The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" (published in 1966) is an absolutely unique book. This is my first complete Pynchon's novel; I have read large fragments of "V" and "Gravity Rainbow", but even if I have totally loved the writing I have never finished those as I detest books longer than 200 or so pages. "The Crying" is only 138 paperback pages long yet it took me about 12 hours to read the novella. I can read 1000 pages of lesser authors in 12 hours. Almost on every page of "The Crying" there are sentences and passages so fascinating that I have to keep rereading and rereading.
The plot of this novella takes place in 1964 or so. Oedipa Maas is named the co-executor of the will of her recently deceased ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity. While trying to discharge her executor's duties she becomes aware of a historical mystery - she learns about an ancient postal delivery service, the Trystero, that used a characteristic muted post horn symbol. The service was vanquished in early 1800's by Thurn-und-Taxis Post, but went underground and has continued its existence since then. The premise is so ridiculously absurd that it presses all my "love of surrealism" buttons. Tradition of postal fraud dating back to 1206!
So Oedipa is looking for Trystero muted post horn signs and we are offered an incisive and funny portrait of California and Californians in the mid-Sixties, during the "British Invasion", and just before the great cultural revolution of 1968-1969. Pynchon's writing is extremely rich in social and cultural references. There are references to references to references, and the prose is labyrinthine and dense. Just as an example, in the space of half a page we learn about a nose-picking contest, electronic music, and about Czar Nicholas II of Russia dispatching his Far East fleet to San Francisco Bay.
Great authors create alternative worlds through their writing. The world created by Mr. Pynchon is exhilarating and fascinating. How can one not like KCUF, the name of radio station where Oedipa's husband, Mucho, works? How can a mathematician not love a passage on "DT", delirium tremens, that slowly morphs into "dt", an infinitesimally small increment of time in the foundations of calculus? The whole Courier's Tragedy shtick is superb. The bits about European history suggesting that maybe the French Revolution was caused by Trystero are hysterically funny. The passages that happen in the Bay Area read as extended hallucinations. Maybe Oedipa does indeed take LSD prescribed by Dr. Hilarius, despite her claims to the contrary?
Two favorite sentences from the novella - one for its sheer surrealism, the other for subtle beauty: "In Golden Gate Park she came on a circle of children in their nightclothes, who told her they were dreaming the gathering". And "As if the dead really do persist, even in a bottle of wine."
I have read that Mr. Pynchon himself does not consider "The Crying" an important book. Yet it is a gigantic, hilarious joke by a great writer. For me, with this novella, Mr. Pynchon is what Rene Magritte is in visual arts. Post modern? What does "post-modernism" really mean? Will Professor Derrida's Gallic mumbo-jumbo illuminate me? I doubt it.
Four and three quarters stars.
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