with regard to her sons, fearing that if they “start caring too much […] this world […] could destroy them” (422).
This is crucial in considering the importance of community-as-family in providing resistance with a purpose. The transition from the child’s anger to the adult’s hardened heart appears to be an insurmountable problem when it comes to resistance. At best, it seems, what can be hoped for is that the idea of being “better” will be passed on to the members of the next generation, who in turn will grow out of their anger and come to worry about their own children being “better,” and so on—the sense of resignation this suggests is not too far off from Oedipa’s despair (note how it implies a belief that the world will continue as is, generation after generation). Yet this is not the case with Maxine; while she claims she worries about her sons caring “too much,” this arguably proves to be what she, motivated by considerations that prove superior to anger, continues to do: she does not give up on her investigation even when she starts suspecting it may be putting her family in danger (411–16); she does not succumb to despair when her investigation comes to nothing; she does not allow her heart to harden in self-protection.
In his foreword to Nineteen Eighty-Four, Pynchon writes that
Orwell was amused at those of his colleagues on the Left who lived in terror of being termed bourgeois. But somewhere among his own terrors may have lurked the possibility that […] he might one day lose his political anger, and end up as one more apologist for Things As They Are. His anger, let us go so far as to say, was precious to him. He had lived his way into it […] he had invested blood, pain and hard labor to earn [it], and was as attached to it as any capitalist to his capital. (xix, emphasis added)4
Orwell is holding him gently with both hands, smiling too, pleased, but not smugly so—it is more complex than that, as if he has discovered something that might be worth even more than anger […]. [Orwell] was impatient with predictions of the inevitable, he remained confident in the ability of ordinary people to change anything, if they would. It is the boy’s smile, in any case, that we return to, direct and radiant, proceeding out of an unhesitating faith that the world, at the end of the day, is good and that human decency, like parental love, can always be taken for granted—a faith so honourable that we can almost imagine Orwell, and perhaps even ourselves, for a moment anyway, swearing to do whatever must be done to keep it from ever being betrayed. (xxv–xxvi, emphasis added)
This passage links the ideas of parental love, community, faith, human decency, and the protection of the weak and innocent into a politics beyond mere anger—and it is this that gives resistance its spiritual meaningfulness in Bleeding Edge. It is in fact precisely these elements that combine to bring forth Oedipa’s one act of attempted resistance in The Crying of Lot 49.
The reason Oedipa is unable to act is suggested near the beginning of the novel, when we learn about her bursting into tears upon seeing Remedio Varo’s Bordando el manto terrestre, in which the maidens in the tower are embroidering the tapestry that makes the world in which the tower exists: Oedipa is trapped in a “mental prison of binary oppositions” (Tanner 86), demonstrated by the many, many times in which her thoughts about Pierce’s estate and the possibility that the Tristero exists assume an either/or shape, despite her having “heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided” (125). The culmination of this entrapment comes near the end of The Crying of Lot 49, when Oedipa lists the famous “symmetrical four” (118) alternative explanations of what is happening to her: “Either you have stumbled indeed […] onto a real alternative to the exitlessness. […] Or you are hallucinating it. Or a plot has been mounted against you. […] Or you are fantasying some such plot” (117–18). Oedipa is stuck in a loop. She can’t, or won’t, admit that she lives in a world that is in part of her own making and that the only identity she can legitimately lay claim to will necessarily come both from within and in opposition to that world, a possibility she contemplates but steps back from near the end of the novel: trying to “face towards the sea” (122), which she earlier believed in “as redemption for Southern California (not, of course, for her own section of the state, which seemed to need none)” (37), and having “lost her bearings,” she turns around and finds “no mountains either. As if there could be no barriers between herself and the rest of the land” (122).
