While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Crying of Lot 49

On Friday I finished reading The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon…

Oedipa Maas is named co-executor of her ex-boyfriend’s estate. The ex was a multi-millionaire developer with a finger in every pie in San Narciso (fictional So-Cal town), so unpicking the estate promises to be onerous, but she is quickly swept away by another quest: uncovering the meaning of Trystero, which is mentioned in the (fictional) Jacobean revenge play by the (fictional) Richard Wharfinger, The Courier’s Tragedy.

So much of The Crying of Lot 49 is made up (towns, playwrights, warring postal services), and the characters’ names and actions are so outlandish, that a reader should be left in no doubt that what one is reading is fiction. Should be. But one cannot be certain because there is a whole other side to this book which could be based on fact.

With Pynchon, there is no certainty. I even struggle to classify what sort of book it was I just read.

From his introduction to Slow Learner, it’s clear that Pynchon considered The Crying of Lot 49 a novella (or perhaps just a long story), but ever since its first publication it has been marketed as a novel. It reads like a novel, packed with characters and tangents, and it took me more than two weeks of reading it in my lunch break to finish its 128 pages (in the Vintage edition I read). But, ultimately, it behaves like a short story (more on this later).

The time it took to finish TCL49 is nothing compared to what it took me to finish Gravity’s Rainbow, which I checked out of libraries in three cities (and two countries) for probably a total of four months before I finally finished it. This is not to say I did not enjoy Gravity’s Rainbow. But it is a slog. One which is not conducive to three or four week loan periods.

[If I am ever going to finish reading V (I think I read the first 150 pages) or read Mason and Dixon or Against the Day, I will have to own a copy.]

Quests and paranoia are at the heart of both TCL49 and Gravity’s Rainbow. The latter has the space (and scope) to include more, which is one of the reasons it is a difficult book to finish: though there is a plot, you always feel like you have drifted away from it, and aren’t sure when you will drift back.

Even at 128 pages, The Crying of Lot 49 is not what you would call a focussed book. I only really got a sense of what may be happening around page fifty (after the eight page summary of the The Courier’s Tragedy).

This is not to say that the book was not enjoyable before this quest for Trystero began. There are several runs of characterisation, like Mucho Maas’ failure as car salesman due to overthinking and his budding failure as radio disc jockey for the same reason, which are sharp and funny. But I found my page rate increased once the conspiracy theory plot arose and we followed Oedipa’s ragged quest.

While paranoia pervades Gravity’s Rainbow—at times unfounded, on others justified, with many more with question marks either way—The Crying of Lot 49 is able to end in a completely ambivalent state. That, I think, is the success of the book—and why I view it as a story or a novella rather than a novel. The Crying of Lot 49 is an exercise in ambivalence. It thumbs its nose at readers in search of resolution (or a clear indication of plot from the outset).

Instead of a resolution of plot, the reader gets a consolation prize on the final page when the meaning of the title is explained. When it falls into place, it hits like a punch line, but only a mediocre one. It is, after all, just a title—just another piece of the fiction—when we are all looking for solid ground.

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