Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

May 9th, 2013 § 0 comments

Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades… She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple of thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there’d been no escape. What did she so desire escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside for no real reason at all.

Yesterday was Thomas Pynchon’s birthday, and thanks largely to the efforts of Bill D, it has become Pynchon in Public Day, where people celebrate their  love of the author’s work by posting photos of the novels in public, and/or discreetly placing Trystero’s muted post horn stickers on post boxes out in the wild. Larry asked if I would write a piece due to his current situation, and I agreed, knowing that as I don’t read as fast as him (and some days I wonder if anyone does) the only novel I would have time to reread was Pynchon’s shortest to date. I didn’t mind though, as The Crying of Lot 49 holds a special place in my heart because it was the first Pynchon I read, and served as an introduction into just what it what I was getting myself into.

I am loathe to discuss the plot (mostly because, as with any of Pynchon’s novels, I would likely be here all day), but it revolves around typically Pynchion paranoia and conspiracy, with long history related asides, postmodern pop culture references, and psychedelic drugs. It also has a characteristic, for want of a better word, zaniness, that at times is hilarious (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think of Oedipa putting on all her clothes and rolling on the floor or the lawyer and former child actor, Metzger, passed out with his head under the couch and an erection and not laugh). It is also very much a California novel, its fictional locations like San Narciso recalling the state as well as the actual Bay area Oedipa Maas  also visits. Yoyodyne’s defense contracts recall the boom in war industry in the region for defense companies like Douglas, and the research department is doing similar work to the work that was being done at the Hughes Institute. The importance of the freeways to the state is also realised by Oedipa, as it was by Joan Didion, as Pynchon writes;

What the road really was, she fancied, was this hypodermic needle, inserted somewhere ahead into the 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.

There’s an absolutism at the heart of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 that makes me, as a failed philosopher, feel rather uneasy. We have followed Oedipa down the rabbit hole in search of the truth about Trystero and W.A.S.T.E, but we are given no indication of how it would be possible to determine reality from falsehood. From the very beginning, it is suggested to us that Oedipa has problems with distinguishing between the two, as illustrated by the opening quote and her interactions with her psychiatrist. We are left then, to make an absolute judgement on the content of the novel that is almost solipsist in nature, either everything is true or nothing is; the secret postal war that has been raging since the days of the Holy Roman Empire, the play within a play, child actors turned lawyers, shadowy mail carriers and assassins. The old, comfortable, instinct that the author is telling us the truth about what is happening comes into direct conflict with outright rejection of such postmodern absurdity, and as to which way the wind is really blowing, Pynchon isn’t telling. We might be awaiting silent Trystero’s Empire for a long, long time.

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