Book: The Crying of Lot 49
Author: Thomas Pynchon
Most people enjoy some activity in their lives that presents a challenge. Some people like Sudokus, some like jigsaw puzzles, some like the Dead Souls video game franchise, but for me, I like to challenge myself with difficult literature. Being part of the challenging, postmodernist literary canon, Pynchon has long been on my list of authors to investigate. Gravity’s Rainbow, V., and The Crying of Lot 49 have all been sitting on my bookshelves for several years now, and since it was the shortest of the bunch, I decided that Lot 49 would be a reasonable introduction to Pynchon.
I really expected to like this book. With a predilection for postmodernist literature, I’m usually tolerant of books with meandering plot lines, or in some cases, no plot lines at all. In those cases, the themes and ideas, the depth of characters, and the quality of the prose make up for what would otherwise be really boring writing. Unfortunately, The Crying of Lot 49 falls short for me in several of those areas.
But, before I go into my qualms with the novella, I’ll describe a few things that I did truly enjoy. The naming of characters, which many have commented on before me, is genius: Oedipa Maas, Pierce Inverarity, Mucho Maas, Dr. Hilarius, Manny Di Presso, and on. These names are ridiculous, and in some cases obvious allusions, but they still manage to carry depth that I haven’t found in many other examples of character naming. I also very much enjoyed the sections featuring Oedipa’s husband, Mucho Maas, who I thought had a potentially compelling personal story. Unfortunately, the book almost immediately moves away from Mucho, and by the next chapter, Oedipa is already involved in an extramarital affair with a frankly dull character named Metzger. Pynchon only returns to Mucho briefly later in the book, and it was no coincidence that his section felt, once again, like an oasis in an otherwise arid novel. But, mainly, my biggest positive about the book is its frequently employed hilarious (Hilarius?) sentences. The high point for me in this novel came, sadly I must say, on pages 48-49:
So they were, until well after the sun had set and Miles, Dean, Serge, and Leonard and their chicks, by holding up the glowing roaches of their cigarettes like a flipcard section at a football game to spell out alternate S’s and O’s, attracted the attention of the Fangoso Lagoons Security Force, a garrison against the night made up of one-time cowboy actors and L.A. motorcycle cops.
The beauty of this sentence, along with the absurdity of the conjured image, speak to Pynchon’s affinity for crafting subtle comedy amid flawless prose. Sentences like that one provided me with the momentum I needed to continue reading this book–the momentum I was not deriving from the plot or the characters. Here’s one more example among many of well-crafted comedy, where Pynchon is describing the final act of a play the main character has gone to see:
The fifth act, entirely an anticlimax, is taken up by the bloodbath Gennaro visits on the court of Squamuglia. Every mode of land mines, a trained falcon with envenom’d talons, is employed. It plays, as Metzger remarked later, like a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse. At the end of it about the only character left alive in a stage dense with corpses is the colorless administrator, Gennaro.
Unfortunately, and here is where the negativity begins, the phrase “like a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse,” would be a bit of foreshadowing for what the rest of the novel had in store. If I may be a little reductionist in my description of the plot, forgive me, but it appeared to amount to nothing more than Oedipa investigating a mystery that barely warranted the title of mystery in the first place, frantically searching for answers when nothing much seemed worthy of her frenzy. Nothing really seemed to be on the line. Each successive dive deeper into the bland “conspiracy” was met with an equally bland character. Characters like Mike Fallopian and Genghis Cohen, while they sport intriguing names, don’t do much of anything, say much of anything, and certainly don’t make the reader feel much of anything. These characters felt like one-dimensional plot-movers in a story with an uninteresting plot. The blurb on the back of the book reads, “The highly original satire about Oedipa Maas, a woman who finds herself enmeshed in a worldwide conspiracy, meets some extremely interesting characters, and attains a not inconsiderable amount of self-knowledge.” It seems to me that “interesting” here is being equated with “cartoonish,” because while the book featured lots of absurd characters, I don’t recall any of them being particularly interesting. And what exactly did Oedipa learn? That she should hold onto and cherish her hallucinations and obsessions, as Dr. Hilarius suggests? Or that giving into hallucinations and obsessions can lead one to lose everything? If there’s some special insight here, I missed it.
Normally, I would be more tolerant of the above complaints if the book managed to blow me away with an exploration of interesting ideas. While this is certainly an aspect of the book that I would like to hear from others on, I did not find many compelling ideas here. Oedipa’s painfully meaningless search for answers mirrors, in a general way, the fruitless and endless search by human beings for existential purpose/meaning. That seemed obvious, and marginally interesting, but definitely not thought-provoking. The book also explores the failures of human communication, as Oedipa both fails to communicate with others and to find people who are able to communicate efficiently with her. But again, nothing about these ideas felt compelling. It was as if the book itself was taking me on the same pointless journey that Oedipa embarks on, and honestly, I don’t appreciate it, Thomas. If you are going to steep me in a Road Runner cartoon of a novel, with a plot that felt as frenetic as it was trivial, it better present meaning elsewhere.
With that said, I’m still interested in checking out the other Pynchon novels I mentioned earlier–they just got moved down the list a bit. I invite you to disagree with me and school me on the merits of this book, because after all, I really wanted to like it.
Next post: The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton