a salad of despair

Thomas Pynchon has a reputation as a challenging author. I’ve just finished The Crying of Lot 49, he lives up to that reputation. This is an extraordinary work, not one that apparently Pynchon himself rates but one that I definifely do. All that said, it’s complex stuff.

Pynchon is most famous for his third novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, a book with such impact that Pynchon’s career is now divided into pre- and post-Gravity’s Rainbow phases. By all accounts, Gravity’s Rainbow is a masterpiece, a triumph of 20th Century literature, it’s also though famously dense and rather long and so perhaps a slightly amibitious entry point to Pynchon’s work. The Crying of Lot 49, by contrast, is around 110 pages or so and is thought to be one of his most straightforward and linear novels. Straightforward is relative, it is superb, but having finished it I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the plot was, or even whether there was a plot.

On the surface, it’s the tale of how Oedipa Maas is appointed executor to the estate of a rich ex-boyfriend, and as a result comes to uncover an ancient conspiracy dedicated to creating a rival postal service to the US Government one. It’s not that simple though, there may not be a conspiracy, if there is it may not be that one, there may be several conspiracies, there may just be random noise, throughout this novel meaning is always just out of grasp, never quite realisable, perhaps not there at all.

Here’s the first sentence of the novel:

One Summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsh in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or the supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous enough and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

That’s a very characteristic sentence, dense yet clearly written and already not wholly serious. It also contains what is usually a pet hate of mine, blatantly incredible character names. Obviously in real life few people have names like Pierce Inverarity or Oedipa Maas. Generally, when novelists seek to give characters cutesy names I find it alienating, it reminds me I’m reading a book. Waugh’s Scoop was in large part ruined for me by the obviousness of the silly names given to the newspapers in it.

Here, that didn’t happen, and the reason it didn’t is that the names have a purpose. Before I get to that though, here’s a few more, a sample of some of the characters encountered in this short work:

Wendell ‘Mucho’ Maas, Dr Hilarius, Metzger who used to be a child actor named Baby Igor and who is now a lawyer (and whose life story is being made by a former lawyer who is now an actor named Manny Di Presso), Mike Fallopian, Randolph Driblette, Genghis Cohen. There’s also the wonderfully named law firm of Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus, of Los Angeles.

A lot of these names are allusions, though not necessarily ones with any actual significance to the text. Some, Genghis Cohen, are outright jokes, but most of them almost mean something. Oedipa Maas, Manny Di Presso, the references are obvious, but meaningless. Like so much of this novel, they tremble on the brink of significance, they appear important, but it’s really not clear that they mean anything at all.

As Oedipa starts to investigate Pierce’s affairs, she becomes involved with co-executor Metzger, and becomes aware of what may be a conspiracy running right through Southern California involving a centuries-old organisation dedicated to alternate means of mail delivery. She goes to see a newly staged Jacobean revenge play, which contains within it curious references to the contemporary conspiracy, she visits an inventor of a perpetual motion machine that doesn’t appear to work, and becomes alert to the symbols of the conspiracy – a line drawing of a muted trumpet, forged stamps each containing intentional and often disturbing minor errors.

Her psychiatrist, Dr Hilarius, presses her to take part in a new study using LSD for therapeutic purposes, her husband is still scarred by the psychological trauma of having worked on a used car lot and now works as a DJ but is having a crisis of faith in that calling, Manny Di Presso is being hunted by one of his clients, the hotel Oedipa books into is used for practice sessions by a mock-English band called The Paranoids who try to spy on her in the mistaken belief she is having bizarrely kinky sex. Paranoia then is everywhere, paranoia is at the heart of the novel.

Pynchon creates here a powerful sense of place, even though the place much of the story occurs in is made up, San Narcisco:

San Narcisco lay farther south, near LA. Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a group of concepts – census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access routes to its own freeway.

Throughout the novel there is a sense of 1960s Southern California, a mix of drugs, capitalism, creativity and urban sprawl. The weird is everywhere, there is a bar that only play electronic music (which to me is a form of music that originates in Germany and Britain in the late 1970s, I don’t really know what it meant back then), with live nights on Saturdays. The defence contractor Yoyodyne has its offices here, where the staff sing company songs but use their own private mail network (separate to the conspiracy) to pass contentless messages, sent to each other only to ensure the private mail network has something to deliver. There is a company that makes bone-dust cigarette filters from the bones of dead GIs. It is an an insane melting-pot of innovation and horror.

