Book View: The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

So…once upon a time I was an English major.  During my stint as an English major, I learned about many literary movements – Victorian, Romantic, Modernism, and so forth.  Then we covered Post-Modernism and I suddenly wanted to switch my major to Physics, build a time machine, and brain-wash all the great post-modern writers against writing their crazy, rambling nonsense.  Alas, this dream never came to light and so, several years later, I’m still trying to make some sort of coherent-ness out of Thomas Pynchon’s novels.  If you have found this elusive enlightenment, please share your wisdom in the comments.

You’re probably thinking, what’s this lady going on about already?  See, I’m determined to read all the books on TIME magazine’s 100 best English language novels since 1923 (see full list here).  And of course, Pynchon makes an appearance.  Actually, I think he makes two appearances (I’m afraid to check) and so I decided to get him out of the way early.  Bravely, this week I read (stumbled through) The Crying of Lot 49 and still haven’t recovered.

I don’t even know how to write a synopsis for this tiny little novella, but here goes:  Oedipa Maas (yes, that’s her name) receives a letter informing her that an ex-boyfriend has passed and named her as executor of his estate.  During her executor duties, she uncovers a long-lived feud between rival postal companies and what appears to be a global conspiracy represented by the following symbol:

Oedipa spends the rest of the novel as amateur detective trying to discover the truth behind the mail mystery and how her ex was involved.

Sounds logical, even mildly interesting, no?  Well, the thing you have to know is that Pynchon’s novel is a satire of life, of writing, of story – of everything.  So what appears to matter doesn’t matter, and that’s the point.  A main theme is breakdown in communication symbolized by the difficulty the reader has in following Pynchon’s narrative.  This book is a hot mess and a hot mess on purpose.  Without Sparknotes, I would never have been able to follow along.

As an example of post-modern literature, Pynchon’s novels (all of them) excel.  Where Modernism tries desperately to make sense out of chaos (think Virginia Woolf), Post-Modernism accepts the chaos, embraces the chaos, and then spits the chaos back into your face.  If this sounds exciting to you, then give it a go, but just know these novels are far more challenging that Shakespeare or Dickens.  I’d suggest starting with DeLillo’s White Noise, which is infinitely more readable than Pynchon.

If you must read The Crying of Lot 49, I’ll admit that it’s not all bad.  Of the six chapters, I enjoyed three – especially the scene where Metzger seduces Oedipa.  Oedipa’s night of endless roaming the streets of San Fran, spotting the muted post horn symbol everywhere was also fun to read and very well done.  Pynchon’s talent lies in language and imagery – he can also be quite humorous at times.

After finishing this book, I immediately picked up mind-trash (a.k.a. The Vampire Diaries 1&2) to give my brain a rest.  Look for that review this week as well as my first Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men!