This could easily be another part of my Revisiting Old Favorites series, but as I’m not sure the number of my readers for whom Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is an old favorite, I resisted the urge. That is simply to say that I (and my classmates in Dr. Scott’s English class) appear to be an anomaly amongst my friends in that I read it in high school and so can consider it an old favorite.
That being said, I loved Lot 49 then, and I still love it now. The thing is, I can’t exactly tell you why. I’ve delayed in starting this review because I don’t know what to say. I just love it. It’s just awesome. And weird. And fun. But I’ll do my best to write a coherent review.
The book begins with Mrs. Oedipa Maas (best name ever) finding out she has been named executor of the estate of her recently deceased ex-boyfriend, Pierce Inverarity (Pynchon is really good at naming characters). Oepida says goodbye to her husband Mucho Maas (see what I mean?), a radio dj who “suffers regular crises of conscience”, and travels down to San Narciso near Los Angeles to carry out her duties. Along the way, she discovers a potential world-wide postal conspiracy tracing back hundreds of years, a wide range of mostly deranged characters, and an existential personal crisis that reveals quite a bit of self-knowledge. Through Oedipa’s tale, Pynchon satirizes everything from right-wing extremists to Rock and Roll and Southern California’s overall 60’s subculture in a hilarious and dizzying read.
I picked this up again because Michel has been recommending several books that he’s been reading for grad school to me, particularly books from his current a-realist fiction class. (I don’t have a very good definition for a-realism, and neither does Michel. Most basically, it refers to something that is not realistic–in this case, just enough weird or off to not be realistic.) The one in particular he recommended was one he still needs for class, so I searched through his bookshelf and was delighted to find Lot 49, my first introduction to Pynchon. I was pleased to find it absolutely holds up for me.
Pynchon is a master of language. He paints a gorgeous picture of 1960’s California, from LA to the Bay Area, the a-realism emerging in the details. Oedipa’s world is just a little off. Her therapist, Dr. Hilarius, seems more self-involved than focused on his patients. Pierce’s lawyer was a rather odd child star named Baby Igor, and he utilizes one of his films as a way to seduce Oedipa upon their first meeting. Oedipa is followed around by The Paranoids, a high school Beatles-style band led by Miles, the desk manager at Oedipa’s motel in San Narciso. In fact, paranoia is everywhere in this book. It creeps in around the edges as the book begins, and by the end Oedipa is consumed with self-doubt and paranoia, seeing conspiracy everywhere. Yet this conspiracy revolves around an underground postal system, started in the middle ages and run (or menaced?) by the mysterious Trystero. The book becomes about Oedipa’s quest to understand this supposed conspiracy and discover the true identity and meaning of Trystero.
The most masterful and dizzying sequence is Oedipa’s major descent into delirium while walking, driving, and riding around the Bay Area. Pynchon’s prose becomes denser and more hallucinogenic, deftly showing the deterioration of Oedipa’s mental state. It is a highly cinematic sequence, reflecting the role that artifice and acting play in this looney world of Oedipa’s.
I said earlier that this book is fun, but I’m afraid I’ve not made it seem so. It is fun, deliciously so, because at its heart, underneath the madness, uncertainty, and conspiracy threatening to deconstruct Oepida’s life, it is a good, old-fashioned mystery, and Oedipa is a wonderfully persistent detective. Plus the conspiracy at the center of it all is just so completely ridiculous that the question for Oedipa becomes how ridiculous is too ridiculous? What is truth and what is fiction? Though one feels for Oedipa for the plight she finds herself in, she is a resourcefully plucky heroine, never quite fully consumed enough not to recognize the absolute lunacy happening around her. She is Alice in a very grown-up Wonderland. She is a wonderful avatar for the reader and makes the journey through a-realism quite enjoyable. Through it all, Pynchon’s cheeky satire peppers her adventures.
This is not a book, nor is Pynchon an author, for everyone. I have never read any of his other work, so I can’t say he is an author for me. However, I do think this book serves as a perfect introduction to a-realism. If that is a genre that at all interests you, pick this one up. While the next book up is firmly outside of the a-realist genre, I may have a few more a-realist suggestions in the near future as well. If you do pick up The Crying of Lot 49, I’d love to hear what you think!