Among the chaos of Southern California, Oedipa begins to find meaning in her investigation of the conspiracy, assuming it exists that is. Is she herself descending into paranoia? Is it all some post-mortem joke of Pierce Inverarity’s? Is it in fact an ancient conspiracy, albeit a singularly pointless one? The search for meaning creates meaning, we find patterns in the noise, but whether any of it exists outside our own heads is unclear, perhaps unknowable.

And that is a large part of what this is about, for me anyway. It is a vision of paranoia, of the terror of a world in which everything makes sense, we create conspiracies though because even that is preferable to a world where things make no sense at all. They are out to get you, but at least they care enough to try. As reader, we are like Oedipa, looking for meaning in a mass of references, allusions, apparent themes, we draw conclusions on what it’s all about but who knows if we’re right? Perhaps we just want it to be about something, so we find things within it that support our expectations.

Along the way, there is some genuinely very funny comedy here, it contains for example one of the funniest, and stupidest, sex scenes I’ve ever read and there are some marvellous throwaway lines:

Despair came over her, as it will when nobody around has any sexual relevance to you.

There is also a certain beauty to the whole thing, wonderful and disturbing imagery, an exuberance bursting through the pages which seems uncontrolled but which is in fact expertly crafted. At one point Oedipa finds herself staying in a hotel which is also hosting a conference for deaf-mutes:

Back in the hotel she found the lobby full of deaf-mute delegates in party hats, copied in crêpe paper after the fur Chinese communist jobs made popular during the Korean conflict. They were every one of them drunk, and a few of the men grabbed her, thinking to bring her along to a party in the grand ballroom. She tried to struggle out of the silent, gesturing swarm, but was too weak. Her legs ached, her mouth tasted horrible.They swept her on into the ballroom, where she was seized about the waist by a handsome young man in a Harris tweed coat and waltzed round and round, through the rustling, shuffling hush, under a great unlit chandelier. Each couple on the floor danced whatever was in the fellow’s head: tango, two-step, bossa nova, slop. But how long, Oedipa thought, could it go on before collisions became a serious hindrance? There would have to be collisions. The only alternative was some unthinkable order of music, many rhythms, all keys at once, a choreography in which each couple meshed easy, predestined. Something they all heard with an extra sense atrophied in herself. She followed her partner’s lead, limp in the young mute’s clasp, waiting for the collisions to begin. But none came. She was danced for half an hour before, by mysterious consensus, everybody took a break, without having felt any touch but the touch of her partner.

Apart from the beauty and strangeness of the imagery in that passage, I can’t help but see it as an image of America itself. Everyone dancing to their own dream, somehow not colliding and the whole thing unexpectedly working. There is something both frightening and magnificent in it, it’s not the only vision of America out there (I don’t myself buy into American exceptionalism), but it’s a vision and in some ways an optimistic one. And if America is anything, it’s optimistic.

So, there are my thoughts, for now anyway. Whole books have been written on The Crying of Lot 49, books longer than the novel itself. There are essay collections about it, teacher study guides, any blog post is but a thin scraping at the surface. This book is packed with references, to Nabokov, to the Beatles, to all sorts of things, most of which I probably didn’t get. Most of which I doubt anyone gets, though we’d each likely get different ones.

I’ve not even touched here on many possible core issues of the book, communications theory and failures of communication, consumed experience, the blurring of the self, entropy, I could write 10,000 words and still not manage all of it. For me though, it connected most as a story of the search for meaning and the (perhaps?) creation of it where we don’t find it – the imposition of patterns on random data. Other readers could, many have, drawn quite different conclusions.

It’s an extraordinary achievement.

The Crying of Lot 49

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25 Comments

Filed under California, Novellas, Personal canon, Pynchon, Thomas, US Literature

25 responses to “a salad of despair

  1. I picked up Gravity’s Rainbow (I think it was) once years ago and didn’t like the bit I read, so that was as far as I went with Pynchon. This one does sound interesting, though.

  2. If the quotes work for you, you may enjoy it, if not you almost certainly won’t.

    Part of the reason I listed a load of the names was to enable people to see what was there and decide it wasn’t for them if it looked pretentious or annoying (obviously I didn’t find it either, but views vary and all that).

    If you do give Pynchon another try, I’d either go for this or get his most recent – Inherent Vice – which is a sort of Great Lebowski-esque detective novel. As soon as it hits paperback I’m buying it.

  3. Sorry, where’s the part where you get back to how the names have a purpose? I see where you return to the subject, but you dismiss the names as “obvious, but meaningless” – a judgment I would be careful about making about any detail in a Pynchon novel. They “tremble on the brink of significance” – that’s well said.

