Escaping Paranoia with Drugs and Alcohol in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49

trying to escape paranoia

Reading a text that is intentionally full of paranoid patterning and over-patterning by its author could instill the characters’ feeling of paranoia into the reader’s own mind. Often, this transference of paranoia from the pages to the readers themselves would also be the goal of the author, who wishes to actualize the emotional and mental state of the paranoid protagonists within the passive audience.

This premise would be highly probable in regard to Thomas Pynchon’s novel, The Crying of Lot 49, of which any perusal would likely result in constant doubts, skepticism, a deep sense of uncertainty and even some anxiety or tension; in other words, paranoia. Yet, perhaps Pynchon also periodically offers a way out of the paranoia, a way with which the text itself attempts to shed its own paranoid skin. This essay will argue that Pynchon uses the themes of drugs and alcohol in The Crying of Lot 49 as an attempt for the characters to escape their paranoid state.

Before diving into a close analysis of the text, it is important to issue a brief discernment about inebriating substances. Over the years, it has been acknowledged that in addition to their recreational purposes, drugs and alcohol are also instruments that willfully lead to escapism due to higher levels of general stress (Sadava, Thistle, Forsyth: 1978). Pynchon, however, points out a correlation between inebriating substances and paranoia directly; furthermore, it appears that Pynchon even favors a measured consumption of drugs and alcohol to appease the mind, as reflected in The Crying of Lot 49.

There is a number of instances in the novel in which alcohol is involved as an effort of the characters to stray away from the paranoid state. The first time that Oedipa meets the lawyer Metzger, he comes to her hotel in order to assist her in understanding how to execute Pierce Inverarity’s will (chapter 2). Yet, immediately after his arrival, they begin drinking the “debonair bottle of French Beaujolais” that he brings along with him, and thereafter, they discuss an old film on television in which Metzger played a young kid, while they barely even mention Inverarity’s estate. When they run out of wine, instead of trying to examine Inverarity’s case, Metzger produces “a bottle of tequila” from his pocket, and they thus keep drinking and ultimately have sex, deviating from their original goal that is also the main source of paranoia.

Later on in the novel, when Oedipa and Metzger are about to embark on an investigation of some Inverarity’s property, they come across the completely paranoid Manny Di Presso, who tells them that he is being pursued by his clients whom he represents in order to sue Inverarity’s estate (chapter 3). On this occasion that only enhances their paranoia, Metzger again opens a tequila bottle and “Oedipa spread[s] a blanket and pour[s] booze into cups”; this attempt turns out to be a failure as they not only fail to discard their paranoia but also need to run away physically from “[t]wo figures in gray suits.”

There is also a mention of wine in the play The Courier’s Tragedy that Oedipa and Metzger go to watch: in one of the scenes, the murderous duke Angelo fails to “muster an army,” and in his desperation, he locks himself with all those who remain, “has wine brought in, and begins an orgy” (chapter 3). Thus, even a fictional character in a play in the novel uses alcohol as means to purge his paranoid, desperate state. In another encounter with Oedipa, she meets the philatelist Genghis Cohen, whose responsibility is “to inventory and appraise Inverarity’s stamp collection” (chapter 4). Cohen serves her “real homemade dandelion wine,” and “[i]n the space of a sip” she essentially realizes that she might be lost in a sort of an allegorical maze. This realization of her paranoia is a conscious understanding that there may not be a way out and, therefore, she should perhaps just leave it behind; yet, Cohen promptly brings her back to her chase with more hints and clues. At the end of their meeting, Cohen shuts down, and in an attempt to cease their paranoid discussion, he “pour[s] her more dandelion wine” and diverts the conversation to a dandelion wine-related topic. He only partially succeeds as Oedipa borrows his topic and finishes with a paranoid thought clearly associated with her futile chase – “As if the dead really do persist, even in a bottle of wine.”

paranoid looking out the window

After Oedipa follows another lead and fruitlessly trails a mail carrier for hours, she returns to the hotel to find that the lobby is “full of deaf-mute delegates in party hats … every one of them drunk”; these drunk deaf-mute delegates drag Oedipa to a grand ballroom where they cheerfully dance with her for half an hour, and to her surprise, no collisions at all occur throughout the dance (chapter 5). This event can symbolize that alcohol itself – which cannot hear and cannot talk – struggles to pull Oedipa out of her paranoia temporarily to find some momentary joy and pleasure.

At the end of the book, Oedipa tries with one final gamble to terminate her paranoia with alcohol: she “drink[s] bourbon until the sun [goes] down” and then she drives “on the freeway for a while with her lights out, to see what would happen” (chapter 6). This might not be an elegant way to eliminate her paranoia completely, but it is a way nonetheless. Thus, these are all examples that exhibit the characters’ exertions to get out of their paranoid state with alcohol.

