At a Loss: The Postmodern Quests in Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" and Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3

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Table of Contents

1. General Introduction
1.1 Overview: The two stories.
1.2 Approach of this term paper
1.3 From modernism to postmodernism

2. Social fragmentation as a postmodern determinant
2.1 Oedipa Maas: “They are stripping away, my men”..
2.2 Don Johnston a.k.a. Don Juan..
2.3 Drugs and unreliability.

3. To slow for a globalizing/ globalized world?
3.1 Miss Maas and Mass Media.
3.2 “I was in computers”
3.3. The United States as a setting.

4. Me against the system: anxieties and paranoia
4.1 mind-mapping against the machine.
4.2 The non-solution to nothing.

5. Conclusion: Internet and Postmodernity19

6. Bibliography

1. General Introduction

“Hey”, said Oedipa, “can I get somebody to do it for me?”

“Me”, said Roseman, “some of it, sure. But aren’t you even interested?”

In what?”

“In what you might find out.” (Pynchon 1966: 12)

“I prepared the strategy. Only you can solve the mystery” (Winston in Broken Flowers).

1.2 Overview: the two stories

There is hardly a novel that outlines a cultural epoch as precisely as the 1966 published book “The Crying of Lot 49” (COL 49) by Thomas Pynchon. On barely more than one hundred pages probably every concept that has ever attributed to the set of ideas we today refer to as “postmodern”, can be identified. The book, that many describe as one of the most important post World War II novels, is a challenge in every respect: Pynchon’s dense and intricate style of writing with its often loose and disconnected sequences leave many readers baffled – what on the first glance seems a humorous and easy read on the second requires profound knowledge of American and European history and sketches a sometimes bleak and dreary picture of human isolation and paranoia. Nevertheless connoisseurs describe “The Crying of Lot 49” as his most accessible book.

Thomas Pynchon as a person remains as mysterious as his novels – the fact that he never appears in public and discusses his books, leaves literary theorists room for interpretation and speculation. This is reflected in literature about Pynchon – there is hardly a self-respecting scholar of 20th century American literature that has not elaborated on his work: “Pynchon’s novels have lured literary theorists and critics to such an extent that they have spawned an industry” (Coale 2005: 135). But also to other artists he is a constant source of inspiration – as we will see, not only to writers like Paul Auster, Don DeLillo or Susan Sontag, but also to movie artists. Filmmakers like David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino or last but not least Jim Jarmusch constantly process postmodern elements and sujets – what started as “independent cinema” has – thanks to blockbusters like “Kill Bill”, “Jackie Brown” or “Mulholland Drive” – gradually entered the mainstream and is now being received by major audiences.

But though postmodern elements in these movies can be isolated and discussed – sure enough, literature has dealt with most of them – a direct comparison with “The Crying of Lot 49”, one of the archetyps of postmodernism, would be barely fruitful, as the latter’s appearance equals a mystery novel. However, the 2005 Jim Jarmusch production Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray, is arranged following a “Pynchonesque” quest pattern and can be therefore directly placed in this context; there are obvious parallels as to structure, story and background setting between the two pieces. To discuss the elements that qualify Broken Flowers as a movie in this tradition will be the task of this term paper.

At first it is necessary to deliver short synopsises of the two stories – many of the elements will be dealt with in-depth in the course of this term paper. The protagonist in COL 49, Oedipa Maas, “a suburban housewife and English major from Cornell” (Cornis-Pope 2001: 104), receives a letter saying that her ex Pierce Inverarity died and that she “had been named executor, or she supposed executrix,” (Pynchon 1966: 5) of his estate. She accepts the challenge that takes her “from her suburbanite home in Kinneret-among the Pines to the Echo Courts Motel in San Narciso, the housing estate at Fangoso Lagoons, the aerospace company Yoyodyne, the Berkeley campus, and the Greek Way bar in San Francisco. (Cornis-Pope 2001: 105).

