Tuesday, October 20, 2009

264. The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon

History: PUblished in 1966, it is the shortest of Pynchons novel and considered the most accessible. As in his earlier novel, V., Pynchon seems to be making a point about human beings' need for certainty, and their need to invent conspiracy theories to fill the vacuum in places where there is no certainty. Critics have read the book as both an "exemplary postmodern text" and an outright parody of postmodernism.
The Crying of Lot 49 was published shortly after Beatlemania and the "British invasion" which took place in America and other Western countries. Pynchon, aptly, makes a wide variety of Beatles allusions. Most prominent are the Paranoids, a band composed of cheerful marijuana smokers whose lead singer, Miles, is a high-school dropout. The Paranoids all speak with American accents but sing in English ones; at one point, a guitar player is forced to relinquish control of a car to his girlfriend because he cannot see through his hair.
Pynchon refers to a rock song, "I Want to Kiss Your Feet", a self-abasing version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand". The artist, Sick Dick and the Volkswagens, echoes such actual groups as the El Dorados, the Edsels, the Cadillacs and the Jaguars (as well as an early name the Beatles themselves were forced to use, "Long John and the Silver Beetles"). Sick Dick and the Volkswagens is also a play on words. Volkswagens most prominent car is the Beetle. The nickname for the Beetle is the Love Bug. Thus making the play on words "Sick Dick and the Love Bugs." "Sick Dick" may also echo Richard Wharfinger, author of "that ill, ill Jacobean revenge play" known as The Courier's Tragedy. On top of all this, the song's title also keeps up a recurring sequence of allusions to Saint Narcissus, a third-century bishop of Jerusalem.
Late in the novel, Oedipa's husband Mucho Maas, a disc jockey at Kinneret radio station KCUF, describes his experience of discovering the Beatles. Mucho refers to their early song "She Loves You", as well as hinting at the areas the Beatles were later to explore.
The significance of the number 49 within the novel cannot be placed for sure, but, as the book is preoccupied with the theme of communications, the year 1849 would seem to be a possible reason for the title's choice. In 1849, the second year of the California Gold Rush, vast quantities of telecommunications equipment, including a private mail system, were rolled out to support those rushing to California
Plot: "The Crying of Lot 49" is located between Berkeley and Los Angeles, and its events, historical as well as private, are filtered through the career of one person, Oedipa Maas.
Oedipa is introduced as a good suburban housewife in Kinneret-Among-The-Pines, making "the twilight's whiskey sours" against the arrival of her husband Wendell ("Mucho") Maas.
At the outset her troubles are all manageable within the terms of ordinary daily living. She has a not always potent husband who suffers crises of conscience about his professions --formerly a used car salesman, he is now a disk jockey--and about his teen-age tastes and his taste for teen- agers. Also, she has a neurotic psychiatrist named Hilarius, who wants her to take LSD as an experiment, and a former lover, the tycoon Pierce Inverarity, who would sometimes call her, before his recent death, at one in the morning, using Slavic, comic Negro, or hostile Pachuco dialects.
As the novel opens, Oedipa learns, that she is an executor, along with a man named
Metzger, formerly the child movie star known as Baby Igor, of Inverarity's will. The will was discovered some months after his death, a period during which it was perhaps tampered with in order to hide from Oedipa the revelations which his network of holdings, her "inheritance," seem to communicate: an America coded in Inverarity's testament. Before the novel closes, Oedipa loses her husband to LSD, her psychiatrist to madness, her one extra-marital lover, Metzger, to a depraved 15-year-old, and her one guide through the mazes of her inheritance, a Ralph Driblette, to suicide. In the final scene, accompanied by the famed philatelist, Genghis Cohen, she enters the "crying” of Lot 49, a collection of Inverarity's stamps.
After being defeated by Thurn und Taxis in the 1700s, the Trystero organization goes
underground and continues to exist, with its mailboxes in the least suspected places, often appearing under their slogan W.A.S.T.E., an acronym for We Await Silent Tristero's Empire, and also a smart way of hiding their post-boxes disguised as regular waste-bins. In the plot of the novel, the existence and plans of the shadowy organization are revealed bit by bit, or, then again, it is possible that the Tristero does not exist at all. Oedipa Maas is buffeted back and forth between believing and not believing in them, without ever finding firm proof either way. The Tristero may be a conspiracy, it may be a practical joke, or it may simply be that Oedipa is hallucinating all the arcane references to the underground network, that she seems to be discovering on bus windows, toilet walls, et cetera.
