Lee Spinks teaches English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He has written books on the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, James Joyce and Michael Ondaatje. He divides his time between reading modern fiction and waiting forlornly for the second coming of Tottenham Hotspur (at this point a first coming would do). Here Lee talks about Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49.
Lee Spinks on The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Great books can become important to us in many different ways. Some are so epic in ambition, intricate in design and various in their effects that they seem almost to define the terms of what great literature might be (Paradise Lost and Ulysses, for me at least). Others linger in the mind because of their provocative insistence upon probing and unsettling our most cherished beliefs and orthodoxies (Notes from Underground and Journey to the End of the Night would happily inflame any Book Club discussion). A third category stands out for perhaps the simplest and most potent of reasons: the vertiginous thrill they induce in the reader when they suddenly realize: 'I have never read anything quite like this before.' Such was my experience 25 years ago when I first came across Thomas Pynchon's 1965 masterpiece The Crying of Lot 49.
Some writers take considerable time and space to reveal aspects of the imaginative world they wish us to enter; others work rather more quickly. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Pynchon's tense little novel (at 125 pages it barely stretches its length beyond the confines of a novella) is that it took less than two pages to demonstrate to me that I would require an awkward adjective like 'Pynchonesque' to describe its idiosyncratic style and atmosphere. Here is its opening paragraph:
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 out all more than honorary. Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible. But this did not work. She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlán whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby; a sunrise over the library slop at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faced west; a dry, disconsolate tune from the fourth movement of the Bartòk Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept over the bed on a shelf so narrow for it she'd always had the hovering fear it would someday topple on them. Was that how he'd died, she wondered, among dreams, crushed by the only icon in the house? That only made her laugh, out loud and helpless: You're so sick, Oedipa, she told herself, or the room, which knew.
I can still remember staring at this paragraph and thinking to myself: what the hell am I to make of that? My difficulties began with the mere character names which appeared to promise a rich allegorical revelation of meaning and significance that they never quite revealed. What, for example, might a name like Pierce Inverarity betoken? A piercing truth? A befuddling untruth? The not altogether clarifying middle-ground of in vino veritas? Wasn't Oedipus, I recalled, the name of the first literary detective? But didn't someone mention somewhere that 'Maas' was Afrikaans for 'net'? If she is to be the central character of this novel, is she drunk or sick or clear-sighted? What, while I'm thinking about it, is the quality of a sunrise that no one has ever seen? Why is the room the only thing that seems to know anything? How on earth do any of these details go together?
These, at least, were some of my initial thoughts on beginning the novel. My bewilderment might easily have led me to put the book down had I not quickly discovered that it had a compelling and intricately rendered plot and a wonderfully surreal and anarchic sense of humour. No brief rehearsal of Pynchon's plot could begin to do justice to its thematic suggestiveness, richness of detail and sheer weirdness, but, at the most rudimentary level, the novel tells the story of Mrs Oedipa Maas, a rather bored California housewife, who is startled to find herself the executrix of the estate of her former lover and real-estate mogul Pierce Inverarity. Oedipa's quest to discharge her duty and understand the terms of Inverarity's legacy (a legacy that will have swollen by the end of the novel to embrace the meaning of America) will subsequently involve her in many strange and disconcerting adventures. Having journeyed to the aptly-named Californian city of San Narcisco to commence her legal duties, Oedipa gradually begins to realize that she may have stumbled across a vast and intricate conspiracy controlled by Inverarity, his lawyers, the mysterious defence-contracting firm of Yoyodyne (and Pynchon offers many penetrating insights concerning the corrosive effects of the defence industry and the permanent war economy upon American social and political life), her psychoanalyst and former Buchenwald intern Dr Hilarius, perhaps even her husband, perhaps, it sometimes seems, everybody she comes to meet.
Her quest to understand the 'real' meaning of the 'alternate universes' that now appear to constitute American life in the 1960s will embroil her in many fantastic encounters: meetings with eccentric individuals like John Nefastis, a scientist who claims to have perfected a working version of Maxwell's Demon capable of overcoming entropy and the second law of thermodynamics; bizarre cults like the Inamorati Anonymous, a group devoted to preventing people succumbing to the addiction of falling in love; and shadowy organizations like the Tristero, an underground postal network whose disguised mailboxes carry the sinister acronym W.A.S.T.E. (We Await Silent Tristero's Empire). What makes reading the novel such a tantalizing and unnerving experience is that we can never be completely sure whether Oedipa is simply paranoid, possibly deranged, and therefore a poor interpreter of the world around her, or whether she really is the hapless victim of a vast conspiracy designed to offer her (and everyone else) a plausible simulacrum of everyday life while secretly shaping the narrative of American history for its own interests. As Pynchon puts it:
Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America, and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.
Passages like this underscore a recurrent tendency of all of Pynchon's work, which is to locate aspects of the paranoid style of American politics at the core of suburban experience. They take their place in The Crying of Lot 49 within a lively political critique of contemporary American culture that explores the despoiling effects of modern capitalism upon the land and its people, the debilitating consequences of the mass media upon our perception of moral obligation and social relationships, and the waning of the historical sense at the very heart of American life. In case this makes the novel seem rather ponderous and gloomy, it's worth pointing out both that it is full of slapstick jokes, extended comic routines and farouche lexical outrages and that Pynchon writes more ravishingly and with greater elegiac grace about the promise (and sometimes the tragedy) of the idea of America than anyone since Fitzgerald. What is remarkable, and remarkably moving, about Pynchon's elegiac grace is the frequency with which his gaze concentrates upon the poor and the destitute, upon all those who have been pushed to the margins of their own lives by a dominant corporate paradigm insistent upon parcelling up the western dream of California into so many saleable lots. The tenderness and the pathos of his social vision reveal themselves in the exquisite lines that depict Oedipa's sorrowful recollection of the ruined life of a drunken old sailor reduced to living in the stairwell of a vacant tenement:
The eyes closed. Cammed each night out of that safe furrow the bulk of this city's waking each sunrise set virtuously to ploughing, what rich soils had he turned, what concentric planets uncovered? What voices overheard, flinders of luminescent gods glimpsed among the wallpaper's stained foliage, candlestubs lit to rotate in the air over him, prefiguring the cigarette he or a friend must fall asleep someday smoking, thus to end among the flaming, secret salts held all those years by the insatiable stuffing of a mattress that could keep vestiges of every nightmare sweat, helpless overflowing bladder, viciously tearfully consummated wet dream, like the memory bank to a computer of the lost? She was overcome all at once by a need to touch him, as if she could not believe in him, or would not remember him, without it.
To conclude some introductory remarks on The Crying of Lot 49 without mentioning matters like Pynchon's absorbing excursions into information theory and cybernetics, the relationship between entropy and closed political systems, his virtuoso pastiche of Jacobean drama and his inventive reworking of American historiography seems like a dereliction of duty. But all this and more lies in store for readers making their first acquaintance with this extraordinary and unforgettable little novel. To whom I say: Read it; and be reminded again of everything that great art can be and do.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.].