Archive for Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on May 4, 2013 by Nick Merrill

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In 1966, Thomas Pynchon had a lot of ideas about paranoia, pop culture, history, and fragmented identity. He stuffed them into his parodic novella/novel The Crying of Lot 49, a cold, clever, innovative, and irritating text. Pynchon’s arsenal is replete with repetition, non-sequitur, and occasionally insightful chunks of dense prose.

Lot 49 tells the story of Oedipa Maas. To say that it’s about Oedipa would be to imply that she’s a well-defined character with a realistic inner struggle grounding the book. She struggles with secrecy, fantasy, confusion, and paranoia, but not in a way which can really resonate with the reader. She’s more of a cipher drifting through and struggling to make sense of a morally bankrupt, increasingly bizarre America.

Lot 49 begins with Oedipa learning of the death of Pierce Inverarity, an ex-flame and real estate tycoon. To her surprise, his will names her as executor. So she travels to San Narciso in Southern California, where she begins to uncover a conspiracy involving a secret mail service known as Trystero.

Pynchon spends much of the novel diagnosing America with paranoia. Characters call each other paranoid with alarming frequency, often questioning their own knowledge and motivations. The recurring question in Oedipa’s search for Trystero is whether the conspiracy is real, all in her head, or all an elaborate prank. Either way, Oedipa is consumed by her quest; she becomes monomaniacal in her pursuit of Trystero’s sigil, the muted trumpet.

Trystero, in its current form, is supposedly a means of correspondence between fringe groups, e.g. an assembly of individuals who’ve disavowed love. The reality or unreality of its existence is almost irrelevant, Oedipa’s paranoia and obsession being more crucial to what Pynchon’s trying to say. Early in the book, Oedipa contemplates her abstract imprisonment by comparing herself to the archetypal maiden in a tower:

What did she so desire to escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all.

The America of Lot 49 is one of right-wing fanatics and amoral hippies, quack psychiatrists and televised lawyers. Its citizens, moreso than ever before, are subject to gargantuan forces beyond their control; the television controls the popular mindset, and the Cold War holds humanity’s fate in its hands. What’s the individual’s role in all of this?

Trystero’s existence would be a double-edged sword. It would represent an escape from modern influence and the public eye – a way for people of unconventional persuasion to find and reassure each other. But it would also represent an ancient, inescapable menace. Communication is a means of power, rebellion, and redemption, according to Lot 49. It connects individuals and supports empires. Most of us take the mail foregranted, but Pynchon places it at the center of conspiracy, reminding us that it’s one of the many forces which affects us in often unseen ways.

Oedipa’s pursuit of Trystero lends some purpose to her life, but it’s unclear if her detective work liberates her from society’s mechanisms or cages her within them. This ambiguity lies at the book’s core; it throws Oedipa into an irresolvable existential crisis as she tries to understand the world’s underlying ‘magic’ which binds her.

“I came,” she said, “hoping you could take me out of a fantasy.”

“Cherish it!” cried Hilarious, fiercely.

Pynchon has a knack for thoughtful, funny passages. One that stands out is a comparison between a view of a suburban town and a view of a circuit, each hinting at some unrevealed meaning or message. Lot 49 is Oedipa’s futile attempt to uncover such a message. Another is the description of Oedipa’s husband Mucho’s job as a used car salesman, his attempts to not conform to stereotype, and his superstitious attribution of life and meaning to the vehicles he buys and sells.

Oedipa’s search for Trystero related clues, which dominates much of the novel, is its least interesting component. Pynchon’s asides are far more interesting. The central plot has thematic purpose, but it fails to engage because it’s neither emotional nor lurid. There’s a mystery without any real stakes, whether personal, local, or global.

That Lot 49 is demonstrative of a weighty, talented intellect is irrefutable. But it’s a cold book. It observes pop culture, it observes secrecy and paranoia and their relationship to identity, but it never truly conveys their effects on human consciousness. Authors often use satire and cynicism as tools to diagnose and criticize society. This isn’t necessary bad, but for social criticism to resonate, it needs to have some grounding in the genuinely human.

Oedipa, along with every other character, never gels as person. Her crisis is supposed to resonate but it doesn’t. Though her formlessness is indubitably deliberate, it hurts Pynchon’s thesis because it distances the reader from his observations. Lot 49 feels like a trip through abstract theory. There’s nothing wrong with abstract theory, but for an author to make a compelling argument about the current human condition, it needs to be balanced with earnest depictions of humans and their conditions. Parody is a well and good – it’s an incredibly useful tool – but it’s insufficient for a novel which is trying to achieve depth in the way this one is.

Books can be absurd or set in a heightened reality while still fulfilling my criteria. DeLillo’s White Noise is a great example of a satire with human tragedy at its core. Its descriptions of love and family ring true, even as DeLillo flexes his postmodern muscles by writing monotonic dialogue and engaging in digressive yet thoughtful philosophical indulgence. Infinite Jest also does this successfully. Lot 49 doesn’t.

There’s a lot to admire in Lot 49. I can’t help but enjoy some of Pynchon’s gags and clusters of elegantly descriptive prose. A memorable passage describes, in parodic detail, the plot of a Jacobean revenge play titled The Courier’s Tragedy. This bit is funny and artfully constructed, but it can’t redeem the novel. Nor can humorous observations about, among other things, the relationship between real and TV lawyers.

Lot 49, though sometimes funny and insightful, fails to find a human core and thus fails in its message.