    And just to be clear, you got to the last sentence of Scoop – “Outside the owls hunted maternal rodents and their furry broods” – and you said that does nothing, that’s ruined for me, by the silly newspaper name 100 pages earlier?

  4. GB Steve

    I’ve just read it too, partly because I failed to get very far with Gravity’s Rainbow, or rather I was just starting to get the hang of it and then was distracted by something else. So I picked up TCoL49, mainly because it’s so short, to see if I should think again about picking up the longer work.

    And I enjoyed it tremendously, the “trembl[ing] on the brink of significance” is something I love and is an inherent part of the work of one of my favourite authors, M John Harrison.

    I haven’t read Scoop, I find Waugh ever so slightly tiresome for some reason but the Beeb did a great radio adaptation earlier this year, so it’s probably me who is wrong.

  5. All my judgements on this novel are tentative. How I read the names is I think they have implicit meaning, they allude to things which seem relevant, and yet when you look closer at them it’s hard to say exactly what they do mean. I think that’s the purpose (and sorry if that wasn’t clear), the names themselves are yet another bit of noise out of which we try to form a pattern. They make the reader like Oedipa, straining the communication for its intent, unsure there is one. Their meaninglessness is why they’re important.

    Or not. It’s possible they do have a meaning and I just missed it, that’s possible too. It’s that sort of novel. I don’t think certainty is possible, and that I’m certain is intentional.

    Scoop’s just not my favourite Waugh, to be honest I don’t remember it well now, though I do recall finding the names very annoying at the time, they lacked subtlety. Perhaps ruined was putting it to strong though.

    To be clear, however, I’m not saying Scoop is a bad book, I’m saying I didn’t really like it. Those are very different things. Waugh couldn’t write a bad book, but he wrote books I loved and books I didn’t. It’s an issue of taste, not talent.

    The point here was I think the names might ruin this book for some readers, they didn’t for me but I did want to get that warning out there.

    Steve, nice comparison with Harrison, who I’ve been planning to pick up again recently actually. I plan to pick up either Light or The Centauri Device, not sure which yet, do you have a view? It’s quite fun to look at the Amazon reviews, a mix of five stars from folk who love his tentative style and one stars from people complaining about the lack of reliable physics.

  6. Thanks, that clears a lot up, and is very close to how I understand Pynchon’s names.

  7. Great review Max. From my (limited) experience I suspect that your analysis is largely applicable to Pynchon as a whole. Whilst reading your review I began again to feel the frustration and uncertainty which I associate with my abortive attempt on Gravity’s Rainbow… As others have commented, your ‘trembling on the brink of significance’ phrase struck a chord. Beautifully expressed.

    TCofL49 does sound appealing, nonetheless. I enjoyed the passages quoted above. Perhaps this is the key for me. Pynchon in small doses.

    But at this point I merely envy your ability to see through the ‘random noise.’ For the time being I’m going to have to take your word for Pynchon’s ‘extraordinary achievement.’

  8. I have to say, I did not really enjoy TCofL49. Pynchon is funny and some scenes will stick with me for a long, long time, but as a whole, I just could not work up much enthusiasm for it. I think you might like Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness if you liked the whole paranoia and “this may mean something, or maybe nothing at all” aspect of TCofL49. In the end, I found them both frustrating. My vote is with Pynchon on this, but it is quite likely the failing was mine.

    Anyway, great review. I think you did capture the book and provided a great analysis which should tip people to whether they will like it or not…and will help readers understand what to make of it (or not) when they finish.

  9. I am another one of those people who abandoned Gravity’s Rainbow. And while I think I might have a chance of finishing this one, the quotes you provided have convinced me it is not worth the effort. I certainly appreciate the review, even if it only confirms a previous distaste.

  10. GB Steve

    The Centauri Device is more straight-forward although you can feel MJH struggling with the notion of plot. In its ant-heroic qualities, it feels like a pre-cursor to cyberpunk but is more frenetic than Gibson ever was.

    Light is a much looser thing, MJH is more assured but unless you can go with the flow, I suspect it’s not, like Pynchon, an easy read.

  11. I don’t think you can see through the random noise Sarah, I think you just find your own patterns within it. There’s other views of it though, some very different. As I said in my opening, it’s complex stuff.

    Interesting how many folk have abandoned Gravity, that said it does seem to me like starting Joyce with Ulysses, better to maybe try The Dubliners and if you like that work on, Gravity’s a hell of a commitment for such a dizzying writer.

