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[437] The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon

” One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mongul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job ofsorting it all out more than honorary. ” (1:1)

The Crying of Lot 49 is a comedy, a puzzle, and a story going downward spiral to absurdity. But the more absurd it gets, the better and more fun. The heroine, Oedipa Maas, is a 28-year-old woman who is married to a small-town DJ. She discovers she has been made executor of the estate of Pierce Inverarity, a rich industrialist and her one-time lover. Confused and curious, she travels to San Narciso to carry out her duties.

No one could begin to trace it. A hundred hangups, permuted, combined—sex, money, illness, despair with the history of his time and place, who knew. (6:133)

Oedipa wondered whether at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold; which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly, leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world come back. (4:76)

Along the way, Oedipa meets a wide range of eccentric characters, including the attorney with whom she has passionate sex. Her adventures seem so unreal that she has to consult her therapist to see if all the episodes are mere hallucinations. But Dr. Hilarius turns out to have done his internship in Buchenwald, working to induce insanity in captive Jews. Soon Oedipa begins to suspect she has stumbled upon a conspiracy, a vast, perhaps global-historical one that involves Inverarity, his lawyers, the employees of an aerospace corporation and her therapist. Haunted by a sense of impending revelation, Oedipa contrives to penetrate the enigma, descending into an underworld of broken, lonely souls, cynical playwrights, mysterious booksellers, and shady scientists. She comes across a mysterious, ubiquitous “post horn” symbol that leads to the discovery of some secret society and a clandestine postal system.

And the image of the muted post horn all but saturating the Bay Area. Yet she wanted it all to be fantasy—some clear result of her several wounds, needs, dark doubles. She wanted Hilarius to tell her she was some kind of a nut and needed a rest, and that there was no Trystero. (5:107)

The Crying of Lot 49 is so clever; it’s a novel meant to be re-read because it’s considered open to interpretation. It’s cohesive work despite the roller coaster ride of a plot. The narrative often meanders into personal reflection and psyche, as Oedipa is buffeted back and forth between believing and not believing the people and stories pried open. Sinking or ascending ever more deeply into paranoia, she finds herself torn between believing in the “Trystero” and dismissing it all as a hoax established by Inverarity himself. The book’s description of signs that manifest everywhere suggests two extreme poles that are equally terrifying: everything happens on accordance to some grand system or conspiracy from which we are inevitably excluded, or everything takes place out of pure chance. This is a challenging read not just in terms of reading, but in terms of our way of thinking and as being man. It satirizes human beings’ need for certainty, the need to invent conspiracy theories to fill the vacuum in places where there is no certainty.

152 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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11 Responses

  1. I really loved this book. One of the handful of great books that actually changed the way I view the world. I got a post horn tattooed on my forearm 🙂 I’ve been reading for years and don’t comment much, but keep up the good work!

    • Thomas Pynchon totally intimidates me. I have held out for so long to read him. In college I signed up for the junior American literature course that didn’t require Pynchon. But ever since I felt incomplete. This book is very smart and satirical, and I feel I have to re-read because the possibilities and meanings don’t exhaust.

  2. If I remember correctly, there are also some fantastic songs in this novel. I need to reread it for that alone – I can’t think of anyone else who does wordplay (or character names) as well as Pynchon.

  3. I’ve had this in my TBR forever; maybe I’ll haul it out during science fiction month because Pynchon is always sort of fantasy-y 🙂

    • My first Pynchon has been very fulfilling and satisfactory, although it’s not an easy read. After all, it’s his shortest book, at just 152 pages, but encompasses a wide body of ideas, politics, and human psyche.

  4. thanks for your positive review of this tough book. I re-read it myself last year, and was really harsh against it. here is my review: http://wordsandpeace.com/2011/01/05/the-crying-of-lot-49/

    • Thank you for your link. I have put it on the re-read shelf soon after I finished the book. It’s one of those books that has to be re-read in order to get a fuller understanding.

  5. […] [437] The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon […]

  6. I’ve heard a lot of its difficulty. But it is on my list of Challenges. thanks for introducing me to this. I enjoyed your thoughts.

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