CLASSICAL AND POPULAR MUSIC IN 'THE CRYING OF LOT 49'
Thomas Pynchon is known for his complex storylines and weird characters. For this reason it is not easy to comment on the use of music in his novels as it is the very complexity of his plots that obscure the influence or meaning of classical and popular music in his books. Despite this, he is one of the most influential writers of the postmodern era and many singers have cited his work as an inspiration for their music. In our days for example, since the return of popular music, we notice that Thomas Pynchon has become a source of inspiration for many new pop artists. Larry Swindell (1996) says, "Pynchon is an enduring literary cult figure, sainted by proponents of darkest-hued comedy."
It is important to bear in mind that Pynchon's use of music is not limited to just one of his novels but makes a profound impact on all his works, most noticeably Gravity's Rainbow and the book selected for this paper, The Crying of Lot 49. In Gravity Rainbow for example he clearly explained how sound theories should be perceived and why we must believe whatever is handed down to us by so-called intellectual authorities. It is his love for sounds that made him incorporate and comment on 'modern and unreal' classical and popular music into his books including the most accessible of his works, 'The Crying of Lot 49'.
The way music is presented in this novel can be understood from the following lines taken from Gravity's Rainbow, "Imagine this very elaborate scientific lie: that sound cannot travel through outer space. Well, but suppose it can. Suppose They don't want us to know there is a medium there, what used to be called an "aether," which can carry sound to every part of the Earth. The Soniferous Aether." - Gravity's Rainbow, p. 695
Pynchon urges us to ask ourselves what if music similarly is not really what it appears to be on the surface? What if the bands and their popular music are just manifestations of something more solid but obscure? What if music as we know is only as fragile in substance as the reality that we encounter each day? Complex as they may sound, these are the questions that Pynchon poses when he discusses music in his novel, 'The Crying of Lot 49'.
Before we mention the use of music in his novella, The Crying of Lot 49, it is important to take a brief look at the story and some of the important themes. This will help us understand and detect the fragile reality of classical and popular music in the story. The Crying lot revolves around a conspiracy, which begins with the arrival of a letter. The letter is received by the protagonist Oedipa Mass who then sets off to find out the truth and execute the will of her ex-lover. During this process, she realizes that she has stepped on a mine of explosives which gives rise to one clue after another, all leading to a great elusive conspiracy. While the story in itself is not important, the way it moves and the rhythm that it contains turn it into one of the most intellectually stimulating stories of all times. (Diamond, 1990)
Another extremely important theme to keep in mind is the absence of reality. This is what will later help us understand the kind of music that dominates this novel. The absence of reality means that nothing is what it appears to be on the surface. Being a postmodern writer, Thomas questions the reality, as it exists. He is of the view that the world and many of its intellectuals could be selling us lies by offering theories that are anything but true. What if sound can indeed travel into space and what if music as it appears is not the real music but is only a weak representation of something more solid and original. These are the kind of questions that Pynchon explores in this novella and in his other significant works.
The difference between reality as it appears to be and the true reality hidden from our eyes is the theme that dominates presentation of music in this novel. Pay attention to the words in the passage below:
She left Kinneret, then, with no idea she was moving toward anything new.
Mucho Maas, enigmatic, whistling "I Want to Kiss Your Feet," a new recording by Sick Dick and the Volkswagens (an English group he was fond of at that time but did not believe in)" (23)
Why would you be fond of a band and still not believe in it? Pynchon maintains that the hypocrisy of Generation X lies in the fact that they followed values that they truly did not believe in. For this reason, the reality they gave birth to was nothing but an illusion. Pynchon's use of music is meant to arouse suspicion and disbelief so that the readers would "feel the same discomfort and paranoia that his characters experience." (Joel Stein, 2001)
Therefore Popular and classical music as it appears in the novel is only an illusion. The singers stood for something they were not aware of and created music they could not relate to. This, Pynchon believes, was the case with everything that postwar generation went for and that is probably why the hippie culture and Beats generation vanished when the true cultural social values permeated the society again. Hans (1995) agrees and commenting on the most significant attribute of The Crying of Lot 49, he writes, "It [The Crying of Lot 49] is the link between linguistic and human plenitude that marks the end to the mindless fascination with lack that so resolutely defined the modern period." (Essays in Literature, 1995)
The following passage from a critical commentary on the use of popular and classical music in this novel is worth reading and helps to explain why Pynchon believed that postmodern popular or classical music were nothing more than illusionary images. Eklund (2001) writes:
Music in The Crying of Lot 49 is always in some way artificial, with the effect that real music-natural sounds produced by true musicians-has been replaced by musical signifiers that exist outside the original music that they signify. The musical signifiers include the Paranoids, Baby Igor's song, the Scope's "music policy," the Yoyodyne songfest, and finally, Muzak. The first example of how musical signifiers have replaced their original is the teenage band that Oedipa meets early in the novel. This band is obviously an imitation of another -- the lead singer, Miles, has a "Beatle haircut," and Oedipa asks, "Why do you sing with an English accent?" (27). Of course, the band's manager says they "should sing like that," so they "watch English movies a lot, for the accent" (27). "The Paranoids, then, are simply an image; their music is a representation of another band's music, perhaps the Beatles or possibly "Sick Dick and the Volkswagens," another English group whose song Oedipa hears Mucho, her husband, whistling (23). The fact is that nobody can tell what band the Paranoids stand for, only that they and their music are an image."
Music in all its forms is presented in a highly intellectual manner, which many would find difficult to comprehend the first time they read the novel. For this reason it is important to do several readings before any attempt is made to understand Pynchon's use of music in the book. Another important thing that must be kept in mind is that Pynchon has not only accused popular music for being an illusion but he maintains that even classical music has lost its originality because of influx of electronic hymns. The same songs that would once arose deep emotions no longer move us because of the fact that they are blasted through media, which changes the beauty of lyrics and translates them into electronic gibberish.
At one point in the novel, the protagonist Opedia goes into the Scope bar and gets a chance to study the music scene there. It is here that we come to understand what Pynchon's real thoughts in connection with popular and classical music really are. He believes that "A sudden chorus of whoops and yibbles burst from a kind of jukebox," (48) cannot exactly be termed as real music. Even the live performances are not as real as they want us to believe they are. Opedia learns that 'they put it on the tape live' (48) during live jams which explains why real music of classical eras differed from so-called classical and popular music of postmodern times.
In fact music has only been presented as clues to something better and more real. It is now up to the reader whether he chooses to match the dots and reach the true reality or he can remain uninvolved and take things, as they appear to be. The latter happens to be the case with most modern readers…