Monday, January 9, 2012

Thomas Pynchon--The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)

“There was that high magic to low puns”(105)
This would be a fantastic novel to teach as an introduction to postmodernism.  The novel follows a postmodern parody of a conspiracy, as the main character, Oedipa Maas, pursues what starts as a simple will executor duty into a labyrinthine conspiracy involving underground mail delivery which dates backs to eighteenth century Italy.  Following clues in play, in stamp watermarks, and a mysterious symbol of a muted horn which appears in stamps, bathroom graffiti, and doodles, Oedipa is driven near madness as she attempts to find order in this chaos, attempting to discover constellations among the clues.  The meaning of the enigmatic title is not revealed until the novel’s end, when one of the “lots” being auctioned off in the estate of the late Pierce Inverarity, Oedipa’s former lover whose vast estate she has been put partly in charge of.  Lot 49 contains the postage stamps which contain clues to the conspiracy; the “crying,” or auctioning, of this lot may reveal the authenticity of the conspiracy.  The novel ends with the crying of lot 49, never revealing the ultimate answers which Oedipa has sought.
One of the most metatextual elements in the novel is the play within the novel, the production of the Jacobean revenge play The Courier’s Tragedy described by members of the Paranoids and attended by Oedipa and Metzger.  The ridiculously complicated plot, so typical of a Jacobean play, itself forms a commentary on the very nature of plot itself.  Until this point, the plot of The Crying of Lot 49 has seemed rather outlandish: with this embedded narrative, the novel seems less postmodern and more in keeping with a much longer tradition of story-telling—“It plays, as Metzger remarked later, like a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse” (58).  More specifically, the description of a particular moment in the plot of The Courier’s Tragedy¸ when “an ambiguity begins to creep in among the words,”  could also be describing the novel at this point: “Heretofore the naming of names has gone on either literally or as a metaphor.  But now,…a new mode of expression takes over.  It can only be called a ritual reluctance.  Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown onstage; though it is difficult to imagine, given the excesses of the preceding acts, what these things could possibly be” (55).

This is not my favorite novel I've read.  Part of the problem, I think, was going from Mango Street and Ellen Foster (not to mention Downton Abbey), all very emotional reads with well-developed characters, to this novel, where emotion and character are beside the point.  I kept wanting to read Flannery O'Connor--or Spider Robinson, whose books (at least the ones I've read, which are mostly in the Callahan's and Lady Sally series) have a similar Vonnegut self-consciousness about them but also usually have characters with some emotional depth.  I realize that emotional depth is not a literary requirement--and isn't always one for my enjoyment--but I think that this transition was a bit too jarring to be completely enjoyable.  (Though I still really like Cat's Cradle--it's very possible, though, that timing was involved in that as well.)


  1. I read this last semester and enjoyed it very much. I'm tempted to teach it someday.

  2. (1966) Parts were published in Esquire in '65 and also in Cavalier, but not sure if the Cavalier appearance was in '65 or '66 and am too lazy to look it up.