Along her quest she meets strange persons, among them a boygroup called the Paranoids, a psychiatrist with a Nazi past, a member of a right-wing organization called the Peter Pinguid Society, a covetous scientist that has a perpetual motion machine, and a theatre director that without further ado rewrites a historical revenge drama. These people deliver clues that collectively make Oedipa believe she is on the track of a secret organization called W.A.S.T.E, an alternative postal delivery service founded by a historical figure called Tristero/ Trystero. Oedipa discovers the presumable sign of the organization, the muted post horn:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Oedipa struggles to connect the nuggets of intelligence but the more information she receives, the more bemusing the whole picture gets. Pynchon in this book introduces the concept of entropy, saying roughly that “every closed system harbors within itself its own eventual breakdown” (Coale 2005: 148). In “The Crying of Lot 49”, the system of entropy prevails. In the last part of the book, Oedipa is not sure whether there really exists an organization like “W.A.S.T.E”, or it is just a hoax staged by her ex Inverarity. As Inverarity’s estate is finally auctioned, Oedipa shows up at the crying (of lot 49).

In Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers”, the well-to-do bachelor Don Johnston has just been left by his girlfriend Sherry and now receives a pink letter from an unknown sender, telling he has a son who is now 19 years old and has left his home probably to search his father. Don’s neighbour Winston, father of five children, who enjoys writing mystery novels in his leisure time, recommends him to visit all possible relationships he had twenty years ago to figure out the mother. Don is sceptical but agrees. Winston elaborates per Internet a list giving five possible mothers of which one died. He has also worked out a complete trip to all the possible mothers, flights, motel bookings and car rentals included.

Don again rejects these plans but his curiosity prevails, Winston advises him to search the colour pink in the houses of the four women, and – as the letter was written with a type writer and addressed with red ink – for those two things. Winston promises to look after Don’s home – especially regarding the case that Don’s son really arrives sometime. Don goes on a trip that leads him to various places in today’s United States; his former girl friends are from differing social backgrounds and work in various professions. And though he frequently discovers hints that possibly lead him to the presumable mother of his son, he never detects unambiguous evidence or gets into a situation to openly discuss what he is looking for. He is at a loss in the end – everything is possible, he even suspects Winston or his ex Sherry. At last he thinks he has found his son.

1.2 Approach of this term paper

It has to be taken into consideration that this term paper intents to compare two different media. The capacities for storing information in books are much larger than in movies – this especially applies to Thomas Pynchon’s books, owing to his style of writing. The density of conveyed information in most of his sentences requires attentive and concentrated readers who are willing to read passages twice or even more often. A film with comparable informational emissions within little time would be simply not consumable. This becomes obvious in the synopsises in 1.1: While it is possible to summarize “Broken Flowers” almost sequence for sequence, the same procedure for “The Crying of Lot 49” would be possible, but not very expedient (not only in terms of space). That is why I decided to apply a conceptual approach.

Certainly there are different mechanisms in movies at play as to representation, establishment of characters and the production of meaning and how it is visualised – these film-theoretical aspects however will hardly be touched upon by this term paper, which focuses primarily on cultural concepts. So it is a comparison of two stories in the first instance, only in the second instance a comparison of a book and a film. What this paper wants to achieve is to filter the postmodern concepts that determine both of the works and compare the two works on the basis of these elements. This means a possible reduction to the variety of aspects of Pynchon’s COL 49, as it is in every respect more complex than the movie. However, what makes the two pieces primarily comparable is a structural component: They are organized like quests.

If COL 49 and Broken Flowers however can be treated as detective fiction, would be a matter of controversy. David Seed suggests for Pynchon: “his constant use of the term “clues”, as a number of critics have noted, misleadingly suggests that the novel belongs in the detective or whodunit genres” (2003: 30). If Tzvetan Todorov’s pattern is applied, Seed is correct: COL 49 is no traditional detective fiction. Todorov suggests that a mystery novel comprises two stories, one that deals with the commitment of the crime and the subsequent deals with its gradual solution. Neither does Broken Flowers exactly fit in this pattern; also here nobody was killed or robbed and there is no Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, who detects clue after clue. However, the “problematisation of interpretation of clues, signs and texts (Bignell 2000: 99), which follow in COL 49 and Broken Flowers quite a similar pattern as in traditional detective stories make both stories comparable to this genre.