The significance of the Varo painting and Oedipa’s misreading of it has been widely addressed. Cowart argues that Oedipa sees herself as “locked in a tower […] in which she must embroider or spin out a world she finds uncongenial. […] [S]he will later hesitate to ‘project a world,’ because the projectionist, like the embroiderer, produces not reality but illusion” (Thomas Pynchon 24, 26). Cowart, however, correctly points out that if all reality is embroidered so is the tower (27) and that “[w]hat Oedipa does not perceive is that embroidering, which we all do, is not necessarily bad. […] The question is only how freely we do it. Are we forced, unawares, to weave or embroider some approved version of reality?” (28–29). In addition, and in yet another demonstration of her internalized assumptions about her world, Oedipa “does not examine the Varo painting fully, but interprets it in terms of the dominant ideology,” in which “women equal frail maidens, trapped by ‘outside’ forces. [ …] She does not see […] that the women in Varo’s portrait do not fit this stereotype. […] [T]he girls in Varo’s portrait create the world. Everything that exists is there because they have, in their godlike capacity, made it” (Miller 50).
And yet despite her “misreading” of the painting, despite her paralyzed vacillation between mutually exclusive explanations, there is one instance when Oedipa overcomes either/ors and briefly acts before succumbing again to despair. While wandering in San Francisco after her meeting with Nefastis, she comes across a circle
of children […] who told her they were dreaming the gathering. But that the dream was really no different from being awake, because in the mornings when they got up they felt tired, as if they’d been up most of the night. […] The night was empty of all terror for them, they had inside their circles an imaginary fire, and needed nothing but their own unpenetrated sense of community. […] [They] [w]ent on warming their hands at an invisible fire. Oedipa, to retaliate, stopped believing in them. (81–82, emphasis added)
This “as if,” this “imaginary fire” around which the “sense of community” is sustained, is the one possible solution that, as Tyson has suggested, Oedipa never considers: to treat the Tristero as the antagonist that must exist even if it is not specifically real, the antagonist that is neither an “organized, underground resistance rooted in the underclass” nor her own hallucination (89). “Shall I project a world?” Oedipa asks (60). So are these our only—mutually exclusive—options? Either we solipsistically project a world or are the world’s projections? Varo’s painting has already exposed the lie in this dichotomy: we collectively make the world that makes us. The children’s “imaginary fire” appears to be Pynchon’s way of suggesting that Oedipa should abandon epistemological certainty and act “as if” in order to create the community based on human decency she has been searching for.5
Which, despite dismissing the children, is exactly what she does a few pages later, when she comes across the old sailor: she “sat, took the man in her arms, actually held him, gazing out of her smudged eyes down the stairs. […] She felt wetness against her breasts and saw that he was crying. […] ‘I can’t help,’ she whispered, rocking him. […] She let go of him for a moment, reluctant as if he were her own child” (87, emphasis added).
The scene “resembles a slum Pietá” according to Catharine Stimpson, who argues that Oedipa “releases a suppressed capacity for maternal tenderness. Psychological motherhood marks her moral growth” (43). Oedipa’s “mothering” of the old alcoholic sailor is the closest Oedipa comes to resembling Maxine in choosing to adopt a role that may be superficially similar to the socially appropriate roles she is rejecting but that (motivated by the same kind of “parental” love that motivates Maxine) reaches beyond them, into a compassion that is essentially transcendent.
Following this is the one instant in which Oedipa acts as if the Tristero is real: she finds a WASTE mailbox and mails the sailor’s letter to his wife. Davidson has noted the importance of this moment: if the Tristero is real, then Oedipa has “participated in it”; if not, she has “nevertheless functioned as part of an alternative network” (47), bringing “to an end her encapsulation in her tower” (29).
And yet having acted, Oedipa succumbs again to uncertainty, attempting to follow the carrier who picks up the mail only for him to lead her back to Nefastis’s house. She sleeps through the night and has “no dreams to speak of” (91, cf. the children), then returns to Kinneret, thinking that “she had verified a WASTE system. […] Yet she wanted it all to be a fantasy” (91). For the remainder of the novel she will return to her either/ors and the despair they give rise to. In a sense she will go even further, resisting/rejecting motherhood altogether: told by a doctor that she might be pregnant she gives her name as “Grace Bortz” and doesn’t “show up for her next appointment” (118).6 This rejection is telling in light of George Levine’s suggestion that Oedipa is “feeling […] the possibilities of despair, and the further possibility that despair is a way to avoid the responsibilities of caring” (125) because it is precisely the acceptance of these responsibilities—of motherhood and “motherhood”—that saves Maxine from despair at the end of Bleeding Edge. A rejection of gendered roles, as Maxine understands but Oedipa seems to fail to, need not lead to the refusal to play any role that would resemble them or a refusal to be motivated by the attributes these roles have been built around (in the same way that refusing to “embroider” the “approved version of reality” does not mean one should refrain from attempting to “embroider” a different one). Roles need not only be functions being forced on one; they can also be functions chosen freely, as one participates in a human community; they are what create and maintain community. (A small, final point: “motherhood” in this wider sense of accepting the responsibilities of caring is not just a “feminine” quality, at least according to Ernie, who mocks the notion, saying, with “palms raised to heaven”—once again, the shift to a religious register in the guise of Ernie being ironic—“always the mother’s heart. […] [N]obody ever asks about a father, no, fathers don’t have hearts” .)
