Read A Classic: The Crying of Lot 49
Rating: 4.9/5 improbable conspiracies involving the postal system
Recommended if you like: Conspiracy theories. Postmodernism. Female protagonists. Revenge plays. Dive bars. Silly names. Scavenger hunts. Esoteric historical tidbits in a mire of invention. Pre-Summer-of-Love nostalgia bombs.
First lines: “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.”
When my dad was young, he so profoundly overlistened to Pink Floyd that by the time I was born he refused to have any of their albums in the house. As a result, I formed only the vaguest of ideas about what they sounded like, and somehow got it into my head that “prog rock” sounded something like thrash metal. Imagine my surprise the first time I actually listened to Dark Side of the Moon (in someone’s dank basement bedroom at the tender age of 15, as tradition all but dictates) and discovered wild ethereal beauty in place of the screeching cacophony I had imagined. Why do I mention this? Because I suspect that many of my gentle readers have a similar sort of reaction to the word ‘postmodernism’ as the virgin-eared me did to the words ‘prog rock’ once upon a time, which is to say a mild reflexive nausea.
But if that dimly-lit, marijuana-scented room was my adolescent come-to-Jesus moment, may The Crying of Lot 49 – wherever you read it – be yours. It is one of the truly great books in the Western canon, combining as it does an improbable mystery story, gentle satirical riffs on pop culture, lunatic ekphrasis (describing variously an astoundingly silly made-for-TV-movie watched as part of a wholly desexualized striptease, one of my favorite Remedios Varo paintings, and an imaginary revenge play of Shakespearean absurdity), actual bizarre and fascinating tidbits of the history of the postal system, and one of the most interesting female protagonists ever to come from the pen of a dude. The Crying of Lot 49 did just about everything before it was cool, from catchy songs the characters sing at random to a provocatively non-standard-issue ending.
It’s a particularly poignant read for lovers of the San Francisco regions (or for me, anyway, speaking for EVERYONE ELSE HERE), containing as it does a fantastical hunt through the Bay Area to discover the truth of a mysterious underground organization called the Trystero. Whether the Trystero is real, an elaborate game, or essentially a psychedelic delusion is up for grabs, of course, but a number of equally arcane city-wide games, conspiracies, and secret societies have actually sprung up in the area in the intervening years, from the now-defunct Cacaphony Society (the basis for Project Mayhem of Fight Club fame!) to the more recent Jejune Institute. The Crying of Lot 49 is both a reflection of and a blueprint for the longing to seek out the secrets that lie under the surface of any really good, weird city.
But it’s also many other things: a delicate exploration of emerging psychedelic culture, for one. The book was written in the mid-1960s, before LSD was a total hippie cliche, and the drug shows up in peculiar sidewinding threads of the narrative that give a rather more earnest and genuine portrait of the nascent counterculture that might be expected given the admittedly far-fetched scenarios.
The book is also, perhaps unintentionally, a portrait of a woman working out what it means to escape the clutches of the conventions of the 1950s. Oedipa Maas, the main character, sets off on the sort of adventure usually reserved for male protagonists, notable in its lack of emphasis on relationships, love, or claimed/reclaimed sexuality; she’s uncovering her role in a fabulously implausible story that may be at least partially her own invention. If she stops to knock boots with someone along the way, it’s only to gather further clues. The story begins, in the very first sentence, with her return from a Tupperware party – that iconic pastime of the 1950s housewife – to find herself already embroiled in the kind of weirdness that is fundamentally anathema to the June Cleaver model of ladydom. I suspect that Pynchon quite probably didn’t mean to write something so altogether feminist in tone, especially since second-wave feminism had really only just begun when the book was written – it’s simply that he wrote a book that looks at the deep weirdness of life in the early sixties, and using a woman to explore that landscape fits perfectly logically with the premise of the book.
Which is – what, exactly? That meaning’s what you make of it, maybe, or that there is more mystery out there than you think, or that everything is connected after all even if it’s not in the warm fuzzy ways the hippies would have you think? That the sixties were a funny time to be alive? That we should all get out more often into the wild weirdness of our own landscapes? It’s the lack of an easy thesis, among other things, that makes this book a classic.
But what about the postmodernism? if you’re anything like me, every time you hear someone use the term ‘postmodern’ to describe something you realize you a) hate the thing being spoken of and/or b) hate the person speaking – due, usually, to a combination of pretension, obscurity, or ordinary solid ugliness. But the same things that make The Crying of Lot 49 wonderful (its spurning of prior narrative conventions, its unclassifiable plot and structure, its poking of fun at pop culture and art, its loopy ending, its daffy skepticism) are what technically make it postmodern, too. It’s just that Pynchon does it really well, not to make some kind of lofty ontological point but because he’s having fun. And it is important, I would argue (especially if you like to win arguments against the kind of insufferably dull people who like to drone on about the SRS BSNSS of postmodernism), to recall that deconstruction can be gleeful, critical skepticism can be cheerful, and satire can be, you know, actually funny.
And finally, unlike so many too many classics, let us all be grateful that The Crying of Lot 49 is still not required reading almost anywhere, so we can all still enjoy it just because we want to.