In addition to alcohol, drugs – and especially LSD – are also indicated in the novel as a way out of paranoia, which the characters choose to take or refuse if they knowingly wish to keep their highly suspicious self-deliberations. At the beginning of the novel, Dr. Hilarius calls Oedipa at “three in the morning,” trying to persuade her to join some drug experiment that involves, among other drugs, LSD; Dr. Hilarius also disturbingly proclaims to her, “We want you,” and thereafter tries to convince her that she is the one who wishes to talk to him (chapter 1). Those actions hint that Dr. Hilarius deliberately endeavors to slyly grow and enhance a paranoid sense within Oedipa so she would seek a remedy in the form of his suggested experiment. Oedipa does not take the bait and hangs up the phone.

In a subsequent event, Oedipa arrives at the clinic of Dr. Hilarius, and during his frantic paranoid breakdown, he takes her hostage (chapter 5). During this troubling incident, Dr. Hilarius clearly states to her in reference to LSD, “I never took the drug, I chose to remain in relative paranoia”; in other words, LSD would have assuaged his paranoia, but he chooses to hold on to it.

An important character affected by LSD is Oedipa’s husband, Mucho Maas. Until his LSD episode, Mucho is characterized as a disturbed, neurotic and very possibly paranoid individual; yet, after Dr. Hilarius enrolls him into his now broadened drug program “to include husbands,” Oedipa surprisingly encounters Mucho, and although he talks deliriously, she also perceives that his “face now smooth, amiable, at peace,” that he “ha[s] this patient, motherly look now” and that he has “[n]o nightmares any more” (chapter 5). Perhaps LSD makes Mucho a little unhinged, but it evidently also makes him more peaceful, calmer, nicer, and maybe even happier than before. At their final meeting, Mucho offers Oedipa the LSD pills, but she refuses; she prefers to go back to her pursuit, of which paranoia is an integral part. Near the end of the novel, Oedipa lists her remaining open possibilities (chapter 6):

Either you have stumbled indeed, without the aid of LSD or other indole alkaloids, onto a secret richness and concealed density of dream … Or you are hallucinating it. Or a plot has been mounted against you, so expensive and elaborate … Or you are fantasying some such plot, in which case you are a nut, Oedipa, out of your skull.

Only the first possibility accepts the conspiracy as real, and this is also the only possibility that Oedipa associates with “LSD or other indole alkaloids,” in spite of the fact that she does not use drugs during her investigation; thus, Oedipa connects drugs to the sole option that rationalizes and justifies the conspiracy theory, and as a derivative, her paranoia. There is also one time in the plot that characters are embroiled with marijuana: during the aforementioned Manny Di Presso event, Oedipa and Metzger are with a group called “the Paranoids,” whose members admit that they are “all on pot” (chapter 3). Even though the Paranoids just shortly before heard about at least some of the conspiracy and fled in a boat from figures they had never met before, they do not seem paranoid at all during the cruise – they sing, drink, play and retell different versions of the plot of The Courier’s Tragedy “as strange to map as their rising coils and clouds of pot smoke.” All those events in which the characters are engaged with drugs, therefore, represent a doorway out of paranoia, even if it is not an ideal egress.

The protagonist of the novel, Oedipa, does not only drink alcohol in her attempts to appease her paranoia as previously noted, but there are also very particular episodes that revolve around Oedipa’s feeling of drunkenness or desire to feel it, which carry similar subtle sub-textual messages. Already in the first paragraph of the novel, almost promptly after Oedipa is informed that she is the executor of Inverarity’s estate and her paranoia begins to permeate, she stands in front of her television and “trie[s] to feel as drunk as possible” (chapter 1) – a clear indication of self-avoidance by a self-persuasion of insobriety.

During Oedipa and Metzger’s drinking binge at the hotel, her feeling is described by a short and simple narration that “[s]he felt drunk,” and right after that, her watch “had stopped” (chapter 2); this symbolically implies that the feeling of drunkenness halts her entire perception of reality, which most importantly includes her paranoia. In one of her highest levels of paranoid episodes, Oedipa wanders randomly around the city after drinking while seeing everything in connection with her pursuit; she then realizes that “perhaps only her linearly fading drunkenness, would protect her” (chapter 5) – again, the feeling of drunkenness is distinguished as a temporal shield against paranoia. The feeling of drunkenness is, ergo, portrayed as a transitory safe harbor for Oedipa that can assist her in finding momentary cover from another paranoid storm.

As illustrated, there is a repeated consumption and allusions to drugs and alcohol by characters in The Crying of Lot 49, which are employed in the text as means of evasion from paranoia, even if just on a temporary basis. Perhaps by associating the themes of drugs and alcohol with paranoia-escapism, Pynchon also implicitly suggests the readers find occasional and moderate relief and release in the form of such substances in order to prevent an accumulation of stresses and tension that in extreme cases can result in paranoia. Alternatively, there is also a very remote possibility that Pynchon purposely plants the thematic over-patterning of drugs and alcohol just to perplex enthusiastic readers or young academics who crave to study his work, as he covertly suggests to them not to be too paranoid about his clues about paranoia, and perhaps he also tacitly advises them to relax and wind down with just a tiny bit of drugs and alcohol.

Work Cited:

Sadava, S. W., Thistle, R., & Forsyth, R. 1978. “Stress, Escapism and Patterns of Alcohol and Drug Use.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 39(5), 725-736.