Disorder and Misunderstanding The Crying of Lot 49
When reading Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" one is flooded with a deluge of historical references (dates, places, events) and, unless a historical genius, probably feels confused as to the historical accuracy of such references.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with fiction and manages, as David Seed writes in "The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon," to "juxtapose(s) historical references with reminders of the novel's status as artefact so that the reader's sense of history and of fiction are brought into maximum confrontation" (128).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 This "unnamed historical reference" is the fact that Maxwell's Demon, and the way it operated, was eventually shown to be a fraud.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...