Books Magazine

Book #59: The Crying Of Lot 49

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

*Before I start today’s review, I want to quickly tell you guys about my interview with Readmill yesterday. They asked me a lot of great questions about the blog, my process, and how it all got started. Some great behind-the-scenes stuff here. If you’re interested, go read the interview over at their blog!

I guess it would have made more sense to make The Crying Of Lot 49 my 49th book, but I’m not that clever.

So here it is. Book #59. My first foray into Thomas Pynchon on the Time list, though I did read Lot 49 back in college.

The novel was as expected. Clever. Funny. Confusing. Though Lot 49 has been called “Pynchon Lite” in comparison to some of his meatier novels, like Gravity’s Rainbow, don’t let that label fool you.

It’s less than 200 pages, short enough to be called a “novella,” but this is a dense, heady novel. I needed an aspirin after reading it.

The plot focuses on Oedipa Maas, a California housewife who unexpectedly stumbles onto a wacky mystery involving the postal service that goes back hundreds of years.

When an old boyfriend dies, Oedipa inherits his estate, which includes information that sets Oedipa off and running. She learns more and more about a centuries old postal carrier called Tystero.

As she dives further into the mystery, Oedipa discovers that Trystero was defeated by a rival postal carrier—Thurn and Taxis—in the 18th century, which eventually prompted them to go underground.

As she continues, it’s unclear whether she ever gets closer or further from answers. And that’s basically the process of the entire novel.

Each question is answered with another question. Instead of solving a mystery and getting closer and closer to truth, Oedipa continues to seemingly get further away from the truth–which apparently includes everyone and everything ever. All over the delivery of the mail. The mail.

The Crying of Lot 49 is one continuous head-scratcher. You’re left wondering whether the protagonist, Oedipa, is grounded in reality, partial reality, or is a total, hallucinating lunatic. The funny thing about the novel is that she realizes that as well—and she’s left questioning her own insanity many times.

The same goes for the owner of the estate, Pierce Inverarity. Though he’s dead, you’re left wondering if this is all one big game for him and a way to exact revenge on his ex-lover…or if he’s just crazy too.

He might have written the testament only to harass a one-time mistress, so cynically sure of being wiped out he could throw away all hope of anything more. Bitterness could have run that deep in him. She just didn’t know.

You’re also left wondering whether Pynchon is embracing those who live on the paranoid fringe of society, or whether he’s poking fun at them. After having read the novel twice now, I’m still not sure—though I tend to believe he was making fun of them based on this quote that is actually in Gravity’s Rainbow:

“Paranoids are not paranoid because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, f*ing idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.”

The Crying of Lot 49 will leave you seeking answers to questions you’ve never asked in the first place. By the end of the book, you might feel a little dizzy, like you’ve been thrown in a literary blender.

Ultimately, I think this book is about communication. He who controls the power, controls the communication. And, if you think about the power that the United States Postal Service is—as a government monopoly—it’s perfect for this book.

Mail delivery is such a mundane, beauraucratic topic, but the mail carrier, especially before the days of email and social media, was the message bearer. If he or she fell down on the job, the mail wasn’t delivered, the message wasn’t received. That could have a dramatic affect on lives, and even on the world. Crazy stuff.

If you think about it, just the power of communication and who controls it, this is an extremely relevant topic considering all the breaches of privacy (*cough* NSA cough) we’ve had around these parts lately.

So Pynchon, in his brilliance, chooses such a great way to deal with this topic. Can you get bogged down by the density of the novel? Sure. There’s even a story within the story—a Shakespearan-style play called The Courier’s Tragedy that tells the story of how Trystero defeated Thurn and Taxis.

So what are my thoughts on the novel the second time around? To be honest, I enjoyed it, but I feel like I enjoyed it more in college. It didn’t hit me the same way this time.

I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because I read it right before vacation. Maybe it was because I read it in relatively small chunks. I don’t know. But I’m not as high on the novel as I used to be. Maybe I just don’t have the time and the patience to wade into it like I did in college. Maybe I’m a little tired of parodies…no that can’t be true.

Considering I really enjoy David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest, and considering that Pynchon is similar in style, I haven’t given up hope yet. I still have Gravity’s Rainbow to read on the Time list, so wish me luck with that.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “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 mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.”

The Meaning: The title refers to an auction at the end of the novel in which the auctioneer begins “crying”–or, you know, doing that fast-paced, hard-to-understand, jibber jabber that auctioneers do–lot 49, which contains a series of stamps that either begin to unlock the mystery or, you know, make everything all the more mysterious.

Highlights: The novel is a heady parody of postmodernism, and I generally love a good parody. But you have to stay with it. In the same way as DFW, Pynchon is smart, and he’ll make you work as a reader. Is that good or bad? Your call.

Lowlights: I’ve read this book twice, and I still feel inadequate to explain it. That’s more about me than the book, but there you go. Sometimes it’s so over the top as parody that it almost seems like a parody of a parody. And, woah, that is postmodern enough to make your head explode.

Memorable Line: “Shall I project a world?”

Final Thoughts: I need to read this again. The Crying of Lot 49 is a dizzying book. It’s short, but you need to read it slow and deliberate. If you’re bored after 50 pages, just put it down because it only gets more confusing. It might also go better with too much alcohol, but I cannot personally vouch for that. It’s just a hunch.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog