ABCs of 1001 Books: The Crying of Lot 49

A – I was about 30 pages into my 183 page version of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 when I began to suspect it would be a novel of the absurd. I don’t remember if this is an official literary term, but I use the word “absurd” because the characters act in random ways and the plot is compelled by coincidences rather than by traditional notions of narrative plot development or human motivation and manners.

B – As a novel of the absurd, it is redeemed by its brevity.

C – The main character is Oedipa Maas, a woman married to Wendell “Mucho” Maas, who unexpectedly finds herself the executor of the will of one of her previous lovers, Pierce Inverarity.

D – “Things then did not delay in turning curious.” This sentence starts the third chapter. I found it while skimming back through the pages in the process of writing this blog post. It sums up the whole novel really.

E – I chose this novel from the 1001 Books list mostly for its use of the evocative word “crying” with the bluntly physical noun “lot.” However, I suspected the title would be more poetic than whatever the lot turned out to be within the story. This suspicion was correct. I was not correct in guessing the lot would be a parking lot.

F – I felt an affinity for Mucho’s horror and despair that came from working as a used car salesman (in a lot that is not the titular Lot 49). It’s not a central part of the novel, but typical of Pynchon’s metaphorical commentary on his contemporary society. Mucho “could still never accept the way each owner, each shadow, filed in only to exchange a dented, malfunctioning version of himself for another, just as futureless, automotive projection of somebody else’s life” (14). I work in different profession, but I empathize with how Mucho feels as he watches people grasping for hope in material things that he knows from experience won’t satisfy their desires for meaning and identity.

G – I did many Google searches as I reflected on this novel, especially wondering which characters, places, and events were based in reality versus Pynchon’s imagination. These searches made me realize how famous this novel must be (or at least once was) because the first page of results invariably included links to sites about this novel, even for the historically real things.

H – It’s at once a novel about general ideas and a novel very much situated in a particular period of American history. Although the setting is the 1960s, Pynchon weaves in references to World War II in creative and surreal ways. A movie on a hotel TV. Bones transported to a commercial lake. Veterans weeping in stairways and under overpasses.

I – Inverarity is a name with both vocal and thematic resonance. Or maybe it just seems that way to my Latin-infused mind that immediately sees “veritas” or “truth” as the root of this name. Inverarity just sounds cooler than Untruthful or Rarelytrue.

J – If I disobeyed the common maxim and judged a book by its cover, I would not have read this one. The edition I borrowed from the Cincinnati Public Library was published in 1986 by Perennial Library. It is a well-worn copy with a beige, hardback binding but the height and girth of a small paperback. The cover illustration shows four pairs of disembodied Caucasian hands hovering around a crumpled piece of paper with a strange symbol drawn on it. It put me in mind of a ouija board, a practice I don’t like to read about. Other than the symbol, I don’t think the illustration fits the novel.

K – Not including the ultra-violent slaughters of many characters in a play Oedipa sees, one person is killed in the course of the novel.

L – Some characters trip on LSD. It is not a good experience for any.

M – I didn’t understand why Oedipa’s husband was nicknamed “Mucho.”

N – I’m sure at least one scholar has had a field day analyzing the names of this novel’s characters in relation to that character’s choices. Inverarity. Doctor Hilarius. Mike Fallopian. Wharfinger. Driblette. Metzger seems the most normal name compared to these, but still isn’t a common name.

O – When I noticed the intentional significance of names in this novel, I became somewhat worried about what the main character, Oedipa, might eventually do. For those who may experience this same anxiety, I offer this reassuring spoiler: neither of Oedipa’s parents makes an appearance.

P – Have you ever thought of the U.S. Postal Service as a monopolizing force? If I’ve thought about the history at all, I’ve thought of UPS as providing a communication service that wasn’t there before. Pynchon goes into detail describing an alternate history of the UPS and other national postal systems battling and obliterating rival private messenger services. But at the same time Pynchon’s (hi)story isn’t really “about” the postal service.

Q – Like the cover illustration, this quote from the 1001 Books entry about the novel would have turned me off from reading it if I had read the entry before choosing to read it. “Oscillations between ideological absurdity and mediated superficiality sketch out a wasteland of seemingly empty but wildly proliferating signs, and the story careers from thought experiments to anarchist miracles” (596).

R – I don’t know if I would recommend this novel to anyone, but I don’t regret reading it. While at first I was annoyed with its absurdity, I started to enjoy it when I thought of it less as novel and more as a puzzle to sift through to figure out the philosophical worldview it represents.

S – Pynchon created his satirical California town of San Narciso in the 1960s, but it’s qualities are pretty much the same qualities that a modern author might use to satirize California in the 2010s.

T – I was surprised to discover in a Google search that Thurn and Taxis was actually a German royal family involved with postal service and still around (and very rich) today. They’re so famously connected with the postal service that a board game released in 2006 bears their name and has players creating postal networks in Bavaria. Who knew?

U – The characters have many unfulfilled expectations. Without giving away plot points, I’ll hint that various characters are disappointed by LSD, a radio station, and Sigmund Freud.

V – I read this novel in various locations and for varying amounts of time. On the bus to work and grad school. At a table in the break room. On the loveseat in my living room. Sometimes I read over thirty pages in one go while at others I read only two or three pages. Although taking small doses might seem to fit the episodic nature of the plot, I would recommend larger portions to really get the feel for the gonzo nature of the narrative.

W – As with names, some scholar has probably written about what Thomas Pynchon is trying to convey about the Word. He uses “the Word” not to mean holy scripture but more like the entire human endeavor to use words to make meaning. This coincides with my understanding that novels of the absurd come out of a worldview that values questioning absolutes while bewailing the confusion and despair that such questioning can cause.

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – Yoyodyne is one of the clever names Pynchon invented. This one is for a tech company. Other authors have liked it as much as I do because Wikipedia lists many works of fiction that use it.

Z – Pynchon’s novel definitely taps into the zeitgeist of the post-WWII intellectual culture. I wonder what today’s college students would get out of reading it.

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