Lament for the Detritus of Lives

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Evidence of Existence in The Crying of Lot 49

In The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon paints a world in which we imbue the things around us with pieces of ourselves, making them evidence of our existence. In a world in which everything from our TVs to our mattresses and the trash in the bottom of our cars is testament to our lives and our being, these things must be preserved so that we do not lose what we have put into them. Should we not take care to preserve this evidence—which is tenuous at best—all record of our existence will inevitably disappear, taking with it all the pieces of ourselves the things around us have absorbed.

Pynchon introduces us to the idea that we imbue objects in our lives with pieces of ourselves early on with Mucho’s nightmarish description of the used car lot he once worked in. What horrifies Mucho about the car lot is not that people identify with their cars, put so much of themselves into their cars, but that they bring these “motorized, metal extensions of themselves” into his lot and dump them, leaving them and everything in them, everything they mean, behind without a second thought. For Mucho, that cars are extensions of their owners is not a dehumanization of the owners, but a humanization of the cars and a recognition of their importance. Mucho views a car as a very personal matter: the car one owns and uses is an extension of oneself, ones family. It is a microcosm of one’s life and so to put it out on display as these people do so cavalierly is to put one’s life on display, which makes Mucho feel uncomfortably like a voyeur, an idea underlined by his used of the word “naked” to describe the cars. Mucho believes in cars, believes in their ability to hold meaning, to represent their owners. And so it is horrifying to him to have to witness cars abandoned by their owners, for he recognizes that in disposing of these cars, these people are losing everything of themselves which the car has absorbed from them.

Mucho might have been able to stand this dismissal by people of the physical evidence of their existence had it not been compounded by the fact that this evidence was destined for destruction; a destruction which, more likely than not, he would have to carry out himself. The cars brought into the lot are not only extensions themselves of the lives of their owners, but are vessels for other detritus of their lives. Mucho catalogues in great detail the remnants of lives left in the cars:

“clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10¢, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the markets, 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 a car you owned, 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” (5).

All of these things may appear trivial and unimportant, but they are testaments to lives lived, the physical evidence of the existence of the people who used them, owned them, imprinted themselves upon them. Pynchon describes this detritus of life lovingly, tenderly, ascribing to it all the importance it deserves. These things left behind in the cars are not trash; they are forsaken fragments of lives, tragic in their abandonment and deserving of preservation. Mucho’s car lot is a place which collects this residue of life, these things which we ourselves attach little or no importance to, but by nature of being imbue with information about ourselves. Mucho looks upon all these things and recognizes their meaning, he extrapolates lives from them, seeing them for the extensions of the people who owned them that they are. Yet it is Mucho’s job to dispose of these things, to rid the cars he receives of any and all traces of their former owners, to sweep away the detritus of lives, and ready the car for a new owner who will only do the same thing to it that the previous one did. Mucho’s job is the destruction of evidence of lives, the rendering of lives into nothingness: N.A.D.A. (118). The depression which Oedipa attributes to his being “thin-skinned” (4) really stems from his hyperawareness of the tragedy of lost meaning. He is depriving people of the evidence of their being—whether they know it or not—all the while recognizing the importance of treasuring the remnants of lives.

While Oedipa is, at the beginning of the novel, disparaging of Mucho’s terror at the awareness of the fate of the evidence of our being, by the end of her journey she has come to realize much the same thing and is as terrified of it as he is. When Oedipa first meets the old sailor suffering from DTs on her midnight wander, she is immediately struck by his impermanence and is “overcome all at once by a need to touch him, as if she could not believe in him, or would not remember him, without it” (102). Already, he is hardly real to her and she needs confirmation of his existence, something tangible by which to remember him. However, a touch is only good as long as he lives and when he’s gone, the touch will fade with him and so Oedipa begins to imagine the things he will leave behind him, the physical objects he has touched and used which will remain in the world as testament to his existence. She wonders

“what … candlestubs lit to rotate in the air over him, prefiguring the cigarette he or a friend must fall asleep someday smoking, thus to end among the flaming, secret salts held all those years by the insatiable stuffing of a mattress that could keep vestiges of every nightmare sweat, helpless overflowing bladder, viciously, tearfully consummated wet dream, like the memory bank to a computer lost?” (102).

