A Road Runner Cartoon in Blank Verse: On “The Crying of Lot 49”

roadrunner

Book: The Crying of Lot 49

Author: Thomas Pynchon

Genre: Fiction

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 RainbowV., 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

 

Truth and Storytelling in “The Things They Carried”

Warning: Contains spoilers

Book: The Things They Carried

Author: Tim O’Brien

Genre: Short Story Fiction

Typically, before I choose to read a book, watch a movie, or listen to an album, I know a good deal about it beforehand. I read a synopsis, a review, a blog post–essentially anything that doesn’t contain spoilers but gives me an idea of what I’m getting into. For no real intentional reasons, I went into The Things They Carried blind. I knew it was a book about Vietnam and thought it was a novel, but aside from that, I knew nothing. From the initial few chapters, I could tell this wasn’t going to be a conventional novel and had a hunch it was moving in the memoir direction. I foresaw the inherent contradictions in writing half-novel, half-memoir, but figured the book would become more clear in its progression. After reading the chapter titled “How to Tell a True War Story,” I felt as though the desired clarity had finally come.

We’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true? The answer matters. You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen–and maybe it did, anything’s possible–even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.

In this chapter, O’Brien asserts the idea that in war, some truths exist outside of true experience. Truth here seems to be more related to feeling and atmospheric accuracy. A war story is only true insofar as it relates the appropriate feeling. A story that embellishes a few things here and there to really describe a feeling is truer than the story that fails to express that feeling. Objective truth, in this realm, is irrelevant. I continued with this in mind, but I couldn’t help but wonder what parts were objectively true and which weren’t. I could see O’Brien shaking his head at me. I resolved to take the basic details of each story as true, and conceded that the finer details existed only to tell a war truth–something less than objectively true, but emotionally honest. I read the book through that lens for the rest of the book, until I got to page 171.

Somewhat abruptly, O’Brien reveals the following:

It’s time to be blunt. I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.

Almost everything else is invented.

But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.

But listen. Even that story is made up.

If you’ve seen the first Saw movie, do you remember the dead guy in the middle of the room who stands up towards the end of the movie, and shocked, you realize that your whole experience of the movie up to that moment has been, in some way, false? That’s how reading this felt. Somehow, even after all the rhetoric about story-truth vs. happening-truth, I still felt a little betrayed. When just a couple chapters before O’Brien is describing his experience of killing a man, hunched over the man’s body, unable to move or speak, staring, I sympathized with O’Brien the man. I thought about the author of this book I was reading and what impact killing a man must have had on his psychology–that even the book I was reading had been affected by this. I thought about his family and the moral dilemma present in trying to explain this to a child. I thought about the power of the scene he described. And then, it was all a lie. It didn’t happen. The sympathy I felt for the man was based on an event that never occurred. However, after reminding myself of the “How to Tell a True War Story” chapter, I realized that that story is true to the extent that it expresses O’Brien’s guilt for participating in a war. Whether or not O’Brien actually killed someone is irrelevant when you consider the guilt one must feel having been there at all. Coming back from the war, he must have felt at least partially responsible for many deaths, and the story of the man he killed served to represent that in its fullest feeling.

And still, even though I understand O’Brien’s intent, and find it incredibly thought-provoking, I couldn’t help but wonder what parts of what stories were true. One of the soliders in his company, Kiowa, died under mortar fire in a muddy field. O’Brien describes visiting this field with his daughter years later, remembering Kiowa. I assumed this story was true–it took place in current day, featured his real-life daughter, and memorialized a friend who truly did die. But then I realized, the only part we really know is true is the part about Kiowa dying (it is confirmed in other parts of the book)–did he even go to Vietnam with his daughter years after the war? Immediately after thinking this, I remind myself that this thought process runs counter to the whole thesis of O’Brien’s book. Happening-truth, objective-truth, is irrelevant in a war story. I thought myself around this circle about a hundred times over the last sixty or so pages of the book.

But, by the end of the book, I finally felt comfortable calling this fiction. This work is about the relationship between storytelling and truth, skirting (SKRRRT!) the idea that a work of literature has to embody one or the other. This book is more Winesburg, Ohio than it is a war memoir, and I enjoyed coming to that conclusion myself. One look at the Wikipedia page for this book would’ve told me as much, so I’m pleased that I never looked.

If you’re interested, here’s a video of O’Brien himself explaining his feelings towards the book 20 years later.

NEXT POST:

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Welcome, friends.

I didn’t begin to enjoy reading until halfway through high school. English was always my best subject, but I wasn’t very interested in any of it. Sometime in my sophomore year, a friend of mine arrived at school proclaiming himself permanently changed and transformed after reading a novel by Kurt Vonnegut. I was fascinated by the intensity of his reaction to reading and wanted to investigate this author for myself. I bought a copy of Cat’s Cradle and haven’t felt the same since.

Ten years later, reading literature is nearly all I want to do. Cat’s Cradle was the catalyst for a literary journey that has come to define my life’s path, heavily influencing my choice to pursue and complete a Master’s degree in literature. Post-academia, I have relished the freedom to choose my own personal curriculum, with the only limitation being the limited space on my bookshelves (as well as on top of my bookshelves, the floor around my bookshelves, etc). Still, an important part of fully experiencing a book involves distilling your thoughts into words, whether written or spoken. In order to lessen the strain on my girlfriend, who I constantly bombard with thoughts and analyses on books she’s never read, I decided to create a space for my thoughts. It would be truly wonderful if others are willing to weigh in with their own thoughts, but if not, I will settle for documenting my own.

Happy reading.

-Pierce