August 19, 2020

The Poetry of Paranoia — Playing Post Office with Thomas Pynchon

By Stuart Mitchner

Nabokov must be writing this script. Who else but the creator of Humbert Humbert, Dolores Haze, and Jonathan Shade could conceive of a president named Trump appointing a postmaster general named DeJoy to sabotage the U.S. postal system ahead of the 2020 election? The USPS subplot of my homemade conspiracy theory can be traced to Thomas Pynchon’s short novel, The Crying of Lot 49 (CL49). The Cornell connection, formed when Pynchon was a student taking one of Vladimir Nabokov’s courses (presumably “Masters of European Fiction”), is signaled in the opening paragraph’s reference to “a sunrise over the library slope of Cornell University.”

A Postmarked Bookmark

When I’m in need of something to mark my place in a book, I usually choose from a stash of photos, actual bookmarks, and old postcards like the one of Grand Central Terminal I’ve been using for CL49. Addressed to a Mrs. N. Adams in Franklin, Indiana, the card is postmarked 1 a.m. Nov. 22, 1922, and bears a canceled dollar-green U.S. Postage 1¢ stamp of George Washington (profile facing left). According to the Mystic Stamp Company, the earliest known use for this series was December 17, 1922. Readers familiar with Pynchon’s work will recognize one of his signature tropes in the note stating that due to “poor centering and other minor defects, a number of coil stamp sheets had been set aside as ‘waste’ to be destroyed.”

In CL49, the acronym WASTE (We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire) refers to an underground postal service created by fusing the poetry of paranoia with the thermodynamics of entropy; the system’s emblem, a muted post horn, can be seen on the cover of the first edition of The Crying of Lot 49 (shown here). Published in 1966, the novel presages not only the hauling away of post office drop boxes and sorting machines in August 2020, but the president’s obsession with voters in a specific constituency, namely the “suburban housewives” who are the subjects of an experiment on the effects of LSD-25 being conducted by   psychotherapist Dr. Hilarius. Refusing to take part in the experiment after being told “We want you,” CL49’s fantasy-prone protagonist Oedipa Maas hallucinates “the well-known portrait of Uncle that appears in all our post offices, his eyes gleaming unhealthily, his sunken yellow cheeks most violently rouged, his finger pointing between her eyes. I want you.”

The Power of the Vote

The passage from CL49 wherein Pynchon actually seems to be picking up errant signals from the future, as if intercepting scrambled partisan feedback generated by the voting-by-mail debate of 2020, begins with “intrusions into this world from another, a kiss of cosmic pool balls …. For here were God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by U.S. Mail. It was not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote, loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private. Since they could not have withdrawn into a vacuum (could they?), there had to exist the separate, silent, unsuspected world.”

In the spring of 1969, when I read that paragraph in my marked-up copy of the Bantam paperback of CL49, with its generic psychedelic cover art (dancing woman clad in paisley, drummer with Beatle haircut), I understood “the power of the vote” in the context of the 1968 debacle that put Nixon in the White House. Reading the same passage now, after the virtual opening night of the Democratic convention (a bizarre contrast to the Chicago free-for-all), what stands out along with Pynchon’s prescience is his prose. In the last sentence, you can feel him gearing up for the rhapsodical pyrotechnics of Gravity’s Rainbow. 

Eyeballing the Capitol Dome

The Nabokovian absurd of Humbert world in CL49 makes way at one point for a passing intimation of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian (1959) and the grandiosely perverse practical jokes of the billionaire trickster Guy Grand. I’m thinking of the sequence when Oedipa studies the familiar carmine 8¢ airmail stamp “with a jet flying by the Capitol dome,” where “at the top of the dome stood a tiny figure in deep black with its arms outstretched.” Oedipa isn’t sure “what exactly was supposed to be on top of the Capitol,” but she knows “it wasn’t anything like that.” In the deep violet 3¢ regular issue of 1954 there’s “a faint menacing smile on the face of the Statue of Liberty” while in the 15¢ dark green from the 1893 Columbia Exposition Issue (“Columbus Announcing His Discovery”) “the faces of three courtiers, receiving the news at the right-hand side of the stamp, had been subtly altered to express uncontrollable fright.”

