August 30, 2015KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReading

Ross, Pynchon, Vonnegut (Part One)

Yesterday, at the end of my discussion of Fran Ross’s Oreo, I promised to do something that I’ll have to do anyway in a couple of months: compare Ross to Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. (I’ll be teaching the three writers, along with a handful of others, in a class this fall on comic fiction.) Danzy Senna, in her new introduction to Oreo, places Ross in conversation with Pynchon and Vonnegut; she mentions their shared interest in ambiguity, wordplay, and meta-references. I have no idea if Ross read V. (1963) or The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) or Cat’s Cradle (1963) or Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)—but, based on the evidence of Oreo (1974), she seems to have read everything. So I thought it might be worthwhile to track a few possible points of contact.

Let’s start with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek jacket copy on the back of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: “The highly original satire about Oedipa Maas, a woman who finds herself enmeshed in a worldwide conspiracy, meets some extremely interesting characters, and attains a not-inconsiderable amount of self-knowledge.” What jumps out? How about the ridiculous name: Oedipa. It recalls Oedipus, of course—and Pynchon’s protagonist goes on an Oedipus-like search for answers after being named the executor of a dead lover’s estate. The Crying of Lot 49 is a quest narrative, in a way—a novel about searching: for identity, for meaning, for truth (if such a thing can be thought to exist). It’s also, as the promotional blurb claims, a satire: maybe of that very act of searching; certainly of psychiatry; of some applications of science; of a kind of nascent California counter-culture; of right-wing conspiracy theories; of capitalist rapaciousness in general; of Jacobean stage tragedies; of Hollywood; of sexual negotiation; the list could go on. Pynchon being Pynchon, the satire leads to larger and (at times) more unsettling questions, but those questions are never fully answered. The book’s ending is almost an anti-ending.

Cue Oreo. Ross also sends her protagonist out on an Oedipus-like quest: to meet her father and learn the secret of her birth. (Spoiler alert: The secret is silly. “Clues, shmues,” as one chapter subheading puts it.) Satire and references to Greek mythology abound—but while Pynchon focuses on the myths of Oedipus and Narcissus (with downer endings, both), Ross eventually yokes her narrative to the myth of Theseus (a happier tale, on the whole). As I wrote yesterday, Ross doesn’t seem terribly committed to her plot device: Oreo’s Theseus-like meandering in the book’s second half is mostly an excuse to tell jokes and meet “some extremely interesting characters.” And Oreo, like Oedipa, isn’t (and perhaps isn’t meant to be) an entirely believable character; her resources, both mental and physical, are too great. She’s named after a cookie (and a slur) that comes from people mishearing her original nickname: Oriole. From start to finish, Oriole remains (excuse the pun, as Ross would) unflappable.

But how about this: Might Oreo, with its celebration of all things heterogeneous and hybrid, be an answer, in a way, to Oedipa’s (and Pynchon’s, surely) final cries in Lot 49?

She had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided; and how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity? For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless.

Tomorrow: Ross and Vonnegut, plus some Richard Pryor news.

Oreo cover