When reading Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" one is flooded with a deluge of historical references (dates, places, events) and, unless a historical genius, probably feels confused as to the historical accuracy of such references.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with fiction and manages, as David Seed writes in "The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon," to "juxtapose(s) historical references with reminders of the novel's status as artefact so that the reader's sense of history and of fiction are brought into maximum confrontation" (128).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 This "unnamed historical reference" is the fact that Maxwell's Demon, and the way it operated, was eventually shown to be a fraud.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 ...
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... 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.
Works Cited and Consulted
Dugdale, John. Thomas Pynchon: Allusive Parables of Power. New York: St.Martin, 1990
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.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying Of Lot 49. New York: Harper & Row, 1966
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