The postal service underground WASTE’s sinister defacing of U.S. postage stamp representations of American icons resonates loud and clear in 2020’s cancel culture. The virus of paranoia infecting the straight status quo reflects the “intrusions into this world from another,” when Oedipa verifies “with her own eyes,” evidence of the WASTE system, in the form of two WASTE postmen, a WASTE mailbox, WASTE stamps, WASTE cancellations, and “the image of the muted post horn all but saturating the BayArea.”

The Beatles Connection

Pynchon was writing The Crying of Lot 49 in 1964-65, a turning point in the history of American culture. On Friday, February 7, 1964, some two months and two weeks after Friday, November 22, 1963, a jetliner from the United Kingdom delivered a phenomenon called The Beatles and a state of mind the British press called Beatlemania. In Volume Two of the DVD version of The Beatles Anthology, shortly after you hear the voice of manager Brian Epstein explaining the long-term significance of the moment, a young fair-haired girl heaves into view, almost as if she’d flung herself through the air into the rapture of that arrival, eyes closed in a transport of infatuation as she’s caught and held back, like the others you later see rushing the limousine carrying the Beatles to the Plaza Hotel.

Cut to the moment when Oedipa’s DJ husband Mucho Maas tells her, “Whenever I put the headset on now… I really do understand what I find there. When those kids sing about ‘She loves you,’ yeah well, you know, she does, she’s any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, sizes, ages, shapes, distances from death, but she loves. And the ‘you’ is everybody. And herself. Oedipa, the human voice, you know, it’s a flipping miracle.” Later, after rhapsodizing on LSD (“You’re an antenna sending your pattern out across a million lives a night, and they’re your lives too”), Mucho enthuses: “The songs, it’s not just that they say something, they are something, in the pure sound. Something new.”

The next chapter has Oedipa hanging out with the Paranoids, a Beatlesque foursome whose leader has written a song that brings the Nabokovian conspiracy connection back into play, the lyric bemoaning “all these Humbert Humbert cats coming on so big and sick. / For me, my baby was a woman, / For him she’s just another nymphet.”

Los Paranoias

I have no idea whether any of the Beatles read or even heard about the appearance of “She Loves You” in CL49, or if they knew of the recording of “I Want to Kiss Your Feet” by another Pynchon creation, Sick Dick and the Volkswagens. If you believe or want to believe in a Pynchonesque alternate reality, then you should enjoy an outtake from the Beatles recording session of September 16, 1968 (it’s on the CD version of The Beatles Anthology 3). Paul McCartney is playing tunefully around with “Step Inside Love,” a song he wrote for Cilla Black. After putting a Bossa Nova spin on the melody, hamming it up in slick-suave pop star style, he assumes the voice of a smooth emcee, giving the performer a name made up in the spot (“Joe Pararey and the Pararey Wallflowers”), which prompts John Lennon to shout “Los Paranoias!” Paul laughs, instantly taking the cue (Lennon-McCarrney teamwork in action) and begins improvising a theme song to the beat he’s strumming, “Los Para-noias in-vite you to come and en-joy us.”

The spontaneous shout-out nature of the moment makes it seem unlikely that John could be consciously alluding to Thomas Pynchon’s Beatles spin-off the Paranoids, even in a conspiracy-theory-driven universe. But why not be a believer? Why not assume that the music of coincidence is the air you breathe and the beat of creation never stops?

When I saw the cable news clips of uprooted mail boxes being trucked off to parts unknown, my first thought was of the drop box that served as home base for a faraway and long-ago neighborhood version of hide and seek we called Taffy on the Ice Box. I don’t know the origins of the name; it was just there, in the air, it came with the game. Whoever was “it” would lean on the big mail box, hands over eyes, count to ten and then yell “Here I come, ready or not,” and if you made it home, you yelled “Olly Olly Oxen Free.” You won, you survived, you were no longer “it,” you were home.