Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying Of Lot 49

I see, by my inscription inside the front cover, that it has been five years to the month since my first reading of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and I am happy to report that a second reading has dramatically improved my grasp of it (a common sentiment among Pynchon readers). The story of Oedipa Maas, a California housewife in the 1960s tasked with managing the estate of a former lover, the millionaire real estate mogul Pierce Inverarity, left me with the uneasy feeling of having heard a joke without the punchline, but a second reading confirms that this feeling of unease and irresolution is very much a part of Pynchon’s design.

The first sentence is worth quoting, if only because it speaks to some of the absurdity of Pynchon’s plot and the meaning he can pack into single sentences: “One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.” The book takes place in the 1960s, amidst the Cold War and the sexual revolution and Vietnam, and the widespread civil unrest these all caused, and from the very opening Pynchon gives us a stark contrast in the figures of a California housewife, of the sort that attends Tupperware parties, and a real estate millionaire. Oedipa is the wrong person for the job – an executrix, not the expected executor – but she nonetheless takes leave of her husband, Wendell “Mucho” Maas, a former car salesman turned DJ, and their suburban home, driving south to the fictional San Narciso, “less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts,” where she gets her first real sense of having stumbled upon a larger meaning that eludes her:

She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, rom the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant. As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind rotating too slow for her heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were being spoken.

This sense of a revelation out of reach never leaves Oedipa – or the reader, for that matter – but she does begin to piece together a mystery, of sorts.

Lot 49 of Pierce’s estate, to be “cried” by the auctioneer at the novel’s end, contains a collection of unusual stamps that might prove the existence of an ancient and underground postal service, the Trystero, which was ostensibly defeated by the historical Thurn und Taxis in a battle for preeminence in Europe in the 18th century. Clues testifying to the existence of this mysterious underground postal network are strewn throughout California – usually in the form of a symbol, a muted post horn – and Oedipa stumbles on them everywhere: graffitied on bathroom stalls, chalked onto sidewalks, even referenced in a Jacobean revenge tragedy that Oedipa attends. Perhaps Oedipa has wandered into a centuries-old conspiracy, or perhaps the Trystero does not exist, and she is merely seeing a pattern where none exists. Or perhaps Pierce, her former lover, is using his vast wealth to manipulate her from beyond the grave, for purposes unknown. If the Trystero does exist, it represents, to Oedipa, “not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied to them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote, loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private.” It’s difficult not to read this passage in its historical context, when conscientious objectors and Civil Rights advocates defined the decade, and certainly the sense of paranoia, of belonging to a design larger than oneself, that pervades the book, defined the Cold War era.

Pynchon includes many other references to the decade’s defining features. There are numerous references to the Beatles, including a band of American musicians, The Paranoids, who sing in British accents, and LSD plays a major role in the plot when Oedipa learns that her own therapist, Dr. Hilarius, had been employed at Buchenwald by “liberal SS circles,” who thought it be would more humane to induce insanity in their Jewish victims before murdering them. Pynchon weaves a conspiracy story that is equal parts suspenseful and hilarious, simultaneously undermining the power of language to convey meaning and truth and affirming its preeminence in all we do and think. “The saint whose water can light lamps,” he writes, “the clairvoyant whose lapse in recall is the breath of God, the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself, the dreamer whose puns probe ancient fetid shafts and tunnels of truth all act in the same special relevance to the word, or whatever it is the word is there, buffering, to protect us from. The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending on where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost.” The Crying Of Lot 49 is likewise a lie and a “thrust at truth,” and Pynchon’s particular genius in this book is to rob us, at every turn, of any orienting certainty: are we safely inside the metaphor, or hopelessly lost outside of it?