These imagined objects are Oedipa’s way in to understanding this man. She knows that every object he has left behind and will leave behind is imbued with some part of him simply by dint of his having interacted with it: the candlestubs he’s lit, the cigarettes he’s smoked, the mattresses he’s slept on are all clues and testaments to his existence. These imaginings are part of Oedipa’s attempt to hold onto him; her physical urge to touch him is a manifestation of her realization of his impermanence, but it would only be a fleeting reassurance. In the end, he will be gone and all that will be left are the things he has used, interacted with.

Only a page later, Oedipa actually gets to see the reality of the mattress she had imagined as she helps the old sailor to bed. Seeing it, all that she had imagined is realized: it is truly stuffed with memory, “the stored, coded years of uselessness, early death, self-harrowing, the sure decay of hope, the set of all men who had slept on it, whatever their lives had been,” (104). The sailor’s mattress is imbued with the stuff of the lives of all it has come into contact with. It is not simply a mattress, but instead a vessel for humanity, soaking up, bit by bit, the memories, the hopes, the dreams, the personhood of the people who have used it. The mattress which she had imagined as “a memory bank to a computer lost” really is just that: it is bursting with information, which has been “stored” and “coded” into it by life. And so is the case with all the things which our lives touch, from our cigarette butts to our mattresses to our cars. The things around us are memory banks which we naturally encode pieces of ourselves into, simply through our interaction with them.

The process, though, does not stop there. In encoding bits of ourselves into the things around us, we lose those pieces of ourselves, and so to preserve those fragments, we must preserve the objects they are contained in. And that is why what strikes Oedipa most about the mattress is not its capacity for retaining and absorbing life, but the tragedy of the inevitable destruction of the information it contains. Like Mucho, Oedipa realizes that these evidences of our lives are not destined for preservation. She imagines the mattress “flar[ing] up around the sailor, in his Viking’s funeral,” and realizes that all the information it contains will “truly cease to be, forever, when the mattress burn[s]” (104). The mattress, itself, cannot last forever. It may outlast the sailor, who is clearly on his last legs, but eventually it will be thrown out and, inevitably, destroyed, taking with it the last traces of this man. Oedipa is terrified by this prospect, realizing its implications: when we are gone, all that is left of us is in the flotsam and jetsam of our lives, the things we loved, the things we didn’t, the things we used and touched and needed. These things are the only clues to ourselves left in the world and, as such, they should be treasured, cherished, and protected, but instead, they are swept away, whether by industrious cars salesmen looking to smarten up an old car for a new sale or the sands of time. All that was left of us in the world is gone. Oedipa realizes that “nothing she knew of would preserve them [the objects], or him [the sailor],” (105) and she is left “trembling, unfurrowed,” lost in the loneliness of the realization of her own impermanence.

Through Oedipa and Mucho, Pynchon makes a case for the importance of the detritus of lives: that what everything we interact with, including that which we lose, throw away, dub “trash,” or forget, is in fact the only evidence of ourselves we leave behind. Pynchon describes this flotsam and jetsam with tenderness, mourning what we lose of ourselves in losing this evidence, mourning the ephemeral quality of life and, through his characters, imparts a horror of the tragedy of destroying the stuff we leave behind. It’s no mistake that Oedipa spends most of the book preoccupied with “W.A.S.T.E.,” trying to prove its importance to a world which refuses to even acknowledge its existence. Waste, the leftovers, everything which we leave behind us not only exists, but exists as a testament to ourselves. By association with us, objects take on parts of ourselves, become evidence of our being—and this is not bad; it’s natural. The tragedy is that we lose these things, this evidence of ourselves. We need to hang on to our residue in order to preserve what might be the only record of our existence. Our residue, our detritus should be treasured, and its loss mourned.

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