The Trystero muted post hornProminent among these references is the "Trystero symbol", a muted post horn with one loop. Originally derived, supposedly, from the Thurn and Taxis coat of arms, Oedipa finds this symbol first in a bar bathroom, where it decorates a graffito advertising a group of polyamorists. It later appears among an engineer's doodles, as part of a children's sidewalk jump rope game, amidst Chinese ideograms in a shop window, and in many other places. The post horn (in either original or Trystero versions) appears on the cover art of many TCL49 editions, as well as within artwork created by the novel's fans.
Oedipa leaves her comfortable home in Kinneret-Among-The-Pines, a northern California village, and travels south to the fictional town of San Narciso (Spanish for "Saint Narcissus"), near Los Angeles. Exploring puzzling coincidences she uncovers while parsing Inverarity's testament, Oedipa finds what might be evidence for the Trystero's existence. Sinking or ascending ever more deeply into paranoia, she finds herself torn between believing in the Trystero and believing that it is all a hoax established by Inverarity himself.
Along the way, Oedipa meets a wide range of eccentric characters. Her therapist in
Kinneret, a Dr. Hilarius, turns out to have done his internship in Buchenwald, working to induce insanity in captive Jews. "Liberal SS circles felt it would be more humane," he explains. In San Francisco, she meets a man who claims membership in the IA, Inamorati Anonymous—a group founded to help people avoid falling in love, "the worst addiction of all". (Ironically, the anonymous inamorato wears a lapel pin shaped as the Trystero post horn, which Oedipa first saw on an advertisement for group sex.) And, in Berkeley, she meets John Nefastis, an engineer who believes he has built a working version of Maxwell's Demon, a means for defeating entropy. The book ends with Oedipa attending an auction, waiting for bidding to begin on a set of a rare postage stamps, which she believes representatives of Tristero are trying to acquire. (Auction items are called "lots"; a lot is "cried" when the auctioneer is taking bids on it; the stamps in question are "Lot 49".)
Pynchon devotes a significant part of the book to a "play within a play", a detailed
description of a performance of an imaginary Jacobean revenge play, involving intrigues between Thurn and Taxis and Tristero. Like the Mousetrap which Shakespeare placed within Hamlet, the events and atmosphere of The Courier's Tragedy (by "Richard Wharfinger") mirror those in the larger story around them.
Review: In this short, but fairly dense novel, Pynchon was able to create an entire world full of satire, conspiracy, and emotion This novel is a patriotic lamentation, an elaborate effort not to believe the worst about the Republic. Patriotism for an ideal of America explains the otherwise yawning gap in Pynchon's comic shaping of his material. The Tristero System--it began in 1577 in Holland in opposition to the Thurn and Taxis Postal System and is active now in America trying to subvert the American postal system through an organization called W.A.S.T.E.--is a masterpiece of comic invention. It involves, among other things, one of the best parodies ever written of Jacobean drama, "The Courier's Tragedy," and a perhaps final parody of California right-wing organizations, Peter Pequid
Society, named for the commanding officer of the Confederate man-of-war "Disgruntled" and opposed to industrial capitalism on the grounds that it has led inevitably to Marxism. Its leader, Mike Fallopian, speculates in California real estate. The exuberance of such comedy softens the portents of national calamity, but at the same time it makes it nearly impossible for Pynchon to persuade the reader, as he anxiously wants to do, that the whole System and the whole book have more meaning than a practical joke. The same difficulty was apparent in "V.", where the author's style at points of sincerity about love and youth was, by contrast to the vitality of his comic writing, platitudinously limp and sloganeering.
After all of the emotional and mental time invested into discovering the truth behind the novel, Pynchon gives the reader a nice slap in the face in the end by revealing nothing. You are left to ponder, along with the characters, how much of what you read was true and how much was just the product of paranoia.
Opening Line: "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 excutrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost ten 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."
Closing Line: "Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of lot 49."
Quotes: "The reality is in this head. Mine. I'm the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, and sometimes other orifices also."
"Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold, which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly, leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world came back."
Rating: Okay, I didn't get it. I am not seeing the greatness behind Pynchon, not yet.

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