The Embroidery of Paranoia:

A Structural Analysis of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49

by Robert Russell 


The conversation regarding a novel’s form and its content has long been a point of contention among literary scholars. While some assert that the value of a novel derives from the way it is written, others contend it is the content, the story itself, that creates value and significance. Others even claim that it is both, that there is a symbiotic relationship between form and content, that the two opposing and seemingly incongruous arms of the text are inexplicably bound, sutured together into a great woven tapestry that is the work of literature. Regarding Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 novel The Crying of Lot 49, it is the latter of these opinions that applies most. As the protagonist Oedipa Maas begins to fall down a rabbit-hole of conundrums, uncanny coincidences, experiences, and details that allude to a grand conspiracy, some hidden power that threatens to dismantle reality as she knows it–she understandably grows increasingly paranoid. However, while it would appear that the events within the novel, elements that comprise the novel’s content, are solely at fault for instilling such a sense of paranoia, it is the structure of the novel, the novel’s form itself, that is more culpable in fomenting such a magnitude of suspicion. The trajectory of Oedipa’s paranoia directly correlates to the structure of the novel which in turn reflects the growing sense of disquiet and anxiety, that not only are there multiple levels of perception, but within these levels there are untouchable forces and even ones that reside in the space between text and reader.

            It begins with Oedipa’s encounter with Spanish painter Remedios Varo’s famous painting Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle during a vacation with Pierce Inverarity, an event that precedes the events of the novel. The painting is important as it depicts the various levels of perception that comprise the structure of the novel, and which, in turn, foment Oedipa’s growing sense of paranoia. In Varo’s painting there are three levels of perception: the first level is the setting below the tower, the earth itself; the second level is the tapestry sewn by the maidens that unfurls from the tower and creates the first level; and the third level is the two masked, hooded priests who loom authoritatively over the maidens, facilitating the creation of the second level. The first level is the “reality as we know it;” the life that Oedipa perceives and understands, all that exists to her and for her, the life that she knows and in which she exists. The second level is what exists behind the façade of daily life, what Oedipa begins to catch glimpses of as she falls farther and farther down the rabbit-hole; it is the level that “pull the strings,” the “scientist controlling the simulation,” the simulation being the first level, “reality as we know it.” The second level is the conspiratorial connection between Tristero and Thurn-and-Taxis, each post horn that Oedipa finds reinforcing the eerie existence of these higher powers. The third level is the power that exists beyond the conspiratorial powers that seemingly control “reality as we know it”; it is the allusion (or rather illusion) that there is a force beyond those perceived to be in control, an ultimate puppeteer, one who controls the controller of reality, in other words, the scientist of the scientist controlling the simulation. Each of these levels is captured within the structure of the novel, and the growing recognition of each level tracks the trajectory of Oedipa’s growing paranoia.

            Oedipa’s paranoia precedes becoming executor, or rather “supposed executrix,” to Pierce Inverarity’s estate. In detailing her previous relationship with Inverarity, for whom Rapunzel-like she had “happily pulled out the pins and curlers and down [her hair] tumbled in its whispering, dainty avalanche” (Pynchon 10-11), there is a tinge of romantic whimsy in her description, a tone doubtless the result of an innate fantastical tendency, perhaps even an existential sense of grandeur that romanticizes fate and the understanding of life. However, this preconception is inevitably disrupted when confronts Remedios Varo’s famous painting:

“Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried…She had looked down at her feet and known…that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there’d been no escape. What did she so desire escape from?” (Pynchon 11).

Standing before the painting, Oedipa’s fantastical, fairy-tale dream that her life is more than it seems is severed and abruptly replaced with the fatalistic conception that she is indeed not in control of her life, that any semblance of control she feels she has is coincidental. However, this sense of suspicion, the inklings of paranoia, have existed within Oedipa; the painting only foments such a revelation, exhuming these ideas out from the depths of her psyche and bringing them into fruition. Standing before the painting, Oedipa becomes aware that she is not one of the maidens spooling the tapestry, in control of herself, her actions, and the trajectory of her own life, but rather she is one of the insignificant, ineffectual, unseen inhabitants of the tapestry itself, existing only in the first level of reality. The fairy-tale vision of her life, her desired role of Rapunzel, is shattered as she “realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental; that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all” (Pynchon 11-12). What she deems “magic,” as the story unfolds, is revealed to be something much more sinister and existentially disquieting.

            One early instance wherein Oedipa begins to catch glimpses of the second level is when Oedipa receives a curious letter in the mail:

“At first she didn’t see. It was an ordinary Muchoesque envelope, swiped from the station, ordinary airmail stamp, to the left of the cancellation a blurb put on by the government, REPORT ALL OBSCENE MAIL TO YOUR POTSMASTER” (Pynchon 33).

Regardless whether it is an accidental misspelling of “postmaster” or an intentional spelling, the notice sends Oedipa in a state of puzzlement, which her lawyer Metzger indifferently dismisses as an accident: “So they make misprints…let them” (Pynchon 33). But such an odd occurrence sticks with Oedipa, and soon she begins discovering more uncanny clues, such as the post horn, that begin to add up and overcome any notion of coincidence. When Mike Fallopian at The Scope relays the entire back story of The Peter Pinguid Society and his connection with the underground mail system WASTE, suddenly Oedipa’s understanding of her life, the reality “as she knows it,” is ruptured and “so [begins], for Oedipa, the languid, sinister blooming of The Tristero” (Pynchon 39-40). In her unrelenting attempt to reclaim a sense of agency and regain control over her own life, Oedipa stumbles further into an investigation, finding clues that reveal the holes in the fabric of reality, through which she is able to peek into the controlling forces beyond. Oedipa is penetrating the first level and catching sight of the second which only further increases her sense of paranoia.

