Existential Subjectivity on Trial: The Crying of Lot 49 and the Politics of Despair



Can existential subjectivity still constitute itself once the individual and the socius are symbiotically dissolved in the self-emptying commodity-signs of which contemporary American culture consists? This is the question posed by Thomas Pynchon's second novel, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). Protagonist Oedipa Maas, as her name implies, is on the Lacanian Oedipal cusp between the Imaginary and Symbolic Orders. Upon leaving Kinneret-Among-the-Pines, California–where she has lived a one-dimensional life of Tupperware and fondue parties with her husband, Wendell "Mucho" Maas–she leaves behind the flat but stable referents that have defined her existence, and now she must find her way in a new and frightening semiotic domain. In San Narciso, where she goes to execute the will of her former lover, corporate entrepreneur Pierce Inverarity, and later in San Francisco, where she spends the night wandering alone, her experiences echo Kerouac's On the Road, with a twist: the America she discovers has become a proliferation of self-emptying commodity-signs circulating in an endless profusion that anticipates Jean Baudrillard's notion of simulacra and Umberto Eco's concept of the hyperreal. These signs–which sell themselves as fetishized abstractions, as non-threatening substitutes for, and thus protection against, existential experience–are cultural productions, and the novel is organized around Oedipa's desperate attempt to decipher them, not only so she can know the culture in which she lives, but so she can reconstitute her own selfhood. For in Lot 49, the collective escape from existential subjectivity is a cultural fait accompli, and, in the person of Oedipa Maas, the possibility of its reconstruction is put on trial.


How to Cite: Tyson, L. (1991) “Existential Subjectivity on Trial: The Crying of Lot 49 and the Politics of Despair”, Pynchon Notes.(0). doi: