Tuesday, August 9, 2011

#42 - "The Crying of Lot 49" by Thomas Pynchon

It's well documented that I've sort of been avoiding Thomas Pynchon.  He has two books on The List, and one of them, Gravity's Rainbow has been borrowed from the library twice.  Twice it has been renewed the maximum of four times, and twice it has been returned unread.  When it sits on my desk, it stares at me, intimidating me with its 750 pages, and scaring me with its tales of woe from other readers.  But his other book, The Crying of Lot 49, is only 152 pages.  I refuse to be intimidated by something the size of a Reader's Digest.

The Crying of Lot 49 (Perennial Fiction Library)Where to begin with my 42nd read... The Crying of Lot 49 could best be described as a cryptic and mysterious read filled with intrigue, confusion, and comedy.  I'd classify it as postmodernist, but I only use that word because of Moe's description on "The Simpsons," where he describes 'po-mo' as "weird for the sake of weird."  This book fits that definition perfectly.

Oedipa Mass has just been named co-executor to the estate of her late boyfriend, the mega-wealthy Pierce Inverarity.  Through Oedipa's travels in Southern California, in her attempt to piece together some of his life, she first stumbles upon the acronym W.A.S.T.E on a restroom stall.  In her attempt to find out more, she finds herself immersed into a bizarre world of underground post offices, and a world-wide conspiracy for domination of the mail system.  Or at least I think that's what it was about.  It might have been about rare stamps or LSD or pop music.  I think part of the appeal of this book may be the reader's ability to interpret it so many different ways.  Oedipa's travels, and the characters she meets, while loosely connected, really act as a series of vignettes; and at times don't seem connected.  One begins to wonder if this whole 'conspiracy' is a set up.  But if it is, the reasons for the set up are unknown and I had to wonder if it was Oedipa or me, the reader, being had.

The other appeal of this book is the style in which it was written.  Pynchon seems to be a fan of word play, with every character, every setting, basically everything in this book seemingly named for some humorous purpose.  It's as if the entire novel is one continuous string of puns and allusions.  There's the Confederate Ship named the "Disgruntled," or Oedipa's contact at a bar named Mike Fallopian.  There's the pop band 'The Paranoids,' the play within a play, 'The Courier's Tragedy', and the fictional town of San Narciso.  It's a book I'd have to read again, or perhaps a few more times to even begin to grasp the many puzzles and riddles Pynchon uses.

My first impression was this book wasn't my style; I'm just not a fan 'weird for the sake of weird.'  But as I contemplate it, I appreciate what I was able to take from it.  The word play is clever, funny even, and allowed for me to enjoy the book, even when I was finding the story confusing and hard to follow.  And I think in the end, that's the best part of this book.

Because it's on the short side, and because it has these witty aspects, it allows a heavy author like Thomas Pynchon to be accessible to most readers.  Or at least more accessible then I'm sure his more daunting books, like Gravity's Rainbow, would be.  In a way, The Crying of Lot 49 allows a broader audience to experience a novel of this type or style or complexity, without getting a headache.  But while I could make my way through this book, and even enjoy it on some level, I fear for the much more in-depth, much more cryptic, and, let's face it, much longer, Gravity's Rainbow.

You can read the original TIME magazine review from May 6, 1966 right here.  It seems they didn't really like this book in 1966, referring to it as a 'nosepicking contest.'

You can hear me discuss The Crying of Lot 49 on the Calgary Eyeopener, right here.

Notes: One of 'The Paranoids' songs in the book makes references to Humbert Humbert from Lolita and his quest for nymphets.  It turns out, that Pynchon studied under Nabokov at Cornell in the late 50's.
The meaning of 'the crying of lot 49' isn't revealed until the last line of the book.  But it doesn't really explain much!

I don't know what I plan to read next.  I'll have to visit the library today as my supply of books has dwindled.

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