1.3 From modernism to postmodernism

Both of the terms modernism and postmodernism do not describe clearly defined epochs as for example the medieval but span a whole set of political, sociological and cultural ideas. “Max Weber characterized the emergence of modernity as a process of “rationalization” and “disentchantment” (Elliot 2004: 9) – thereby not providing any tangible historic date or event that triggered these developments. Approaches vary from discipline to discipline and from country to country. Political scientists probably would date the starting point of modernity back to the French Revolution, art historians would fix it close to the movements of impressionism or cubism - from the late 19th century up to 1914. About some developments however there is relative consensus among scholars; as Anthony Elliott reports: “The culture of modernity is a form of world-construction marked by the rejection of fixed, traditional boundaries” (2004: 9).

Whilst churches and extended families with their net of customs and conventions were on the retreat, it was the age of mass organizations like communism and “large-scale bureaucratic organizations” (Elliott 2004:9), bound to rationalization and effectiveness. In literature, writers like Joyce and Proust broke the dams of conventionalism, accompanied by theorists like “Darwin, Freud, Bergson and Nietzsche”, who displayed “humanity’s more irrational and brutish side”, exposing the human psyche as fragmented and distorted (Coale 2005: 2). Repeatedly urban life was in the centre of literature as well as science; often described as a “bizarre blending of personal isolation and loneliness on the one hand and intense social proximity and cultural interconnectedness on the other” (Ellitott 2004: 11).

According to Samuel Coale, postmodernism in most parts extends and/or dismantles modernism (2005: 2). Whereas in modernism certain fixed realities existed – human objectivity was commonly accepted – postmodernism “subverts and questions every form of authority, including that of language itself” (Coale 2005: 2). Concepts that seemed given or natural phenomena now were found to be human constructs - societal organizational institutions like administration and politics rapidly lost credibility. “Postmodern theory began to flourish in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, an era in which, as a result of the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, an antiauthoritarian skepticism grew and exploded” (Coale 2005: 1).

Scepticism and relativism spread also due to the unprecedented number of informational sources that developed. The so-called mass media added to social fragmentation and dispersal – in the various US-American TV-programmes everybody could choose their own informational and entertainment guide to life according to the respective demand and weltanschauung. The constitution of reality gradually became a sequence of pictures – patchwork staged by the mass media. “The prevailing view among theorists like Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, Hal that postmodernism remains an art of pastiche and simulation that renders history reified, fragmented, fabricated – both imploded and depleted”(Cornis-Pope 2001: 8). Prefabricated ways of life, already decomposed by modernity, became obsolete owing due to the enormous possibilities that postmodern living offered – never before was moving to another flat or city or country easier. Many people were overextended by the flood of possibilities and information; the longing for easy realities and securities often resulted in paranoia, as it is also reflected in the two stories that will be subject of this academic work.

2. Social fragmentation as a postmodern determinant

2.1 Oedipa Maas: They are stripping away, my men”

The decline of traditional values like family and church and the tendency to living in dense but anonymous urban structures furthered social isolation and loneliness. Especially in mega-cities like New York which in the 1970s with its excessive crime rates was considered to be a cesspool of moral degradation, communication became an act that was connected with dangers and thus reduced to a possible minimum. Social surroundings and relations were not locally determined but became a matter of choice that, naturally enough, entailed risks – opportunism, descent and opportunity became factors that gradually undermined relationships on all levels. In the urban surroundings of Pynchon’s COL 49, communication is a vital element and it is not surprising that it is displayed as an interaction that mostly fails.

It is striking that Oedipa and her husband Wendell “Mucho” Maas live in an open relationship – Oedipa is aware of the fact that her husband betrays her with younger girls – probably under 21- but is indifferent towards it. She only once asks him “if he wasn’t worried about the penal code” (1966: 30). Besides Mucho, two more at least sexual relations of Oedipa become apparent in the novel: Her deceased ex-partner Pierce Inverarity, and her lawyer Metzger, with whom she enters into an affair, thus betraying Mucho. So it can be assumed that her relations in general are rather fragile and short. Though barely elaborated, Pynchon constitutes the figure of Mucho Maas as a postmodern prototype, not only in terms of social relationships but also as to his professional biography. Mucho used to work as a used cars salesman but quit the job as “working hours were exquisite torture to him” (1996: 7) – he then started disc-jockeying at KCUF radio but he “believed not at all in the station” (1966: 9). In the last part of the book, Oedipa loses Mucho who is high on LSD. Relationships and employments here are not constituted as life-long and enduring institutions but tend to be a matter of life-phases and circumstances. A fact that has reached the mainstream in today’s society, where kids from divorced marriages and “patchwork-families” have become normal.

