When reading Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” one is flooded with a deluge of historical references (dates, places, events) and, unless a historical genius, probably feels confused as to the historical accuracy of such references. As critics have shown, Pynchon blends factual history with fiction and manages, as David Seed writes in “The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon,” to “juxtapose(s) historical references with reminders of the novel’s status as artefact so that the reader’s sense of history and of fiction are brought into maximum confrontation” (128). Pynchon, for example, in “Lot 49” speaks at length about Maxwell’s Demon, a machine proposed in 1871 by physicist James Clerk Maxwell which, theoretically, could defy the Second Law of Thermodynamics by producing energy in a system without putting any energy into that system. Although the basic idea of the machine provides a neat metaphor for Oedipa’s own project, ironically it is the historical event that Pynchon chooses not to reference that truly illuminates Oedipa’s quest. This “unnamed historical reference” is the fact that Maxwell’s Demon, and the way it operated, was eventually shown to be a fraud. The scientific explanation for why Maxwell’s Demon doesn’t work parallels and adumbrates Oedipa’s own inability to sort through and make sense of the information she is given.
On a surface level, Maxwell’s Demon and Oedipa share, metaphorically, similar projects. As Pynchon explains, “The Demon could sit in a box among air molecules that were moving at all different random speeds, and sort out the fast molecules from the slow ones” (68). Oedipa, similarly, is forced to “sort” the various clues she’s given concerning Iverarity’s estate, Trystero and W.A.S.T.E. Pynchon repeatedly uses the image of “sorting” or “shuffling” to describe Oedipa’s project. At the beginning of the novel we learn that she has been given the job of “sorting it (Pierce’s estate) all out” (1) which she attempts to accomplish by “shuffling back through a fat deckful of days” (2). The Demon sorts molecules and thus gains information about them, which in turns allows it to create order among chaos. Oedipa, similarly, seeks to act as a “dark machine in the center of the planetarium, to bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning” (64) (Mangel 90: 1971). The comparison couldn’t be more obvious; Oedipa as “machine,” “sorting” clues, gaining information, discovering patterns and order and, ultimately, a “Meaning.”
This metaphoric parallel becomes weak, however, when we realize that as Oedipa probes deeper into the issues, “other revelations…seemed to come crowding in exponentially, as if the more she collected the more would come to her,”(64). Oedipa becomes unable to accurately mimic Maxwell’s Demon; she simply cannot sort through all of the clues, nor can she place the “truthful” ones on one side and the “false” ones on the other. This inability stems not only from the copious amount of information she receives but the ultimately unknowable (and, as we shall see, distorted) nature of such “clues;” Oedipa can never truly know if a clue is “true” or “false.” Nonetheless, the other side of Maxwell’s Demon, the side Pynchon chooses not to explicitly elaborate, is the fact that, like Oedipa, Maxwell’s Demon was also never able to accomplish it’s task of “sorting”. Two physicists, Leo Szilarad and Leon Brillouin, have shown that Maxwell’s Demon was pure fiction. Szilarad wrote that, “any action resulting in a decrease in the entropy of a system must be preceded by an operation of acquiring information, which in turn is coupled with the production of an equal or greater amount of entropy” (Mangel 91: 1971). Brillouin echoed such thoughts, writing that “an intelligent being…has to cause an increase of entropy before it can effect a reduction by a smaller amount,” an increase which is caused by the “process of perception” which determines which molecules are faster or slower than others (Mangel 91: 1971). Entropy, in short, is the amount of disorder in a given system. Thus in layman’s terms, Maxwell’s Demon can never work because the amount of entropy which you need to accurately “perceive” and “sort” the molecules will always be greater than the amount of entropy you reduce in sorting such molecules.
Thus the way in which Maxwell’s Demon is dysfunctional is metaphorically akin to the manner in which Oedipa comes to be dysfunctional, in two primary ways. First, as was mentioned earlier, Oedipa, as the novel progresses, is bombarded with information, clues and signals. One clue leads to another that leads to a hundred more; the amount always building “exponentially” in a variety of different directions. Pynchon tells us, “This night’s profusion of post horns, this malignant, deliberate replication, was their way of beating up. They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her” (101). The image of “immobilization” reinforces the idea that the more information you gain about a system (i.e. the Trystero) and the way in which it can be ordered and systematized, the more disorder you actually produce, and hence, the more immobilized and helpless you feel. In “gaining information” about the Trystero/estate/ W.A.S.T.E., Oedipa ostensibly effects a “decrease in entropy” (or, an increase in order), but in the end, such information only causes Oedipa, like Maxwell’s Demon would, to produce “an equal or greater amount of entropy” (or, an increase in Oedipa’s own confusion).
