Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon
1965, 152 pp.

When most people speak of “postmodernism” in literature, they are really speaking of Thomas Pynchon, and when most people speak of Thomas Pynchon, they are speaking of two books: Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49. Intrepid readers seeking an entry point into that arch and disreputable genre can select no better exordium. Gravity’s Rainbow is considered a titan of the genre, while The Crying of Lot 49 contains all of its essential preoccupations, in a much more manageable package.

Therefore we have funny names (the heroine is called Oedipa Maas), a preoccupation with psychoanalysis (her therapist is named Dr. Hilarius), an irreverent combination of absurdist humor and real pathos, and acute paranoia. The story begins when Oedipa finds that she is the executor of the estate of her recently deceased ex-boyfriend Pierce Inverarity. Inverarity was an eccentric tycoon who seems to own a piece of everything. Oedipa begins to find traces of a shadowy organization called “Trystero,” which turns out to have been a nefarious shadow postal service in Renaissance Europe, then migrated to the United States, where it serves as an underground through which all other undergrounds communicate. Its emblem is a postal horn with a plug in it, and she begins to see this sign everywhere. Every lead she follows brings her back to another entity owned by Pierce Inverarity. Everywhere she goes she sees the muted horn. Has she stumbled onto a giant conspiracy, or is this an elaborate game set up by Inverarity?

The book starts with comedy and farce. There is a long sequence in which Oedipa is being seduced by her co-executor, so she puts on lots of extra clothes, but knocks over a hairspray bottle which flies around the room smashing things. One of the first members of an underground who she encounters is a parody of a right-wing fringe outfit, based around the cult of the captain of the Confederate ironclad “Disgruntled,” led by somebody called "Mike Fallopian." The opening is the weakest part of the book, since the comedy leaves enough room for the reader to begin wondering what the point is. Why call your protagonist “Oedipa”? Clearly it’s to conjure an association with a certain ill-fated Theban, but since her parents are never mentioned, is it the riddle-solving aspect rather than the more known parricide that we should focus on? What about the other silly names, like “Genghis Cohen”? Why am I reading these long, silly digressions about a movie one of the characters starred in as a child?

Then about two-thirds of the way in, Pynchon changes gears. In a riveting, tour-de-force passage of some twenty pages, he sends Oedipa on a Dantean nighttime journey through San Francisco, encountering desperate people and the Trystero symbol everywhere she turns. The prose here is lush and heavy, with a long, bitter nose and earthy undertones. It’s relentless, clever, brilliantly realized. It’s like a particularly paranoid Tom Waits song. It also marks the point when the novel turns serious.

The final third consists of nothing but loss. Oedipa loses everyone in her life, and indeed perhaps even her sense of self, since she is left with nothing of her original life to hold onto: “That night’s profusion of post horns, this malignant, deliberate replication, was their way of being up. They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.” The book is worth the read simply for the central bridge section, which is a relief, because the book does not resolve itself, it only ends. To some extent this is a manifestation of the wise old rule about how it is always more effective not to actually show the monster, but to leave it to the reader (or viewer) to imagine. Not resolving the reality or fabrication of the Trystero network is probably wise, and works to make the book unsettling instead of just entertaining. With such a short book, the reader invests fairly little time and effort, so the burden of proof is fairly low, but still it was a gamble which Pynchon only pulls off thanks to his virtuoso middle section and the intriguing possibilities it raises.

The impact of this book is quite easy to trace. I was constantly struck by just how similar David Foster Wallace’s book The Broom of the System is to The Crying of Lot 49. Both share numerous aesthetic and structural points, and though Wallace is articulating a rather less paranoid and hostile worldview, it is still a worldview preoccupied with anxiety and persecution. Wallace was a great talent and an original voice, but it is striking to see just how Pynchonian he was.

At any rate, The Crying of Lot 49 is accessible, which much postmodern fiction is not, and holds the reader’s attention, which most modern fiction in general does not. It is at times brilliant, though not consistently, but shows enough skill and virtuosity that it makes the prospect of tackling the beast of Gravity’s Rainbow a bit less daunting.

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