But it is not only in the fields of partnerships and sexuality, where communication fails in the novel. Oedipa in the final part of the novel believes that all her relations are gradually fading – besides her husband Mucho she also loses touch to her affair Metzger and her psychiatrist Dr. Hilarius, who has gone mad (1966: 105) – social isolation looms. The dialogues in the novel often give the impression to be incoherent, strange and fragmented and it is her psychiatrist Dr. Hilarius, who calls Oedipa in the middle of the night, as he wants her to participate in an experiment “on effects of LSD-25, mescaline, psylocybin, and related drugs on a large sample of suburban housewives” (1966: 10):

“I am having a hallucination now, I don’t need drugs for that.”

Don’t describe it, he said quickly. “Well. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?

“Did I call you?”

“I thought so”, he said, “I had this feeling. Not telepathy.”

The “shrink” in COL 49 is established as a natural mouthpiece for everyday communication in a crazy world, and so it is not surprising that the psychiatrist Dr. Hilarius becomes mad in the end, confessing he was a Nazi-doctor in the Third Reich; so even a medium like a psychiatrist, a regulating “device” bound to rationalism, cannot be relied on. Oedipa’s incapacity to communicate is symbolised by her failure to get into contact with Maxwell’s Demon, a device that could stop the process of entropy and her mistakenly stumbling on a deaf-mute congregation “with party hats” (1966:90). “By this stage in the novel every person she meets is viewed as a potential information source but here the key communicative faculty of speech is blocked for her” (Seed 2003: 24). It must not be forgotten that communication is probably the key concept in the book, as the underground organization W.A.S.T.E, Oedipa wants to figure out, is an alternative postal service, and communication in this context equals power: “But whoever could control the lines of communication, among all these princes, would control them” (Pynchon 1966: 113).

2.2 Don Johnston a.k.a Don Juan

Also in Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, the recipient meets with postmodern live structures. Don Johnston (Bill Murray), a wealthy bachelor probably in the forties, gets, as indicated in the synopsis, a letter by an anonymous ex-girlfriend telling him he has a son of 19 years by her who now has gone on a trip to look for his father. His neighbour Winston is preparing a list with 5 probable mothers of which one died. Don seems to change his partners on a regular basis; in the very beginning Sherry, a woman he has obviously lived together with, leaves him. She reproaches him on account of his unwillingness to enter into more stable relations with her and says that his neighbour Winston, living in a family with 5 children, to her seemed quite happy. After she left the house Don again goes to his couch and sits down – he seems thoughtful, but not sad. On TV he watches Don Juan – there is a man that shouts: “The eternal hunger of women for love!” It is clear to the watcher that Don in this situation weighs off his bachelor life against the possibility of more solid structures.

As in Pynchons COL 49, the postmodern mode of relationship is displayed here as transient and fluent – however, in Broken Flowers two worlds clash. Don’s world, postmodern America, though prosperous – he worked in the computer business and is obviously wealthy enough to spend his days on the couch –, individualized and self-determined, is rather deterring. Winston, obviously Ethiopian-American, lives in a more traditional way; he is married and has five children, which almost amounts to an extended family. He gives the impression to be happy and satisfied, his household is lively and crowded. He once mentions that he has to work in more than three jobs so he struggles to adapt to the postmodern American way of life. The two modes of living are directly juxtaposed: Don on his “mission” through the United States is not only looking for his son but is also on the quest for a life so far unknown to him: within the framework of a family. He examines meticulously the homes of the women he visits, looks for evidences of a happy family life and the watcher gets the notion as if Don sees himself in all the family pictures he watches on his trip.

Winston, who could be the person who sent him on this quest, calls him mockingly “Don Juan”, however it remains unclear, if he just wants to comfort him over his lost relationship or if there is a whiff of envy in his voice. Also the name “Don Johnston” is not chosen arbitrarily – he repeatedly is addressed as “Don Johnson”, without “t”, the film actor (“Miami Vice”) and Beau who had numerous marriages and relationships, among others with Barbara Streisand, Melanie Griffith, Patti D’Arbanville and Kelley Phleger (source: Wikipedia). He more than once has to assert that he is not Don Johnson, but Don Johnston, with a “t” – again a hint to the struggle of self-definition between a “freedom” and the corset of a family life. And indeed, there is another significant difference between him and Don Johnson – Johnson has two sons, Jasper Breckinridge and Deacon, Johnston is unsure if he has even one.

