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.