    I’ll look out the Samedi novel, and see if it interests. Thanks for the tip.

    Kevin, I’m glad there was enough info to confirm your lack of interest, a large part of why I put quotes in of course is to hopefully give people enough material to form their own views on.

    Steve, thanks, I’ll try Light first and work back to Centauri later. With writers like Harrison, I find it’s best just to go with the flow without thinking too much, and see as you go what moods and images strike you. The same to a degree holds for this Pynchon actually.

  12. marco

    Yeah, The Crying of Lot 49 is generally considered the best entry point.
    It is probably the most enjoyable of his novels – for me it was sheer fun to read – and if you don’t like it, chances are Pynchon is not for you.
    There are passages in GR that are just as brilliant as those in TCofL49, but I understand that the sprawling prose and meandering storylines – even though they do adequately reflect the main theme of dispersion and entropy – could be more of an obstacle. There’s no doubt however that GR is an exceptional achievement.
    A major theme you did not mention – maybe more explicitly to the front in V and GR, but definitely also present in TCofL49 – is the divide/contrast/relationship between organic/alive and inorganic/mechanical/dead. On the one hand life – even human interactions and personal thoughts – is the expression of chemical and ultimately physical processes – on the other hand from a certain perspective emergent structures – cities/organizations/industries could be seen as organisms with their own life cycle and a form of volition/survival instinct – organisms in relation to which human beings are no more than cells or bacteria.
    Or, put in another way, there are only forms,waves and patterns which reproduce themselves at various levels of complexity.
    This naturally ties in with themes of subjectivity, free will/predestination, entropy and thermodynamics, etc. etc.
    I haven’t read The Centauri Device, but MJH calls it his worst work, so perhaps, like TCofL49, it is his funnier one ;)
    Light is very good, but you should go for the Anima omnibus, which contains The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life. Both are excellent, and TCoTH is probably his best novel.

  13. Hey marco,

    I’m currently on a Ross Macdonald you may be interested to know.

    Anyway, from the sound of it GR is brilliant, but more difficult. That makes sense, my next Pynchon will probably either be V or Inherent Vices, but GR is definitely now on the to be read list.

    That’s a fascinating theme, very interesting, and you’re quite right about it. There’s some fascinating passages about systems, predestination
    (particularly, but it’s an interest of mine), entropy and so on, I suspect I could have written 10,000 words and still have neglected some themes. It really is dense this book.

    Oddly enough, I avoid omnibus editions, too heavy to read on the tube. I prefer to get the books individually, even if it does cost a bit more.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment, I didn’t draw out the organic/inorganic divide as much as I might have and it’s good to see other themes brought out and discussed.

  14. marco

    I don’t have that particular omnibus, but I think it was a good idea – the two novels have interesting symmetries and differences. I guess with Light and The Centauri Device you’re going for the sci-fi/space opera angle, but the two “literary” novels collected in Anima are achingly beautiful.

    I’m not a great fan of Macdonald – part of it may be that he has always been very popular in Italy so I’ve read a lot of his novels in gialli paperbacks with perhaps dubious translations, but I also feel he is somewhat redundant with respect to the first wave of hardboiled authors like Chandler and Hammett. And what he adds – the Freudian psychology, all those fatherless children, etc. feels a bit by-the-numbers and dated.
    I enjoy reading his novels, but I feel he’s a cut below the best. More or less the same goes for his wife, Margaret Millar, though a couple of her novels Beast in View and Stranger in my Grave – impressed me. For me authors who brought something new to the crime/noir genre were David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson and James Crumley – a title for each: The Moon in the Gutter, Sideswipe, The Grifters, The Last Good Kiss.

    On a lighter note, what do you think of current Scottish crime writers? I am a fan of Brookmyre – his novels read like over the top leftist wish-fulfillment, but they’re so fun.

  15. Certainly so far he seems very strongly inspired by Chandler. There’s some wonderful lines, and it’s very hardboiled, but the influence shows a bit too closely.

    I understand later he finds more his own voice, that I’ve not started with the best (just the first), but the Freudian element rather worries me. I don’t personally see much to choose between Freudianism, astrology or phrenology and its presence in a book tends to leave me cold.

    Still, it’s a fun read, but certainly so far it’s not up there with Chandler or Hammett.

    I’ve read The Grifters, not the others, I’ll look them all up.

    I only know some of them, I’ve not read any Denise Mina for example. Brookmyre’s just like you say, fun leftist wish-fulfilment. I don’t take them seriously, I think in fact they’re pretty flawed, but they’re a lot of fun for all that and enjoyable stuff.