2.3 drugs and unreliability

It is in the external communication system – in Pynchon’s COL 49, between Oedipa and the reader - where unreliability is constituted. More than once the reader gets the notion that he is lead up the garden path. This mechanism is primarily implicated in his dense writing:” Pynchon presents at first the illusion of ordinary exposition, but then he rips the fabric into colourful tatters” (Coale 2005: 137). The reader always has the notion that he lacks behind what “really happens” – the sentences are so packed that every little hint could be useful information. In addition, drugs repeatedly play a role: in the second part of the book, where Oedipa is searching for traces in San Francisco, she gets drunk and in her stupor spots the W.A.S.T.E symbols everywhere. But also her social surroundings add to this quality – not only her psychiatrist Dr. Hilarius takes drugs, also Mucho Maas, who, in his LSD-intoxication, seemingly completely loses touch to the people around him. Drugs serve, as a postmodern phenomenon, to escape loneliness and dreary uncertainties of a fragmented world.

In Broken Flowers, however, drugs are not of major importance. Don sometimes enjoys champagne, once he is shown with a bottle of Moet & Chandon – it is however more a sign to display wealth than to explain possible disconnections with the recipient. Unreliability in the movie is shown by means of body language – both the watcher and Don are aware of the possibility that one of the women he visits could be the unknown writer of the pink letter. It is important how the women react to Don’s unannounced visit and his allusions to their former relation, what Don sees, asks and says. The possible interpretation of facial expression – does she know what I am talking about? – and hints – the colour pink – become the material both Don and the recipient can work with. Whilst the movie partially generously feeds both parties with possible evidence, other indicators show the impossibility of such a connection.

3. To slow for a globalizing world?

3.1 Miss Maas and Mass Media

Many authors stress the possible connection between the name of Maas and “Mass Media”. Indeed, as communication is of primary importance to the fragmentation of postmodern world, COL 49 deals with this aspect more than once. As do the characters that interact with Oedipa, so the media adds to her misinformation. David Seed underlines the arguments of the author Phillip K. Dick: “Dick had been dramatizing how the media were being used for reality managementthe media are used again and again to promote political deception and commercial expoitation” (2003: 19). It has to be considered that COL 49 was written in the high phase of the cold war – the fear of “the bomb” was pervading the American society, a weapon of unprecedented destructiveness. But it was only known from Hiroshima programmes and radio reports – just as the manipulated depiction of the Tonkin incident triggered and publicly justified the US-intervention in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. Politics and therefore social reality became images of the mass media – Oedipa simply is bombarded with media, she is overstrained.

The then young technology of the telephone, for example, is “shown to be a disruptive force”: “When Oedipa receives a call early one morning it induces horror, “so out of nothing did it come, the instrument one second inert, the next screaming” (10)” (Seed 2003: 21). Just like other media, be it persons or devices, the telephone here constitutes a possible source of misinformation – so does the TV. Clear borders between reality and fiction fade in the scene where Oedipa and her lawyer Metzger start an affair, playing “strip Botticelli”. Metzger suddenly claims he used to act as a little child and just one moment later one of his films is on TV, where he plays “Baby Igor”:

“Either he made up the whole thing, Oedipa thought suddenly, or he bribed the engineer over at the local station to run this, it’s all part of a plot, an elaborate, seduction, plot. O Metzger” (Pynchon 1966: 19).

As to his short-term goals, Metzger succeeds – they start the affair. The most obvious allusion as to the effects of mass media is however implied in the main theme of the novel – the alternative postal service Oedipa looks for calls itself W.A.S.T.E and their letter boxes are disguised as waste bins – Pynchon probably could not have put it any clearer; most things what modern mass media tells us, the recipients, is unnecessary and dispensable: waste.

3.2 “I was in computers”

Also Jarmusch in his film grants media and communication a central part in the story. While Pynchon’s COL 49 however takes place in the mid-1960s, Jarmusch’s movie plays in today’s America and therefore Internet and Computers are at the disposal of the characters – what again accelerates the rapidity and intensity of the images, the postmodern realm is established with. While daily newspapers offer the latest in intervals of 24 hours, news programmes on TV update the society about every hour. Online-journalists however are allowed to present breaking news in the minute they happen in. In addition, everything can be generated online – games, shopping, some people even make friends on the internet. So the communication is bilateral and multilateral, what makes the internet the fastest and most pervading media that has ever existed and likewise the most postmodern. And it is not at least the internet that defines Broken Flowers to a great part, as Winston made use of it to prepare the list of the four women Don has to visit.

