I read Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 for two reasons. David Foster Wallace, one of my favourite authors, listed Thomas Pynchon as an influence. And, one of my best friends recommended this book specifically as a kind of Pynchon sampler since The Crying of Lot 49 comes in at 152 pages, while most of Pynchon’s other works are at least four times that length.
With this in mind, I think there are two important questions that need answering:
1) Will I read more Thomas Pynchon after having had a taste?”
2) Did I like The Crying of Lot 49?
My answer to the first question is a definite “Yes!”
But my answer to the second questions starts off with a hesitant “Well…”
Let’s start with a summary. The Crying of Lot 49 is about a woman named Oedipa Maas being summoned to co-execute the estate of her late ex-lover Pierce Inverarity with his lawyer Metzger.
Pierce was a tycoon in the truest sense of the word, a man who owned land all over California, had business holdings throughout the city of San Narciso (in which most of the story takes place), and who was fabulously wealthy. Period.
But. Thankfully. The Crying of Lot 49 isn’t about an ex-lover and a lawyer going through items and lots and arranging appraisals and keeping records. Instead, Oedipa starts to notice an image popping up around her after she’s summoned to co-execute Pierce’s estate – a curious symbol that she tries to figure out for the rest of the book.
This attempted unravelling takes her on a journey around southern California as she tracks down people and places related to a long forgotten but possibly still active secret organization. As people start to vanish and change around her she begins to wonder: is this all just a practical joke that Pierce used his deep pockets to set up? Is it a bunch of coincidences? Or, has she actually stumbled onto something bigger than herself that’s been brewing under the surface of society since before the Civil War?
Pynchon’s Influence on Wallace and Writing Styles
Having read The Crying of Lot 49 I can definitely see where Wallace was influenced by Pynchon. Both writers, even when using just a few hundred pages of words, make those pages dense.
Characters don’t so much move through the world in The Crying of Lot 49 as they experience emotions or events or thoughts or discoveries and those experiences alone carry them from physical place to physical place. The emphasis in this book is definitely on the interiority of Oedipa and as such, we’re implicitly told not to worry about too much outside of her perceptions of and reactions to things. There is a reality of actual events out there, but this is much more a book about living in and seeing as a particular character in a particular situation. Since this is a short book, this implicit conceit works quite well.
But, I think that Wallace outshines Pynchon when it comes to making the thicket of words accessible.
Pynchon’s thickets are so dense and similar that they seem more like ornate, but manufactured shrubbery. Wallace’s thickets, on the other hand, are hearty but nonetheless have a natural weave to them. And, once you find this weave, you can easily work your way through his thickets of words.
To put it another way, the dense passages in the Crying of Lot 49 read like something out of a literary noir novel, set pieces that say different things but nonetheless seem monolithic, while Wallace’s denser passages are like his characters’ streams of consciousness, unintelligible if you’re just skimming them, but recognizable once you get to know them.
Matters of style aside, I found Pynchon’s story of a largely academic hunt for the secret society’s origins and story quite fascinating. It’s not often that you read about someone going to a professor or a director for information about arcana and actually get strong, quick characterization that pulls you along. I was also thrilled to find some original songs in the book, care of a Beatles-like band called The Paranoids. It’s really neat how, even in such a relatively short book, Pynchon brings out so many elements that breathe life into the world of San Narciso and the life of Oedipa Maas.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the book’s ending, though. It finishes just as 2010’s Inception finished, with the biggest question that the story rose on the cusp of being answered, and so it’s not really a story about what it’s been about the whole time. It’s really more of a study in a character, a kind of roller coaster named Oedipa Maas, that you step on to, ride through its circuit, and then step off of without much of a conclusion except for the one that you draw yourself.
This is a fine way to end a novel that’s so concerned with a character’s inner life, and that obviously is trying to be something that the reader relates to, maybe even trying to be a metaphor or analogy for the moment of revelation that we all wait for at key moments in our lives.
But I can’t help but feel like this ending is a little disjointed with the rest of the book. The book’s plot follows the pattern of introducing a problem, working towards solving that problem, and then letting the search for a solution lead to other problems and situations. This pattern, to my mind, been the bread and butter of sitcoms for so long that its presence here, in a book that’s so much more about challenging the norms of narrative and expectation, feels wrong.
Having been published in 1966, I realize that my feeling that The Crying of Lot 49‘s ending is disjointed is largely the result of the order in which I’ve consumed culture, but I think that it’s the truly great works of literature and art and video games that defy the order of culture and stand above it.
Stepping back from that implication that The Crying of Lot 49 doesn’t rise above the culture around it, maybe a better approach to figuring out if I liked it would be to ask if The Crying of Lot 49 approaches this sitcom formula in a way that’s better than your average sitcom.
The book definitely does it in a much more dramatic way, with an ending that definitely caters more to the curious mind than the punch-line seeking funny bone, and with a deeper dive into the intellectual side of a topic than most sitcoms can ever hope to make. Also, by virtue of its being a book and Pynchon knowing his way around the medium, it’s also much more adept at capturing a character’s self than television ever will be as it currently is. But is that a point for The Crying of Lot 49 or one that’s moot because of the difference in media?
Ultimately, I think that The Crying of Lot 49 is a great way to get a taste of Thomas Pynchon (though having read none of his other stuff, I can’t say if it’s the signature taste). I think I’ll definitely read other Pynchon novels, too, but I don’t think that this one is a keeper.
So, if you want to get a sense of Thomas Pynchon’s style, go ahead and pick up a copy of The Crying of Lot 49. But I think the library’s a better bet for it than the bookstore.