Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

"Hi! My Name Is Arnold Snarb!": Homosexuality in the Crying of Lot 49

Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

"Hi! My Name Is Arnold Snarb!": Homosexuality in the Crying of Lot 49

Article excerpt

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) has evoked a wealth of critical attention, but this attention has overlooked its frequent references to male homosexuality. J. Kerry Grant, for example, in his Companion to The Crying of Lot 49, ignores all but a couple of Pynchon's most obvious gaytalk or straight-slang references to homosexuality. On the one hand, Pynchon treats the hidden gay-world as an undesirable, almost unthinkable, underside of San Francisco, carrying the mark of the pariah; on the other hand, he makes it a necessary component of a distorted and distorting heterosexuality. Through her encounter with this homosexual underworld and its symbolic value system, Oedipa learns what it means to be a heterosexual woman capable of standing on her own in a world dominated by (supposedly) straight men.

Cathy Davidson's 1977 essay "Oedipa as Androgyne" answered critics who ignored Pynchon's use of gender altogether. (1) But even before that, in 1974, Daniel Harris had thoroughly deconstructed the notion that androgyny was a cusp that joined the best of male and female characteristics and abilities, bluntly concluding, "That no woman should want to internalize the male myth in androgyny, except perhaps those who wish an easy accommodation with a masculine world they fear to offend, is plain" (172). I argue that, instead of seeing Oedipa as an androgyne, we should follow the steps of her feminist radicalization, a process in which male homosexuality guides and tutors her.

Reading Lot 49 from the vantage of the 1990s greatly distorts the ghetto atmosphere that surrounded the gay community of the early 1960s--even in San Francisco. Mafia ownership and frequent police raids stigmatized the bars, forcing them into disreputable, often dangerous neighborhoods, thereby reifying the "unmentionable," "diseased" or "criminal" marginalization of homosexuals, identifying them with the economically deprived, politically un-American and socially outcast. (2) Pynchon's tour guide, herding a Volkswagen-busload of tourists "on route to take in a few San Francisco nite spots," identifies the location of The Greek Way as "'famous North Beach'" and promises to take the tourists next to Finocchio's, a bar famous for its female impersonators (110). Pynchon, who later writes of approximately this same time in his own life that he had set out "to visit the places Kerouac had written about" (SL 22), may have identified North Beach as one of the centers of the Beat rebellion and a Mecca for openly gay men like Allen Ginsberg. But to introduce The Greek Way as a tourist attraction during a period of police harassment is, at its least, surprising. It is what Alan Sinfield identifies as a textual "faultline"; it "disrupts" the political acceptability of Pierce Inverarity's dominant capitalistic empire and its accompanying male-heterosexual positionings by introducing a worldview that threatens those positionings.

References in Lot 49 to homosexuals and homosexuality are the common ones of the 1960s: "'the Drop-The-Soap crowd'" (77); "fag," "'the third sex,'" "'the lavender crowd'" (110); "drag" (116). Pynchon even puns on "gay" (110), although the word was not then in wide public use to designate either a person or sexuality (see Duberman 205). The name "The Greek Way" derives directly from gaytalk for anal intercourse. That tourists have infiltrated a gay bar seems, at first, a statement on the crass commercialism we can identify in Pierce's far-flung empire; it is also a comment on the straight public's infringement upon a private gay-world. Because the tourists (and Oedipa, despite her protestation) have sought out and moved into the gay world, the direction of this movement reverses the usual public/private polarity (in a gay bar the straight person is marginalized) and thereby challenges the dominant society's assumption of unquestioned heterosexual prerogative. The movement of tourists into the bar defines heterosexual curiosity about those whom sexual polarity has marginalized and, by treating this curiosity as "normal," blurs the distinctions that position straight sexuality over any "deviance" from it. …

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