It is not only the speed Winston achieves this – it takes him only one evening – the list also includes all the addresses of the women plus maps, flights, car rentals and accommodation. It is only left to Don to present his credit card. To Don that means an implied reversion of his complete life – he has gathered all his wealth as he “was in computers”, as he vaguely reveals about himself. However it is now computers that plan and schedule his complete life – every second he has to rely on the technique and not at least on the anonymous people who feed all the machines, for example Winston. So it is the print-out version of a map, called mapquest, which is repeatedly shown throughout the movie, that plots the stations in his life to come. But also the more traditional media has space in the story; so it is in analogy to COL 49 a letter (here the pink letter) that initiates the quest. TV fulfils two functions: It presents the analogy between Don and Don Juan in the very first part of the movie and it documents postmodern loneliness, the TV as a replacement for real persons.

3.3 The United States as a setting

Postmodernity in both COL 49 and Broken Flowers is not only depicted in storyline and characters but also in the surroundings of the characters, i.e. the United States. Both stories display the country as a dispersed, fragmented and diverse realm with a variety of life arrangements and possibilities. So as to COL 49, Michael Seed bases his assumptions on Michael Harrington’s “the Other America” from 1962, a study about poverty in the United States pointing out that for example suburban Middle-class women, just like Oedipa, merely on the basis of a mistake “may catch the merest glimpse of the other America...but it will remain just that – a glimpse” (2003: 23). The basic argument behind this sentence is that the American society is divided socially as well as spatially to a degree that relatively well-to-do middle class people can live their lives without ever getting in touch with the “other America”, i.e. the poor and mostly inner-city slum population.

“Harrington points to a fragmentation of the USA into isolated regions of poverty which are sometimes visited by internal tourists. Oedipa too describes herself several times as a tourist. During her pivotal experience by night she enters the spaces of homosexuals, children, Chinatown and others, appropriating the city to herself without the usual insulation of tourism.” (Seed 2003: 23)

This is added to by the variety of the characters she deals with, their occupations and not at least their age. While Oedipa at the age of 28 in the late 1960s rather belongs to the post-war generation, she deals with a psychiatrist who in the same war was presumably guilty of war-crimes. As a contrast, the band “the Paranoids” she meets in the first part of the novel are younger than her and are a certain allusion to “the Beatles” and the affluent post-war Rock & Roll generation. The fear of “the other” certainly is a postmodern concept that defines Pynchon’s novel to a major degree.

Also Jarmusch depicts this fragmentation in his film. Despite the fact that cities and place names of his trip are not mentioned, it is however striking that he several times has to take the plane to reach them, not mentioning the car rides that follow the flights. So in terms of space, all of the women, who probably went to school with Don or lived in the same town at least twenty years ago are now living probably all over to the United States. It is further remarkable that all of them obviously have different social backgrounds. The first woman, Laura, lives with her daughter Lolita in a modest house in a lower middle-class neighbourhood, the second woman Dora dwells in a wealthier upper middle-class neighbourhood. Carmen, the next woman on the list, obviously lives outside a city, she has an academic background and works as an “animal communicator” – so she belongs to the type that is commonly labelled “alternative”. Number 4, Penny, lives on the countryside in a small shabby farm with two rather redneckish hillbillies.

Spatial and social fragmentation in the United States, as displayed in Broken Flowers, are partly owed to the fact that many Americans live their lives in phases, seeking “fresh starts” after certain stages have come to an end. This tradition has its roots in Protestantism and an attitude of distrust towards the state – many Americans seek to define themselves and choose their mode of living. Modern methods of travelling and transport make moving to another city an easy undertaking. Anthony Elliott confirms that modernity – including postmodernity in this context – “is about the celebration of dynamism, an ever-expanding acceleration of personal and cultural life...Construction and deconstruction, assembly and disassembly: these processes interweave in contemporary societies in a manner which has become self-propelling” (2004: 13).

