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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...

Shall I project a world?The Crying of Lot 49 almost seems to flit on'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 fact, it seems as though Oedipa is the only character not using it. But it also functions 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'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.

5 Stars

About this entry


My apologies for posting this un-proofed last night. I've corrected some of the more alarming errors and poor phrasework.

Next week we move from the simplest of Pynchon's books to the most complex...that hugely intimidating masterpiece Gravity's Rainbow. I'll also be working through my National Novel Writing Month let's just see how much I let my essay here suffer...

By Philip J Reed, VSc
October 30, 2006 @ 10:42 pm

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"that hugely intimidating masterpiece Gravity's Rainbow"

Erm, yes. I spent the first 50 pages thinking how good it was, then I lost the thread and couldn't get back into it. I'll try again at some point.

By Tanya Jones
October 30, 2006 @ 11:58 pm

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National Novel Writing Month

Ye gods! That's almost like it was designed to make me write TGSFBTCBFIECPIOTHTTTFOTRIAPITIACWWS

1666.6-ish words a day might be a bit steep considering the current state of the storyline, though.

By Jeffrey Lee
October 31, 2006 @ 12:53 am

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>Ye gods!

Do it, Jeffrey. I realized (just about too late) that this was the first time in three years that I hadn't pimped it at every opportunity...and I regret that, because it's a brilliant exercise, and it's something every writer should do. Quality is always more important than quantity, but you have to realize that quantity is, in itself, a good workout for an author.

So, it's kind of short notice, yeah...but you'll find out very quickly that you can reach 1,667 words in about 40 minutes in a decent hour isn't a difficult goal, because you'll find yourself writing 5,000 words when you're particularly inspired and so that makes up for the days that you aren't...

I'll be posting my results to as usual. Not that I'm asking anyone to read them; I'd rather people participate for themselves.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
October 31, 2006 @ 1:02 am

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Hmm, I guess it's a possibility. Although I am very critical of my own creative writing abilities, I can think of several books which are popular despite apparently aimlessly meandering between topics.

Unfortunately I do have (at least) two other things that need doing over the next couple of weeks, so might not have enough time to do the full 50,000 words. Which will make me less likely to want to try, as it's easier to make it an all or nothing affair.

However the good news is that I have had some rather interesting dreams recently, so if they continue I shouldn't run out of ideas to work into the story.

By Jeffrey Lee
October 31, 2006 @ 1:26 am

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I think I've thought up a cunning way of writing it that will allow me to write it without actually having much of an idea about the plot and storyline. Which is good, because I don't have much of an idea about the plot or story.

It can also be used as a good excuse for the suckage of the story once it's finished.

By Jeffrey Lee
October 31, 2006 @ 11:05 am

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>a good excuse for the suckage of the story

My stock excuse is just that I only spent a month on it...with no time to go back and edit or rewrite.

It begins tomorrow. I say give it a whirl. If you don't end up finishing it, that's okay. (I came rather close last year, but didn't quite make the wordcount.) Just plan for success and do your best.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
October 31, 2006 @ 12:52 pm

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Well, my only attempt so far at a "regular" feature on NTS and my internet connection goes completely dead. And will be for probably another week.

Nevertheless, I shall attempt it.

I'll just have to pen it here, in the library. That's devotion to the Pynchon cause. You owe me big.

By Phil
November 04, 2006 @ 3:39 pm

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Just plan for success and do your best.

Is 293 words in 20 days a good pace?

As you can tell, at the end of the first day I realised that if I were to write the novel I wouldn't be able to get anything else done. Like eating, sleeping, procrastinating, and spouting nonsense on websites.


I rest my case.

By Jeffrey Lee
November 20, 2006 @ 9:42 pm

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Now THAT is interesting. Does anyone have any information on what the code was, exactly? I'd doubt it was anything as straight-forward as Morse, as that wouldn't have taken very long to decipher.

By Miguel Sanchez
August 17, 2007 @ 5:15 pm

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