JFK, the Umbrella Man, and Thomas Pynchon

A couple of days ago I wrote a post about revisiting once-read books, and all the dissonance that it can potentially cause. In that post, I referenced a conversation that I had with someone who had just read The Crying of Lot 49 for the first time, and who did not particularly enjoy it. He asked me what it was that I liked about the book, and the general theme of my rather long-winded answer was nostalgia. I liked the book because of what it meant to me at a certain point in my life. Ok, I’ve already written about that, so why bring it up again… and what, if anything, does that have to do with JFK? Well, as a result of that post came quite an interesting conversation.

In that post I mentioned that COL 49 is essentially a book about entropy. It’s very much about the process of sifting information from noise and preventing the “system” (in this case, Oedipa’s life) from falling to entropy. One of the criticisms that he had leveled against the novel dealt with the way Pynchon addressed and introduced topics such as Information Theory or Maxwell’s Demon, seemingly haphazardly and half-heartedly. Through the course of the conversation, however, we agreed that the work itself, in postmodern fashion, was a true “open work.” That these seemingly casual mentions were really carefully placed “tools” that the reader would need to become an active participant in the text.

Throughout the narrative Oedipa Maas, our fearless protagonist, is essentially acting as Maxwell’s Demon, trying to create order and sense as everything around her becomes chaotic. In her quest for the truth, she is actively sorting information and staving off entropy. In fact, in the final scene where she searches the crowd for the secret bidder, in deciding to continue her quest, she effectively claims a (temporary?) victory against entropy.

“Oedipa sat alone, toward the back of the room, looking at the napes of necks, trying to guess which one was her target, her enemy, perhaps her proof.”

Mirroring this, as the novel progresses, the reader is also fed constant strings of information, and in order to make sense of things, as much as is possible, we, too become a Maxwell’s Demon and sort. Like Oedipa, the reader must realize that the only way to survive entropy is to continually try to create meaning. The structure of the novel itself leaves us no choice.

One thing that became apparent was that the more layers that Oedipa peeled away, the further away she got from any clarity.  Questions did not lead to answers, they led to more questions, and information became drowned out in a deluge of noise.

Now here’s where JFK and the Umbrella Man come into play. Last week, on the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, the New York Times released a short documentary by Errol Morris titled “The Umbrella Man.” 

The documentary did not add fuel nor fire to any of the extant conspiracy theories that still surround JFK’s death, rather, it referenced that in historical research, there may be a level analogous to a “quantum dimension,” where normal rules simply do not apply, that once a certain level of detail is reached, the thread of meaning begins to dissipate.  In other words, that the historian may find him or herself in a position similar to that of Oedipa Maas, peeling away layers only to find more questions and more possibilities. In reference to why he made the movie, and what it was about the Kennedy assassination that drew him in, Morris writes,

What is it about this case that has led not to a solution, but to the endless proliferation of possible solutions?

At very start of the documentary, Josiah Thompson states,

“In December 1967, John Updike was writing [the] ‘Talk of the Town’ [column] for the New Yorker and he spent most of that ‘Talk of the Town’ column talking about the Umbrella Man. He said that his learning of the existence of the Umbrella Man made him speculate that in historical research there may be a dimension similar to the quantum dimension in physical reality. If you put any event under a microscope, you will find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on. It’s as if there’s the macro level of historical research, where things sort of obey natural laws and usual things happen and unusual things don’t happen, and then there’s this other level where everything is really weird.”

And all that, of course, is under the assumption that what the “umbrella man” claimed to be true was, in fact, true. This could go on and on, ad infinitum. It’s almost as if Pynchon wrote the story of the umbrella man himself.

In the New Yorker column that Thompson referenced, Updike wrote,

We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute section of time and space would yield similar strangenesses—gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for absolute truth. The truth about those seconds in Dallas is especially elusive; the search for it seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic.

What the umbrella man seemed to illustrate was that the historian, and, well, anyone who pokes and prods at the world around them in attempt to understand and establish “truth” has to essentially become their own Nefastis Machine or Maxwell’s Demon, and begin the Sisyfusian tasks of sorting the information from the noise and holding entropy at bay. We, like Oedipa Maas, must all keep striving daily to create meaning.

Here’s a short excerpt from the Morris’ “Umbrella Man.” The video in its entirety can be found here. Well worth watching.

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4 thoughts on “JFK, the Umbrella Man, and Thomas Pynchon

  1. Great post! You have made me really want to read COL 49 now. I have never heard of historical research having a quantum dimension before but I love the weirdness of quantum physics so I will happily jump into the quantum history pool.

  2. Pingback: The Vertigo of Lists | Intelligent Life

  3. Funny thing is that I just wrote an essay linking the two (Lot 49 and The Umbrella Man) together. My connection though came from reading an article in a Dutch newspaper and C. Morris Writing in Pynchon’s book!

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