    Rankin I think is actually better than he gets credit for, not the early ones so much but Mortal Causes I thought a pretty good investigation of Scottish sectarianism.

    I have a Louise Welsh at home but haven’t read it yet, going back a way as I think you know I’m a huge fan of McIlvanney, but I wouldn’t call his crime contemporary.

    Oh, I do hate the tartan noir label, a total marketing term for a group of writers with very little in common. I wouldn’t call either Brookmyre or Rankin noir personally, Brookmyre after all has a moral core to his works and the Rebus stuff is straightforward police procedural. Irvine Welsh’s more crimey works could count as noir, other than that though…

  16. marco,

    On Goodis, there’s a copy of The Wounded and the Slain in Hard Case Crime, do you know that novel? I love the Hard Case covers, so hard to resist…

    Sideswipe is the third of the Hoke Moseley series, I like to start with the first and work on, how do you rate Miami Blues?

    The Last Good Kiss sounds like a must buy. On which note, I should read some more Thompson too.

  17. GB Steve

    I’ve not read Miami Blues but the film was very entertaining, in a low beat kind of way.

    My Mum just sent me Louise Welsh’s Tamburlaine Must Die partly because she didn’t enjoy it very much. She said it was emotionally hollow. I’ve read the Bullet Trick, partly because it was set in Berlin, a city that fascinates me. It was an entertaining enough read but I couldn’t say that it stuck with me and I tend to agree with my Mum. Welsh writes well enough but she doesn’t really convince, a similar trick to Tarantino.

  18. The Bullet Trick is the one I have. A Tarantino comparison is a worrying one to be honest, after his first couple of films (if even them) what’s he really done that has any substance?

    Ah well, perhaps it’ll be a fun read, even if not a lasting one.

  19. marco

    I don’t personally see much to choose between Freudianism, astrology or phrenology and its presence in a book tends to leave me cold.

    It’s not explicitly present, but you have the unstable young males with their troubled relationship with their fathers, the unstable young fatherless females who are sexually promiscuous and attracted by older men, the homosexual who as a kid played with dolls and was too close to mommy – all too schematic and predictable.

    Oh, I do hate the tartan noir label, a total marketing term for a group of writers with very little in common.

    Well, the noir label gets misused a lot around here also.

    Goodis: It may be a novel that has been rediscovered and republished recently. Goodis was a pulp writer, and some of his novels are weaker than others.

    Willeford: I don’t think Sideswipe spoils the previous Moseley novels, and it’s my favorite, but you can well start with Miami Blues. Another highlight is The Burnt Orange Heresy, and all the non-series novels I’ve read were good.

    Thompson: The Killer inside Me is generally considered his masterpiece.

    And yes, The Last Good Kiss is wonderful.

    Have you read McCoy’s No Pocket For A Shroud?

  20. Thanks, I’ll be careful with Goodis then, though I rather like the odd pulp to be honest.

    Thanks for the other suggestions. Not yet on that McCoy, my next of his is Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.

    Unfortunately for the MacDonald, I’ve had a lousy week’s reading. After seven days I’m 100 pages in, which does it no favours at all – really one should read it over a couple of evenings. In the circumstances, I’m glad I hadn’t started the next Anthony Powell which I’d be far more upset about damaging by an overly slow read.

    Anyway, so it goes, sometimes circumstances intervene, so it goes. I’m putting up my thoughts on Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang tomorrow and hopefully will be able to finally finish the MacDonald and get stuck back into Powell.

  21. Pingback: Six of the best « Pechorin’s Journal

  22. Having re-read this just now, it’s certainly amongst the best stuff on Pynchon I’ve read.

    “It is a vision of paranoia, of the terror of a world in which everything makes sense, we create conspiracies though because even that is preferable to a world where things make no sense at all. They are out to get you, but at least they care enough to try.”

    The last line there sounds like something Pynchon would come up with…

    “For me though, it connected most as a story of the search for meaning and the (perhaps?) creation of it where we don’t find it – the imposition of patterns on random data. ”

    Indeed. Top-notch.

  23. Thank you Lee. High praise.

    That said, Pynchon gave me a lot to work with. Just extraordinary. I love V so far too.

  24. Forgive me for this, but what a WASTE it would be for people to miss out on this novel…there is, in the recent Literary History of America (Ed. Greil Marcus) a great essay on Pynchon if you get the chance.

  25. Is that available online do you know Lee?

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