Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon

One-line summary: Alice goes down the rabbit hole in 1960s San Francisco.

trumpet cover


Goodreads: Average: 3.73. Mode: 4 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.0. Mode: 5 stars (55%).

The highly original satire about Oedipa Maas, who is made the executor of the estate of her late boyfriend, Pierce Inverarity. As she diligently carries out her duties, Oedipa is enmeshed in what would appear to be a worldwide conspiracy, meets some extremely interesting characters, and attains a not inconsiderable amount of self knowledge.

So, if any of you have ever wondered where I got my icon or my username, it was this book.

I first read The Crying of Lot 49 many years ago, about the time I was reading all kinds of weird conspiratorial shit like the Illuminatus! trilogy and Arkon Daraul's A History of Secret Societies and The Principia Discordia.

Now that I'm trying to read more broadly and stop sneering at "literary" fiction (instead I've mostly been sneering at YA fiction and paranormal romances because it hurts my brain that so many people apparently will read anything with a pretty cover), I decided to revisit this book, which I vaguely remembered enjoying but not why. For whatever reason, it had so stuck in my head all these years that when I had a need for an online pseudonym, I chose Inverarity, the mysterious character we never meet around whose orbit the plot of The Crying of Lot 49 revolves.

Not just a pretty cover

The first sentence tells you what drives the plot for the next 183 pages:

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 plot is simple, the twists and turns it takes are not.

Having just finished it, I'm actually rather surprised that I enjoyed it so much as a young'un, because I'm sure I barely understood a word of it. Thomas Pynchon is a difficult writer. This is his shortest novel -- unlike most of his doorstoppers, you can read it in a day -- but its densely packed paragraphs are full of trippy prose tha will shove metaphors and allusions into your brain until your eyes bulge. I mean, seriously, I have not read another book in recent memory that had me rereading paragraphs or entire pages so frequently because either my eyes were glazing over or my brain just didn't get it the first time through.

It's not all difficult prose: some is just weird but cool:

What the road really was, she fancied, was this hypodermic needle, inserted somewhere into a vein of a freeway, a vein nourishing the mainliner L.A., keeping it happy, coherent, protected from pain, or whatever passes, with a city, for pain. But were Oedipa some single melted crystal of urban horse, L.A., really, would be no less turned on for her absence.

And then you have passages like this:

It was a summer, a weekday, and midafternoon; no time for any campus Oedipa knew of to be jumping, yet this one was. She came downslope from Wheeler Hall, through Sather Gate into a plaza teeming with corduroy, denim, bare legs, blonde hair, hornrims, bicycle spokes in the sun, bookbags, swaying card tables, long paper petitions dangling to earth, posters for undecipherable FSM's, YAF's, VDC's, suds in the fountain, students in nose-to-nose dialogue. She moved through it carrying her fat book, attracted, unsure, a stranger, wanting to feel relevant but knowing how much of a search among alternate universes it would take. For she had undergone her own educating at a time of nerves, blandness and retreat among not only her fellow students but also most of the visible structure around and ahead of them, this having been a national reflex to certain pathologies in high places only death had the power to cure, and this Berkeley was like no somnolent Siwash out of her own past at all, but more akin to those Far Eastern or Latin American universities you read about, those autonomous culture media where the most beloved of folklores may be brought into doubt, cataclysmic of dissents voiced, suicidal of commitments chosen -- the sort that bring governments down. But it was English she was hearing as she crossed Bancroft Way among the blonde children and the muttering Hondas and Suzukis; American English. Where were Secretaries James and Foster and Senator Joseph, those dear daft numina who'd mothered over Oedipa's so temperate youth? In another world. Along another pattern of track, another string of decisions taken, switches closed, the faceless pointsmen who'd thrown them now all transferred, deserted, in stir, fleeing the skip-tracers, out of their skull, on horse, alcoholic, fanatic, under aliases, dead, impossible to find ever again. Among them they had managed to turn the young Oedipa into a rare creature indeed, unfit perhaps for marches and sit-ins, but just a whiz at pursuing strange words in Jacobean texts.

That's actually one of Pynchon's less opaque paragraphs, and by no means the longest.

I thought I was so clever in immediately connecting The Crying of Lot 49 to Alice in Wonderland (both books I read so long ago that I barely remembered them). Having just reread the former, I am now rereading the latter, because across time and space and genre, Thomas Pynchon and Lewis Carroll were in many respects writing the same book: both are nearly perfect Campbellian stories.

Sadly, a ten-second Google search revealed that my insight was not even remotely original. Apparently it's such a common observation that there are ready-made essays on this theme available for purchase.

(By the way, if you're one of those people who pays other people to write your college papers for you, email me*, 'cause I guarantee I can write better than this:

The purpose of this paper is to examine Oedipa's attempts to make sense of a fragmented and fragmenting world, by trying to construct a metanarrative -- a task that is perpetually impossible. Jean-Frantois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition will provide the theoretical basis of our inquiry. To arrive at a Lyotardian reading of Pynchon's novel, we will concentrate on the themes of entropy and the self. As well, we shall read the Lyotardian themes of knowledge, communication and power by way of Pynchon.

* Actually you shouldn't. I'll internet-stalk you until I figure out which school you go to and then I'll email your professor, you failtastic wanker.

Trippy cover

And so like Alice and Oedipa I feel as if I too am making a journey and coming to a new self-discovery: I'm developing a taste for post-modernist literary bullshit. Which The Crying of Lot 49 is not, by the way. Bullshit, I mean. It's a great American novel. It's demanding, yes, but it's not self-indulgent meaningless wordplay like some other "literary" selections I have been less impressed by.

Okay, some of it is self-indulgent meaningless wordplay. Pynchon loves puns. His characters have names like Oedipa Maas, Genghis Cohen, Dr. Hilarius, and Emory Bortz. His prose is full of other little jokes (Pynchon invented Yoyodyne), and while many of the references are a bit dated, I found the book as funny as it was challenging. It's a satire that demands a large vocabulary and a certain amount of cultural awareness, but the Yoyodyne company anthem and the lyrics of the Paranoids have to be worth a chuckle.

What the negative reviewers say

Not everyone is a fan of trippy post-modern literary novels about a secret postal system set in the 1960s:

The kind of book English majors like talking about to make you feel like their intellectual inferior. It's one of the worst stories I've ever read. This is as obnoxiously post modern as Brave New World is obnoxiously disguised christanity. This book is the literary equivalent of some hipster noise band that everyone knows sucks but people will say they are good just to be in the know. If you know someone who likes this book, do them a favor and give them a good old face punch. If that doesn't work and they still talk about it being good, turn and run.

Wow, he wants to give me a face punch? Dude, you're just not in the know.

I have a feeling I need to read some more of Pynchon (though I won't be doing it soon -- The Crying of Lot 49 burned up enough of my brain cells for a while), so I'd welcome recs from anyone who's read any of his longer novels.

Verdict: Not for everyone. Pynchon is clearly an acquired taste. But I liked this book when I was too young to get much of it, and I like it even more now that my horizons have expanded a bit. If you want a bite-sized sample of post-modernist literature, the kind that "English majors like talking about" as our violent negative reviewer put it (I am not an English major, btw, which is maybe why the hamsters in my brain had to work so hard while I was reading it), this one won't demand too much of your time, at least.
Tags: books, books1001, highly recommended, literary, reviews, thomas pynchon

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