This is Oedipa’s great lost opportunity—the way she almost comes to see how the children’s “imaginary fire” represents a potential solution to her dilemmas and, for a moment only, alas, spontaneously participates in a community that is no less real for having been imagined. It is this rejected attempt at participation that allows us to read Maxine as a version of Oedipa who has moved beyond the mistakes of the past.
1. These similarities are reinforced by a number of direct nods to the earlier book in the text of Bleeding Edge. To list just a few: Maxine is introduced taking her children to school, in an echo of Tupperware-party-attending Oedipa’s conventionality at the beginning of The Crying of Lot 49, though, crucially, the reader is immediately told that Maxine does this because “she enjoys it” (1). Pynchon directly references the infamous Tupperware party when Maxine responds to Stu Gotz’s suggestion that she audition for a job as stripper the following Tuesday by quipping “Tuesday’s my Tupperware party” (219–20). The “philatelic zealotry” of an attendee of the “AMBOPEDIA Frolix ’98” cruise means he “must have them all, hunters’ and collectors’ versions, artist-signed, remarques, varieties, freaks and errors, governors’ editions” (14), which is surely a reference to the Tristero forgeries of conventional stamps in The Crying of Lot 49. Maxine notices the association seal on her decertification letter and ponders whether it contains any kind of hidden meaning, only to conclude “That’s it! Secret anarchist code messages!” (18). Justin and Lucas introduce their creation, the virtual environment DeepArcher, as the evolution of an “anonymous remailer” (78), in a clear echo of the manner in which the Tristero (supposedly) functions as an alternative postal system, while it is also worth noting that the specially marked waste bins used as mailboxes by the Tristero are echoed by the Deep Web’s being “mostly obsolete sites and broken links, an endless junkyard,” “[a] dump, with structure” (226).
2. When late in the novel Oedipa considers once more the possibility that the Tristero might be real, she realizes that “she might have found [it] anywhere in her Republic […] if only she’d looked” (136). As Molly Hite suggests, the novel is “not only the story of Oedipa’s quest but the story of what Oedipa misses or discounts because she is on a quest” (80).
3. It should also be noted that Ernie is echoing Pynchon himself, who elsewhere deems the web to be “a development that promises social control on a scale those acquainted with twentieth-century tyrants with their goofy moustaches could only dream about,” which is as unequivocal a condemnation as could be (foreword xvii).
4. Pynchon has previously referred to both the significance of political anger and the fear that it cannot last using the exact same formulation, when in Vineland he has Frenesi’s father, Hub, tell his daughter how he eventually made his “shameful peace,” “went over” and “sold off [his] only real fortune,” his “precious anger” (291).
5. Catharine R. Stimpson has suggested that though “[f]ew children appear in Pynchon’s early fiction, […] when they do, their presence signals the possibility of grace” (35). In this context, it is worth considering this “circle of children” next to the attempt at the creation of a “sense of community” by the children of “The Secret Integration,” which fails when it is penetrated by the adult world of their parents.
6. Emma Miller has argued that Oedipa’s giving her name as Grace indicates “she is pregnant with divine grace.” The publication of Bleeding Edge adds another layer of potential significance to Oedipa’s choice of name: since one of the daughters of the Bortzes, mentioned but never seen in The Crying of Lot 49, is also called Maxine (102–3), Oedipa can in a sense be read as Maxine’s “mother.” Though I hesitate to make too much of this, given the importance that naming has in Pynchon I am equally loath to dismiss it as merely a coincidence.
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