4. Me against the system: anxieties and paranoia

4.1 mind-mapping against the machine

As indicated before, the sheer endlessness of possibilities and insecurities of postmodern living confront people with problems many cannot live up to. “Psychologists and others inform us that human beings long for sense of origin, for some kind of conceptual or intuitional unity in their lives (Coale 2005:3). Today’s societies have become so multi-facetted that hardly questions arise that can be easily answered; it requires people to mind-map their way in order to establish settled identities – just as Oedipa Maas and Don Johnston look for traces in their quests. Samuel Coale calls this a “human dilemma: the postmodern celebration of radical skepticism clashes with a deeper yearning for unity and wholeness” (2005: 4). That partly also explains the attractiveness highly ideologized organizations like churches and other institutions and groups today again enjoy. The fear of “the other” in such organizations’ ideologies is understandably defined and conceptualized, so would adherent Christians for example name the devil as the root of all evil. For people who want to “fight it alone” there is another resort: conspiracy.

“Conspiracy, whether actual or theoretical, provides an antidote to postmodernism: everything becomes a sign, a clue, a piece of a larger puzzle” (Coale 2005: 4). What results out of imagined conspiracies, is paranoia – probably the most postmodern of all psychological sicknesses. The uncanny “other” becomes a form one can possibly detect and fight – “it fuels the psychology of conspiracy. It lies at the heart of it, producing the compelling need and desire for an overriding concept or structure to explain events and objects in the world rationally and totally, a metannarrative of deceit and deception unmasked” (Coale 2005: 5). Both stories, COL 49 and Broken Flowers, are built upon possible plots, the accompanying paranoia and the traces to unearth the conspiracies.

In COL 49, it is not only Oedipa, but also the reader that feels left behind considering the flood of clues and information Pynchon packs in every sentence. “Conspiracies loom in the wings: who is behind this? Inverarity? Maas in her kirsch-addled state? Pynchon?” (Coale 2005: 138). The presumable facts she gathers about the alternative postal service W.A.S.T.E finally cannot be interlocked by her – too many contradictions and holes of intelligence make the picture undecipherable. Finally she comes to believe that she is either only imagining such a company with all its excrescences – though she had even seen the sign, the muted posthorn and post stamps – or it was a plot by her ex partner Pierce Inverarity:

Meaning what? That Bortz, along with Metzger, Cohen, Driblette, Koteks, the tattooed sailor in San Francisco, the W.A.S.T.E carriers she’d seen – that all of them were Pierce Inverarity’s men? Bought?...Either way, they`ll call it paranoia. (Pynchon 1966: 117).

Also Don Johnston in the final part of Broken Flowers is at a loss. None of the visits to the four women on his trip had provided the hint he needed. He had frequently spotted the colour of pink in their houses, the last visit at Penny’s even showed that she had a pink typewriter, but he could not talk plainly them. It could have been any of them, but even if he had had the possibility to reveal what his trip was about – the sender of the pink letter had remained anonymous, so why should she (or he) feel the need to talk plainly to him? After his rather unpleasant final visit to Penny – her two rural companions beat him up – he visits the grave of the remaining possible mother, Michelle Pepe. The gravestone however says: “To our beloved daughter and sister” – so there is again no clear answer.

In his final talk to Winston Don tells him that his trip had brought no results – he does not know who the sender of letter is, he is even unsure if he has a son. Besides the four women it also could have been his ex partner Sherry, who had left him in the beginning of the film and, of course, Winston himself. Don explains that Carmen, the third women he had visited, had a black puppy which was called Winston, this for him seemed evidence enough that his neighbour is involved. Just as Samuel Coale observes: ”The pattern replaces the absolute proof, which is impossible to find” (2005: 22). Jarmusch however had placed other indicators into the story that supported Don’s notion: Winston wanted to write a mystery novel, so why not stage a real one? It had only taken him one evening to present a whole list of the women with their complete addresses plus travel details and he twice phoned Don during his trip – maybe to get the latest news for his novel? Don did not respond to the second call as he probably already had the idea that he was being manipulated. So just like Oedipa, Don tries to gather the pieces of a puzzle that is simply too fragmented – what however becomes clear to the recipient of the two stories is that Oedipa and Don are looking for deeper truths concerning the society and its organization, a fact that also distinguishes COL 49 and Broken Flowers from ordinary detective fiction.

