The Crying of Lot 49

Well, hell, I really have no idea what that was all about. 

I like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent person, but throughout my entire reading of The Crying of Lot 49, I felt lost and uncertain. I knew all of these words were English and I frequently enjoyed the flow of the prose, I just had no bloody idea where it was going and, frankly, was hazy on the details about how we got where we were at any point in time.

I have since been told this is all normal and I'm not sure that makes me feel any better.

The basic "plot" centers around a woman, Oedipa Maas, who has been made co-executor to the estate of an old boyfriend. That sentence is the beginning and end of what I can summarize with any real certainty, because the rest of the book deals in things that may or may not be happening, may or may not have deeper meaning, and may or may not be a complete sham. Let's just say I was at least glad that LSD was brought up by name as it was one of the only times where I felt like the text confirmed what was going through my head.

Oedipa just might have stumbled upon a centuries-old conflict between two mail systems (Thurn and Taxis and the Trystero/Tristero) and, in doing so, has possibly uncovered a still-functioning service that caters to lost souls and broken-hearted. Those outside the know who discover details without approval seem to end up dead. Oedipa begins to see the symbol for a muted horn everywhere and we're all left to wonder if this is real or a set-up, and (spoiler but not spoiler) we never get to find out.

Bewailing what I saw as my utter stupidity in failing to see the point of everything, I had a conversation with a Pynchon scholar (who probably disavows everything I say here, as he's incredibly disappointed I didn't love his favorite author).  He confirmed that everything I thought about the novel seemed to be true and the true reason for my flailing about was my inability to accept that this novel is meant to be open for endless interpretation and discussion. 

The title comes from the final scene of the novel, where Oedipa sits at an auction for her ex's stamp collection which might reveal the truth about everything, the stamp collection being "lot 49" up for auction and "crying" referring to the auctioning off of a lot. My friend the Pynchon scholar pointed out that, in the end, Oedipa gets to find out the truth about everything -- at which point, I argued that since she's a fictional character, she must exist within the realm of the novel, and so she's left hanging just as much as the reader, in a permanent state of bated-breath with one's sanity on the line and never, ever able to confirm what real truth might be. He patted me on the shoulder and said I was getting the hang of it now. Oh dear.

Whether that's the truth or not, I think I can ultimately say that there was something satisfying about reading this slim volume that seems to have such weight in modern literature... and there's something even more satisfying in crossing it off the list and admitting to myself that Pynchon is perhaps not for me, and yet I'm pleased to have had this disorienting experience for the sake of expanding my horizons. It's important to go where we're not comfortable every now and then, so all in all, this was a successful addition to my "30 to 30" list. I'm sure I'll keep thinking of it for a long time and it may even be worth a re-read many years from now to see what different conclusions are reached. 

1 comment:

Axldemic said...

Let's reread it together! I read it at the end of grad school and had a lot of the same reactions that you did. I think I wrote a paper on it.