Home / California Paranoia: The Crying of Lot 49

California Paranoia: The Crying of Lot 49

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I finished reading Thomas Pynchon's short little book, The Crying of Lot 49 (1964). A great book and a great introduction into the paranoic, pun-filled wonderland that is Thomas Pynchon's head. I've read Pynchon before. The first book I read was his epic smutty labyrinth Gravity's Rainbow. Then I read his beatnik-ish non-quest, V. (not to be confused with the movie about the aliens who eat rats).

Instead of the usual summary and criticism, I'll appraise this book by pointing out books that offer similar plots and themes. In a nutshell, The Crying of Lot 49 has Oedipa Maas, a Young Republican wife living in Southern California, dealing with her new role as co-executor of the will of her late boyfriend, Pierce Inverarity. Lots of stuff happens, involving postal monopolies, conspiracies, stamp collecting, and revenge tragedies. She meets some strange people and has some adventures, intellectual and carnal, along the way. Since the book is so short, I would encourage anyone not familiar with Pynchon to read the book. Saying this book is about stamp collecting is like saying 2001: A Space Odyssey is about a Jupiter mission and a feisty computer.

Reading the book in this dread Year of Our Lord 2008 made me discover some peculiar things that may or may not be true.

In 2666, the bleak hallucinatory epic by the late Robert Bolano, a group of academics try and find a reclusive author with the Pynchonesque name of Benno Archimboldi. (Pynchon is master of the high art of low puns.) Pynchon is also reclusive. He also may or may not be J.D. Salinger. Pynchon, like V. and the Tristero, is a thing that cannot be found, an unknown value that produces wild fictions that interlocking legions of obscurantists and fanboys of esoterica (and esoteric erotica) parse, dissect, and valiantly try to understand. For all the seriousness literary scholars have decoding his fictions, Pynchon must be laughing. (Didn't Joyce write Finnegans Wake as a joke for academics?)

The Crying of Lot 49 takes place in Southern California. The action involves Oedipa going to San Francisco, San Narciso, and Lost Angeles. A similar quest narrative takes place in William T. Vollmann's epic bawdy masterpiece, The Royal Family. Like Pynchon, Vollmann explores the dark underbelly of American society. Pynchon has his hoboes and sailors, Vollmann his whores and addicts. (And Beckett his tramps.)

The book also has a female protagonist who journeys to strange places to find an enigmatic Thing. A similar parallel exists in William Gibson's thriller Pattern Recognition. The title even hints at a Pynchonesque quest. Both Cayce Pollard and Oedipa Maas are searchers. Cayce hunts down an enigmatic piece of online footage, struggling to find its place of origin and its maker. (The book was written before the sea change initiated by YouTube and similar video posting sites.) With Oedipa, she vainly struggles to find logical patterns to the Tristero. Is it really a conspiracy? Or is she just going nuts? The genius of The Crying of Lot 49 is that the reader doesn't know for sure. There are no pat conclusions in the book. This leads to one of the most sublime endings in 1960s literature.

The paranoia is both a descendant of early Philip K. Dick and an antecedent to late Philip K. Dick, most notably A Scanner Darkly.

Pynchon's labyrinths of paranoia and identity are similar to David Lynch movies. Look at Blue Velvet and its dark night of the soul in small town America. Americana slowly bleeds into a violent surreal nightmare. Look at Lost Highway, the Moebius Strip SoCal noir, full of gangsters, beatnik types, interchangeable identities, and brooding eroticism. Think Inland Empire, the 3-hour mindfuck about abandoned movies, Gypsy curses, and talking bunnies. Like Pynchon's novels, Lynch's films aren't so much about plot as much as a journey, an exploration, a commingling of dream, nightmare, and hallucination.

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