The Thomas Pynchon Countdown: The Crying of Lot 49
The second installment in our look back at the novels of Thomas Pynchon brings us to The Crying of Lot 49, released in 1966. It fulfills all of the promises V. made about the things Pynchon would one day achieve, and even makes a few new promises in the process.
This is Pynchon's shortest, most straight-forward and most accessible work. Ya got that? It won't get any easier than this...
The Crying of Lot 49 almost seems to flit on by...it's just a tad over one hundred pages, after all...and it certainly does get lost sitting up on that shelf next to all those big imposing Pynchon books...but it's proved itself over the years to have tremendous staying power, and there is not a course in post-modernism that could exist without it.
But what is it about?
Ah, there's that question...that dangerous question one should never ask in the presence of a Pynchon novel. Because, you know, the books aren't about what they're about...they're about what happens in between plot points. They're about what the characters don't say...and, most importantly, they are about implication...not exposition.
In Lot 49, however, this doesn't actually make the book any more difficult to understand...and it's really the only time (well, Vineland might just qualify) in the Pynchon canon that you can say that. Which is very likely why the book is used so often as an entry point for those unfamiliar to Pynchon; a first-time reader can actually get away with missing things, and still enjoy the story.
And it's a very good story, too. It's the story of Oedipa Maas, a suburban housewife who is named co-executor to the will of Pierce Inverarity. Inverarity was a lover of Oedipa's at some point before she met her husband (Wendell "Mucho" Maas) and she has only intermittently heard from him since.
Oedipa, without any legal background whatsoever, has no idea why Inverarity should have named her co-executor...but curious (at the suggestion of her attourney) of what she might find, she agrees...and the novel, essentially, traces a series of strange connections among the assets...connections that lead her, repeatedly, back to an underground postal service from the 1700s.
This is the Tristero, and practically every one of Inverarity's investments seems to have some connection to the organization, which (as the story gradually reveals) was a particularly ruthless adversary to the Pony Express...and, prior to that, to the Thurn and Taxis postal system in England.
Not that any of this bothers Oedipa, per se. What bothers Oedipa is that she begins to find connections to the Tristero everywhere she looks...outside of Inverarity's investments she hears words in the productions of community theaters, implicit graffiti on the walls of buildings and tattooed onto the backs of sailors' hands, in the rhymes of children's games...even, possibly, in Porky Pig cartoons.
The Tristero functions on two levels in this book...on the more obvious level, it functions as a method of communication that has spanned centuries and still seems to exist...in fact, it seems as though Oedipa is the only character not using it. But it also functions metaphorically...it works as a very clear symbol of the vastness of Oedipa's ignorance.
Which is a clear theme of the book: The Crying of Lot 49 is the novel of Oedpia's awakening...and, possibly, her retreat from her newfound awareness.
It is structured, in many ways, like a traditional detective novel...Oedipa has a case to solve. Is the Tristero real? Is it an elaborate hoax on Inverarity's part? (All of the clues, after all, do happen to lead back to the estate...) Or, worst of all, is this paranoia? Is this insanity? Is this evidence that Oedipa will actually manufacture elaborate schemes in her mind to protect her from the formlessness of reality?
But all of that makes the book sound heavier than it actually is. While it contains universal ponderings and philosophical possibilities, The Crying of Lot 49 is a very easy read. In fact, I recommend you read it (at least once) in a single afternoon, as it can easily be done and the "suddenness" of it will cause you to see a lot more in the way of interconnections than you would if you set the book down overnight and found it again in the morning.
Lot 49 really is Pynchon at his best. It's not my favorite of his novels, but there's very little to dislike about it. It's quick, it's quirky, it's alarmingly complicated for such a simple little book.
But don't think for a moment that its brevity exempts you from Pynchon's charming digressions...after all, there's plenty of room for philatelic Ghengis Cohen to wax philosophical about dandelion wine. And for us to watch (along with Oedipa) a production of the hideously violent The Courier's Tragedy, which is described by one of the characters as "a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse."
There's also a lawyer with whom Oedipa has a brief affair while watching a film he starred in as a child; her physician Dr. Hilarius who attempts to trick her into taking LSD; her philandering husband who works for KCUF Radio and can't keep his hands off of underage girls; Mike Fallopian who represents The Peter Pinguid Society, which intends to immortalize a US / Soviet conflict that may or may not have happened. Toss it all together with some postal system folklore, conspiracy theory and a perpetual motion machine and you've got, well, you've got a very thin sliver of the ground this book covers.
The Crying of Lot 49 absolutely crackles with creativity, and while it's heavy stuff, it never relies on that heaviness exclusively. It reads just as well as a comedy as it does a tragedy, and it works just as well for leisure-reading as it does for scholarly debate. It's more than just a good Pynchon book...it's a great read, and maybe the only book I've read that fans of James Joyce and Douglas Adams might equally enjoy.
Which is a bold statement, but one Lot 49 has undoubtedly earned.