4. 2 the non-solution to nothing?

What makes the two stories postmodern in a structural way is – especially in COL 49 – the reception on two different levels. No question, Pynchon demands a concentrated reader, Oedipa as a character is not completely reliable neither are the strange figures she interacts with or any clue she detects. What the reader gets are only nuggets of a truth that could exist but is embedded in the high tide of nested sentences, supposed facts and images. The structural component is also valid for Broken Flowers: the recipient oscillates between believing and knowing, but in scenes where a final solution is delivered, it is contradicted in the next. Another aspect that is shared by the two pieces is their open ending, which has no denouement.

In the final part of Pynchon’s book, Oedipa Maas, desperate and on the verge to insanity, expects a final solution in the Crying of Lot 49, the auctioning of her ex’s estate. Only few pages before she had reckoned that everything that has happened to her could just be imagination or a plot of unprecedented extent. It had been mentioned to her that an unknown bidder is expected to show up at the auction - maybe Inverarity telling her it was all a joke? And it is exactly before this possible denouement that the story ends. So the expectation of a truth, a fundament the reader would be allowed to verify his speculations, is denied. It is as if Pynchon wanted to drag the reader back into reality, saying there is no such thing as a truth and thereby making a reference back to postmodernism. The same in Broken Flowe rs: Don Johnston in the last part of the film believes he has found his son – a young man he sees at the station is wearing a similar style as to clothes as he does, and he turns out to be, as announced by the pink letter, creative and resourceful, but as Don tells him he thinks he is his son, the young man is upset and runs away. Don rushes after him and shouts, but the young man is faster. Right in that moment another car comes by with a young man the same age in it, eying him interestingly. His son? The movie stops here.

5 .Conclusion: Internet and postmodernism

One of the most defining and interesting elements in Broken Flowers is the internet. Don’s complete dependence on this medium, as it is shown in the film, allows for reflections about the role the internet plays in the beginning of the 21st century. It is in his pervasiveness probably the most postmodern medium conceivable; there were repeatedly cases on the news in which young people died because they simply forgot to eat in the middle of an online-computer game. So it is not only capable of shaping our everyday-life but also our death.

For online-gamers, it serves as a means to “meet” other young people, to have “fun” and to get “recognition” – the quotation marks are set here with a clear intention, as the internet would not be a truly postmodern medium, if all these possibilities were “real”. The statement that Broken Flowers makes here, is unambiguous: no. Again it is merely a pastiche, the images of friends, “fun” as a substitute for distraction and recognition that will lead to nothing in real life – it is remarkable that online-gamers in their chat rooms indeed make the distinction between “rl” (“real life”) and “vl” (“virtual life”). In the case of Broken Flowers, the internet serves as a medium that generates loneliness and despair. A rather dreary outlook that confirms the bleak metaphors of Pynchon’s book of 40 years ago, especially in view of a western society in which the communication gets closer and closer to the state of totality.

6. Bibliography

Bignell, Jonathan. Postmodern Media Culture. Edinburgh: University Press, 2000.

Broken Flowers. Writer, Director: Jim Jarmusch. Producers: Jon Kilik and Stacey Smith. DVD. Tobis Home Entertainment, Universum Film, 2006.

Coale, Samuel Chase. Paradigms of Paranoia. The Culture of Conspiracy in Contemporary American Fiction. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2005.

Cornis-Pope, Marcel. Narrative Innovation and Cultural Rewriting in the Cold War and After. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Elliott, Anthony. Subject to Ourselves. Social Theory, Psychoanalysis, and Postmodernity. Boulder: Paradigm, 2004.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. (1966). London: Vintage, 2000.

Seed, David. Media Systems in The Crying of Lot 49. In: Copestake, Ian D. (ed.) American Postmodernity. Essays on the Recent Fiction of Thomas Pynchon. Oxford: Lang, 2003

22 of 22 pages


At a Loss: The Postmodern Quests in Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" and Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers"
University of Potsdam
HS: From Poe to Akunin: Highlights of the international Mystery Story in literature and film
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Loss, Postmodern, Quests, Thomas, Pynchon, Crying, Jarmusch, Broken, Flowers, From, Akunin, Highlights, Mystery, Story
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Lars Dittmer (Author), 2006, At a Loss: The Postmodern Quests in Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" and Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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