Oedipa’s own worries and concerns also reflect her metaphorical relation to the dysfunctional nature of Maxwell’s Demon. She begins, for example, to believe that “she might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold; which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly” (76). She senses the impossibility of her task, the paradox of it, the fact that the more she knows, the more she becomes confused, the more she tries to order, the more disorder there is, the more the “message” destroy itself “irreversibly.” Note moreover that entropy, or disorder, increases not only for Oedipa the “investigator” but for Oedipa the “sane human being” as well. She begins to lose the ability not merely to “sort” clues, but to “sort the…real and dreamed” (95). Again, as information mounts which should lead to order (i.e. Oedipa figuring out the meaning of the Trystero and returning home), it results instead in increased disorder (Oedipa going mildly insane).
The second way in which Oedipa’s experience mimics the dysfunctional nature of Maxwell’s Demon is seen in the fact that as the novel progresses, and the information which Oedipa receives builds, the words and symbols used to convey such information often become distorted and lose their ability to effectively transmit meaning. For example, consider the word “Trystero.” Oedipa first hears it during the performance of “The Courier’s Tragedy,” “No hallowed skein of stars can word, I trow/Who’s once been set his tryst with Trystero” (58). But when she seeks out the textual version (s) of the play she finds a variety of different words that have taken “Trystero’s” place. In one version it becomes, “No hallowed skein of stars can ward, I trow/Who once has crossed the lusts of Angelo” (81) while in another, “No hallowed skein of stars can ward, I trow/This tryst or odious awry, O Niccolo” (116). Even later she comes up a group of girls skipping rope and singing “Tristoe, Tristoe, one, two, three, Turning taxi from across the sea” (96). Thus Trystero exists simultaneous as “tristoe,” “Angelo” and “O Niccolo.” As Oedipa gets more clues as to what the “Trystero” is, or where that word should appear, as more “information” enters her “system,” we find that such information is often distorted. So, instead of decreasing entropy, this distorted information only increases disorder, and, in turn, creates that much more work for Oedipa in following up on each “distortion.”
In the same way, the muted horn symbol comes to be associated with a variety of different peoples and meanings. It originally appears next to the letters W.A.S.T.E., but is later seen with the acronym “D.E.A.T.H.” (98) as well as with Alameda County Death Cult (ACDC) (99). The image is everywhere, “saturating the Bay Area” (107). As the critic Anne Mangel put it, “Such symbols continually seduce by suggesting information and meaning, yet they never reveal it. As codes and signals actually work to destroy information, they begin to emerge as something sinister” (97). That which is sinister, of course, is an increase in disorder, in entropy. The muted horn symbol, like the word “Trystero,” functions as a form of “distorted information.” Put simply, as Oedipa receives more and more clues, such clues often become slightly distorted or changed. Such changes, in turn, prevent Oedipa from being able to accurately “sort” them. That is, she is unable to gain the information, because of the distortion, that she needs in order to accurately sort them. The energy she expends on trying to “perceive” these various distorted clues outweighs the potential order or knowledge she can gain, which in turn, leads only to more disorder.
In conclusion, “Lot 49” is a book, as was pointed out in section, filled with “red herrings” and must be thought of as a giant “red herring” itself. I wouldn’t dispute such an argument, but would seek to point out that the way in which Maxwell’s Demon is dysfunctional parallels the way in which Oedipa is unable to “work.” More importantly, however, the metaphor of the dysfunctional Demon applies to us as readers when we fail to realize, as was said, that “Lot 49” is one big “red herring.” That is, when we as readers choose one “red herring” as the ultimate meaning for “Lot 49” we begin to become dysfunctional in relation to the text, just as Maxwell’s Demon does, and instead of finding order and meaning in the text serve only to increase our own disorder and misunderstanding.
Mangel, Anne “Maxwell’s Demon, Entropy, Information: The Crying of Lot 49” in Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, 1976: Boston.
Seed, David The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon 1988: Iowa City.