            Soon Oedipa has crossed a threshold that she cannot reverse; she cannot unsee this second level of reality, the forces that lie beyond the quotidian veil of life. The first level, “reality as she knows it,” has become a projection. Pynchon writes,

“Though she saw Mike Fallopian again…these follow-ups were no more disquieting than other revelations which now seemed to come crowding in exponentially, as if the more she collected the more would come to her, until everything she saw, smelled, dreamed, remembered, would somehow come to be woven into The Tristero” (Pynchon 64).

Oedipa’s perception of life, of reality, has become tinged, stained, irrevocably affected by this conspiracy, this exposure to something else that lurks within the shadows, in the undefinable spaces between free will and fate. Reality has taken on a new meaning, and in this recognition Oedipa comes to believe that everything is a projection: “Under the symbol she’d copied off the latrine wall of The Scope into her memo book, she wrote Shall I project a world? (Pynchon 64). The term “project” encapsulates the contradictory nature of the revelatory reality within which Oedipa finds herself: a projection is a creation, something made visible by an imposing force; however, a projection can also be a delusion, something feigned, fabricated, emitted into existence from one’s imagination. The contradictory definitions reveal the deconstructive nature of perception. Like Lenore Beadsman of David Foster Wallace’s 1987 novel The Broom of the System who increasingly comes to believe she is a fictional character in a novel whose sense of agency and free will is tethered to the will of an authorial power, Oedipa succumbs to the sense that the impending forces, the puppeteers of the second level, not only control her reality, but her fate as well. The fabric of her reality is sewn by those who occupy this second level. They are the scientists who control the simulation that is her life; they are the maidens in Varo’s tower sewing the tapestry of reality.

            However, alluded to in the text, or rather in its textuality, is the notion that there is yet another level of perception, a third level that adds another dimension to the text itself. There is a fracture within the text as a whole that introduces the premise that the entire text, with its double levels of reality, is indeed a fabrication, an invention by an objective, third power, a scientist above the scientist who controls the simulation. The fracture in the text occurs only once, and it comes in the form of a misspelling. In chapter five, Oedipa makes a trip to Berkley (and just so happens to stay at a hotel in “a room with a reproduction of a Remedios Varo in it” [Pynchon 81]) and in detailing the journey, the text unfolds as such:

“The girl in the English office informed Oedipa that Professor Bortz was no longer with the faculty. He was teaching at San Narciso College, San Narciso, California. Of course, Odeipa thought, wry, where else?” (Pynchon 82).

This misspelling of Oedipa’s name opens the door to a third level of reality, one beyond all that Oedipa experiences, both in “reality as she knows it” as well as the second level that she catches glimpses of, the one that seemingly controls her own life and reality. The misspelling does not occur in the story; it is not like moment when Oedipa reads the misspelling POTSMASTER on the letter; the misspelling also does not occur outside of the text, a mistake on Pynchon’s part, otherwise it surely would have been corrected at some point in the five decades that the novel has been in publication. The misspelling is a glitch in a simulation; it announces a third level situated above the lower two, a level that houses the scientist of the scientist who controls the simulation. It is a moment that calls to mind Derridean deconstruction in that the structures that hold the text together, the sutures that bind the form and content of the novel, fall apart, unravel, unfurl. Like priests that looms authoritatively above the maidens who spin the threads of reality in Varo’s painting, this tiny instance alludes to a grander figure. However, unlike the authoritative priests who are visible, this third-level grander figure is hidden behind the text, in the space between text and author, only seen in this brief moment of a structural fracture, a simple misspelling of Oedipa’s name.

            The relationship between form and content, which comprises the structural integrity of the novel, is thrust into uncertainty with this one tiny moment. Who is it behind the curtain that not only may control Oedipa’s reality and has power of her own sense of agency and fate, but who is it behind an even larger curtain who has the power to misspell Oedipa’s name in the first place? This one misspelling sends the entire text into question, and raises the possibility that everything is a fabrication, that everything is a projection, including the very acts of writing and reading. Writing, the act, is both creation and fabrication, an act of design and delusion, construction and deconstruction. Also, reading, the act, is both creation and fabrication; a reader “projects a world” when he reads, envisaging scenes, action, movement, all within his head, “creating” a world that is only real between the pages of a book and his mind, a “fabrication” of imagination. These dimensions of reading and writing reflect the ambiguity that inherently lies in the understanding of life, of reality, of everything. The reader and the writer are Oedipa.

            Anything, whether it a novel or a painting, that creates a sense that things are not as they are, that “reality as we know it” is indeed not “as we know it,” and that there are powers beyond the veil of reality that control reality and the fate of individuals, is incredibly paranoia-inducing to say the least. The idea that reality is a tapestry pervades the lines of the novel, evidenced from the repetition of words like “woven” to the images first introduced by Remedios Varo’s Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle. From the moment Oedipa stands before the painting to the last moment when she stands before the auctioneer who, “on his podium, hovered like a puppet-master…[who] spread his arms in a gesture that seemed to belong to the priesthood” (Pynchon 152). The novel itself not only contests literary conventions and the familiar trajectory of a story, but it also thwarts certainty, dismantles stability, and throttles any shred of certitude. It is a text that brings all texts into question and forces the reader, like Oedipa Maas, to ponder the forces beyond.

Work Cited 

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49, First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition, 2006.