Monday, August 8, 2022

Review of The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The human species never ceases to amaze. The past couple of years has seen the rise of Q-Anon conspiracy theories, for example. Bills Gates and Clinton having underage sex orgies while JFK Jr. is predicted to emerge from the woodwork to award Trump the presidency he “already won”. And that's just the tip of the American iceberg. Elvis lives, Area 51, contrails—and the list goes on. Why do people get onboard with such absurdity? Is the human mind so foolishly malleable? It turns out yes, and contemporary American culture is just another point in the history of humanity—so says Thomas Pynchon's 1966 The Crying of Lot 49.

The Crying of Lot 49 is a cruise on the twisting, turning road of Oedipa Maas. Likewise an aerial affair, gravity seems to have little regard for her reality. Oedipa's life takes a particularly dramatic turn one day discovering she is the inheritor of the estate of a former lover. A real estate mogul, he leaves her everything. Oedipa is given the opportunity to indulge in the wackiness of life she probably always wanted to but never had the means to. Now she does. Attracted by a reoccurring horn symbol she often sees opping up in her life, down the rabbit hole of American sub-culture Oedipa goes, and the reader gleefully with her.

Conspiracy theories and American culture go hand in hand. And given The Crying of Lot 49 was published in 1966—more than six decades ago, it is not a new phenomenon. While Oedipa's excursion through the 'ideologically wild' pales in comparison to the sheer cosmic absurdity of Q-Anon, the flavor of wanting to believe the highly unbelievable is there in Pynchon's novel. In one particular scene, Pynchon gets down into the nuts and bolts of Oedipa's thoughts—a blunt confrontation of the sheer absurdity, a major moment she could choose to put it behind and 'go normal'. I won't spoil the resolution, but Pynchon follows what social sciences have since described as “an affinity for chaos”.

For people rationally grounded, conspiracy theories are a bit of scary entertainment. Entertainment in the sense “Elvis is living in a Walmart bathroom!”, and scary that more than a handful of people believe such things. Pynchon works mostly in the former territory, saving some ink for the personal. Pynchon being Pynchon, the novel is not a direct examination of Oedipa's psyche. He shows significantly more than he tells. But what she does tells enough.

Beyond Oedipa, there are a couple layers to the novel that add fulfilling, meaningful depth. The first may seem a pure lark: a band called “The Voyeuristics” who follow Oedipa and her cockeyed plight in song. Complementing the tone of the novel, the band fill a niche the reader would have otherwise never knew was there. Second is the colorful cast of secondary characters. A psychologist, a lawyer, a historian, a collector—these roles may not seem to bring rainbows of interest to the novel. Pynchon, however, renders them as singular, quirky, yet believable humans—people we know exist and occasionally meet, just not seen on the poster of “standard Western human”.

It's stated that The Crying of Lot 49 is one of Pynchon's most accessible novels, and I'd agree. While Pynchon is still the sleight-of-hand master, drawing the reader's eye one direction while things happen in another, enough substance still exists on the surface for the reader to easily put two and two together. Allusion and oblique reference exist, but less so at the plot level, which makes it easier for readers to follow the twisting canyon road that is Oedipa's life.

In the end, The Crying of Lot 49 is a brilliantly colorful slice of American culture. Thankfully not a wholly representative slice, conspiracy theories are nevertheless an easily recognizable aspect of life in the US, and in the novel Pynchon magically winds a path through the people who believe, propagate, get on the train, get off the train, and otherwise form the architecture of American sub-culture's wild side. If you have not previously read Pynchon, this may be the best place to start.

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