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In Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the protagonists search for order and meaning. The books are similar in that both suggest the possibility of meaninglessness in America’s modern state of chaos. Although both books portray a dismal and temporary existence on earth, Miss Lonelyhearts is more hopeful. West hints at a world that is knowable, despite all of its misery. Miss Lonelyhearts stumbles through countless fragments of pain and despair, but at the base of his searching is a suggestion that there is an answer. The Crying of Lot 49, alternatively, contains limitless possibilities and condemns the search. This is a disorder that is not knowable.
West and Pynchon illustrate the meaninglessness of American culture in many different ways. Both authors use fragmented imagery and language, overwhelming the reader with tiny pieces of real life. Fragmentation illustrates a shallow sensibility by developing countless, even entertaining details with no central force or purpose. There is a striking symbol for this cultural chaos in a used car lot, in The Crying of Lot 49. The language itself communicates a feeling of searching, with enough commas to make each image its own frantic gasp. This description contains “…clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10 [cents], trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the market, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a gray dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes…” (Pynchon, 4) This shattering of information is one effective way of imitating the modern state. It creates a sense of meaninglessness by the constant proliferation of material objects. Miss Lonelyhearts experiences a similar sensation in the downpour of horribly depressing letters that fill the novel. These are just pieces of paper covered in writing. But they encompass a shocking range of human suffering and survival. Separately, these objects could represent important aspects of American life. But together, their relative obscurity and pettiness becomes apparent.
There is more than simply fragmentation in the creation of a meaningless world. In characterization, both authors are able to make this same point. People surrounding the protagonists are shallow and simple. They are shells without a center, simply convincing and recognizable images of complete human beings. Shrike’s voice is strikingly monotone. He rarely goes beyond his cynical “dead-pan,” when “under the shining white globe of his brow, his features [huddle] together in a dead, gray triangle.” (West, 6) There is no depth to his understanding. His entire being can be summed up in the one, violent syllable of his name. His commentary, like his personality, is simply a horrible manifestation of his surroundings. Most of Miss Lonelyhearts’ male associates, “like Shrike, the man they imitated,…were machines for making jokes.” (West, 15) Betty is similar in her one-shade depiction. She is the all-American girl, fallen prey to a belief system encoded in her fragmented world. This simplicity is seen when she “dresse[s] for things,” (West, 55) nurtures and heals the sick Lonelyhearts because of her firm belief that “if his body got well everything would be well.” (West, 36) Her transparency is especially clear in her predictability. Just as he avoids Shrike because he can anticipate the next joke, Miss Lonelyhearts can woo Betty with “…all the things that went with strawberry sodas and farms in Connecticut.” He knows what she “[wants] him to be: simple and sweet, whimsical and poetic, a trifle collegiate yet very masculine,” (West, 56) because her romantic notions are flimsy icons of popular culture. Both Betty and Shrike are knowable because of the familiarity and predictability of their shallow ideals. Miss Lonelyhearts and Oedipa Maas make the mistake of assuming the world is as understandable as the generic personalities that surround them.
The two protagonists’ instinct to search for order is itself an illustration of the chaos they must face. Both characters are driven to examine their surroundings by an inner drive. Miss Lonelyhearts watches “crowds of people move through the street with a dream-like violence,” and is “…overwhelmed by the desire to help them.” (West, 39) It is this desire that keeps him addicted to the letters of anguish he receives every day. And Oedipa cannot help her “growing obsession with ‘bringing something of herself’…to the scatter of business interests that had survived Inverarity. She would give them order, she would create constellations.” (Pynchon, 72) It is this instinct that gives the protagonists agency. They are confronted with so little order, that they are actually creating it for themselves. They confuse this ability with simple searching. When Miss Lonelyhearts waits on a bench, he does not simply look but “examine[s] the sky…like a stupid detective who is searching for a clue to his own exhaustion.” And when he finds nothing in this expanse, he “turns to the skyscrapers…” and “discover[s] what he [thinks] is a clue.” (West, 27) There is no suggestion as to what this is a clue about. This moment reveals Miss Lonelyhearts’ tendency to create something worthy of searching for in the world around him. Like Oedipa, he considers himself a detective in such instances, considering his action an observation rather than a projection.
Although both characters find themselves in the midst of meaningless fragmentation, the two authors draw very different conclusions about the consequential searches for order. West subtly betrays a conviction that there is hope in all this chaos, and purpose in the searching. This idea is conveyed through details of language. In comparing himself to Betty, Miss Lonelyhearts makes an important distinction. He thinks that “his confusion [is] significant, while her order [is] not.” (West, 11) And later, when “his imagination [begins] to work,” and he finds himself in a pawnshop “full of fur coats, diamond rings, watches, shotguns, fishing tackle, mandolins…the paraphernalia of suffering,” the hope in West’s worldview is even more distinct. Facing this scene, much like Mucho’s used car lot, Miss Lonelyhearts knows that “All order is doomed, yet the battle is worthwhile.” (West, 31) Although he thinks this phrase to himself in a somewhat sarcastic tone, his actions go on to solidify his belief in this idea. He makes something of these scattered, long lost objects. He gives a place to them when he “first he form[s] a phallus of old watches and rubber boots, then a heart of umbrellas and trout flies, then a diamond of musical instruments and derby hats, after these a circle, triangle, square, swastika.” To make shapes of these things is to give them an order. But there is no finality in this action, as “nothing prove[s] definitive and he [begins] to make a gigantic cross.” (West, 31) Although there is no final answer or solution in this particular quest, Miss Lonelyhearts can at least move beyond the simple meaninglessness of the fragments in the pawnshop. West allows him to do so, giving him agency and moreover a sense of hope.
Oedipa’s encounters with the debris of modern culture have a different outcome. She continues to search for meaning in the least possible of places. Unlike Miss Lonelyhearts, she passively receives a bombardment of fragments with a somewhat insecure belief that “each clue that comes is supposed to have its own clarity, its fine chances for permanence.” (West, 95) What she fails to realize is that these random fragments of information or imagery are insignificant. When faced with her own car lot type of scene, in her strange traipsing through the city at night, Oedipa makes no shapes of the debris she encounters. She is limited in her role as “voyeur and listener,” (Pynchon, 100) and simply exhausting herself in trying to move beyond this. Pynchon compares her futile collecting to the ability of an epileptic to “recognize signals…an odor, color, pure piercing grace note announcing his seizure. Afterward it is only this signal…and never what is revealed during the attack, that he remembers.” (West, 76) Oedipa herself wonders “…whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too 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.” (West, 76) Here, Pynchon alludes to the absolute impossibility of this central truth with the word “somehow.” The word reveals the fact that Oedipa must once again create a situation to explain the lack of meaning. It is a word in her own thoughts that betrays this insecurity in her quest. The hope in a search like Oedipa’s can only exist, in Pynchon’s world, in the emotion of such a frustrated individual.
It is strange to suggest any hope in a story like Miss Lonelyhearts. At first glance, it would seem to preach the same meaninglessness as The Crying of Lot 49. The similar use of fragmentation, characterization, and playful language only strengthens this conception. West’s hopefulness in such a world becomes more apparent in the comparison of the two novels. Both novels, with their attention to detail and strange names, pack complex commentary into seemingly short and simple tales. They are their own fragments of truth and expression, packaged and ushered out into mass culture. But these works are unlike the popular culture debris that become less and less meaningful in a group, as in Mucho’s car lot, Miss Lonelyhearts’ pawnshop, or Oedipa’s journey through the city. These two pieces take on new and deeper meaning when juxtaposed, becoming only more significant in this relativity.
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